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Confession

“After what we’ve seen, all problems seem trivial.” Confessions of war correspondents working in Ukraine

Amidst a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, 14 journalists have lost their lives. Nevertheless, hundreds of reporters from various countries persistently carry out their work on the frontlines. Through their dedicated efforts, the world has been informed about numerous military crimes and has unified in support of Ukraine. The Insider interviewed war correspondents to discuss the aspects of the conflict zone that have left the greatest impact on them and how they cope with the distressing scenes they witness.

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Content
  • Georgiy Ivanchenko: “The sniper was shooting civilians just for practice”

  • Vojtech Bogach: “When I saw dead bodies everywhere, I thought it must be a computer game”

  • Ricardo Garcia Vilanova: “In Syria, they destroyed hospitals and schools, it's the same here”

  • Andre Luis Alves: “I was struck by how Ukrainians are geared towards the fight”

Georgiy Ivanchenko: “The sniper was shooting civilians just for practice”

When the war broke out, I was in Lviv. I was unwell at the time, so I spent the nights watching TV series. However, when I came across Kuleba's post on Twitter, I swiftly began charging all my electronic devices and packing my backpack. I had a drone camera, and on the very first day, as soon as I stepped outside, I started capturing everything I could, fully aware that the footage taken after the morning of February 24th would hold immense value and significance. On the second day, my friends from Vinnytsia came to see me—they had managed to evacuate—and it was then that I captured a profound moment. I immortalized my closest friend and his girlfriend, holding hands and gazing into each other's eyes. They understood that they wouldn't be able to see each other for a long time, as the girlfriend was leaving for the Czech Republic while my friend would remain here.

Georgiy Ivanchenko
Georgiy Ivanchenko

Two weeks later, my friend and I started contemplating joining the territorial defense, but we decided to volunteer at the railway station instead. There, I filmed the movement of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the day, coming and going. Is it safer than being on the front lines? I believe that everyone involved in combat or documenting it is exposed to roughly the same level of danger.

After the de-occupation, I had a specific goal in mind—to visit Borodianka because I spent my childhood there. It was important for me to see and understand what had truly happened there. During the occupation, my relatives—my grandfather, father, and stepmother—remained in the village, so I went there as soon as I could.

Borodianka, April 2022
Borodianka, April 2022

For three days, I lived with the search and rescue teams, photographing everything I saw and engaging with people. Working in Borodianka was my first field assignment as a photojournalist. Unintentionally, I compared what I witnessed with my childhood memories. I once met an acquaintance of my father while passing by one of the collapsed apartment buildings. He pointed at it and said, “My mother-in-law is lying there now.” People may spend not just one day but possibly up to four weeks under the rubble. In such cases, everyone understands that there has been no survivors. However, the fact that the debris is being cleared is a positive sign, as it increases the possibility of finding bodies intact and preserved.

An acquaintance pointed at one of the collapsed apartment buildings and said, “My mother-in-law is lying there now”

In Borodianka, there is a spot on the outskirts of the town where a sniper was stationed. From that location, he would shoot civilians. Just for the sake of practice. It's horrifying, but it's crucial to know about it and to see it. I believe that the essence of documentary work and photography lies precisely in scrutinizing horrifying things and making sense of what has happened.

Later on, together with my Belarusian colleague Dmitry Galka, I started traveling to various frontlines: Kharkiv region, Mykolaiv region, Donbass. Initially, I wasn't particularly interested in the Kyiv region apart from Borodianka since there were already many journalists working there. I was more drawn to the Mykolaiv region, thinking that Mykolaiv would be a relatively safe place in the summer. However, when I arrived there, I realized how mistaken I was. At times, it was even more dangerous than in Donbass, where direct clashes were frequent.

Borodianka, April 2022
Borodianka, April 2022
Georgiy Ivanchenko

I was profoundly astonished by the scale of rocket strikes that occurred day after day. It was perhaps only there that I truly began to comprehend the horrors of war. I witnessed numerous corpses, deaths, and people who had lost their loved ones. When we hear about the number of casualties, we often perceive those figures as mere statistics. However, when you start to realize that the victims are someone's family members—someone's daughter, wife, mother—and when you learn more about these people, the emotional response intensifies, and their stories become deeper.

