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Life on the brink. The Struggle for the City of Bakhmut in the Photographs of Ukrainian Documentary Filmmakers

Fighting for the city of Bakhmut. Spring 2023. Photo by Vlada and Kostiantyn Liberov


The city of Bakhmut held the defence from early July 2022 until the end of May 2023. After ten months of confrontation, the Ukrainian military withdrew from Bakhmut.


The Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers publishes photos by Danylo Pavlov, Heorhiy Ivanchenko, Kostiantyn and Vlada Liberov, who were alongside Ukrainian artillerymen and infantrymen, rescuers and medics, chaplains and local residents, and documented their lives and everyday life in Bakhmut.


On the eve of the holidays


The battle for Bakhmut lasted almost ten months - from July 2022 to the end of May 2023. In November, the Russian army and the Wagner PMC began to actively assault and shell the town. The Russian army advanced and cut off almost all supply routes. The last remaining road was through the village of Khromove. However, it was actively shelled by the Russian military. The Ukrainian Armed Forces held back the offensive and gradually rotated and withdrew some units. In recent weeks, the Russian army has been dropping massive bombs on the city and using large-calibre artillery. Eventually, the Ukrainian military withdrew from Bakhmut.


Photo by Vlada and Konstantin Liberov


On the eve of New Year's Eve 2023, life was still going on in the city, and there was even a makeshift market on the outskirts of Bakhmut. Local residents were living in basements without electricity or heating. Photographers Kostiantyn and Vlada Liberov arrived in Bakhmut on the eve of the New Year holidays. They recorded the preparations for the New Year at the only functioning unit of the Bakhmut State Emergency Service at that time. "Today it is customary to celebrate Christmas all over the world. The smell of the Christmas tree. The atmosphere of a miracle. People on the front line are also preparing for this holiday," recall photographers Kostyantyn and Vlada Liberov. "Daily shelling that does not stop for a second. Factories, architectural monuments, human destinies are destroyed," says Vlada Liberova, "Everything is destroyed, except for the one thing that no one can move: the power of our people. The willpower of our Armed Forces. Bakhmut is standing. Bakhmut is Ukraine."


A rescuer grills a barbecue on New Year's Eve. December 2022. Photo by Danylo Pavlov


Rescuers at the only operating unit of the Bakhmut State Emergency Service at the time. December 2022. Photo by Vlada and Kostiantyn Liberov


In December 2022 and January 2023, Heorhii Ivanchenko documented life in Bakhmut. "I filmed a dilapidated city with many civilians left behind. People's daily routine consisted of searching for trees and water, cooking and walking under fire to the volunteer centre where they could contact their families," says Heorhiy Ivanchenko.


Children play in a volunteer centre in Bakhmut. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


The photographer went to Bakhmut with his volunteer friends. He recalls that on the way, he kept imagining his death or injury in detail. "I had never been to Bakhmut before. On the first day, there was only winter, cold, grey, destroyed or damaged buildings around, the smell of burning metal and explosions without intermission during the walk," says Ivanchenko. Initially, he lived in one of the three volunteer centres in the city, in the basement of a kindergarten near the Bakhmutivka river. The positions of the Russian army were only a kilometre and a half from the river. When Heorhiy first went down to the basement, he saw an elderly man with a family album in his hands. He had just come from the opposite side of the river. "I only took the photos. And out of the things, only what I'm wearing, because things are nothing, you can buy them, and you can't buy this (photos)," the old man explained.


A soldier crosses the Bakhmutivka River. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


The warmth and cold of Christmas


Georgy Ivanchenko lived in the basement of the kindergarten for several days. There was a stove, hot lunches and dinners, a children's corner with school mats, even internet and a TV with news broadcasts. In the shelter, the photographer met seven-year-old Stas and nine-year-old Vika. The children have now been evacuated to central Ukraine. "One day, volunteer medics from Kharkiv came to our basement to evacuate a woman who had heart problems. She did not want to go, but her neighbours persuaded her: "Lyusia, you will die here! If you don't leave, you will die!". This is the reality," says Ivanchenko.


