By Sophie Campos
Originally published on www.sophiecamposphotography.com
In February 2022 Vladmir Putin declared a “special military operation” in Ukraine, presumably to protect Russia from the expansion of NATO, and Ukrainian pro-Russian separatist states from “Ukrainian neo-Nazism.” The attack was a continuation of an initial invasion that began and was soon halted in 2014 in the east of Ukraine, but this time Putin expanded his targets to full scale across the whole country.
As a psychologist and photojournalist I felt the obligation to report such a historical event that was, and still is, disturbing victims and bystanders across the globe. To better understand the struggle Ukrainians were going through, I wanted to go beyond the basic geopolitical facts the news was addressing at the time and engage personally in conversations with the afflicted ones.
Most of my friends and relatives would not support my project due to the risks I was taking, so I let only a few people know that I was going to Ukraine. Despite the lack of support and the inconveniences of the journey, getting as close as an outsider could was my purpose. I felt enough strength, self confidence and passion to do whateverI believed I had to do as a photojournalist.
The closest place to Kyiv I could get by plane was Warsaw, as all the Ukrainian airports were closed due to the war. From my home city Seville, Spain, I flew to Warsaw on April 13, where I took a six hour bus to the western Ukrainian city Lviv. Fortunately, I had no problem crossing the border, even though I had not yet received the press accreditation that could provide me legitimacy as a photojournalist. The soldiers from the checkpoint asked me a few questions about my plans in Ukraine and that was it.
From Lviv I went to the capital on April 17, about two weeks after the Russian forces had retreated from the city. Tetyana, a sociologist I had been put in touch with by a volunteer I met in Lviv, was waiting for me at the station and helped me talk to the Ukrainian soldiers about my intentions in Kyiv. She was extremely committed to help me with the present project, even offering me a space in her house where I could carry out the interviews with war victims and Ukrainians, as well as helping me get in contact with them.
The military personnel who were restricting the flow of people to the capital cautiously checked my passport and made a quick search for any suspicious information that could connect me to Russia and its government. While waiting for them to finish, I sawthe old man with whom I had shared the compartment coach with on the train from Lviv to Kyiv – whose heavy snores made me think more than once he was passing away – cheerfully greeting his relatives who came to pick him up. Once the soldiers had checked my information, Tetyana drove me to my hostel.
Due to the political importance of Kyiv as the capital of Ukraine, the security level was much higher than in other cities. The strategic checkpoints, roadblocks and entrenched positions were all over the city of Kyiv. Most statues were completely encased in sandbags to protect them from bombings and military trucks and convoys constantly drove through the city. In Kyiv downtown, barriers, sandbags and tank obstacles formed corridors that forced cars to slow navigate in the major roads. Even though the air raid sirens sounded several times per day alerting the population to seek shelter, no rocket could get to the city center due to the Ukrainian Air Force Defense’s protection.
Other than the police and military, most of the city services and stores weren’t operating. Almost all the cafes, bars and restaurants were closed. Construction projects were left unfinished and few street cleaners were still working, so many trash cans overflowed with garbage. Old birthday decorations and Ukrainian flags hung, deteriorated by the whipping wind and raindrops.
Just a few buses and trolley cars were working, but that was enough for the less than one million people that were in Kyiv by April, in comparison to the three million metro area population prior to the invasion.
Once the sun began to set, there was no one in Kyiv but a few dogs. I guessed some of them had been abandoned by their families, yet they still had a collar. They seemed confused, still adapting to a new life since the full scale invasion started. The street lights weren’t working, likely on purpose, to prevent the enemies from identifying their targets by eyesight. The only source of light on most of the streets came from the traffic lights. An exception was an avenue that had a McDonald’s advertisement which, for some reason, was still working. Most of the houses had their windows covered, so the lights from the inside couldn’t be visible from the street. At the time, the curfew was more flexible than in Lviv the previous week, starting at 10 p.m. and ending at 5 a.m.
The third day of my stay in Kyiv, Tetyana invited me to a salsa class at her place. In addition to her job as a sociology professor and translator of Ukrainian military reports, she occupied her time dancing with her friends once the Russian troops had retreated to the east. Like many other Ukrainians, Tetyana’s way of fighting the war was to free her mind from the war and the tense atmosphere surrounding her: “I don’t wanna be afraid all the time, watching the news, being in a shelter or in a basement. If I can’t dance, I can’t live.”
