On The Western Front: Mobilization in the Ukrainian Conflict

In July, 2014 Burn Magazine asked me to take over their Instagram handle for a week and share images and stories from the month I spent reporting from Ukraine.  Below is the second of the two main pieces I produced for them, a glimpse into the mobilization of civilians to fight for the Ukrainian Army. 



Though you wouldn’t know it from what I’ve been posting here, I actually didn’t go to Ukraine to write about the men parked on the Maidan not fighting the pro-Russian separatists in the east–but about those who ARE fighting.  And while most of my journalist colleagues were suiting up in kevlar and shipping out to Donetsk to embed with the stoic boys sporting RPG-launchers, I hopped on a marshrutka and headed all the way west, to follow a different lead.

On April 11th, I got a panicked email from my best friend who lives in Chernigov. Her husband, who is from Lutsk, in western Ukraine, had received a phone call in the middle of the night, telling him to report to the nearby military base two days later.  Though he had already served his mandatory time in the army in 2007, he was being mobilized to help with the current situation. He called his twin brother with the news, and discovered that he too had gotten a call. 

I tried to reassure my friend that it must be a mistake: her husband had already served, was older than the draft age, and had a young family to support–surely it was just a mixup.  But it wasn’t. Within the next week, six more of our friends or acquaintances from the western part of the country got called up in the mobilization. 

Once I got to Ukraine, I headed west, to the small farming communities in the Volyn Oblast on the Belarusian boarder, to find out what was going on. 

It’s #throwbackThursday, and so I wanted to post a photo of my dear friend from a happier time together, two years ago, when we spent a summer digging in her family’s garden, swimming in the canals, and teaching her baby girl her first words.



We raced a summer thunderstorm out of Kyiv and rode six hours in a packed minibus to Rivne, to see my friend’s sister-in-law who is pregnant with her first child.

At church the next morning I sat in the hallway and talked to a young father of four who  participated in the local uprising in Rivne. “I was at a checkpoint out on the highway late at night in February,” he told me, “When a jeep with Lviv plates came through. I asked the driver where they were coming from. He said, ‘Kyiv.’ I shone a flashlight in the back and saw the most bizarre thing–a young man sitting up so stiff, with huge piles of blankets on either side of him. It took me a few seconds to realize–he was dead. He had been killed on Maidan. They were taking his body home.” He called his wife and told her he was leaving that night for Kyiv. Later, when I asked her how she felt about that, she said “I have never been more proud…even my kids understood the importance, the girls built  a town and barricades out of Legos and gave each other assignments to protect different spots. 'Here, you guard the house, and I’ll guard the church.’”

We left that night for the fields. My friend’s in-laws live in a two room farmhouse in a tiny hamlet 25 miles outside of Lutsk. It’s NatGeo country to the max: babushki in headscarves hauling water, young men cutting tall grasses w scythes. A horse cart came to collect us about halfway through the five-mile walk in from the road.

My friend’s mother-in-law said she'd  heard about my project, and could get me interviews with affected families in their hamlet, but we had work to do first.  She handed us work gloves, and we headed out to the potato field to get some weeding done.


“They said it’d be 10 days. He’s been gone 53.”

I was sitting in a wood-paneled meeting hall in the municipal building of Koval, in Western Ukraine, watching as more than 200 wives and mothers of men who had mobilized had it out in an open-mic shouting match with their local MP, Stepan Ivakhiv.  A well-built man in an elegantly cut suit, with an open face and slide-rule sharp part, Ivakhiv is a gasoline and dairy magnate who spun the oligarch wheel in the 1990s and came out on top.  He’s a man worth over $200 million dollars representing a region where it’s not uncommon to earn a salary of $200 a month.   

It was bold of him to agree to the meeting, and he was taking the verbal beating with more grace than I would have expected. He fielded questions from the stage, seated behind a great oak podium, with three other local officials and a member of the military, while the crowd teemed below him, jostling one another to get to the microphone. 

This much became clear, very quickly: several hundred men from Koval and the surrounding area had been called up in the mobilization.  They’d been told they’d serve for 10 days, preparing equipment in nearby Rivne, and be sent home. Then it was extended to 45 days, and families started losing touch with the men very suddenly—only to find out they’d been sent to Donetsk to fight.  For most, the 45 days had come and gone weeks before.  Military ‘salary’ was not being paid. Men were living in abhorrent conditions.  Ivakhiv had little by way of an answer for it. 

