Agony, Endurance and Escape: Ukraine in Pictures

Three photographers document the toll of an implacable and unforgiving war

Ukrainian refugees Yigor, 6, and his mother, Olga, 27, aboard a train in Przemysl, Poland, in March. (Peter Turnley)
Ukrainian refugees Yigor, 6, and his mother, Olga, 27, aboard a train in Przemysl, Poland, in March. (Peter Turnley)

Ukrainians have long defended their country and fought for freedom

By Guillaume Herbaut

After a city’s liberation from the Russians, families claim and bury their dead

By Salwan Georges

Ten hours on a train full of refugees headed toward Poland — and the unknown

By Peter Turnley

What Came Before

Ukrainians have long defended their country and fought for freedom

Text and photographs by Guillaume Herbaut

I went to Ukraine for the first time in 2001 for a photo essay on Chernobyl survivors. Ever since, I have felt connected to this place where the people accepted me into their daily lives. And so I began to return to Ukraine every year for the past 20 years to document the country’s recent history and its people, who have decided to stand up against what has typically been decided for them by outside forces.

My project traces communities in several photo series pieced together over time like a puzzle, leading up to our current moment. From the 2004 popular protest movement called the Orange Revolution to the people’s 2014 Maidan Revolution — and now resistance to the Russian invasion starting in February — Ukrainians have been rising up to fight for their freedom. In the escalation of this long-term conflict, I have been able to document the changing Ukrainian society as it continues to move toward democracy.

Although the Russian onslaught was a horrible shock to me, this war began long before that: Between 2013 and 2020, more than 13,000 people died, mainly in the Donbas region in the East. This is why I kept going back to Ukraine all these years, to photograph this forgotten war and its impact on the daily lives of Ukrainians, to provide context and preserve their stories. In less than 24 hours in February, we saw an influx of images of mass destruction inflicted on the Ukrainian people, and yet their perseverance never wavers.

A man in Kyiv’s Independence Square in February 2014, after the government’s deadly crackdown on demonstrators who supported a move to join the European Union. A bomb disposal squad from the self-declared, pro-Russia Donetsk People’s Republic detonates shells on a battlefield on the outskirts of Debaltseve in the Donbas region in March 2015. Anti-riot forces use weapons against the masses in pro-E.U. demonstrations in Kyiv in January 2014. Fortifications in November 2021 in Shyrokyne, Ukraine, on the Sea of Azov. Yulia Tichévskaïa, who was hit by a bullet in November 2019 a few hundred yards from where the Ukrainian army has taken position. Married Ukrainian soldiers Yulia and Alex, who were stationed between Popasna and Pervomaisk in February 2017. Barricades set up by the demonstrators in Kyiv in January 2014. A soldier hanging a Ukrainian flag at the entrance of the town of Zaitseve, Ukraine, in November 2019. A destroyed statue of Lenin in Kotovsk (now Podilsk) in the Odessa region in December 2013. Miners in the Donbas region in December 2004. A Ukrainian soldier in the village of Zaitseve in November 2021. The village was cut in two: one part in Ukraine and the other controlled by pro-Russian separatist forces. The front line of the Ukrainian army in the town of Avdiivka in the Donbas region in November 2021. (Guillaume Herbaut / Agence VU/Guillaume Herbaut / Agence VU) Vassili Kissilov in Kodema in the Donbas region in November 2019. Kissilov was a tractor driver who was severely injured when his tractor hit an anti-tank mine in April 2015. The field was mined by the Ukrainian army to protect itself from pro-Russia forces.

An Unbearable Price

After a city’s liberation from the Russians, families claim and bury their dead

Text and photographs by Salwan Georges

After Russian forces failed to capture the southern city of Mykolaiv, the Ukrainian military pushed them from the city’s outskirts. Many surrounding villages and towns saw heavy fighting. Recently, the Ukrainian army liberated some that the Russians had occupied.

Mykolaiv is a success story for the Ukrainians, but the heavy price of fighting the invasion is hard to miss. At the city’s morgue, Inna and Alexiy embraced as they waited to pick up the body of their son Pavel. He was a Ukrainian staff sergeant who was killed in the fighting on March 14. His parents planned to take his body in their small van and bury him at their village north of Odessa.

At a city cemetery, the family of Roman Osadchiuk, a Ukrainian senior soldier, gathered for the burial service. They told me that Roman joined the Ukrainian military in 2014. This past January, he retired — but quickly joined the battle against the invaders on the first day of the war. He was also killed in the Mykolaiv region by the Russian army. He was 27.