Justo, originally from Cuba, was Tetyana’s friend and salsa instructor. He had been living in Ukraine for a couple of years and was stuck there since the full scale invasion started. Because all the bureaucratic institutions had stopped, he could no longer process his Ukrainian residence permit. Justo preferred to stay in Kyiv during the war rather than leave the country and take the risk of being deported to Cuba, where the economy and business infrastructure was completely destroyed: “At least, here in Kyiv, I can still go to the supermarket and get basic supplies at an affordable price.”
In the salsa class I also met Andrey, a soldier from the Ukrainian Air Defence Force who detects Russian rockets targeting Kyiv. In March 2022, Andrey was stationed in a military base on the outskirts of the city when he and his coworkers heard the whistle characteristic of rockets, but unaccompanied by explosions. They left the base, searched for signs of an explosive, and found that one had landed a few feet from the base walls, but had merely dug into the ground without detonating. If the rocket had exploded, as usually happens, Andrey would undoubtedly have perished. That possible misfortune, rather than dismaying him, made him feel blessed and gave him even more reasons to keep working for the military to protect Ukrainians from aerial attacks.
On my way back from talking to Andrey and Justo, just before arriving at the Independence Square, I saw the first fast food stall that was open in Kyiv. Shames, originally from Sudan, has been working there for seventeen years preparing kebabs and other food products. His sales did not decrease during the war because “all restaurants and food stores [were] closed and everyone [went there] to eat.” Since the full-scale invasion began on February 24, Shames only had taken a few days off when the occupation of downtown Kyiv seemed plausible. As Justo did, Shames compared Ukraine’s standard of living with the one of his country of origin: “It is much easier to work here than in Sudan.”
Within the same day, I talked to people that were affected by war in different ways and degrees. Besides the idiosyncrasies of each personal situation, all of them managed to see the bright side to the unfavorable situation they were exposed to.
Once I got to the hostel, I met a group of volunteers and freelance photographers, writers and journalists from the USA, Taiwan and Europe, who were hanging out in the common area. In contrast, the Ukrainians who were on military service remained quiet most of the time, barely spending time with their comrades.
Ryan, an American in his fifties who left his family and job behind to volunteer in Ukraine, told me that a rocket landed next to the Lviv’s Railway station that day. Although no one was hurt, the fact that a rocket landed next to the same train station I was at a few days before made me feel threatened. The worst thing about rockets is that you don’t know when and where the explosions will occur. That uncertainty frightens you way more than an expectable actual attack. In the end, the psychological side of the war is the most powerful one.
The next morning I came across an Ukrainian soldier’s funeral in the Independence Square. Over the last 20+ years, the Independence Square has hosted almost every major mass movement in modern Ukrainian history – the 1990 student Revolution on Granite, the 2001 Ukraine without Kuchma, the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2013-2014 Euromaidan – none of which had successfully established an uncorrupted Ukrainian government free from Russian meddling and abuse.
A group of photographers were standing at the first line of the funeral ready to take the most dramatic pictures. Their way of capturing such a tragic event was perhaps too intrusive to my eyes, but I tried not to judge and understand them because that’s how journalism works. When it was time to do the reverent kneeling on the ground, the photographers tried to get the best shots without scruples, instead of joining the rest of the people. The tension and anger I was feeling already since I woke up that day broke inside me like a waterfall. I guess they were better than me in taking emotional distance in order to do their job. I left.
My next stop was an interview with Sergey, the director of the Russian radio in Ukraine. Even though Sergey is ethnically Russian and Russian is his mother tongue, he had developed discontent towards the invader country because of its continuous attempts to force Ukraine to join its “empire.” When the war started, his wife and kids went away to America while he stayed in Kyiv to support his Ukrainian counterparts. Sergey went back to broadcasting in the beginning of April of 2022 because he felt the responsibility to “pull inside [his] listeners’ brains the message: Don’t give up on the war, just live, because you only live once.”
After the interview with Sergey I met a pharmacist called Tamara who explained to me that “lots of people from hospitals, territorial defense and civilians [came] every day to the pharmacy asking for help” because there were less than ten pharmacies operating in the entire capital. Tamara’s boss, sons and grandchildren left and, although most of her family escaped, she decided to stay. Her way to fight the war was to stay in Kyiv during the full scale invasion, assisting people seeking health care.
