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Posts Tagged ‘Ukraine

Sloviansk – Part 3: До свидания!

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As I prepare to head off from Sloviansk, I’m sorry to be leaving.  That might seem strange to some, but I’ve learnt a lot here and made some good friends.  Polina, her mother and father took the time to discuss the current situation here and what life is like for them on a daily basis.  These are the people we don’t hear about on the news.  Those trying to live in, or around a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine.   IMG_0915 copy

Although Sloviansk has many destroyed buildings, it’s parks and monuments still remain, and like many in Ukraine, are a gathering point for people in the evenings and weekends.

Whilst wandering around a park in the city, I spoke to Polina about which language she prefers to use, Russian or Ukrainian.  Like many people here, she can speak both, but prefers to speak Russian.  She also stressed how the most important thing for her is that she wants peace in her city.

Next stop: Kramatorsk..


Written by Dean O'Brien

November 23, 2017 at 7:44 pm

Posted in Ukraine

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Sloviansk – Part 2: Welcome..

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I knew within this city there were people who would want to tell me what life was like here.  Innocent people caught up in a conflict they never wanted.   On my first day I met 18 year old Polina who offered to show me around.  She speaks great English (much better than my Russian at least) and although she studies at university in Kharkiv, fortunately for me she was back home in Sloviansk for a few days.


As we wander the streets, I’m shown the sights and we visit what remains of the Koliba Restaurant destroyed in 2014 by heavy shelling.  Building after building line the roads marking a trail of devastation throughout the city.  It’s kind of hard to imagine what all this must have been like on the days when all this shelling actually took place.

Later, we head towards more residential, built-up areas and Polina invites me back to the apartment for tea that she shares with her mother.  It was here that I was shown damage caused by shells landing nearby to her apartment block back in 2014.

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One window remains broken, caused by shrapnel.  The cost is too much to repair, not to mention the fact that the war is still close by so there’s little point in starting to repair things just yet.  With winter just around the corner, it’s the last thing this family need.  The remaining windows now have tape placed across them, in the hope that this will stop them shattering and blowing shards of glass inwards, should another shell land within close proximity to their building.

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Living with the ‘not-knowing’ is the issue here.  Sloviansk is located just outside the ATO zone so although quiet, it is still considered a hot spot.

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These green gates, riddled with shrapnel from a rocket which landed nearby in 2014, mark the entrance to a local residents home.  I suppose they offer a short glimpse into what people here have to live with.  It doesn’t stop people going about their daily business though.  Buses run and kids go to school, but the huge military presence here is impossible to ignore.





Written by Dean O'Brien

November 6, 2017 at 7:47 pm

Posted in Ukraine

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Mariupol – My Work Continues

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Mariupol was worth the trip.  Worth the 18 hour train ride.  Worth the trolling many of my blog posts and tweets received.  It made me realise that many can’t handle the truth about the war and what is actually happening in the east of Ukraine.

I left it a little too late to apply for official accreditation to gain access to the ATO zone, although not having this brought it’s own rewards.  It steered me towards other individuals and organisations that I otherwise never would have met. And like the old saying goes ‘Sometimes even the wrong train takes you to the right station’.

It was an incredible experience meeting those on the edge of the conflict.  To talk about how it’s affecting them.  And best of all, being able to document this without any constraints.  The stories of families spilt between the government and non-government held territories were plenty and this is something I’d like to explore further.  That was a huge reason for me coming here.  I simply didn’t know what to believe and only by travelling here could I see for myself and document what life’s like here.

I used to think that to work in areas such this you’d be better working for a large media company or newspaper as I presumed they would carry some weight, open some doors, but I’ve soon come to realise that in places such as this it has the opposite affect.  Nobody here wants to talk to ‘official’ journalists or photographers.  They simply don’t trust them.  The idea that you work for any form of paymaster is a no-go.

There’s no doubt that being freelance gives you true freedom.  Nobody to control where you go, who you speak to, what questions you ask and what you post.  I’ll be back in the east of Ukraine shortly where my work will continue.


