top of page

From winter to winter near Bakhmut. A story of 20-year-old veterans by Oleksandr Babenko

We continue to share the documentary projects of the finalists within the framework of the UAPP grant support for documentary photographers, implemented with the support of the International Press Institute.

Before the full-scale invasion, Oleksandr Babenko worked in film production in Kyiv. With a degree in journalism, he began working with foreign media as a producer after the full-scale invasion began, and since September 2022 as a photographer. Now he is focused on covering news and reporting near the contact line. The story is about a week in the life of twenty-year-old boys who became veterans;

The drone returns home to the aerial reconnaissance position of the 3rd Separate Airborne Brigade a few kilometers from Bakhmut, November 23, 2023.

Donetsk region. Snow falls to the ground, covering bare landings, craters from landings, and uncultivated land. It is already evening at four o'clock. In one of the houses, where curtains still cover the doorways and portraits of the previous residents remain on the walls, the military live. Donetsk region has been their home for 11 months.

"Kasha", 25, is the oldest of the crew and always carries two things with him: his badge and the badge of his fallen friend. "Kasha" was originally a cook, but he could not sit in the rear while his comrades were on the line, so he was transferred to the aerial reconnaissance unit. It is warm at home, batteries for drones are charging next to Soviet books, a BC is on the worn carpet, shops are lying next to bags of food, the war has become everyday, but in the evening it does not feel like it. This house looks more like a student apartment. The guys are teasing each other, music is playing from a bluetooth speaker, someone is watching YouTube, someone is playing cards. It's 4 am, the thermometer reads 11. The crew piles into a 1990s jeep and heads to their positions. They leave so early to minimize the likelihood of being spotted by enemy drones. The road is perhaps the biggest danger in this job. The driver is faced with an old car, weather conditions, the risk of being hit by the enemy, and bad roads. The driver is Malyi, he is 20 years old. Half of his life has been spent at war. Coming from the temporarily occupied territories, he has seen the full-scale invasion was one of the first. On the morning of February 24, 2022, he left his hometown with other volunteers. His father and sister were waiting for him on the ring road to hand over a backpack of essentials: "My sister is in tears, my father is in tears himself. He is giving away everything he had. All the money,

cigarettes. My sister gives me two packs of sticks. I see that my father is already in tears, and they signal me to go. I hugged him, kissed him and left." "Maliy" never came home again.

At dawn, the crew starts working: after hiding the car, deploying the antenna and taking cover in the bunker, the guys lift the drone. On the back of the Blanco, next to the yellow and blue flag, there is a chevron with a skull: "There will be no rotation. We are here until the end". This chevron is worn by many of the unit's members, and Hajz was the first to wear it. Bohdan "Haze" is also 20. But he is here forever. The guy from Lviv region, with a snow-white smile, was working in Poland when the full-scale invasion began, but returned and volunteered. On August 18, 2023, Bohdan was killed while performing a combat mission.

"Geis," "Blanco," and "Malyi" were getting their first military experience in the infantry. "Hajz" recalled: "Near Bakhmut, winter, 20. We and the rest of the BC got to new positions. It was impossible to dig anything. We came, laid down on the ground and asked each other if we were going to die today and laughed."

"Blanco" and "Malyi". 20 years old. Donetsk region. November 2023.

"Blanco" is twenty years old and the youngest in the unit. He has this call sign because he was born in Spain and serves as the crew commander. A year has passed without a month, and the situation is different. This position is a blessing in disguise, as the solid concrete walls and the location of the bunker underground make it easy to feel at ease. Trench candles keep us warm, and "Blanco" and "Malyi" take turns flying around looking for the enemy and adjusting artillery fire. The drone's batteries and the position of the sun change, and the day passes. It's dark again, and the crew leaves their positions.

"Blanco" and "Malyi" on combat duty at positions a few kilometers from Bakhmut, November 2023.

There is not enough work to go around. You need to repair vehicles, keep fit, and live. Trips to the supermarket, the military commissary and for coffee dilute military tasks and allow you to build a familiar routine.

- "Blanco", what will you tell your grandchildren about your comrades?

- "Malyi". We're always going somewhere, having fun, music on. Mishka, the bear, is the one I look up to the most. He's just so good-natured, and you're 100% sure he won't leave you. Moreover, he puts honor first, then money."

- Are you going to tell us about "Gaiz"?

- "Of course, about "Gaiz", and "Modnik", there are a lot of people to talk about, there's no need to forget about everyone."

"Blanco and Maly look at one of the waste heaps in Donetsk Oblast. In a few days, they will have their rotation and leave Donetsk region for the first time in eleven months. November 2023.

For ten years now, we have had new veterans, thanks to whom Blanko, Malyi, Kasha and Gais have been able to grow up and defend the country. Now they too have become veterans of the ongoing war.

To the memory of Bohdan "Haze" Pidhainyi, whom I was lucky enough to meet and photograph while working. In memory of everyone who gave their lives for freedom.


Oleksandr Babenko is a documentary photographer and videographer from Kharkiv. During the events of the Revolution of Dignity, he decided to go into journalism and received a master's degree in journalism from the Ukrainian Catholic University. Before the full-scale invasion, he worked in film production in Kyiv. Since the end of February 2022, he has been working as a local producer for foreign media in the frontline areas. He focuses on news coverage and reporting near the contact line. Most often he works with Associated Press, EPA, Getty Images, Reuters and others;

Mostly works in Donetsk region. He worked a lot in Bakhmut and continues to cover this area of the frontline.

He paid maximum attention to covering the consequences of Russian aggression on the civilian population and documenting the work of the Ukrainian military. He covered the liberation of Andriivka, the consequences of the explosion of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station in Kherson, the defence of Bakhmut, the liberation of Kharkiv region and other events of the Russian-Ukrainian war.


bottom of page