National Guard, firing a Spanish 120mm mine
National Guard, firing a Spanish 120mm mine
Georgiy Ivanchenko

In Mykolaiv, we lived in a quite dangerous area, close to the airport and the railway station, on the edge of the city. It was the southern part, which was closest to the occupied territories and Kherson. Every day, between five and twelve cruise or ballistic missiles would arrive at around 5 a.m. Each day, we would travel to the sites of collapsed buildings with the rescue service. Once, we arrived at a location where a five-story building was completely destroyed: three floors had collapsed onto the first and second floors. There were people under the debris who likely hadn’t even had time to wake up. However, there was a guy who managed to jump out of the window and miraculously survived, but his grandmother was trapped under the rubble.

In Mykolaiv, every day between five and twelve cruise or ballistic missiles would arrive, and we would travel to the sites of collapsed buildings

There was also a man there who walked around the house and collected scattered film photographs, old black and white ones from a family album. He walked around and gathered them, and at some point, he began to cry. I approached him and asked if his loved ones were in that house. He answered “yes,” but did not specify who exactly.

Photo from the family album of a man whose relatives died under the rubble of the five-story building, Mykolaiv
Photo from the family album of a man whose relatives died under the rubble of the five-story building, Mykolaiv
Georgiy Ivanchenko

When the bodies were being recovered, the man couldn't even identify whether it was his relative or not. The bodies were so mutilated that they became unrecognizable. That was the first time I saw a dead person with my own eyes. Unfortunately, in such situations, there's nothing you can do to help those who have lost their families unless they reach out to you. I always try not to cross anyone's boundaries, not to intrude into someone's personal space, and I take photos in a way that they don't notice. Journalists already have a somewhat negative reputation among the civilian population. We witness a lot, but in most cases, the only thing we can do is capture the moment.

A man collects photographs of his relatives scattered near the destroyed five-story building, Mykolaiv
A man collects photographs of his relatives scattered near the destroyed five-story building, Mykolaiv
Georgiy Ivanchenko

After Mykolaiv, I went to the Donbass region. I spent two weeks in a paramedic hospital in Sloviansk. There, we documented the daily lives of the staff more than their professional work. Doctors didn't like it when we photographed them during their work and would chase us out of the operating rooms. I do have a couple of shots, but I wasn't allowed to use them. It's generally challenging to work in hospitals—I think it's because of television, where journalists capture completely unnecessary things. They would film the building from the inside and outside, publish the photographs, and then the attacks would begin. Currently, as far as I know, journalists are prohibited from working in hospitals in Donbass for an indefinite period.

Georgiy Ivanchenko

It was more interesting in Bakhmut, where I spent almost a whole month from December to January. I had only a backpack, a bulletproof vest, a sleeping bag, and a helmet with me. For several days, I lived with volunteers, then another week with the National Guard and military personnel. Later, I managed to join the civilians living in a basement. There were about fifteen adults and six children, and I formed a strong bond with them. Among them was a girl named Milanka. We spent the whole day together, molding clay brought by my friend, playing Monopoly or chess. I spent Christmas with them, and it was a valuable experience. When you sit in a basement with tea, playing board games with wonderful people, you forget that war even exists and that stepping outside could mean risking your life.

11-year-old Milana in the basement, Bakhmut
11-year-old Milana in the basement, Bakhmut
Georgiy Ivanchenko

For a while, I lived in a volunteer center near Bakhmut. It was a fairly dangerous zone, with Russians just four hundred meters away. Frontlines usually shift at night, and on the third day, I felt how terrifying it was to constantly live in anticipation that the Russians could enter the basement. I knew that if they found me, I would be captured because at that time, I already had accreditation from the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security. When you're on the front line, but with military personnel nearby, you feel more at ease. Or when you're not alone but with a colleague, leaving your car somewhere safe and walking in an open area. However, if you see a drone above you, you have to quickly raise your camera so that those scoundrels, those bastards, see that journalists are present, and maybe there will be a chance of staying alive.

If you see a drone above you, you raise your camera so that those scoundrels see that journalists are present, and maybe there’ll be a chance of staying alive

I often notice that people living close to the frontlines are afraid of silence. They have become accustomed to constant explosions and shelling. I experience the same thing. I always need time to adapt to a peaceful life, where people talk about ordinary things. When you are in the epicenter, you perceive the war firsthand, but when you move to a relatively safe place, you observe everything as if from a third-person perspective.

