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Shelling, evacuation and the threat of re-occupation of Vovchansk in the documentary photos by Heorhiy Ivanchenko and Yakov Lyashenko

Tatiana's house was damaged by Russian shelling. At first, she refused to be evacuated, but later agreed to be rescued. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


Vovchansk is a city in the Kharkiv region, located 4 km from the border with Russia and almost 50 km from Kharkiv itself. For the sixth day in a row, the city has been on the front pages of the world media. Shelling, fires and destruction. Now the city is under constant fire from the Russians. For the second time in the entire period of the Russian full-scale invasion, Vovchansk may be captured. The occupiers are trying to surround Vovchansk, approaching it from different directions. The Ukrainian Armed Forces are currently in control of the city, but the Russians have already taken some positions in its northern part. Thousands of Ukrainians have been forced to evacuate from Vovchansk and other border settlements due to intense shelling.


A local resident with his pets. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


Breaking through the border


Around 5 a.m. on Friday, May 10, the enemy tried to break through Ukrainian defenses in the Kharkiv region in two places. The Ukrainian Defense Forces met the Russians with fire. The Armed Forces are holding the line. According to Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrskyi, "the situation at the front remains tense." The Russians are actively attacking Ukrainian forces in several directions to advance deeper into Ukraine.


A pine forest near Vovchansk. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


The New York Times writes that Russian troops were mostly moving through poorly defended and almost unpopulated territory, which explains the relatively rapid advance. The border in northeastern Ukraine was regularly shelled by Russians throughout the war, making it difficult to establish fortified positions.


The military inspects the equipment. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


"The enemy keeps trying to advance in the Vovchansk sector. Active firefights are taking place on the northern outskirts of the city. Our soldiers are doing everything possible and impossible to stabilize the situation in all directions and are destroying the enemy, clearing Vovchansk of Russian subversive reconnaissance groups," said Oleg Syniehubov, head of the Kharkiv Military Administration.


Evacuation of people 


Heorhiy Ivanchenko traveled to Vovchansk for three days in a row to document the events. He says that the Russians are covering the city with all means: artillery, Grads, drones and CABs. Starting from the first hours of the Russian offensive, locals began to leave, but there were those who were hard to convince to leave the hot zone. Even though the city and the district had been without electricity for more than three weeks before the occupiers' breakthrough due to enemy shelling from the territory of the Russian Federation.


Tatiana's house was damaged by Russian shelling. At first, she refused to be evacuated, but later agreed to be rescued. Photo by Yakov Lyashenko


One of hundreds of destroyed houses in Vovchansk. Photo by Yakiv Lyashenko


"Not everyone reacted so quickly," says Heorhiy. "For example, Ms. Tetyana said she was ready to leave, but first she had to clean up and cover the windows with plywood. After all, her house was damaged. She is worried about her property and at the same time about her future, so that she has a place to return to. I left her my phone number in case she changes her mind."


Residents of Vovchansk clean the street. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


A local resident shows the consequences of Russian shelling in his yard. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko

 

Natalia's goats in the village of Hrafske. Photo by Heorhii Ivanchenko


In the end, it happened. On the third day, Tetiana asked to be evacuated after one of her relatives was injured in the Russian attacks.


"I called the police officer with whom I was evacuating people that day. I heard the explosions on the phone. I said: "She's ready. Please come and pick her up." It turned out well, she was evacuated," says Heorhiy. "These three days were crucial for many people to understand whether to leave or stay. Because many people hoped that maybe everything would change and the situation would be calm."


Evacuation of 84-year-old Viktor from Vovchansk. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


Locals take out their household items. Photo by Yakiv Lyashenko


Documentary filmmaker Yakiv Lyashenko, who also worked in Vovchansk, says he feels like he's back in Bakhmut in 2022. "The Russians are pouring in heavily. There are many locals who did not want to leave their homes."


Volunteers are not allowed to


Despite the fires in the pine mined forests and the fog of smoke on the road, volunteers from Kharkiv and other regions of the country rushed to rescue the locals.


Vovchansk rescuers. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


However, on the fifth day, the volunteers were banned from entering Vovchansk, and the evacuation is being carried out exclusively by the police and military. Law enforcement officials confirmed the disappearance of two volunteers from Kyiv region who had driven their own car to evacuate a local family.


A pine forest near Vovchansk is on fire as a result of Russian shelling. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


"They never got to the address - they disappeared. We are already investigating this case, but unfortunately, according to preliminary information and witnesses, the guys were shot by the Russian military. One of them is probably wounded, the other one did not survive," said Serhiy Bolvinov, head of the Kharkiv regional police investigation department.


Heorhii says that because of this incident, neither journalists nor volunteers are allowed to work in a certain part of the city anymore.


Warm embrace of Kharkiv


Evacuees can stay in a humanitarian center in Kharkiv. There they are provided with all the necessary assistance, including legal and psychological. Most of the evacuees are elderly and people with limited mobility.


A temporary accommodation center for evacuees in Kharkiv. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


"In the temporary accommodation center, refugees are actually given absolutely everything: medicine, temporary housing, food, water, money. That is, this camp actually looks very professional. I was surprised. It is very good. They also pay a lot of attention to animals. After all, many people refuse to leave their homes without their animals, so volunteers evacuate everyone together. And this is super right. I saw some frightened animals there, too," says Heorhii.


A temporary accommodation center for evacuees in Kharkiv. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


Also in Kharkiv, the photographer met a family he had evacuated from Vovchansk together with the police: "I made several portraits of 84-year-old Mr. Viktor. He has problems with his hip, so he is not very mobile. We also evacuated his son Valik and his wife Olga. And when I returned to Kharkiv, I met them at this point and took pictures here. They told me that they were treated very well, but they are planning to go to their relatives in Balakliya because they have a place to live there."


84-year-old Viktor in a temporary accommodation center in Kharkiv. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko


Vovchansk — the front line


The first time Russians occupied Vovchansk was on February 24, 2022. During the September offensive by Ukrainian forces, the city was de-occupied. On September 13, the Armed Forces of Ukraine entered the city.


A destroyed bridge near Vovchansk. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko

 

A local resident in a pine forest near Vovchansk. Photo by Heorhiy Ivanchenko

 

Heorhii says that after talking to the locals, it was hard not to notice their concerns, because the situation now looks completely different than in 2022 during the eight months of occupation. "Back then, the occupation of Vovchansk was relatively calm, so to speak. However, now Vovchansk is a frontline. There are active hostilities there. The situation is very dangerous. The city is being destroyed." Photographer Yakiv Lyashenko adds that it seems as if the Russians are wiping out Vovchansk, as well as Avdiivka and Bakhmut, to take these positions to advance further.


 

Heorhiy Ivanchenko is a Ukrainian photographer who has been working as a freelance reporter in the field of documentary and journalistic photography since February 2022. From the first months of the invasion, he began shooting for the Associated Press and the European Pressphoto Agency. Starting from Borodyansky district, where Heorhiy was born, he continued his journey along the front line: 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).

 

Yakov Lyashenko is a Ukrainian photographer from Kharkiv. He began his professional career in 2012. After the start of the full-scale invasion, he worked as a fixer for well-known photographers and simultaneously documented the events of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Currently, he is a freelance photojournalist at EPA Agency.


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