Written by Dean O'Brien

October 3, 2017 at 12:18 pm

Posted in Mariupol, Ukraine

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Mariupol – Final Meeting With Former UA Soldier (Part 3)

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Life here is a struggle for many, and for Sergei it’s no exception.  Since leaving the Ukrainian Army he’s worked at the local metal plant Metinvest. It’s hard work and long hours for very little pay.  Long term, he’s hoping to get a job on a merchant ship which will mean better money, but the downside is that it’ll mean being away from home for up to 6 months at time.

Strolling the streets we discuss the current political climate, Decommunisation, the conflict and everything in-between.  There’s nothing better than being on the ground and speaking to real people who live and breathe these issues.  That was the whole point of me travelling here.


Sergei’s not anti-Ukrainian but does see his loyalties more with Russia.  Being so close to Russia geographically this comes as no surprise.

I ask about his time in the Ukrainian army and he gladly shares with me a small number of images from his collection and a few stories.



He looks back fondly at his time in the army but he’s quick to mention that he’s glad that he’s not in there now.  ‘Lots of people lost respect for the government and army when they came here straight from Kiev. Look what happened on May 9th.  We all lived together in peace until they came. They started all this.  Now look’.  Like many, he still has genuine fears about being drafted back into the armed forces.

The battle on May 9th 2014 (Victory Day) left a number of fatalities and casualties.  This date on the calendar will always remain a tricky one for people in Mariupol breeding mixed emotions.  On one hand they’ll be celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany and on the other, they’ll be remembering those who died in 2014 at the hands of Ukrainian government forces.


Wandering the streets around the centre we grab a marshrutka to head to the outskirts of town.  We visit more Soviet monuments and accidentally come across what appears to be a Soviet museum.  It’s closed unfortunately but it gives me the opportunity to discuss the future of such places with Sergei.  Do they have a place in modern Ukraine or with the decommunisation rules in place, are they going to disappear in an attempt to re-write history?  Sergei said ‘I have a bad feeling about these new rules. The government I think will try to make it look like these things never happened.  But how can they do this?  My Grandfather died fighting in this war so it is only right that we know about this right?’     


As it’s my last evening in Mariupol Sergei invites me back to his apartment where his wife Yulia is cooking traditional food for us all.  We travel the remainder of the way on foot and en route to the apartment he tells me ‘Everyone who lives on this estate works at the metal plant.  They finish work, then come home and drink.  They they get up and go back to work again.  Then come home and drink again.  It’s a very bad way to live’.  ‘The cheapest things to buy here are alcohol and cigarettes.  What chance have people got?’


He’s got a point.  Things were tough in Ukraine before the conflict and long before the days of Big Vik.  The new government hasn’t brought about much of a change in my eyes.  It’s similar goods just packaged differently.  Ask anyone on the streets and they tell you the same thing.

As the evening draws to a close, Sergei calls me a taxi and I head back to my hotel.  People advised me not to go to Mariupol but it’s been an eye opening experience.  Great people living in hard times.  I didn’t know who I was going to meet or what I was going to find when I got there.  I just knew that I’d meet somebody.


Written by Dean O'Brien

August 8, 2017 at 9:20 pm

Posted in Mariupol, Ukraine

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Mariupol – Meeting With Former UA Soldier (Part 2)

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After my first meeting with Sergei, the following day we agreed to meet again.  And again I sank another few pints whilst I waited, as this was now becoming a regular routine.

We walk around Mariupol and discuss the current situation here.  There’s a lot of paranoia here and that’s probably the reason I took most of shots here with an iPhone.  A large camera draws lots of un-wanted attention from passing Police cars and anyone in uniform.  It also gives them an excuse to stop, question you and demand a bribe which seems to be de rigueur in former Soviet countries.  Old habits die hard.

Walking the streets, I never ask people now if I can take their picture anymore as you’ll only ever get one of two answers.  ‘Nyet’ or ‘Give me money’.  Things seem extra tense here though and even taking pictures with your phone causes people to slow down and watch what you’re doing.  We keep walking.

An abandoned building stands back from the main road displaying a huge banner ‘Mariupol is Ukraine’.  It seems a little overkill.  Sergei explained that since the referendum held here in May 2014 a huge emphasis has been placed on stressing to people that ‘Mariupol is Ukraine!’, although he adds ‘not everyone here agrees to this’.