I still don't fully understand what I feel or how I will continue to feel in this war. There's always a lingering feeling, similar to what soldiers experience, but in a slightly different form. They witness the death of their comrades, friends, and relatives. Paramedics quickly detach themselves emotionally, while surgeons often resort to dark humor. Rescuers perceive it purely as their job because if you think about what's happening too emotionally, you simply won't be able to perform your duties properly. There are periods when you lie down and can't move—exhausted both mentally and physically, but there are also good moments.

Georgiy Ivanchenko
Georgiy Ivanchenko
Borodianka, April 2022

One of my best memories is from Kherson, the day the city was liberated. You drive along the road, through villages, and people wave Ukrainian flags at you. Everyone is in a jubilant and positive mood. Now I understand that this liberation happened only because the Russian front was weakened at that moment. Unfortunately, Kherson still suffers greatly, facing daily intense shelling and constant deaths. But on the day of liberation, it was a celebration for the entire Kherson family.

I have often thought about quitting my current work and going to war, but I always come to the conclusion that I can be more useful in what I'm doing now. Becoming a good soldier requires serious training. You can't just sign up at the recruiting office and go defend the country the next day. It takes preparation, usually lasting a month, but how can you become an exemplary soldier in just one month?

I want to help here and now. When I return from a trip, I don't allow myself to dwell on where to go next for too long. Currently, I feel relatively well in Borodianka, and it's the first time in a whole year that I've spent such a long time amidst civilian life. But it's primarily for obtaining a driver's license to work more efficiently on the front lines.

During times of war, when the possibility of death looms over you at any given moment, you develop a heightened sense of appreciation for the world around you. Simple things like a cup of coffee or a cigarette take on a much deeper significance. However, when the war is finally over, the memories that remain are often haunting and distressing. That's why, in the midst of it all, I strive to find warmth and kindness in moments, such as the presence of those wonderful children from the basements. Looking at the situation on a global scale, it is undeniably a catastrophe, but adopting a more localized perspective allows me to find solace in the belief that, at least for that day, things went well.

Vojtech Bogach: “When I saw dead bodies everywhere, I thought it must be a computer game”

While I was studying in Crimea, I had the opportunity to intern at Segodnya and Moscow Times newspapers. Coincidentally, it was during this period that the annexation took place. I had aspirations of becoming a journalist even before that, but being directly involved in such significant events made it much easier for me to immerse myself in the field. It was during that time that I started writing about the ongoing situation for various Czech publications. Subsequently, I ventured to Donbass as a freelance journalist, where I ran my own blog. The experiences and observations I had there captivated me, leading me to pursue a career as a conflict zone journalist ever since.

Vojtech Bogach
Vojtech Bogach

Fear is always present, but the passion and love for my work overpower everything else. For instance, it was frightening when I saw a tank’s gun pointed at me while driving in Donbass. Or when I worked in Turkey during the Kurdish uprising. But in those moments, the thrill and curiosity override everything else.

I knew that war was coming while I was still in the Czech Republic. Friends in Kyiv were saying that many people had started preparing emergency kits as early as November 2021. So, in February, I went to Ukraine and started waiting. We assumed that the war would break out right after the Olympic Games in Beijing, so we started observing how Kyiv was living. People, including military personnel and volunteers at the time, were conducting training exercises, learning how to behave in case of an invasion.

Later on, we decided to assess the situation at the border and see the concentration of Russian forces. We reached Ovruch, a town on the border between Ukraine and Belarus, with about twenty kilometers separating us from the Russians. It was there that we witnessed the beginning of the war: rockets flew over our hotel at 5 a.m. I couldn't sleep that night; I was monitoring information on Telegram channels. Then I woke up my colleague, Maida Slamova, and told her that the war was starting. We opened the window to hear what was happening outside. We were close to the border and feared that a landing operation might take place. When the first rocket flew just a couple hundred meters above us, it felt as though something had sliced through the sky. Everything split into two parts: what was before and what existed after. It was like a knife cutting through something, with one half being the past and the other half being the beginning of something new. The whistling of the rocket marked the start of a new era for me. We didn't think about whether it was scary or not.

Maida and I quickly went downstairs, where the caretaker was sleeping. We woke her up and told her that we were leaving, but she couldn't understand why we were in such a rush. When we explained everything to her, the woman started crying because she had three sons who would go to fight. It was very sad. In the car, we heard two more explosions, but we still headed towards Zhytomyr and Kyiv.

