The Ukraine war isn't new. These intimate photos show 3 families enduring it for years
The war in Ukraine did not start this year — it has been going on since 2014, in the eastern Donbas region. The conflict had become known as Europe's "forgotten war," until Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country in February.
The town of Avdiivka was one of many Donbas communities where life was shaped by the front lines cutting through what used to be a peaceful suburb of Donetsk city. As a team of a photojournalist and a writer, we have been frequenting Avdiivka for the past five years, reporting on the gruesome impact of the war and the resilience of its residents who have found creative ways to go on with their lives, despite all odds.
Currently, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Avdiivka doesn't exist anymore. Soon after the beginning of the invasion, the town turned into an active battlefield, day after day methodically razed to the ground by Russian artillery. Nearly the city's entire population, about 25,000 people, has been forced to flee for their lives.
Among them, our team has followed the paths of three families with whom we have become friends over the years since 2018. We've reported on their enduring will to live, raise their children and tend to their gardens, despite the war raging around them. Now, we've followed up to report on their lives, which have largely been torn apart by artillery shells, their fragile worlds collapsing as the war has ripped them of their aspirations for peace. These photos offer a glimpse into what the war in Ukraine has been like for those who have been living with it since the very beginning.
Olga and Nikolay Grinik not only stayed in Avdiivka throughout the first phase of the war but brought their two children into the world since the conflict began. Nikolay used to joke about it: "In 2014, we were sitting without electricity for three months because of fighting. Nine months later, our daughter, Miroslava, was born. In 2016, we had no light for a month, and nine months later, we got our son, Kirill. Now we pray there is no electricity outage again."
Visiting the Griniks every summer, we were introduced to their large extended family, all of whom lived nearby. They took us fishing, picnicking and mushroom-picking at their favorite spots. The beautiful forests and lakes surrounding Avdiivka had been covered in land mines, but the family had familiarized themselves with safe routes.
That's all in the past now: With the beginning of this year's Russian invasion, Nikolay enlisted in the armed forces while Olga and their children are staying with relatives in a village in central Ukraine. This is how Olga describes the family's last days in Avdiivka, before their evacuation:
"In mid-March, several shells landed in our garden but didn't explode. We were sheltering at home but we needed bread, and the next day I ventured to go to a grocery store. As I was on my way, a Russian fighter jet flew very low, and then it was shot down a little further away. I panicked and began running, but a Ukrainian soldier stopped me and asked whether I'd seen a parachutist. A parachutist?! I was so scared I couldn't see a meter ahead of myself! 'Well,' the soldier said, 'if you see him, hit him with a spade.' As soon as I got home, I packed up the kids and we took an evacuation bus."
Rodion and Elena
Rodion and Elena Lebedev are from Opytne, a suburban village that used to be home to about 1,500 people and sits between Avdiivka and Donetsk. After 2014, it ended up in the gray zone — a space between front lines which no side controls but both use as a battlefield — effectively cut off from the rest of the world. For eight years, residents lived without electricity, water, gas, heat, groceries or access to health care. The only way to get in and out was by a mud road through the minefield.
Most inhabitants fled the area early on, but Elena and Rodion stayed behind, even as their house and car repair shop were damaged by shelling. They felt obligated not to abandon their roughly 30 remaining neighbors, most of whom were more vulnerable than themselves — elderly people with nowhere to go. Instead of fleeing, the couple shared their food and medicine and assisted their neighbors in every way they could, becoming activists and community leaders. Their persistent efforts to keep the village alive would become a form of peaceful resistance to violence for this family between 2014 and 2022. They say they faced danger and harassment from the Ukrainian troops stationed nearby, who viewed their presence and activities on the front line as suspicious and potentially subversive.
Rodion and Elena remained in Opytne until this summer — even as the fighting in the area intensified — until Elena was hit by shrapnel in the couple's backyard. The shrapnel landed a fraction of an inch from her spinal cord, and only by a miracle, the couple managed to get out of danger and to a hospital in time to save her life.
Elena and Rodion were heartbroken to leave Opytne and its elderly inhabitants, whom they'd been taking care of all this time, behind, but returning was not viable, either. Eventually, they relocated to the city of Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine, where they continue to struggle to find work and housing, as displaced people from Donbas are often discriminated against by society and the authorities. About 30 of their elderly neighbors still remain in Opytne, which is now an active front line and has recently been captured by the Russian forces. Elena and Rodion say they haven't been able to get in touch with some of them.
Elena and Aleksander
Elena Dyachkova and Aleksander Dokalenko and their German shepherd, Lord, used to live in one of Avdiivka's neighborhoods close to the front line. Their house had taken several direct artillery hits since 2014, and yet they were reluctant to abandon it. They had maintained it as best they could — with a plastic covering instead of a roof, pieces of chipboard where they used to have a ceiling, and closed doors to rooms that didn't exist anymore.
Nevertheless, it was cozy here, and our team was always greeted with the smells of delicious food Elena had cooked to welcome us and the beautiful flowers she cultivated in whatever was left of her patio. Indeed, one of the reasons Elena and Aleksander were staying in Avdiivka was because they, like many who live in rural Ukraine, relied on subsistence farming and worked every day in their vegetable garden. They cleaned up debris and pieces of shrapnel and buried shell holes, all while continuing to cultivate the land.
Lord was a sweetheart and Aleksander told us the dog had even saved his life once. One night, as Aleksander was asleep, shelling came dangerously close to their home. At some point, Lord began to pull Aleksander out of bed by the arm until he woke up and followed the dog. The next moment, a shell struck and collapsed the wall.
After the full-scale invasion began in February, whatever fragile stability the family had managed to maintain was shattered. Elena fled to Poland with her daughter and young grandson. Aleksander stayed behind to look after Lord and the house, living in a basement and helping to distribute water for the residents under never-ending bombing, until his heart began to fail from the constant stress.
"I lived only 500 meters [0.3 miles] from work but it took me forever to get there every morning," he recalls. "You begin walking, then hear a whistle in the air and run for cover into the nearest building. You stand there and wait to hear an explosion, this means it has landed elsewhere. So you continue walking — but only until the next whistle."
Eventually, he also fled, leaving Lord behind with their neighbors.
When we met Aleksander this summer in a shelter for displaced people, he was evidently depressed. He was on the phone with Elena every day but, like so many displaced Ukrainians, they couldn't decide what to do next and how to rebuild their lives.
"I can describe it all with one word — it's painful," he said as we were leaving.
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