Children in the basement of a kindergarten in Bakhmut. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


The photographer, thanks to medics and volunteers, journalists and the military, was able to see how the city of Bakhmut lives. He visited a shelter organised by the residents of Bakhmut. About twenty people lived there, six of whom were children. "My volunteer friend Dmitriy brought modelling clay for the children so they could be distracted for a while. We made our own planet of Chudiks, drank tea, played Monopoly and Guess Who, and remembered our childhood," smiles Georgiy. "Milan and Alina dream of being volunteers, putting on a helmet and bulletproof vest, and helping people and animals. I fondly recall our chess game with Milan, as well as three-year-old Ilya, who was looking intently at the festively decorated Christmas tree. I fell in love with these children and the people who care about them." Despite the difficult situation, the adults were engaged with the children - the grandfather taught them to play chess, a young woman read books aloud, and neighbouring teachers came to give them lessons in physics and art.


Little Ilya by the Christmas tree in the basement in Bakhmut. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


"I spent Christmas in this basement. The residents organised a festive table: the first course, salads and wraps, hot peppers from humanitarian aid and, of course, kutia. I became a part of this family for a few days and received so much warmth that I even forgot about the war outside," the photographer recalls. He adds that in the morning he saw the body of a soldier near the house. He was frozen, leaning against the wall with the inscription "Merry Christmas Pryhozhyn". The dead man was wearing a military uniform, but it was impossible to identify which army. On 23 February, Ivanchenko learned from his volunteer friend that a shell had hit the house with the orphanage. The children were taken away by adults and the photographer never saw them again. "Children who have seen war are different. They can light a stove, cook food, collect firewood. They get used to the shelling, take responsibility for their younger brothers and sisters, and sometimes for their parents. War is a catalyst for all processes, including growing up," the photographer reflects.


Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


New year


In January 2023, the SES unit was still operating in Bakhmut. Heorhii Ivanchenko stayed with them for a week and celebrated the New Year with them. The unit was shelled several times, but it was "protected" by a nearby multi-storey building, which took all the hits. There were frequent fires in the city, mostly in empty buildings. "Risking your life for concrete is pointless. During the defence of Bakhmut, several rescuers were killed - they were shelled while clearing the rubble," says Heorhiy Ivanchenko.


Rescuers watch the New Year's address of the President of Ukraine. December 2022. Photo by Danylo Pavlov


"On New Year's Eve, we set the table, cooked a barbecue and opened a bottle of Artemivske Champagne, which was produced in Bakhmut before the war. However, the night was not as quiet as we wanted, and we had to move the celebration to the basement," Ivanchenko recalls.


Ukrainian documentary photographer Danylo Pavlov also celebrated the New Year in Bakhmut. "My journalist Myroslav Laiuk and I arrived in Bakhmut on 31 December 2022. We were at the SES unit and grilled a New Year's barbecue. We even decorated the Christmas tree," says Danylo Pavlov.


A decorated Christmas tree in the centre of Bakhmut. Photo by Danylo Pavlov


On the New Year's Eve, there were resilience centres in the city, and SES workers were delivering water to people. Danylo met two older women who had come to collect water. One of them was 86-year-old Oleksandra Mykhailivna, dressed in a bright red scarf. She hadn't spoken to her family for a month and a half and asked the journalists to call her son and tell him she was alive. She has two other daughters, but they are abroad.


Nadiia Ivanivna in Bakhmut. Photo by Danylo Pavlov


On the first day of 2023, Danylo Pavlov walked around the city. In Bakhmut, where more than 70,000 people lived, there were still a lot of civilians - about 10,000. "Of course, you can't walk around the city much - there was constant shelling, 'arrivals' in the centre, drones flying," recalls Pavlov. Employees of the State Emergency Service said that in October, Bakhmut even had electricity and switched on the lights."


Bakhmut on the eve of the New Year. Photo by Danylo Pavlov


Danylo Pavlov recalls that on New Year's Eve, a makeshift market was still operating on the outskirts of the town. The entrance to Bakhmut, towards the village of Khromove, remained under the control of Ukrainian troops for a long time. "People were bustling around the stalls, choosing something, buying sausage," Pavlov says. Residents of Bakhmut lived in cold basements or huts, and came to the Points of Unbreakable Bonds to warm up and charge their phones. In some places in the city, it was still possible to get a connection.