I found myself under shelling for the first time on the sixth day of the war, on March 2nd. We were working in Kyiv and saw messages from residents of Borodianka. They wrote that they were hiding in basements: a bomb had hit their house, they were trapped under the rubble, and they needed help. Neither they nor we knew at that time how it happened, nor did we know that an airplane had dropped a bomb. We didn't understand whether Russia was deliberately bombing civilians or not. We decided to go to Borodianka together with our Ukrainian colleagues to find out what was really happening. On the way to the village of Motyzhyn, we saw a shot-up car – at that time, it was on the front line. We learned that innocent residents who were trying to leave in cars were being killed there.

Remains of a burned-out BMP armored vehicle on the way to Motyzhyn
Remains of a burned-out BMP armored vehicle on the way to Motyzhyn
Majda Slámová/Voxpot

We started noticing armored personnel carriers (BTRs) and decided to find an alternate route. Near Motyzhyn, we came across a KamAZ truck with the letter V painted on its side. I saw that it wasn't a shot-up vehicle, but rather a vehicle with the letter V, so I started to slow down. And when we had already slowed down about two hundred meters away from the truck, they opened fire on us.

Bullets from that shelling are still somewhere in the car, lying around, and I managed to capture what was happening on camera. We only narrowly escaped. After I later published the report, a woman messaged me, searching for her husband who had gone missing in that area. She described his car as a red Renault or Ford with Czech license plates. But we didn't see him, and I told her that the Russians were present there, and if he hadn't made contact for two days, it was unlikely he was alive. A month later, when the Russians had already left the area, we returned and found that red car – riddled with bullets. We learned that this woman's husband had been killed two hours before they shot at us. He was transporting people from Kyiv to the West, helping with evacuations.

Dump site where the dead man’s car was found
Dump site where the dead man’s car was found
Majda Slámová/Voxpot

When we finally managed to reach Borodianka, they were just starting to pull people out from under the rubble of residential buildings. In the end, rescuers found about 47 bodies of those who were waiting but never received help. They were slowly dying there. We worked in Borodianka for two days, and it was tough. I remember there was a man, around 45-50 years old, and he stood there, hopeful. Then he saw who had been rescued, stepped back, and burst into tears.

Rescuers found about 47 bodies of those who were waiting for help and slowly dying under the rubble

While the rescuers were retrieving the bodies, I entered the destroyed house. That building had the highest number of victims: many remained buried under the rubble, and a large part of the house was burned, but some parts were still intact. I went up to the fifth floor, where there were people trying to salvage their belongings, and I met a man who had lost everything: his home had burned down, and almost his entire family – his mother, brother, and someone else – had died. There he stood in the ruined apartment, recounting how he used to go fishing and then held a charred cup related to fishing in his hands, and it crumbled in his hands. This image will remain etched in my memory forever, along with the stories shared by other people who were searching for their brothers, sisters, and mothers under the rubble.

When I spoke with people there, I asked why almost no one goes down to the basements during an air raid. Many responded that war is war and they were used to it, that someone died every day. They didn't want to waste time running to the basement several times a day - they already knew that something could happen at any moment.

At first, I didn't believe in the reality of what was happening. When I saw in Borodianka how everything was shattered and how many dead bodies were everywhere, it seemed to me like a movie or a computer game. Now I'm already accustomed to such scenes. I saw the dead in Donbass in 2015, but it was completely different. The first time we went to Donbass was in April of last year. We worked near Sloviansk on the front line. We were also in Mykolaiv. It was constantly being bombed, and lots of people were dying. The first thing we saw when we entered the city were elderly people and young people carrying water canisters. They were fetching water from the river. We talked to them, everything was fine, but when my colleague started taking their photos, the locals accused us of being saboteurs and said that we would later pass these photos to the Russians and they would bomb the city.

We also went to Kherson. One guy, who was in self-defense even before the start of the war, told us how he was tortured by Russians and held in a detention center where truly horrible things were done to him, sometimes even using electricity. But at the same time, he said that others had it much worse than him. One of them hid in the city's sewer system with homeless people, they brought him food, and he stayed there for three months. Then he managed to contact someone through acquaintances and started living in a house in a remote area, but he was always afraid that Russians would come for him and torture him.

A guy from territorial self-defense hid from Russians in the city's sewer system for three months

I was in Kherson for the first time about three or four years ago, and the second time was at the end of January this year. My colleagues, who were in Kherson on the day of its liberation, told me about the city's joy at that moment. It's hard to imagine that celebration now because in January the atmosphere was very depressing due to daily shelling, with people dying constantly. We were in one courtyard after it was hit by a Grad missile, and many people said that we should leave because Russia wants to completely destroy this city. I feel like the November joy and hope among the population are no longer there.

