Project by Taras Polataiko
Portraits by Pavlo Terekhov
October 28, 2014 – November 12, 2014
Art at the Institute presented War. 11 Portraits, an exhibition
of portraits and stories of people who have experienced the inferno of war.
For several days in early August of 2014, Ukrainian Canadian artist Taras Polataiko talked with patients of the surgical department of the Central Military Clinical Hospital in Kyiv who came there from eastern Ukraine’s ATO (Anti-Terrorism Operation) front with serious injuries. Polataiko had photographer Pavlo Terekhov take 11 portraits, and recorded the stories of the people who have experienced the inferno of war. They are very different people: volunteers, mobilized and contract soldiers, veterans of the Afghanistan War. They belong to different generations and went to the war zone from different regions of Ukraine. They have different attitudes to war and their experiences. For some, it rushed into their regular course of life and broke their personal, comfortable world. For others it simply is hard work that must be done as well as possible. However, all of them admit that “life is valued quite differently” now, and the belief that “we are fighting for our land” helped them stand firm in the most difficult moments. Talking with the wounded soldiers isn’t easy. Most of their answers are short and specific. But their voices and facial expressions tell much more than the most detailed interview.
Says the artist: “The exhausting conflict in eastern Ukraine has been going on for over four months now. During all this time, our attention has been focused on the developments of war, which keep changing our attitude to life, our values and our inner self. War involves everyone in its orbit. Depriving us of a sense of a peaceful life, it leaves virtually no room for concentrated everyday work. Hope for the future rests on the shoulders of the heroes – such men as are the subject of this art project.”
War has subjected these men to its needs, levelled their pre-war personal experience, and confronted them with a cruel necessity to live on the edge of their mental and physical ability. Their heroism has no external attributes and is devoid of pathos. It is shown only by the monumentality of the photos, the uniformity of perspective, and the emotional restraint. At the same time, the gaze of each individual’s portrait directed at the camera, pulls the viewer into the field of individual experience. The artist is focusing on the inner strength as opposed to the physical losses, thus creating an intense dialogue and forcing us to look at those whom we are afraid to look in the eye. The project provides us with an opportunity to overcome our fear of war at a time when the media is bombarding us with war images daily. It gives us a chance to make our own choice of what to do: to remain an observer or act, help, share, and support.
“War. 11 Portraits” was shown at the Ukrainian Institute of America from October 28th through November 12th, 2014.
Taras Polataiko is represented by Barbara Edwards Contemporary, Toronto & Calgary, Canada and Douglas Udell Gallery, Vancouver, Edmonton, Canada.
He has exhibited at:
25th Sao Paulo Biennale of Contemporary Art (Brazil), VOLTA 5 (Basel, Switzerland), Incheon Biennial (South Korea), VideoZone, 5th Biennale of Video Art (Israel), Musee d’Art Contemporain de Montreal (Canada), Lombard-Freid Fine Arts, Priska C. Juschka Fine Art, Ukrainian Institute of America, Shroeder Romero Gallery, Sidney Mishkin Gallery (all New York), Künstlerhaus Schloß Balmoral, Galerie U7, Frankfurt (both Germany), Antoni Tapies Foundation (Barcelona, Spain), CAAM (Las Palmas, Spain), Artspace (Sydney, Australia), Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Sable-Castelli Gallery, Barbara Edwards Contemporary (all Toronto), Center for Contemporary Art (Warsaw, Poland), Soros International Center for Contemporary Art, National Art Museum of Ukraine (both Kyiv, Ukraine).
Taras Polataiko: How did you get to the war?
Vasyl: I was in the Ukrainian House [in Kyiv], went outside for a smoke, and saw a bus packing up to go. I’ve been planning to apply to the [Ukrainian] National Guard, but, being an Afghanistan veteran, I wanted to get into action right away. So I saw that bus, packed my bags in half an hour, and was in Luhansk the next morning.
You didn’t go to a training base?
I’m an Afghanistan vet, I don’t need training. Of course, once we were geared up, we had a few trial runs – to teach the young guys what to do, and to get to know our guns. As far as training goes, that was it. Combat, as they say, is the best practical training.
None of this was new to me. It didn’t take me long to get back into the groove.
How does this war compare to your experiences in Afghanistan? Is there a psychological difference?
In Aghanistan, we knew who and where the enemy was. But here… Who knows whether the next guy is friend or foe? Often, it was very difficult to tell the difference. Of course, once he raises his weapon, you know for sure. But if he’s hiding among the locals, go on, try and track him down…
The locals helped us, though. They would tell us – who, what, where. Local self-defense would get involved – pro-Ukrainian self-defense, I mean.
For example, in Starobilsk, people asked us to help them hang up the Ukrainian flag, instead of the Luhansk [People’s Republic] and the Communist party banners. They came and asked for our help. We didn’t interfere, but we watched over the situation. That happened in the first few days of us being there – May 8, just the beginning of this all.
So we stood there and watched. Some people, standing to the side, were wearing the ‘Colorado beetle’ [black and orange] ribbons. They took them down, quietly. Then the Ukrainian flag was hung up, and it’s there to this day.
