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«Pharaoh», «Pit Bull» and Bullet. Battles for Sievierodonetsk in the photos of Oleksandr Ratushniak

Soldiers of the "Svoboda" battalion at the Perekhrestya position. At that moment, an enemy tank was shooting at them. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


Heavy fighting for the city of Sievierodonetsk began in late May 2022. Russian troops massively shelled the city, trying to capture it completely. The percentage of Sievierodonetsk controlled by the Russian army changed daily. On June 24, the Armed Forces of Ukraine left part of Sievierodonetsk's industrial area in an organized and planned manner. On May 26, 2022, the Russian army entered the city, and street fighting broke out. The Russians captured Sievierodonetsk.


The Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers publishes photos by Oleksandr Ratushniak, who accompanied the Ukrainian military during the battle with the Russian army in Sievierodonetsk.


A panorama of the destroyed Severodonetsk, in that direction is already the territory controlled by the enemy. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


«Just hell»


"For four months, all our positions have been shelled with everything - and I want to emphasize this - with all the weapons that the Russian army has," Serhiy Gaidai, head of the Luhansk regional military administration, wrote on social media. Russian troops have been shelling Sievierodonetsk for weeks, trying to take control of the entire city. "It's just hell there," added Haidai. In June 2022, about half a thousand Ukrainian soldiers were killed and many more were wounded in Donbas every day.


A view of a heavily damaged building in Sievierodonetsk. This place was called the "Pit Bull" position. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


Photographer Oleksandr Ratushniak accompanied the Ukrainian military during the battles for the city of Sievierodonetsk. He recalls that for him, June 2022 was full of meetings and communication with many wonderful people. "I spent a few days in the company of the famous Hero of Ukraine Dmytro Kotsiubailo 'Da Vinci' and his brave men," says Ratushniak, "Mostly it was aerial reconnaissance. We would go to a frontline village, and the guys would fly drones and adjust the artillery. If there was a shelling in our direction, there was a basement nearby."

Once, the military even took Oleksandr on a real reconnaissance mission - it was a daytime outing into the gray zone. "In such a situation, there is a high risk of getting under friendly fire. That time everything went well and we only came under enemy fire. The grenades were landing a few hundred meters away, maybe less. We didn't manage to take any great photos, but the impression we got from that trip will last a lifetime," the photographer says.


«A peaceful city»

 

Oleksandr Ratushniak and his unit stopped in Lysychansk, where they were able to look at Sievierodonetsk from a high-rise building. At the end of May 2022, the city was on everyone's lips, but there was a lack of visual information. The width of the corridor to enter Lysychansk was constantly decreasing, and traveling in this direction was becoming more and more dangerous.


Entrance to the city via the Synetskyi Bridge, which was constantly shelled. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


The photographer found out that the area of responsibility of the Svoboda battalion, in which his friend Ihor Palamarchuk is a member, is the Sievierodonetsk direction. A few days later, on June 6, Oleksandr was with the Svoboda guys at their location in Lysychansk. "The city was constantly being hit. Every day, if not every hour, something was smoking, burning, and civilians were dying. However, despite this, Lysychansk was still a relatively rear city," says Ratushniak.

"On June 8, early in the morning, we drive a Kozak to Sievierodonetsk. We crossed the Synetskyi bridge, which the Russians were constantly attacking to cut off the communication routes. That morning we were lucky. It was relatively quiet. But not everyone managed to cross that bridge...", says Oleksandr. Together with the Ukrainian military, the photographer arrived at the Pitbull position, where he spent the next 24 hours. "I spent a day here, but it seemed like a week had passed," Ratushniak explains.


Soldiers of the "Svoboda" battalion have just arrived at their positions in Sievierodonetsk. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


"Svoboda" battalion commander Petro Kuzyk in Sievierodonetsk. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


The guys returned to the "peaceful" city of Lysychansk in the same "Kozak". Oleksandr helped the guys with the housework and even cooked soup a few times. "The guys said it was delicious," the photographer smiles. He walked around the city and filmed it turning into ruins. He did not stray far from the base, as people in Lysychansk are quite different.