Many residents chose to stay; approximately a third of the population remained. The city had a dark and empty appearance, particularly at night. Going down to the river was considered risky, as there were reports of Russians using machine guns. The center of the city was relatively safer, but closer to the Antonov district, there was constant gunfire. Despite the circumstances, I still wanted to see the river and the bridge. Upon reaching the river, we came across a kiosk where a young girl in her twenties was selling coffee. I asked if she was scared, and she responded, “No, it's not scary here. They shoot at that house and that one, but they haven't hit here yet.” When I asked if she had plans to leave, she expressed her reluctance, explaining that she wanted to “make coffee for the guys.” She revealed that she had worked at the kiosk during the occupation, witnessing Russians simply getting drunk. Now, she noticed Ukrainians consuming tea so quickly that she couldn't even keep up with the demand. Nevertheless, she emphasized the importance of her presence there - to offer help in her own way.

There was an elderly man sitting near the kiosk, so I asked him what he was doing. He replied, “Well, I listen and count the shots. Right now, they fired a projectile, and I think it will land here in about four seconds.” I can say that in Kherson, those who remained were either very resilient or slightly crazy.

In Kherson, those who remained were either very resilient or slightly crazy

It surprises me how some people choose not to leave the combat zones. When I was in Bakhmut, almost everyone I met told me that they believed no one needed them and there was no point in leaving because there was nowhere to go. It's terrifying that people have developed such a strong sense that they are unwanted and no one will help them. In the center of Bakhmut, you could only encounter soldiers. When I was there, the city was completely bombed out, with every other house destroyed. Some houses on the outskirts were still standing, and people mostly lived in basements. They shared stories of living like that for six months already. Public services were not functioning, and there was a lot of garbage near the houses. Bakhmut resembled a ghost town, and the people there also seemed like ghosts. Out of the nearly seventy thousand inhabitants, perhaps only ten or fifteen thousand remained.

Military servicemen on the nearly destroyed streets of Bakhmut
Military servicemen on the nearly destroyed streets of Bakhmut
Majda Slámová/Voxpot

There were only a few job opportunities in the city, mostly at the small market. However, there were more drunk people than those who were working. And that was understandable. Apart from the market, one could earn some money by burying people or engaging in humanitarian work - that was about it.

I remember one woman who was there, she had such a positive attitude. She said that as long as there was work and a place to live, she would stay in the city. But if Russia were to seize it, she wouldn't want to live there anymore. That would be the only reason for her to leave. She also said, “Who needs us and where are we needed?” She lived near the reservoir, talked about constant shelling, and yet calmly sold meat.

A woman at the market in Bakhmut
A woman at the market in Bakhmut
Majda Slámová/Voxpot

During this war, I started to wonder whether I should continue working as a war correspondent. After all, I have been doing this for eight years, covering both Donbass and Afghanistan, and I no longer perceive what is happening as something new. Now, I don't have the same level of interest as I did the first time when I wanted to understand how people behave during an armed conflict. All wars are actually very similar. That's why I sometimes wonder if I should leave this to those who can find something new in it.

Being a war correspondent is very challenging, especially if one doesn't want to burn out. I believe that whenever you return from such a conflict, you need to give yourself time to recover and not become a recluse. The most significant danger is the overwhelming number of sad and tragic stories in your mind. When you come back home, you can no longer relate to your friends and their problems; they seem too trivial. There are journalists who have been in Ukraine since the beginning of the war. I don't understand how they can cope with it. I, on the other hand, have only spent a total of three months here.

When you come back home, you can no longer relate to your friends and their problems; they seem too trivial

War is often romanticized, but there is much more tragedy to it. Most people write about bravery and how a brave group of guys heroically killed someone from the enemy side, but that's not the whole war. It's also about the necessity to leave one's homes because someone destroyed them - the house was there in the evening, but it was gone in the morning, and the death of loved ones, and the injuries, horrific injuries to women and children. It's a colossal tragedy, and there is nothing positive about it.

Ricardo Garcia Vilanova: “In Syria, they destroyed hospitals and schools, it's the same here”

I've been doing this for the past twenty-five years, and most of the time, I shoot with a wide-angle lens, so I have to be as close as possible to the epicenter of what's happening. I always want to be close to the events and experience all the emotions of the participants. Sometimes even the soldiers forget that I'm a journalist and start treating me as one of their own.