Later, during [Presidential] elections, we were helping out as well. Stavropol Cossacks would attack voting stations and take ballot boxes from them. We tracked them down and put a stop to that. The next day, a local came up to us, wearing a Ukrainian style shirt and saying – god, I never thought I’d find myself dressing up like this. (laughs) Some people had a great change of heart.
Or, take Shchastya, for example. There was no police left there. In all our time there, we didn’t see a single policeman. So people would come to us, asking for help or assistance. Sometimes even for family trouble – like a drunk man beating his wife. Without any police around, we were the only ones people could turn to. So we would go and help set things right. Some of our guys were actually former policemen.
What is the first impression of someone who goes from normal life to a war?
For me, that was thirty years ago, in Afghanistan. We flew from Termez to Kabul, and got under fire as soon as we stepped off the plane. It was terrifying. Then they started bringing in the wounded.
You tell me, what’s the first impression of an 18-year-old boy, who got under fire on his first day, and had to load wounded people onto a plane? We were all scared. After a bit, we started finding our feet.
But those were the 80’s, there was plenty of patriotism in the air. People were in a certain frame of mind, with a kind of Soviet spirit – ‘if we don’t do this, then the Americans will get here.’ That sort of thing. The communist ideology worked very well at the time. We were proud of doing our international duty.
You are already a veteran. Did your experiences in the ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation] change you?
No, nothing changed for me. But I saw many young boys – and they did change.
Tell me about them?
One of them, twenty-two years old, also from the Aidar Battalion, was in the same hospital as me. What can I tell you about the young ones? We do our best to give them pointers. One of them said to me, ‘Uncle Vasya, I’ll be following you like a tail. Where you go, I do. Tell me everything.’ Right now, he’s alive, thank god. He was always by my side. Another boy, a bit older than him, did the same. He served before, but he had no combat experience.
We did our best to help the boys, to show them the ropes. We are very proud of them, of how patriotic and brave they are. All the best people are over there right now – the prime of Ukraine, no other word for it. Everyone among us was a volunteer. They weren’t drafted or sent there – they came freely. We didn’t have a single man from the reserve.
In tough situations, what keeps you alive? What helps you hold on when death is just around the corner?
The will to live, the basic fact that you want to survive. When you try to do everything you can to survive, there’s no room for thoughts about death. Sometimes, you get swept up by everything around you, and there’s no room left for fear. So they’re shooting at us – alright, we’ll shoot back at you!
So you don’t get scared?
There’s a saying that goes – only idiots don’t get scared. Everyone is afraid. Fear, like an enemy, can attack and then fall back. You catch the thrill, and all your thoughts are about your next move – which way to go, where to hide from the enemy fire. When you’re fighting, the fear is gone. But certainly, everyone gets scared. No man is without fear. And it’s more frightening to wait than to actually do things.
Do you have any family?
A wife and two kids. My son is 25 years old, the daughter is 31. I wasn’t afraid to go to war, knowing that they’re both adults and can take care of themselves. My daughter’s married, and my son is engaged. He’s waiting for me get out of the hospital – so he can finally have a wedding. (laughs)
What are going to do after the war?
Cleaning up, and putting things in order. First, we finish up there [in eastern Ukraine], and start cleaning up here [in Kyiv], because the place is a mess.
Oleh: My name’s Oleh, call sign Dnepr. I’m from the Donbas Battalion.
Taras Polataiko: How did you get into the ATO?
Oleh: I wanted to get there as early as possible. I was at Maidan, myself. The guys – there were ten more people from Kalush – asked me not to leave until the [Presidential] elections were over. We all felt there was a threat that something could happen [to disrupt the vote]. Once the elections were over, we decided to go.
People came to Maidan looking for volunteers to join the Donbas Battalion. They told us – if anyone wants to go and fight, come here on Monday at nine in the morning. I didn’t really care which battalion I was with – I just wanted to be in the ATO and fight separatists. I ended up in the Donbas battalion, and I’ve got no regrets about that. We have some great guys, and good commanders, too.
Was that your first time at war? What were your first impressions?
Yes, that was my first time. I took it pretty well. Soon after we got to Artemivsk, there was an attack, the very same night. It was a bit scary at first, but then we got used to it all. We didn’t even see who was shooting, just heard the direction it was coming from.
How long does it take to get used to that sort of thing?
For some, one day is all it takes. We always had to be at the ready. We were always going on different missions – taking back different sites from separatists, like factories and car parks. Soon, you come to realize that either you kill them, or they kill you. No third option. We knew that separatists don’t spare anyone, and it’s best not to get captured by them, because they’d rip you to shreds first, and then kill you anyway. So there’s no point in being taken alive.
Did your first impression of the war change you?
Maybe a little. I want to go back. I can’t do it yet, but I really want to go back to my guys. They’re amazing. After I was wounded, they carried me for almost three kilometers, under heavy fire. I don’t know how we even made it. There were maybe eight of them, being constantly fired at. They would set me down on the road, cover me up, return fire… They were incredible. I’m so grateful to them.
