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Pain is universal, evil is real. Olena Huseynova analyses the Photo of the Week

I met her on the train from Przemyśl to Kyiv in December. The conductor sat her next to me on a free seat in my compartment. She apologized. The train from Prague was late, and the one to Kyiv, for which she had a ticket, had already left. I think I felt sorry for her. Maybe not. I don't remember much of what happened before her words: "My husband is in captivity." But I remember what happened after. Especially her husband's name. Two exchanges have taken place since our chance meeting. 207 captives returned to Ukraine on 31 January. The name I remembered from the train was not there. One of those whose name was is on this photo taken by Danylo Pavlov.

The man is crying and covering his face with a Ukrainian flag and someone else's mobile phone. It seems that the photographer had to get very close to him to get this shot. And now I see this man close as well. This angle has taken almost everything out of the frame. There is only a blue sky and a man hidden behind a flag and a mobile phone. He is also hiding from my gaze. I'm looking at him and feel ashamed. The distance between us is exposed. On the one hand, he is trying to hide. On the other, I am still looking at him. The looking up angle chosen by the photographer allows me to confront my shame. I'm afraid and want to close my eyes. But I keep looking at the photo. I have to look to bear witness: pain is universal, it affects everyone, evil is real, and it cannot go unpunished. I am an observer who must remember this man: his shaved hair, his short nails, his finger bones, his wrists, the cuffs of his black jacket, the yellow and blue flag, and someone else's mobile phone. The man has just heard his voice and must face this new reality of liberation.

I am a random co-traveler, and I have to listen carefully as a woman tells me about her captured husband. She received news of him six months ago. One of the released captives confirmed that her husband was alive. It is their connection. Invaluable information moving from one source to another. A communication system that sends signals across great distances. And it allows her to believe that one day he will call her from someone's mobile phone.

On 17 November 2023, the Commission for Establishing the Fact of Captivity under the Ministry of Reintegration confirmed that 4,337 Ukrainians were in captivity. On 24 January 2024, during a meeting of the Council for Human Rights, Gender Equality, and Diversity at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was stated that there were more than 8,000 Ukrainians in Russian captivity. The exact number of Ukrainian captives is unknown.

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Olena Huseynova is a Ukrainian writer, radio host, and radio producer. She has been working at Radio Kultura (Suspilne) since 2016. She is an editor-in-chief in the department responsible for radio theatre and literary programs. Since 26 February 2022, Olena has worked a live presenter of a round-the-clock information radio marathon at Ukrainian Radio (Suspilne). She is the author of two books of poetry, Open Rider (2012) and Superheroes (2016). She also writes essays and short fiction.

Danylo Pavlov has been a photojournalist since 2009. He worked for regional media in Donetsk and later for Segodnya Media Holding and the UNIAN agency. He also worked as a commercial photographer for several Ukrainian companies. His photojournalism focuses on creating social photostories and illustrating long reports.

Alongside his work in traditional media, Danylo also contributed to the online magazine The Ukrainians and later became the visual director of a separate publication, Reporters Media, which now exists both online and in print.

Danylo has continued to photograph and report on events since the full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022. He has reported from the de-occupied territories and military positions. He is currently working on a long-term photographic project documenting the effects of the war on military personnel and civilians in need of plastic surgery. He also works with the State Emergency Service. Last year he was awarded the State Badge of Honour for his work.

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