Children on the Line
Ashley Gilbertson / VII for UNICEF
A Ukrainian Military position on the very frontline in the war against the separatists in the Donetsk Peoples Republic, in Avdiivka, Ukraine on December 2, 2017. The foliage on the trees has been stripped by shrapnel and gun fire.
For the past four years, Aleksey Agapin, a 14 year old boy, in has listened to artillery and mortar shells exploding around his home. On the dirt road outside, tanks and military hardware rumble between frontline positions. Over the past four years, he’s also heard the cracks of bullets as they zip by. Aleksey lives here with no electricity, no gas and no running water – facilities that have been knocked out in four years of conflict. With winters that drop as low as -20 degrees, his home is heated by firewood gathered from the forest.
UNICEF estimate that Aleksey is one of 220,000 children that live along the ‘line of contact’ between Ukrainian military and separatists from the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Even prior to hostilities, the region was wracked by poverty. Aleksey’s parents are unable to work–his father was badly injured in a coal mine collapse and his mother suffers from a skin condition. They’re also alcoholics, an all too common issue in this depressed region. To put food on the table, Aleksey and his siblings trap rabbits and catch fish from a nearby pond.
Students participate in the fourth anniversary of National Day of Dignity and Freedom, which celebrates the Euro – Maidan revolution, at secondary school number 5, in the town of Krasnohorivka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on November 21, 2017.
Principal Elena Mihatskaya, 51, at the now abandoned secondary school number 2, in the frontline town of Krasnohorivka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on November 21, 2017. The school, which had been in constant operation since it was rebuilt after being bombed in World War II, was shut down in May, 2017, after a shell struck the building causing massive damage.
“My first feeling was shock and pain. I looked down and saw the fingers were hanging from my hand. My whole life changed. I can’t chop the wood, it’s hard to tie the fishing line, and it’s hard to set the traps to catch animals. Sometimes I’m getting upset up until the moment when I break into tears.”
Two years ago, Aleksey was heading to the pond when he picked up an object that had fallen from a passing military convoy. He thought it was a pen, he said, until it exploded up in his hand.
“My first feeling was shock and pain,” Aleksey says, “I looked down and saw the fingers were hanging from my hand. My whole life changed. I can’t chop the wood, it’s hard to tie the fishing line, and it’s hard to set the traps to catch animals. Sometimes I’m getting upset up until the moment when I break into tears.”
This is Europe today.
The ‘line of contact’, as defined by the Minsk agreements, is the most forward position between fighters on both sides. By default, it’s also the new border separating Europe from Russia. At least ten ceasefires and agreements, brokered between the warring sides by European diplomats, are violated daily, and Europe’s longest running conflict since WWII shows no sign of abating any time soon.
An armed police officer outside the room of first graders at school in front of sand bagged windows in Marinka, Ukraine, on November 22, 2017.
Ukrainian military oversee civilians crossing the Kurahovo entry-exit checkpoint between Ukraine and Donetsk Peoples Republic in Marinka, Ukraine, on November 23, 2017.
Misha Sigarev, 9 y.o. and his mother, Lubov, 29, who live in the “grey zone”, or no mans land in Marinka, Ukraine, on November 22, 2017. Marinka is right on the line of contact between Donetsk rebels and the Ukrainian army and at various points only 200 meters separates the sides.
“In the beginning there was very heavy shelling and we were very afraid.” Anya Esaulova, 13, says, “but now, they’re shooting less and I’m not afraid anymore. Of course it’s not normal, but it’s so much better than it was.”
Anya’s house was hit by two shells. The first one killed her grandmother and destroyed the ceiling. After it had been repaired, and just before the family moved back in, a second shell destroyed the walls of the house. Today she lives with her sisters and mother at her other grandmother’s house. The last military outpost before Ukrainian controlled territory is just three hundred meters down the road.