Cellars of the "Pit Bull" position in Sievierodonetsk. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


Soldiers conduct aerial reconnaissance in a building in Sievierodonetsk. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


A soldier observes the situation from the window. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


The gray zone

 

"In a few days they give me the go-ahead to go to Severodonetsk again. We loaded ammunition and provisions and went! This time to the Festivalnyi Bridge. "It is the only bridge that currently connects the two banks," says Ratushniak. "There were three bridges connecting the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk: The Pavlohrad bridge, which was destroyed on May 21, 2022, the Synetskyi bridge, which had already been destroyed by that time, and the Festivalnyi bridge, which half an hour ago one could try to cross. However, it is no longer possible. An airplane arrives nearby. We turned around right before the bridge and went to the base. It didn't hit us."


View of the Festivalnyi Bridge from Lysychansk. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


Meanwhile, communication between the cities is being transferred to river transport. Crossings are being organized in several places. The photographer asked to be taken on a boat for several days. The answer remained negative. "A bicycle is now available at the base, so my excursions around Lysychansk are becoming more distant. Of course, I do not forget about the DRG. Although you probably won't get far from the DRG on a bicycle in body armor," Ratushniak says. A few days later, he finally got the go-ahead for the next 24 hours. "The condition was to help carry things from the vehicles to the shore. No one wants a passive passenger. Of course I will be there. Not just to take pictures," Oleksandr says with a smile. This time, they came to the Pharaoh position, as the Russian military had already damaged the Pit Bull and there was a high risk that this "machine" would collapse completely.


The ferrying of military personnel and ammunition across the river. It is almost impossible to cross the bridges. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


Oleksandr spent almost the entire day in one place. He went to another location with a group of soldiers from Pharaoh. On the way, they heard small arms fire. In a few seconds, they realized that it seemed to be aimed at them. "Everything went well. I returned to Pharaoh, to the basement life," says Oleksandr Ratushniak. "He asked to extend his stay for another 24 hours and got the go-ahead. The guys promised to take him to one of the nearest positions in the morning.


Soldiers in a basement in Sievierodonetsk. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


«Crossroads»


"An underground corridor between the workshops of a former enterprise. "Crossroads". I spent about 10 hours here. A long 10 hours of my life. It's about 100 meters to the enemy in a straight line, but we are separated by walls," says Oleksandr. "Before the road is our territory, beyond the road is the territory controlled by the enemy. Here, for the first time in my life, I felt what it was like to be shot at from a tank. I don't advise anyone to experience such feelings." The military were very surprised that a photographer came to such a position. They called him fearless. "When I found out that the Ukrainian military had been at this position for about two weeks (with occasional rest), I replied that fearlessness was about them, not me," Ratushniak recalls.


A fighter with the call sign "Punk" covers a taxi driver's ears during a shelling to prevent her from getting a concussion. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


A fighter with the call sign "Shargorod" and his dachshund Pulya. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


Oleksandr says that the real fearless ones are Vasyl Ivasko "Shargorod" and his dachshund Pulia. "I recently learned from Vasyl that Pulia, unfortunately, will no longer be able to have puppies. Although the line for puppies from such a fearless bitch was long. Now Pulya is far from the front. Unlike Shargorod, who continues to crush enemies," says Oleksandr. Shargorod fired several times at the enemy with a grenade launcher. "Then, filming with his phone in full length in this strange body armor, and, of course, without a helmet, he tried to correct the tank's operation. I scolded him as a joke. I told him that people would not believe that the photo was of a real war and that the Muscovites were about 80 meters away," says Oleksandr Ratushniak.


A soldier with the call sign "Shargorod" fires a grenade launcher at the enemy. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


Ukrainian military in Sievierodonetsk. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


On the way to the Pharaoh, the photographer and the military ran into the Pit Bull, where our guys were still there. Compared to the last time, the positions no longer looked so hospitable. The basement was still holding out.


Semen Oblomey "Sam". On the same day, Sam died. June 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


"On June 21, 2022, I saw Sievierodonetsk for the last time," says Oleksandr Ratushniak. "On June 24, Ukrainian units left the industrial zone of Sievierodonetsk in an organized and planned manner.

In the morning, Ratushniak drove a Zhigulka toward Lysychansk to the Siversky Donets River. In the back seat was a photographer and Semen Oblomey, who acted as navigator. On the same day, Sam would die.


Departure from the city of Sievierodonetsk. June 21, 2022. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak


 

Oleksandr Ratushniak is a Ukrainian photojournalist. He has worked with various media and news agencies, including Reuters, and is currently a freelance photographer. He photographed the events that took place during the Revolution of Dignity. He actively documents the Russian-Ukrainian war.


Social networks of the photographer:


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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