Then I headed back to the hostel, ending up where I had started my day, the Independence Square. Because the curfew had already started at 10 p.m., there were lots of soldiers grouped strategically in different spots holding their machine guns imposingly. A soldier in his early twenties stopped and asked me what I was doing outside at 10.15 p.m., in a threatening tone that made me feel he was enjoying his authority position. He took my passport and reviewed it while I apologized and excused myself. Thankfully, after comparing my face to my passport’s picture a couple of times with a marked frown, he let me go.
Through Tetyana, I conducted an interview on April 20 with a counseling psychologist based in Kyiv named Daria. From the very beginning of the war she had been working by offering online psychological consults for free. Daria explored themes related to life, death and love with her patients, which helped her to find her own answers as well. For Daria, “waking up with [her] family and alive, not because of explosions but because of daylight” felt like a privilege. The conflict had strengthened her relationship with her husband and son, but had deteriorated the one with her parents, who had a pro-Russian position. Even though the political conflict sometimes was unavoidable, Daria “separated [her] personal point of view from [her] family relationships” as much as she could.
Once the interview was done and I was going for a walk, I saw a woman cleaning the outside of an Orthodox Christian Church. There were all kinds of turquoise and gold objects in the church – from small items like a New Testament to a huge sculpture of Jesus Christ. The people that were taking care of the church invited me to take pictures at Easter on April 24, once the preparations were ready, but unfortunately I had to start my journey back to Spain that same day. They were deeply engaged with their affairs, which seemed to help them occupy their minds away from the war, keep the faith and not give up, despite misfortunes.
Next to a viewpoint, there was a guy playing Wish you were here with the guitar. The few people that passed by gave him some money. He told me that it was enough to support himself after he lost his job once the full scale invasion started.
I talked to him for just a few minutes because the rain was coming down hard. In addition, the air raid sirens began to sound, so I quickened my pace and took shelter in the Independence Square underground metro station where I met around six homeless people who didn’t seem worried about the rockets. By that time, many people had gotten used to the air raid sirens because most of the time the rockets were intercepted by the Ukrainian Air Defence Force. After talking for a while with the group, one of the guys got close to me and said something in Ukrainian that I could not understand but knew for a fact was something obscene. In response, another man put him against the wall and yelled at him and, after that incident, nobody annoyed me again. I could have left at any moment, but I wanted to stay and take pictures of one of the guys who struck me a lot. The combination of his gold smile, his wrinkles, and the fact that he was helplessly lying on the ground ten minutes before made me very interested for some reason. Once I got the picture, I showed it to him, said goodbye and went away. I didn’t want to stay there a single minute more with those creepy guys.
After several days traveling by myself across a foreign country in a state of war, I became so upset that getting out of the bed in the mornings felt almost impossible to me. The information that I had gathered in the interviews perhaps was not enough to make an accurate report of the psychological consequences of the Russian siege on the Ukrainian population, which was my main goal. However, I came back from Ukraine on April 23, 2022 with some valuable insights.
First of all, I learnt that Russia’s continued intervention in Ukraine to join its Eurasian Union for several years had drastically accelerated Ukraine’s decoupling and rejection towards anything related to Russia. As the political scientist Jeffrey Mankof has noted, this trend is found even in Ukrainians with a strong Russian background, like Sergey.
From a transnational perspective, I had met a couple of immigrants that, even though they were living in Kyiv during the war, still felt grateful for Ukraine’s standard of living they were benefiting from. Soon I realized the importance of looking at one’s situation from different perspectives when unfavorable and uncontrollable conditions affect your life.
With respect to blood bonds, I felt that the familiar relationships became stronger when the political position towards the conflict was the same, in contrast to the ones that weakened or even broke due to the ideological discrepancies.
Regarding mental wellness, I met some people who had made the war the focus of their life due to their status as either helpers or victims. It appeared to me that the war provided sense to their lives almost. In contrast, the ones who seemed to be facing the war in the healthiest way were focusing their energy on something that was unrelated to the war, no matter the nature of the activity: dancing, volunteering, broadcasting, healthcare, religion, music and so on.
The Ukrainians’ efforts to live their lives as they used to is a sign of courage to fight the psychological side of the war, which is the most powerful one. Each personal situation has conditioned the Ukrainians’ response towards the countless Russian attacks, resulting in the diverse strategies that have been displayed by the people I had talked to. After all, this willingness to fight for a nation Putin believes does not and should not exist is an expression of nothing but love towards their nation and pure resilience.