“The children have seen everything here, including grad rockets,” says Olga Nikolaivna Prais, a teacher in Avdiivka, “our students can distinguish between different guns–they can tell what types of weapons are being used by the sound.”
Many schools, struggling with dropping attendance and the concern of students being injured, have been cut to two hours a day for three days a week. On days shelling is heavy, buses are unable to ferry students to school.
Four years of combat have weighed heavily on the population–particularly children. Statistics provided by UNICEF, who, with German government support, lead relief operations here, say that 3.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance because of the conflict–the majority of them women and children; that over 40,000 homes have been damaged leaving families stranded; over 700 education facilities been damaged by fighting and over 700,000 teachers and students are showing cumulative psychological impacts including post traumatic stress disorder.
While combat generates shocking statistics like these, it is also creating a new generation of children who know nothing but conflict.
“I remember just a little bit from before the war… I remember the summer and running with my friends in the warm rain.” Says Vadim Ignatenko, a nine year old from the battle scarred city of Avdiivka.
Third graders play with a toy pistol at school in Marinka, Ukraine, on November 22, 2017. Children are constantly exposed to weapons here, with frontlines just meters from their homes, combat soldiers all through their towns, and armed guards in schools.
A residential building, nicknamed the ‘storybook’ destroyed by shelling and now occupied by Ukrainian forces in Avdiivka, Ukraine, on November 25, 2017. This city of about 20,000 people sits right on the line of contact between seperatists in Donetsk and Ukrainian forces. There is daily shelling here, and at some points opposing sides face off at just 300 meteres, resulting in regular small arms skirmishes.
When Vadim was 6, he was hit by shrapnel as he played outside with his brother. A year later, waiting for his grandmother to come from work on a farm, he was struck by a passing armored personnel carrier. His leg was broken and his skull crushed. And then, his apartment complex, nicknamed “the coloring book”, for its multi hued facade, became a military target and he was displaced. On days shelling is light –only three or four nearby explosions every hour– he’s able to get to school. When it’s heavy, he’s supposed to take cover in a bunker, but he doesn’t have one.
In cities and villages up and down the line, soldiers and militias occupy homes and municipal buildings, converting family abodes into fighting positions. Mortar tubes are fired just a stones throw away from the local school. At night, children take cover under their blankets as snipers fire from abandoned homes on their street.
“These children live at the front line in the battlefield. You can’t say that shells might land on children’s houses–shells will land on their houses.” says Oksana Deynega, 42, the director of a school in Avdiivka. “If I had to describe the conflict and its impact on the children in one word: it’s horror.”
Aleksey Agapin, 14, from Vozdvyzhenka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on November 29, 2017. Aleksey lost a thumb and two fingers when a grenade plug he found exploded in his hand.
Anya Esaulova, 13, at her old home in the frontline town of Avdiivka, Ukraine, on November 26, 2017. Anya and her family lives at a relatives house after their home was twice destroyed by shelling.
When civilians are killed and wounded, their tragic stories are weaponized by Russian and Ukrainian media–and this is the other frontline, fought online by partisan media outlets and armies of trolls.
Fake news has become a major issue in Europe and the United States over the past year, though here, it’s not a new phenomenon. Nationalist bias and outright lies in media coverage are a fact of life since Soviet times. We call it fake news, here it’s called it for what it is: propaganda.
“In war, truth is the first casualty.” Wrote Aeschylus, the Greek tragedian, however, the enduring casualties are civilians. For the children trapped here, unable to move to a safer part of the country due to crippling poverty, who pulls the trigger or fires the shell doesn’t matter.
Vadim is able to name the warring sides –they’ve both occupied his city of Avdiivka at different times– though he doesn’t understand why the men fight. All he know’s, he says, is that he’s afraid.
“Whatever they do,” Vadim says, “they end up killing people.”
Ashley Gilbertson is an Australian photographer and writer living in New York City widely recognized for his critical eye and unique approaches to social issues.