Young men practice gymnastics on a recent Sunday afternoon. Donetsk’s main sports center has repeatedly held international competitions and has produced many famous Ukrainian gymnasts. (Francesca Volpi)

Attendees view the kickboxing match at the Shakhtar Sports Center this month. (Francesca Volpi)

In the spring of 2014, after violence broke out between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, the Shakhtar Sports Center in the Donetsk area went on lockdown. It reopened only in January.

Photojournalist Francesca Volpi has been covering Ukraine for one year, spending much of her time in Donetsk, as well as in Kiev (site of the Maidan protests) and the Crimean Peninsula. And on one Sunday in March, Volpi ventured inside the Shakhtar Sports Center, where a kickboxing championship among boys and girls ages 10 to 15 was being held. The center had been closed for months amid the fighting, and its recent reopening signaled a small return to normalcy for residents.

“What struck me the most was how such an unstable situation affected the people living in Donetsk,” Volpi explained to In Sight. “The structure was intact and functioning, although it had been closed for many months because of the heavy fighting around the city.”

With a recent cease-fire agreement, the fighting has largely abated. Left in the wake are communities bearing the burden of rebuilding homes and lives on top of a devastated economy. Many banks have  shuttered, as have a number of businesses. And with many social benefit payments cut off, residents have been forced to line up for humanitarian support. The city has become a shell of its former self.

“We are used to drawing a picture of Donetsk as a bombed city with almost no people,” Volpi says, “but life here, in fact, continues. People make efforts and bravely struggle to carry on with their daily life. Some parts of the town are more hit by shelling than others. However, recently, also parts of downtown were hit. Various buses were hit by shelling at the bus stations, people were hit while in queue for humanitarian aid, and mortars fell within a few meters of the sport center, causing many dead.”

Volpi’s series on Ukrainian youths training in martial arts is a glimpse into the determination of residents to carry on with their lives.

“The loud sound of artillery coming from fighting around the city, mostly at the airport, is constant, and so is the possibility of being hit by a mortar no matter where you are in the town. These conditions made life in Donetsk seriously nerve-wracking for the local civilians. Somehow you need to break the tension, and I guess for these young boys and girls this physical activity is also a way to do it. I could feel a lot of energy, and this glimpse of normal life was a relief.”


A view of the inside of the Shakhtar Sports Center. (Francesca Volip)

A young Ukrainian gymnast practices on a recent Sunday afternoon. (Francesca Volpi)

A young gymnasts leaps toward a pile of padded mats at the Shakhtar Sports Center in Donetsk this month. (Francesca Volpi)

Two Ukrainian boys spar during a kickboxing match at the Shakhtar Sports Center. (Francescap Volpi)

An instructor tries to motivate a young kickboxer during a match. (Francesca Volpi)

Young boys wait their turn to take part in the championship. (Francesca Volpi)

The winner is announced. (Francesca Volpi)

The winner receives a bag of biscuits as reward. (Francesca Volpi)

A young kickboxer gets prepped for his match. (Francesca Volpi)

Young Ukrainian gymnasts during a break. (Francesca Volpi)