A Ukrainian Photographer Documents the Invasion in Kyiv

YouMaxim Dondyuk won’t forget the sound of mortars making loud, almost palpable, whirling as they drop. Maxim Dondyuk will never forget the pain of shrapnel in his arm or seeing the faces of children and women that he captured during the March 6 shelling close to Kyiv. He is hopeful that people will see his photographs and not forget about them. “I don’t stay here and do this because I am a masochist,” Dondyuk, who is Ukrainian, says by phone from the center of Kyiv. “I do it because sometimes a photo can change people, change societies.” With luck, he says, it might help stop a war.

Dondyuk, who was present in Kyiv when the war began in February, witnessed Russian forces rush to surround the city and drop bombs, fire artillery, while tanks moved from the north. The subway system was full of civilians who tried to escape or seek refuge in it. At the city’s main hospital for children, Dondyuk found the patients crowded into the basement while the doctors waited for the wounded to arrive.

First, there was an infant boy of 7 who had lost his parents and sisters. Emergency workers carried him into the ward and told the doctors that the family’s car had been riddled with bullets near the heart of the Ukrainian capital. Only one survivor was this boy. They said that they didn’t know the boy’s name because his papers were likely in the wreckage. The doctors registered him as “Unknown No. 1,” and performed emergency surgery.

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Pacing the ward outside the child’s room, Dondyuk found the head physician and asked for permission to photograph the boy. “I told him that the Russian people need to see this,” Dondyuk recalls. “When we show them the children killed by Russian bombs, they will imagine their own children. They are exactly the same as our children. The same goes for our cities. They’ll see them in us. They will feel it.” The doctors relented, and that night Dondyuk took a photo of the boy, whose name, reporters later learned, was Semyon. At the time, he was in critical condition. He died soon after.

This was the moment Dondyuk lost it all. He has documented many aspects of war between Russia, Ukraine over the last eight years. He witnessed and documented the conflict from all sides. The story of Dondyuk (38 years old) was personal but not more than the last few weeks. His mother fled the country as a refugee. His father still lives in the Russian military-occupied town. “My city, where I lived for years, is being destroyed,” Dondyuk says of Kyiv. “I’m not coming at this from afar. This is my suffering. This is my country.”

The second weekAccording to him, panic in the capital’s initial phases subsided because of the conflict. Checkpoints and trenchards appeared near playgrounds and schools in the residential areas as Ukrainians prepared to face Russian soldiers from every street. Many people fled, but many others stayed to help, transforming the city into a wartime metropolis—far emptier, more somber, but full of purpose and resolve. People who were unable to volunteer for war spent time cooking and tending bonfires.

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The worst of the carnage has so far been confined to the city’s northern suburbs, which is where Dondyuk was wounded on March 6. Along with two photographers, he drove to Irpin in his car that morning. In an attempt to stop the Russian advance on Kyiv’s south, Ukrainian forces destroyed a bridge leading from this town. It was only small enough that one or two people could cross it.

The photographers saw two vans waiting near the bridge to transport civilians as they crossed. Many people who crossed were old. Some had their children in strollers or pets. A small group of Ukrainian soldiers stood near. Dondyuk stopped taking photographs of the soldiers nearby when they heard the first mortar sound. The assault began, lasting approximately two hours. It targeted the only way civilians could flee Irpin.

As the bombing went on, the soldiers who were standing at the bridge collapsed. Dondyuk and two of his coworkers stayed on the scene to record the scenes, but he was only forced to retreat after one piece of shrapnel struck him in the shoulder. This ripped off a small piece of flesh. Hundreds of civilians were hurt or killed during the attack. They continued streaming over the bridge despite the fact that the bombs were dropping. “They could see the mortars ahead of them. They could see the bodies,” says Dondyuk. “But whatever they were running away from, it must have been worse.”

—With reporting by Nik Popli


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