World

Inside occupied Ukraine: A photographer’s firsthand account

Editor’s note: The Washington Post is not naming the photographer who took these images during two Russian-led press tours to protect them as they continue covering the war in Ukraine. They recounted their experience to Post reporter Ruby Mellen.

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The call in July came on a Sunday. Pack your bags, they told me. You’re going to Russian-occupied Ukraine in two days.

As a Moscow-based photographer covering the war, I’d heard about these surreal press tours of Russian-seized Ukrainian towns run by the Defense Ministry. I knew these trips came with a healthy dose of Kremlin propaganda, but I was eager to photograph parts of the region few journalists could access. It was one of the only possibilities I had to see what life was like in places virtually cut off from the world.

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The first tour lasted three long days. Russian security forces escorted me and other media — a few Western journalists and many pro-Russian bloggers — from site to site. They kept the visits short and closely monitored the conversations we had with locals.

We slept in Donetsk, a city on the front line that has been controlled by Russia and Russian-backed separatists since 2014. Explosions punctuated the night. Donetsk is one of the only places in the occupied east with some infrastructure left.

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Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Russian backed separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR, walks toward the press in front of a World War II memorial on July 13.

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I had been there two weeks before the war started. It was quite empty then, but in July it felt like a ghost town. All the stores were closed. There were few cars on the street. A nearby factory had been shelled, and the city smelled like ammonia.

“Russia is here forever,” one billboard said.

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In the city center of Donetsk, a billboard reads “Russia is here forever,” on July 13.

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In other cities, where few people remained, the destruction was more apparent. We visited Lysychansk, which Russia seized in early July. Captured Ukrainian tanks and American javelin missiles were on display. The purpose of the show?

“To prove that Ukrainian fascists have killed civilians and destroyed infrastructure,” said Capt. Ivan Filiponenko of the Luhansk People’s Republic, a separatist government recognized by Moscow. “It’s also about reassuring the population by showing that this is all long over, that those who used these weapons against them have left.”

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But surrounding this display of victory was utter ruin. Lysychansk was at the center of heavy fighting for more than four months before it fell to Moscow on July 3.

Buildings were blackened and windowless. Residents — mostly elderly — lined up for food packages distributed by the Russian military.

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Soldiers from the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics stand in front of a captured Ukrainian tank on July 12.

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The destroyed city center of Lysychansk on July 12.

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Residents of Lysychansk stand in a line for food distributed by Russian soldiers on July 12.

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Photo for The Washington Post

I managed to sneak away from my military escorts. That’s when I met Anatoly, 31.

I asked him why he thought Russia came here.

“To liberate us,” he said.

“From whom?” I pressed.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” he replied cautiously. “Like you, we had a normal life before. It’s hard to look at the destruction.”

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Anatoly poses for a photo in the city center of Lysychansk on July 12.

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A shelled building in Severodonetsk.

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Soldiers in Severodonetsk stand in front of burned cars.

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A sign that says “Severodonetsk” was repainted from colors of the Ukrainian flag to colors of the Russian flag.

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In Mariupol, a port city brutally besieged and bombarded before falling to Russia, the smell of death was in the air. Houses were not accessible, we were told. There were still bodies inside.

The city was cut off from running water, electricity and gas. Interviews with residents could only be conducted in front of minders.

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A military uniform of a Ukrainian soldier remains on a street between Mariupol and Donetsk.

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Residents from Mariupol, a city cut off from water and electricity.

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Journalists talk to residents who came to see what was happening after a demining operation caused explosions.

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In Melitopol, a city captured early in the war, Russia-fication was well underway.

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Rubles had been in circulation for months, and about 20 Russian passports were being issued each day, officials said.

At these citizenship ceremonies, the Russian national anthem blared in the background as people recited excerpts from the Russian constitution. A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin hung above.

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The occupation administration of Melitopol where people come to get Russian passports.

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For some older people in the city, the Russian passports represented a return to a bygone era.

“Russia has come, and everything will be quiet as in Soviet times,” a woman named Valentina told me. “We have been waiting for this for a long time.” There is also a strong resistance movement in areas newly occupied by Russia. From Kherson to Melitopol, many are refusing to comply with Russian rule.

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Less than a month later, I returned for another tour. It was a nearly identical experience to my last visit. Trips like these are well rehearsed.

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People waiting outside to apply for a Russian passport on Aug. 11 in Melitopol.

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A Russian soldier outside of Melitopol on Aug. 11.

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But I saw glimpses of what had happened since mid-July.

Officials brought us to Olenivka, where a military strike on July 29 killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war. Both Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for the attack.

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Barracks of the destroyed Olenivka prison on July 29.

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Guards at the barracks of the Olenivka prison.

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Outside the prison in Olenivka where Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed in July.

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Photo for The Washington Post

They also took us to a movie theater.

Some spectators were dressed in military fatigues. Others were in civilian clothing. They had gathered to watch a Russian film called “Match” about one of history’s most infamous soccer games. In 1942, prisoners of war in Nazi-occupied Kyiv defeated a team of German soldiers despite orders to lose.

Ukraine banned the film in 2014 amid criticisms that it portrayed Ukrainians as Nazi sympathizers.

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The showing was an apt prop for the war that Putin is now waging. The Russian president has justified the invasion as an effort to “denazify” Ukraine.

But nothing inside the theater felt real. I had a sense that everyone had been brought there not for the movie, but to perform — for us.

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A group gathers to watch a Russian film called “Match,” on Aug. 9 in Luhansk.

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While the time there was too short, and free reporting wasn’t possible, it still gave me a glimpse into the back-to-the-future reality of Russian occupation: people standing in Soviet-style lines everywhere, waiting for food or water; infrastructure crumbling; civilians depending on occupiers; Russian colors painted over Ukrainian ones; hryvnia replaced with rubles. Here, time is ticking according to Moscow’s clocks.

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Credits

Editing by Chloe Coleman and Reem Akkad.