Ricardo Garcia Vilanova
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova

Compared to other countries, gaining access to the frontlines in Ukraine is much more difficult. In Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya, you simply get in a car and go, but in Ukraine, there is a lot of bureaucracy that complicates the work process. Although, at the beginning of the conflict in Syria, it was different: you couldn't enter legally, so you had to go through other countries, using alternative routes. As for Kyiv, I arrived there a week before the war started, directly from Barcelona.

Here, for the first time, I witnessed such a crazy interest from the media in what was happening. There are over twelve thousand journalists here, and it's an incredible number for war journalism. Hence the staggering statistics of deaths among media personnel: usually, the casualties do not exceed 3-4 people, but in the first year of the war in Ukraine, dozens of journalists died.

Libya, 2011-2020
Libya, 2011-2020
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova

In Ukraine, a lot of artillery is being used. Based on my experience, I can say that in other conflicts, aircraft, tanks, and mortars are more commonly used, while in Ukraine, 80% of the combat actions involve artillery. Moreover, there have been cases of double strikes - I've heard about such incidents multiple times, although it wasn't any better in Syria. There were situations where survivors waited for an hour for a vehicle after the bombing, it arrived, and then the enemy attacked again. I have a photograph when a bakery was bombed in Aleppo. There were about three places where bread was distributed - people had nothing to eat at that time. Assad's forces identified these places, shelled them, and then, when the aid groups left, shelled them again. There were 200 wounded and 50 dead. Similar things happened in Ukraine as well.

Syria 2011-2013
Syria 2011-2013
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova

I was in Chernihiv when it was bombed by Russian forces, and I remember the moment when there was an explosion near our car. We, journalists from an Estonian newspaper, were driving in a civilian vehicle, and at one point, we stopped to ask for directions to the city. And then I heard the sound of an airplane. It was flying so low that we could make out the pilot's face and the huge projectile he dropped on us.

The plane was flying so low that we could make out the pilot's face and the huge projectile

The projectile landed right in front of the vehicle, I ducked, but for a couple of seconds, I thought it wouldn't help because the projectile was truly enormous. It exploded, and I managed to capture it on camera. I have several photographs taken just a few seconds after the explosion. We managed to survive, but then I thought, “How is that possible?” Clearly, a bomb would have destroyed everything at that distance. It turned out to be a fuel tank. I imagined: the plane was running out of bombs, but the pilot saw two civilian vehicles and dropped the fuel tank just a few meters away.

High-rise buildings destroyed by a Russian missile strike, Chernihiv, March 2022
High-rise buildings destroyed by a Russian missile strike, Chernihiv, March 2022
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova

Moreover, the pilot saw that we were civilian journalists. I have hardly ever seen troops directly targeting civilian objectives. The Russians used such tactics perhaps only in Syria. I can understand a war between soldiers, armies, but not the deliberate destruction of civilian population. How can one kill people, children like that? I remember one family trying to escape in cars and getting caught in the crossfire. I have been working for 25 years, and it still feels like the first time to me.

Although in Iraq and Libya, for example, cars were often rigged with explosives or explosives were hidden in corpses. In Libya, there was an incident when a car with a family blew up due to explosives. We were very lucky because the blast was at a distance from us, and the second car didn't explode right after. In Ukraine, there are also such traps, for example, when you open a window or put on a helmet.

Libya, 2016
Libya, 2016
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova

What surprised me the most in Ukraine were the people: everyone actively shared food and warm clothing. You can also find this in other countries, but less frequently and on a smaller scale. In Ukraine, there were many designated locations with generators, water, and food. In winter, you could warm up at these locations, but usually people only gathered there during the day and dispersed to their homes as evening approached. There were sometimes issues with food and clothing. Kyiv sent several trucks every day, but during active fighting, humanitarian aid couldn't reach the city.

Many people didn't want to leave, and for some, it simply wasn't possible. I remember at the beginning of the war, everyone was saying that the Russians would reach Kyiv in a week. But Kyiv is a big city, and taking it is not an easy task. I've been to Aleppo and seen how difficult it is, even though the Russians are using the same terrorist intimidation tactics they once employed in Syria. They want to destroy hope and instill fear in people. Constant bombardment has no strategic value; it's purely psychological pressure. In Syria, they destroyed hospitals and schools, and the same is happening here.