Ukrainian service members with a damaged Russian rocket launcher. People work on an electric line in the Mykolaiv region. Inna and Alexiy, whose son Pavel, a Ukrainian staff sergeant, was killed in March. The aftermath of Russian bombs in Bashtanka. Volodymir, who lives in the village of Khrystoforivka, which had been occupied by Russians until Ukrainian troops drove them out. A room in Volodymir’s house. Lida Pozihaylo, Volodymir’s wife, outside the house with one of her cats. A bomb-damaged residential street in Bashtanka.

The Desperate Exodus

Ten hours on a train full of refugees headed toward Poland — and the unknown

Text and photographs by Peter Turnley

I venture to say that no one reading this has ever taken a train ride like the one that thousands of Ukrainians, nearly all of them women and children, made the night of March 11 to the border of Ukraine with Poland — and I hope to God that you never will.

I boarded at 4 p.m., and in the small train car there were hundreds of Ukrainians, every seat taken, with children sitting on their mothers’ laps. People stood, sat on the floor and crowded into every available inch. I stood for most of the next 10 hours as our train went from Lviv, Ukraine, to Przemysl, Poland. I will never be the same again after this, one of the most incredible human experiences in my more than four decades as a photojournalist in many war zones around the world.

As the train pulled slowly out of the station, tears began to flow in the eyes of most of the passengers, and people frantically made last-minute phone calls to loved ones — with a sense this might be their last call. People peered out windows to catch the final glimpses of a homeland they might never see again.

Margarit, a woman from Bucha, stood next to me. Bucha is near Kyiv and its civilian population has been badly shelled — and subjected to Russian atrocities. She showed me a photograph of her destroyed home. Her husband has stayed behind, as all men between 18 and 60 must do. I asked Margarit where she was going, and she lifted her hands up in the air and said, “I don’t know — Europe?”

She then said to me, “Everybody on this train don’t have a plan.” Her grammar may not have been perfect, but what she meant was painfully clear.

Most people on the train carried only small bags. I asked myself: How will they make it? Do they have credit cards, money, clothes to wear?

An elderly man on the train, Antoniusz, stood with a cane and explained to the only other journalist in this car — Andrew, a reporter from Poland — that he had neurological problems and had trouble keeping one of his eyes open. I often spoke to Antoniusz with Andrew translating, as they both spoke Polish.

A woman aboard a train in Lviv. A Ukrainian woman, with only a small bag and her cane, walks along the platform at the Lviv station. Refugees rest after crossing the border near the village of Medyka, Poland. A Ukrainian border guard stands watch on the platform at the Lviv station. A woman comforts a young child during the journey. Displaced Ukrainians arrive in Lviv by train from points south, north and east.

As the train rolled toward Poland, with the passage of hours, I eventually sat on the floor. I could feel a transition in the way that the passengers looked at me: from a journalist with a camera around his neck to gradually becoming part of the collective discomfort of this exodus. But I knew, of course, as I imagine they did, that my destiny was different.

Often during this ride I looked into the eyes of elderly women. I could not bear to imagine leaving behind decades of life, home, family, country, without any certainty of how they would live even the following day.

As we finally arrived at the Polish border town, Antoniusz began to sing in Ukrainian with a soulful, penetrating, poetic voice and sound, teetering on one foot, and he began to cry. He explained through Andrew that he was so tired, and that back in Ukraine he had family who knew he was an invalid, and he didn’t know how he would make it going forward.

The Polish border guards allowed each car of the train to disembark one at a time. Our car was last, and we stood for two hours waiting. I wished everyone around me good luck in Ukrainian, but my words felt like they had no meaning. When the guards finally opened our door, I descended and looked back to see Antoniusz being lifted into a wheelchair by the guards.

The next morning I recounted parts of this journey to my brother and another journalist staying in the same hotel I was. As I spoke, I told them how guilty I felt that I could walk away from this moment and journey. And without warning, I began to sob.

Shortly later, I received an email from Andrew, telling me that he had found out that Margarit was heading to Dresden in Germany, and that he had no news of Antoniusz. I remembered our last words on the train. As I said goodbye to him, he looked at me and said, “Victory always.”

Antoniusz, one of thousands of Ukrainians on the 10-hour train ride from Lviv to Przemysl. Passengers aboard the train. Workers help a woman from a wheelchair onto the train in Lviv. Travelers warm their hands by a fire outside the Lviv station. While countless Ukrainians have fled the country, many, like this young woman, have boarded trains to return to Ukraine from Poland, presumably to be with and look after family. A crowded train car.

Credits

Guillaume Herbaut and Peter Turnley are photojournalists based in Paris. Salwan Georges is a Washington Post staff photographer.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks and Chloe Coleman. Design by Clare Ramirez.