A young blonde with overlarge blue eyes and long acrylic nails got up: “He was in Donetsk for three weeks, and I didn’t hear a word. My little girl cried all night, ’tata! tata!’ [‘daddy’]. When I heard from him next, he said they’d only been given a liter of water to drink each day…it was over 30 degrees!” She burst into tears and begged for Ivakhiv to send her husband home. Ivakhiv looked genuinely pained, and at a complete loss. “I am so sorry,” was all he could manage. 

A heated argument about the mobilization takes place outside the municipal building in Koval, Ukraine, in June, 2014

A heated argument about the mobilization takes place outside the municipal building in Koval, Ukraine, in June, 2014

The women at the meeting were primarily poor, and relied on their husbands or sons to provide a substantial part of their livelihood. The hysteria was more anxiety than grief: nearly all the women attested to their loved one’s patriotism, his willingness to serve, but a prolonged absence could literally ruin a family.  Military salaries weren’t being paid, and though technically illegal, many employers were not holding jobs for those who had been called up. Many of the men who weren’t in the east fighting were left sitting on military bases nearby, going through training exercises or equipment checks, but not contributing directly to the cause. 

An older woman in a headscarf and a worn-out dress finally made her way to the microphone. With no weeping or histrionics, she told MP Ivakhiv that she lived in the fields outside of Koval with her two grandsons. They had both been mobilized. “Mr Ivakhiv,” she said, “they were called up in April, for just 10 days; but they haven’t come home yet. It happened so fast that they left before the fields were planted.” Her gaze remained fixed on the MP, though tears started to fall from her eyes. “We have six acres laying bare. It’s June. What will we eat in January?”


For $80 a month, Irina spends six days a week working at the tiny grocer that provides my friends’ hamlet with everything from toilet paper to chocolate to funeral wreaths. A mother of six with a broad smile and a chatty manner, she weighed out candy for me and told me about her oldest son, who had been called up in the mobilization. 

The men are required to furnish their own uniforms, and Irina’s family had pulled together their savings to buy her son’s, then took out a small loan to buy him a flak jacket.  "He kissed me and said, 'Mama, I’m going to go fight for you, to keep you and the family safe, to keep us free.’“

Freedom is a complicated thing–hard fought and messy, with unimaginable personal tragedies that get swallowed in the broader narrative. My father was shot in the head in Vietnam, fighting for something he didn’t believe in; both my grandfathers fought in WWII for something they did; my maternal ancestors walked nearly 1500 miles across the American plains in search of a place to practice their religion freely. We are all seeking freedom from something: oppression, addiction, loneliness, poverty, ignorance, disease, heartache, fear.  On this 4th of July holiday, it is my sincerest prayer that we all might find the freedom we seek. 


One of the most bizarre parts of reporting from a conflict zone is observing the ways in which life keeps moving despite everything else. People go to work, to school. They have weddings and graduation ceremonies. They buy groceries as if it were a regular Tuesday because wars or revolutions don’t exempt you from needing milk and eggs. 

Coming back to Kyiv, I felt that keenly. I had grown so wrapped up in the stories of the people I was interviewing out west that it almost felt like a betrayal to go out to eat with friends, to have a good time. Yet that’s exactly what is needed most in times like this. A little levity can be a powerful weapon against fear and despair. 

It’s the hardest part of modern life–compartmentalizing things so we don’t fall apart from information overload or trauma fatigue. I’m still learning how to cope with my own helplessness in the face of so much suffering. I realized all I can do is be there to witness, and the tell the story of what I saw to those who will listen… 

Six Moments from Maidan

In July 2014, Burn Magazine asked me to take over their Instagram handle for a week and share images and stories from the month I spent reporting from Ukraine.  Below is the first of the two main pieces I produced for them, about the state of the Maidan four months after the revolution. The piece captured six vignettes of the current life of the Maidan, each expressed in an individual post over the course of four days…It was a wonderful challenge thinking about a broader narrative in serial format.



Maidan Nizelezhnosti, or Independence Square, in the heart of Kyiv, was the rallying point for the EuroMaidan protests that led to the downfall of former president Viktor Yanukovich at the end of February. The protests brought together a broad cross section of Ukrainian society–students, businessmen, the intelligentsia, retirees, the working class–with the aims of bringing down a corrupt leadership, loosening ties with Russia, and looking westward, to Europe, for economic partnerships. Though most of the protesters resumed their daily lives after Yanukovich fell, several hundred remained on Maidan, constructing a tent city that, four months later, still consumes the square, and has remapped the landscape of central Kyiv. 

A young girl wearing a Vinok, a wreath of poppies that is part of traditional Ukrainian folk costume, explores the wreckage of the barricades and tent city on the Maidan in central Kyiv, while a dissenter in camouflage relaxes outside his tent.

