In February 2022, Vladmir Putin declared a “special military operation” in Ukraine, presumably to protect Russia from the expansion of NATO, and Ukrainian pro-Russian separatist states from “Ukrainian neo-Nazism.” The attack was a continuation of a short-lived invasion in 2014, but this time Putin would not stop at Crimea. Russian armored units streamed over the border toward Kyiv, Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk on February 24, 2022.
As a psychologist and photojournalist, I was interested in the psychological impact of the invasion. As a native Spaniard, I felt a moral obligation to document this disturbing historical event – one that directly implicated my home country due to Ukraine’s tight connections with Europe.
At the time, most news outlets only addressed the basic geopolitical facts of the Russian full-scale invasion: how many people were murdered and wounded, how many bombs landed, which places were occupied or liberated, etc. I wanted to go beyond the numbers and locations and engage personally in conversations with war victims, workers, volunteers and citizens, to better understand Ukrainians’ struggles. Despite the risks involved, I made it my mission to get as close to the conflict as was possible for an outsider.
In April 2022, I boarded a bus in Warsaw and headed towards the Ukrainian-Polish border. I would visit Lviv and Kyiv and collect as many stories as I could along the way. During the six-hour journey, I thought about the people sitting next to me, their stories. Many of them had left everything behind when the Russian occupation began and were now returning after the liberation of their cities and towns.
As we waited in line at the border checkpoint, passports in hand, I noticed I was the only foreigner – everyone else was Ukrainian. Nerves set in, and I wondered if I would be able to convince the border soldier to let me enter the country. But I wasn’t without a plan. I had been preparing for weeks to prove the legitimacy of my project. I wrote a document pretending to be a college thesis advisor explaining the different stages of my supposed undergraduate final project: Psychological Impact of the Russian siege on the Ukrainian Population. The document talked about the role of the interviews with Ukrainians as the qualitative method that my research would rely on. My intentions were genuine, and I hoped that all that work and interviews would materialize someday in a multidisciplinary project that could make the Russian atrocities more visible through independent sources.
In truth, I was in my junior year and had no final thesis supervisor. I was alone, a freelancer with my own money and a little Canon 700D with a 50 mm lens – no one was backing my project. I hadn’t even told many people what I was doing. My family still knows nothing about it. My goals were clear and I didn’t want anything to stop me. I felt enough strength, self-confidence and passion to do whatever was necessary to accomplish my goals as a psychologist and photojournalist.
When it was my turn to show my passport, the soldier asked me why I was going to Ukraine. To my surprise and relief, after explaining the basics of my project, he allowed me to enter the country right away. The only person who had trouble crossing was a Ukrainian teenager, perhaps 14 years old, who was traveling by himself. I, like the soldiers, wondered why he was going back to Ukraine without his family, if he still had one.
After another eight hours traveling, I arrived in Lviv, 50 miles west of the Polish border. Besides a couple of military checkpoints on the outskirts of the city, it was hard to tell a war was going on in downtown Lviv. Many stores, public transport and other services were still operating. People were working and hanging out with their friends and relatives in cafes, bars and restaurants but life was hardly normal. The sorrow of the whole situation was palpable. Air raid sirens sounded at least once a day during my stay, alerting the population to seek shelter and keeping everyone on edge. Most of the time, rockets were intercepted by Ukraine’s Air Defense Force. Sandbags were piled up in front of the windows of important buildings and monuments. Military vehicles and tanks surrounded city squares, and soldiers walked around with firearms. Pro-Ukrainian propaganda posters were everywhere.
The whole atmosphere was upsetting. The weather made things worse with frigid temperatures, cloudy skies and periodical rainfalls. Taking pictures was a real challenge too, as many locals and refugees were traumatized and paranoid because of the war. On my first day in Lviv, I took a photo of a bus and was (understandably) accosted by an elderly man who asked for my press credentials in broken English. I tried to explain to him that I was carrying out a freelance project that wasn’t backed by an organization. He didn’t understand and grew progressively angrier to the point of screaming at me until I hurried away. He might have thought I was a spy. I soon learned that photographs are generally prohibited during war to limit the potential for espionage. To prevent future misunderstandings, that night I filled out an online form for press accreditation. It arrived three weeks later, after I had already left Ukraine.