Russians are using the same terrorist scare tactics they once employed in Syria to instill fear and extinguish hope

Children are the most vulnerable in any conflict, and their tragedy is the worst part of any war. In Ukraine, I saw wounded children, those killed by shrapnel, but thankfully, I didn't witness direct hits, unlike in Syria, for example. In Homs, for the first time I saw a child shot in the head by a sniper.

Syria, 2011-2013
Syria, 2011-2013
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova

Right before entering Irpin, there was a gas station with Ukrainian positions, and the Russians were firing just a few meters away. Chaos was everywhere, and people were fleeing. Taking detours and asking locals for directions, we made it to a church where those who remained in the city sought shelter. I managed to enter with a boy whose family was inside the church. We were trying to find his grandmother. There was a small room, with a basement downstairs, it had no lighting whatsoever. That's where the grandmother and hundreds of other people were.

Dead civilians, Irpin, March 2022
Dead civilians, Irpin, March 2022
Ricardo Garcia Vilanova

Later, I spoke with Russian POWs. I remember one whom I talked to in Kyiv. He said he didn't finish what he started because he lost his unit. The truck they were on broke down, and then he got lost and fell into the hands of the Ukrainians. He didn't quite understand what he was doing and why; he claimed he was just following orders from the commanders and had nothing to do with any of it. I remember people from ISIS in Syria, whom I interviewed in prisons—they always said the same thing. “I was in the kitchen; I didn't do anything”—that was their recurring argument. But since the Russian had no documents, we didn't know who he was and what he had done. At that time, he was in the hospital due to his injuries, so the doctor allowed me to talk to him. Battles were ongoing, and the hospital windows were covered with blankets as protection from snipers.

Andre Luis Alves: “I was struck by how Ukrainians are geared towards the fight”

I wanted to become a war photographer since 2017. When the full-scale invasion started, I immediately told myself that I would go to Ukraine, and I was able to convince my editor in Lisbon about it. The first trip lasted three months. Then, in October, I stayed in Ukraine for about the same amount of time, and in February of this year, I planned to stay for only 15 days, but ended up renting an apartment in Kyiv and I'm still here to this day.

André Luís Alves
André Luís Alves

Some colleagues from my newspaper call me pro-Ukrainian. To some extent, it is true: I defend the values of Ukrainians and chose this side from the very beginning, but I don't want to be blinded by it. In Avdiivka, I met people who were pro-Russian just because they listened to Russian radio. You can't see only one thing and build your opinion based on that, you have to dig deeper.

Chernihiv, April 2022
Chernihiv, April 2022
André Luís Alves

At the beginning of the invasion, when I first arrived in Ukraine, I was surprised to discover how much society was already geared towards the fight, especially the civilians: they were cooking food, organizing safe places, and donating money. It was truly impressive because in 2015, there was nothing like that. Back then, people were just living their lives, and the majority didn’t pay much attention to politics.

I once had a conversation with my Ukrainian friend who had been living in France for the past year, and I realized that the images of war quickly fade away. Memories become blurry and not fresh. In March of last year, I came under shelling in the outskirts of Kyiv. But now I only remember the fact, not the emotions.

Avdiivka, March 2023
Avdiivka, March 2023
André Luís Alves

Previously, I held the belief that Ukrainians were ashamed of their country, but now I see that even in Russian-speaking regions, people are speaking Ukrainian. In Kyiv, you will still encounter Russian-speaking people, some of whom have relatives in Russia. However, the deliberate choice to speak Ukrainian is important. I have a friend from Sloviansk who shared with me that Ukraine should express gratitude to Putin for unintentionally bringing them together. Without this war, Zelensky may not have emerged as a political figure.

Justice is largely absent on the frontlines. I had an incident while photographing near Kupyansk where a drunken soldier approached me and attempted to take my camera. Fortunately, other soldiers intervened and helped me. However, it is important to note that the majority of Ukrainian soldiers and police officers are respectful and strive to uphold proper conduct, or at least make an effort to do so.

Ukrainians seek to differentiate themselves from Russians by demonstrating better behavior. They observe the actions of the Russian army and consciously choose not to engage in similar actions. I have been in Russian trenches after they were abandoned, and it was complete chaos there, while in Ukrainian trenches, there are sometimes even flowers left in memory of the fallen.

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