A young girl wearing a Vinok, a wreath of poppies that is part of traditional Ukrainian folk costume, explores the wreckage of the barricades and tent city on the Maidan in central Kyiv, while a dissenter in camouflage relaxes outside his tent.

 It’s hard to describe how surreal the Maidan feels these days. I’ve spent a lot of time in Kyiv in the past five or six years. I lived in Moscow from 2008-2009, living and working with several Ukrainian colleagues who have become lifelong friends. Nearly every summer we convene in Kyiv or spend a few weeks in Crimea. But this year I didn’t pack a bridesmaid’s dress or swimsuit. 

Coming back into the center of Kyiv, to a place I’ve been a dozen times, walked and laughed and shot wedding photos of my friends, and to turn the corner and see the Maidan completely upended–it felt like walking onto a perfect movie set of an uprising. All the burned out buildings, all the piles of tires, all the men in camo with puffy eyes from having slept on the ground for six months (and starting on the first beer at 11 am every day), but nothing is happening. No one is moving. They’re just there, like extras waiting for a crowd scene, for someone to yell “Action!”

It’s become a tourist attraction, for locals and foreigners alike. Families take an evening walk through the square and pose stoically for snapshots with a tank, or a shrine to those who died in the protests. Souvenir stands have popped up hawking flower wreaths and anti-Putin trucker hats. Donations boxes sit next to each tent and the men hustle you for a few hryvnya if you point your camera their way.


“I woke up two days later—in the morgue…”

I was in tent #12 on the Maidan, celebrating someone’s birthday with gristly pork kebabs, a handle of vodka, a dozen pickled odds and ends, and a group of men in their fifties who only referred to themselves with their noms de guerre from their time serving in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan—“Odessa,” “Viper,” “BlackAss.”  They were swapping stories, trying to impress me. (It’s one of the trickiest parts of being a young woman journalist working in tough areas—my gender, age, and looks often play a part in how or whether I can get access to something; but occasionally they can jeopardize getting a straight story from a source—particularly men.) 

Tall tales and hyperbolic war stories trade like currency on the Maidan, and nothing can be independently verified, so I just sat back and listened. Soon one of the men who had been chain smoking in the corner stood up slowly and limped over to the table with the food.  I asked him what happened. “Oh! You didn’t hear it already?” one of the other men interjected, “This guy’s a legend.” 

“I got shot, twice, on the day of the Heavenly Hundred,” he said, flatly.  On February 20th, close to 100 people were killed by sniper fire coming from the rooftops of buildings surrounding the Maidan. It’s still unclear who the snipers were, but the death toll was staggering, and it shook the nation. The fallen are now referred to as the Heavenly Hundred. “You’re leaving out the best part,” his buddies said, egging him on. “C’mon, tell her!” 

“I woke up two days later,” he paused for effect and cracked a wry smile, “in the morgue.” His lung had collapsed and his breathing was so shallow, the people who pulled him from the barricade thought he was dead. When a family member came to identify a different body at the overstuffed morgue two days later, they noticed he was still breathing. A month later he left the hospital and came back to his tent on the Maidan with a new nom de guerre — “Lazarus." 


"They’re not the revolution–they’re the leftovers.”

Rostyk was rolling cigarettes on the coffee table, with another one bobbing up and down on his lip as he talked. Straight-faced and at times deadpan with a cossack haircut and a strong western Ukrainian accent, he came off as more of a pirate than a trained lawyer. I don’t think I ever saw him wearing a shirt. 

He shared the same sentiment nearly every Ukrainian I spoke with expressed: The people left in the tent city on the Maidan weren’t representatives of the revolution so many Ukrainians had sacrificed to take part in.  They were gangs, criminals, gypsies, bums. “They’re the leftovers,” Rostyk said. He had spent two weeks in jail during the EuroMaidan protests, and when he got out, had the Ukrainian Trident (which spells out the word ВОЛЯ, or freedom) tattooed on his back. 

I came to see this for myself.  I’d go inside the tents at all hours of the day and night and talk to people, about their day-to-days, their lives, their politics.  Everyone has a different opinion of why they’re there and what they want to achieve–all of the verve and unity of EuroMaidan had fizzled into factions.  Many of them arrived months after the revolution—they were just looking for something to do. And so this…this is what they’re doing.  They’re standing guard. Over a pile of mouldering shit, busted up pallets and tires and dirty mattresses, a stack of firewood, a square no one has yet made a move to reclaim, a litter of kittens born under the barricade.  