Around one-third of the refugees in Lviv were Ukrainian men between eighteen and sixty years old who were not allowed to leave the country after martial law was declared by Zelensky. Other people simply refused to leave the country because they had elderly dependents to care for. This was true of Maria, a Ukrainian woman I met at my hostel.
When the full-scale invasion started in February, Maria and her partner Alexander decided to stay at their home in Kharkiv, one the primary Russian targets. In early March, a rocket landed right next to their apartment complex. Maria was in a hallway while Alexander was getting some air on their balcony, leaving him exposed to the blast and badly injured. Maria and Alexander’s father carried him downstairs where an ambulance picked him up. Unfortunately, he passed away that very day in the hospital. Their cat became deaf, and their dog suffered burns on its legs. Although Maria wasn’t physically injured, she feels deeply guilty for letting Alexander go to the balcony, even though it wasn’t her fault. Despite Maria’s tremendous loss, she had to stay in Ukraine because her mother was still in the eastern part of the country, thirty miles from Kharkiv. Like many other seniors, Maria’s mother wanted to stay in her own home, no matter what. After the accident, Maria’s mother took in her pets and Maria moved to Lviv. She was living temporarily in the hostel I was staying in. For Maria, there is no difference between the Russian people that support Putin and the ones that remain silent and don’t boycott the war.
Yevhen was another refugee I met in Lviv. He had left his apartment in Kyiv and found shelter in Lviv for a couple of months. Yevhen criticized the little help Europe was providing to Ukraine and how Europeans tended to justify the Russian invasion citing economic reasons. “How could this genocide be due to money? What is happening is nothing else but pure hatred” he said. I agreed that wars are usually economically driven. I didn’t think this was an exception. But Yevhen misunderstood, and took my comments personally. He was so emotionally charged that I thought it best to change the subject. I realized we wouldn’t come to any agreement at that point. That conversation taught me to choose my words more carefully when talking about war. Yevhen would not consider any kind of agreement with Russia. He believed war was the only way for Ukrainians to achieve freedom: “After all they have done in Bucha and Mariupol I cannot support any agreement with them without trying to win in this war.” He was scared of joining the army, but even more scared of being “isolated in a shelter or in a basement under the Russian occupation.”
There were so many different people in the hostel. The vast majority were refugees, volunteers and journalists, which made for a good mix most of the time. Of course, as with any volatile situation, there were dubious characters too. In the shared living space with eight bunk beds per room, I made friends but I also had some close calls. Fortunately, I came away unscathed.
Some volunteers seemed to be in search of nothing more than a fresh start. Take Orlando, for example. He left his job, sold his car, and came to Ukraine to start a new life and help Ukrainian people fight the Russian occupation. Orlando asked her girlfriend to come to Ukraine with him and stay in a shelter while he would help on the front lines, even though he had no experience as a soldier. She refused to and stayed in Chile. Two days after Orlando arrived in Ukraine, his girlfriend broke up with him because, according to her, he went to Ukraine to flirt with other girls. Based on my experience with him, I tend to agree with her.
Other volunteers could be taken more seriously. Guillaume came from France to Lviv to help refugees by providing food, medicines and other supplies. He was working for team4ua, a humanitarian organization that implements technology into their humanitarian emergency response, such as 3D technology for rebuilding damaged infrastructures and AI analysis highlighting war damage and potential mines. “Due to the high flow of people and products, cases of kidnapping and robbery of supplies are unfortunately common, especially on the Ukrainian-Polish border” Guillaume explained to me. When I told him that I was going to Kyiv, the capital, he put me in contact with a friend of his called Tetyana, a Ukrainian sociologist who he knew would be interested in my project.
After three short days in Lviv, I boarded a train and headed for Kyiv. I had barely scratched the surface when it came to the consequences of this war on the Ukrainian population. I had met innocent people that experienced extreme suffering, and shady individuals looking to take advantage of a sorry situation.
Looking back, I realized I had already experienced several mishaps as a foreigner in Lviv. I suspected things would be even more challenging in Kyiv, a city of much greater political importance. Russian forces had retreated from the city’s outskirts only two weeks before I arrived. As I sat on the train, I felt nervous but determined. I told myself, “If everything goes well, I will enjoy the experience. If not, I might just walk away with some of the most valuable lessons of my entire life.”