The image below shows how a kiosk has covered up the Russian word ‘пресса’ and replaced it with the Ukrainian word ‘преса’.  This doesn’t please everybody, but it is becoming more common in Ukraine now and shows that there are deliberate attempts to start phasing out use of the Russian language.



As for the people here in Mariupol, I noticed that although many appear to be patriotic on the outside, they aren’t actually prepared to take up arms to participate and fight with the UA forces. You can only draw your own conclusions from that.



Written by Dean O'Brien

August 2, 2017 at 9:57 am

Posted in Mariupol, Ukraine, Uncategorized

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Mariupol – Soviet Monuments & Decommunisation

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The Decommunisation process in Ukraine is a tough one.  I personally love Soviet history and all it left behind.  So do many others.  For them it takes them back to a time before the oligarchs and greed that came with independence.  Not to mention the poverty, corruption, alcoholism, sex tourism and everything else.

Whilst wandering around taking some images I chat to a babushka sitting on a bench who asks what I’m doing.  We exchange small talk and I ask her how she feels about the decommunisation process.  She says ‘They took Lenin.  They are trying to get rid of our history.  Our past.  We fought against the nazi’s in the war and now they are coming again from Kiev’.  It showed me that some people in people in Mariupol see the Ukrainian army coming there as an invasion and make a comparison between that and World War II.

I recall seeing memorials to Soviet soldiers in villages that still look spotless and have fresh flowers laid at their feet.  This isn’t about politics.  It’s about remembering those who fought and died.  Showing some respect to those who gave their lives.  They left their villages, cities and towns never to return.

A tank sits high on a plinth on a typical Soviet apartment block estate in Mariupol.  People pass the time smoking, chatting and drinking.  A typical summer evening and you’d never guess that the conflict was so close.



Out of all the monuments, I’d say that the ‘MiG on a stick’ is a personal favourite of mine.  Always has been.  These fantastic machines mounted up high create such a powerful presence.  These aren’t only found in parks.  You’ll find them in the remotest of places, like just at the roadside in the middle of nowhere.


As is the norm, Lenin was torn down in the middle of the night by ‘persons unknown’ and has been ‘replaced’.  The remaining area around the monument is neglected and overgrown.


Soviet mosaics still remain on the side of buildings.  They crumble away with little or no chance of ever being restored.  Each tells a unique story.  They portray sport, leisure, science, space, history and so much more… These are beautiful works of art and it’s a shame to see them in this state.


IMG_5859Only time will tell how far the decommunisation process will actually go.  The tanks on plinths, MiG’s on sticks and similar monuments seem safe for now at least.  But only time will tell if these start to disappear also.

Written by Dean O'Brien

July 25, 2017 at 11:14 am

U.K Government Release Latest Travel Advice for Ukraine

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Well the FCO have released the latest travel advice for Ukraine and it makes for a rather interesting read.  Reading between the lines one could think this is the FCO firing a few warning shots (excuse the pun) at those of us who want to document both sides of this conflict.

With Ben Stimson being the first Brit to be jailed for travelling to (apparently) fight with the non-government forces in eastern Ukraine.  Those who know Ben have said he was in Donbass to drive an ambulance (not fight) but stitched up by the BBC when he agreed to be interviewed and was asked to hold a weapon during the filming of this.  Needless to say, this obviously did him no favours and he was jailed for just over 5 years.  The word naivety springs to mind.  Below Ben explains a bit more about this to Graham Phillips.

I’ll not take sides in this dispute, but make clear that I believe in free press.  Free press on all sides of this conflict.  As there are hardly any westerners covering the conflict in eastern Ukraine its hard to get a handle on what’s really happening there.  So we ‘do’ need them there reporting their findings, whatever that may be.

After the fiasco with Ben Stimson it’s clear to see that big organisations such as the BBC can’t be trusted.  Independent journalists, photographers and reporters being our only hope.  They answer to nobody and have more opportunity to tell it exactly it how it is.  They face the real danger of being injured (for little or no reward) and now the risk of being detained and questioned when they head back to the U.K.

If the British government are planning a campaign to silence those who wish to cover the ‘other side’ of the conflict then that’s worrying.  Very worrying.


Written by Dean O'Brien

July 23, 2017 at 10:39 pm

Posted in Ukraine

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