Not everyone on the Maidan upheld a facade of machismo hero-worship. Though I met Doctor Misha at the birthday party where I heard Lazarus’ story, he was a different breed. In a world of unwashed camo, his pressed khakis, starched collar, and slick 1990s-style wraparound sunglasses with purple lenses instantly read “outsider,” but it was more his demure, almost haunted demeanor that set him apart.  Yet he couldn’t walk 15 feet through the encampment without someone coming out to shake his hand. 

When the first clashes with police turned violent in January, he came to the square to organize a rough-shod field hospital, and started patching up broken bones and spritzing tear gas victims with liquid antacid to stop the burning.  Local pharmacies donated first aid stock; Facebook posts instructed people to show up at the square with as many lemons as they could carry to fight off the pepper spray. “I never thought it’d be gunshot wounds, though,” he told me quietly, off to the side of the celebration, in his soft, piercing voice. He was on the square during the sniper attacks, and saw most of the carnage firsthand, one body at a time being carried into the tent. “It was terrifying, it was heartbreaking, but it was inspiring, too…Doctors and nurses left their jobs and came to the square when the hospitals stopped admitting patients.  The diaspora sent supplies, medicine, money. So many more would have died, but people came together.”  He kissed my hand; he used my full name; he made me promise that when I wrote his story, I’d be sure to tell the diaspora thank you for him. 

Two members of the Right Sektor spar outside their tent on the Maidan in June, 2014

Two members of the Right Sektor spar outside their tent on the Maidan in June, 2014

All over the encampment on the Maidan, donation boxes sit perched outside of the tents, bearing hand-scratched signs. Most are asking for money for food, but a few honest ones read “For smokes” or “We need a drink.” Crowds of what I can only call war tourists have started flocking to the square, snapping photos and taking video, and the encampment has discovered a new brand of busking—sparring for money. 

The men are either comically inept at fighting (it’s no small wonder most of them didn’t want to head to Donetsk to fight actual combatants) or unsettlingly adroit at it, like the two men pictured here. Their fight unfolded at a breathtaking speed as they weaved and dodged and twisted in and out of one another’s grips. There was a striking intimacy and immediacy to it—the kind of urgent energy that comes with a close-contact conflict. It was hard not to draw an analogy with the struggle the whole country is embroiled in right now.

Their fight left me wondering where someone learns hand-to-hand combat like that, so I stuck around after it was all over and the crowd thinned out to ask. Turns out, I didn’t need to: the men settled down in plastic lawn chairs and cracked open tepid beers, their hands no longer moving fast enough to conceal tattoos covering their hands and fingers. I knew them at once–year markers and place markers, prison tattoos.  

A producer at Hromadske TV prepares for a live broadcast from their Kyiv studio in June, 2014

A producer at Hromadske TV prepares for a live broadcast from their Kyiv studio in June, 2014

“We thought, if the state doesn’t want to have public broadcasting, we can do it online.”

Though it had been in the works for months, Hromadske TV, the brainchild of a group of young Ukrainian journalists aiming to bring credibility back to the news, got a jumpstart on November 29, 2013, the first day of the EuroMaidan uprising. “We decided to launch that day,” co-founder Natalia Gumenyuk told me, “and once we started broadcasting, we never left the studio.”  They covered the protests with live streams from the square, and had a team of journalists on the ground working to fact-check news reports and rumors going viral on social media. Soon it had thousands of followers on YouTube, and crowd funding started trickling—then pouring—in.

In a country where almost all the broadcast news is either tabloid or propaganda, Hromadske stands out as an independent voice. Its studio is decidedly low-budget—an echoey black box with a simple banner and a row of Mac desktops manned by coffee-fueled young producers hustling around behind an anchor who’s reading the latest news from Slavyansk in a T-shirt and grandpa cardigan—but the reporting is solid, straightforward, and unadorned. It’s not uncommon to see interviews conducted on Skype or iPhone video footage from a field correspondent on Hromadske.  It can’t compete with the production value of national broadcasts, (Chanel 5 is funded by the new president, billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who announced that upon taking office, he would give up control of his eponymous candy empire—but maintain ownership of the TV station…) but it doesn’t need to. “If the reporting is good, people will forgive you for the quality of the broadcast,” Gumenyuk explained. “There are so many important things happening, and [our] urge is to make people know about it…it’s not your job, it’s your DUTY to report.”

Now, Hromadske (which literally means ‘public’) has become a part of the news vernacular of engaged citizens all over Ukraine. My friends in Kyiv watch it religiously, but so do their parents who live in small farming towns out west. A priest in Rivne encouraged people in his congregation to watch.  A woman selling me ice cream in a park noticed my press pass and told me she just found a reason to watch the news again: “Have you heard of Hromadske?”