After the holidays


Danylo Pavlov and his colleagues wanted to come to Bakhmut after the New Year holidays. "In Kostyantynivka, I learned that our friend Oleksandra was being taken from Bakhmut, wounded. They were taking her from the stabilisation centre to Kostyantynivka. We immediately visited her in the hospital. We waited a week for her to recover a little bit and brought her to Kyiv to her relatives," says the photographer. A few weeks later, the SES employees wrote that their unit had been hit by a shell and had to evacuate. It was the last SES unit still working in the city: they were clearing rubble and extinguishing fires whenever possible. As the city already had water problems, the rescuers went to collect water from a pond. After they were evacuated, there was simply no one to extinguish the flames. Danilov and his colleagues were unable to return to the city a second time as the shelling intensified and the situation became extremely dangerous.


Fire after the shelling in Bakhmut. Photo by Danylo Pavlov


Photo by Danylo Pavlov


"Imagine how much field medics see. A 59-year-old anaesthetist with the call sign Kaplya says that the hardest part is when a few minutes are not enough to save a life," says Georgiy Ivanchenko. In January 2023, the number of wounded arriving at the hospital increased significantly, with an average of 10 to 15 wounded per day. Although most of the injuries were caused by artillery shelling, Kaplia noted an increase in the number of bullet wounds compared to the summer of 2022. The enemy was actively advancing.


Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


The last time Georgiy Ivanchenko was in Bakhmut was on 24 February, the anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion. "A volunteer and I evacuated an old lady and a young couple with guinea pigs. At the last safe exit from Bakhmut, near a medical ambulance that had been shot by Russian artillery, two bodies covered with blankets had been lying for two days. Due to the increased danger, no one could take them away. As it turned out later, the car was driven by a medic who was evacuating a wounded soldier," says Heorhiy Ivanchenko. He adds that in April 2023, Bakhmut was closed to volunteers and journalists. The town gradually became empty.


Photo by Vlada and Konstantin Liberov


A few months later, the town of Bakhmut was almost completely destroyed. "There is not a single habitable area in Bakhmut today: the shelling does not stop for a minute, there are just more intense and less intense times. However, there are still people and even children in the city, and the issue of evacuating them is becoming more and more complicated," Vlada Liberova wrote on social media. "People are dying there almost every day, and the number of fresh graves in the local cemetery has almost doubled since December: and these are those who were able to be buried. And how many could not be buried? Every day our defenders die trying to hold the city, and we believe that we will be able to survive, that their great sacrifice will not be in vain."


 

Konstantin Liberov is a Ukrainian photographer and photojournalist. He is a holder of the Order of Merit III class (2023). One of his photographs was selected by Time magazine as one of the 100 best photographs of 2022. During the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, together with his wife Vlada Liberova, he photographed the aftermath of the war in Kharkiv, Sievierodonetsk, Lysychansk, Sviatohirsk, Mykolaiv, Bucha, Irpin, Kyiv and other cities. Kostyantyn's photographs were published by The Kyiv Independent, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Insider, The Independent.

 

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Heorhiy Ivanchenko is a Ukrainian photographer who has been working as a freelance documentary and journalistic photographer since February 2022. Since the first months of the invasion, he has been shooting for the Associated Press and the European Pressphoto Agency. Starting from Borodyansky district, where Heorhiy was born, he continued his journey along the frontline: Mykolaiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, and now his attention is focused on Donetsk region. The turning point in his photography was when he spent almost a month in Bakhmut. In December and January, he documented the lives of the townspeople with a backpack and a sleeping bag, sharing his life with locals in basements, volunteers, medics, military, and firefighters. In April, while working on a story about Chasiv Yar in Donbas, his car was shot at and destroyed by a Russian shell. Now the author continues his reflection on the numerous situations that have come his way and is working on his first project, Way of War (working title).

 

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Danylo Pavlov has been a photojournalist since 2009, working for regional media in Donetsk, and later for the Segodnya media holding and UNIAN agency. He has also worked as a commercial photographer for several Ukrainian companies. In photojournalism, he focuses on creating social photo stories and illustrating long-form reports. In addition to working in traditional media, Danylo also contributed to the online magazine The Ukrainians and later became responsible for the visual direction of a separate publication, Reporters, which now exists both online and in print. Danylo has continued to photograph and cover events since the full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022. He has reported from the de-occupied territories and military positions, and is currently working on a long-term photo project documenting the impact of the war on military personnel and civilians in need of plastic surgery. He also cooperates with the State Emergency Service, for which he was awarded the state badge of honour last year.

 

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As a reminder, the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers has launched a series of materials dedicated to the key events of the Russian war against Ukraine, where it publishes memoirs and photographs of Ukrainian documentary photographers.


The project is implemented thanks to the support of IWM Documenting Ukraine.


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