If I survive and get better, I must do more. My leg won’t let me do that yet, it’s pretty heavily wounded. I have three gunshot wounds, one 12.7 caliber and two 5.45. There’s about 8 cm of bone missing in my hip, and the bullets caused two serious fractures. The doctors are saying I’m going to be fine, but I’m healing slowly. I’m doing my best, though, I keep fighting. I want to get back on my feet as soon as possible, and live a full life. And I want to go back to my battalion.
Do you have any family?
Both parents and a brother. I also have a girlfriend, and a child, she’s eight years old. I was married once, but we’re separated now. My daughter doesn’t know what happened to me. Everyone else knows, but I’m not ready to tell her yet. She thinks I’m doing some work somewhere… I’ll tell her when the time is right.
Ok, thank you. Heroyam Slava! [Glory to the Heroes!]
Denys: My name is Denys, from Khmelnytskyi Oblast [region].
Taras Polataiko: How did you get to the ATO? Were you drafted?
No, I’m a contract soldier. I was already serving before the ATO. I was in reconnaissance.
Was it your first time in a real war?
Yes. (chuckles) We haven’t had wars before.
What were your first impressions? What is the honest impression of an average person ending up at war?
It’s difficult to explain. When you see your officers, missing half their head, or something along those lines… It’s difficult to explain such things. You want impressions? There definitely aren’t any good ones.
Did anything at the war change you personally?
After surviving, you begin to value your life differently.
Is it a change of priorities? Or just the appreciation for the fact that you survived?
All your needs in life become different. For a while, even going to have a wash was luxury for me, being bed-bound. I’m feeling a bit better now, but it was very difficult at the time. All in all, after experiencing such things, you find you really need very little in life.
When you end up in a frightening situation, between life and death, what helps you hold on?
Personally, when combat was happening, I wasn’t even thinking of anything. Over there, you can’t think. You just go ahead, and onward.
You were scared at first, weren’t you?
Who wasn’t? But an order is an order.
Are you scared all the time, or does it pass?
No, you gradually get used to it. It becomes a habit. But some fear remains. Everyone wants to live, after all. It’s the survival instinct.
How long have you been at war?
In the east, starting from the 8th of April. In the ATO area, since the 23rd [of April]. And a whole month in the most active combat area, between May 2nd and June 3rd. Then I got wounded. I spent a whole month at the Karachun [mountain], on different combat missions. There was constant shelling there, the bombings never stopped.
Do the locals support us [Ukraine]?
No. Over there, there was no support. When we arrived, a bridge near Sloviansk was blocked. [Russian] special ops were working in the city at the time. People were shouting ‘Russia!,’ calling us fascists, Banderites, and suchlike. ‘Get out of here!’ they told us. All they wanted was Russia. And now, once Sloviansk has been liberated, they’re shouting ‘Ukraine!.’ I don’t understand those people.
The result of propaganda, I guess?
Yes, people have been brainwashed. When we took the [TV and radio broadcasting] tower on the Karachun [mountain], there was no Ukrainian television at all. People were watching Russian television, and seeing things the way Russia wanted them to see.
What are you going to do after the war?
Getting treatment now, and then I’ll see.
Thank you very much. Glory to Ukraine!
Slava [Glory] to the heroes!
… [continues on] …
What kind of shortages are there?
We need thermal imagers and night vision devices. Personal medical aid kits, those are important too, because the only thing we have is a tourniquet and a first aid kit. As for the gear, myself, I had a bulletproof vest, grade four, and a Kevlar helmet.
Did you buy those yourself?
No, we were issued the gear. I’m from the 95th [separate aeromobile] brigade. We were issued with armor and helmets right away. We have been supplied with everything we needed when were heading out to the first combat mission. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have helmets or vests.
So the main things we need are thermal imagers, night vision devices, and medical kits. We had no problems with armaments, and we had equipment protection, like radio jammers, and mine dampeners. For example, if a bridge is rigged with mines, two such dampeners suppress the mines within a 300-500 meter radius, so the bridge would not blow. We had some of those, too.
As for other things… We had enough radios, eventually. Many different kinds, some Ukrainian-made, some imported. But many of those radios, the enemy could tap into. More expensive radios, costing 1,000 hrvynya [USD 80] or more, work through a satellite and are protected, so the channel can’t be tapped.
Were you issued with everything at the start?
Got some things at the start, and then more as I went on further missions, as needed. Got a uniform, a balaclava, a wind protection suit [for mountain terrain]. We were well-supplied, and people helped, too. Myself, I had no complaints about my gear.
What about medicines?
Medical kits, we need those. All we get is a tourniquet and a basic first aid kit. But to stop the blood properly, you need some medicine. Everyone has butriphenol for anesthetic, but the guys need more medical supplies. That’s what I know about the current needs, based on what I saw. But different units may need different things, of course.
Roman: We spent two weeks on a check point between Shchastya and Luhansk. Until our kitchen was set up, we were always short on food. Even after it was set up, during the last week, we didn’t have enough bread, and we were really craving fruit and vegetables.
Our position was held pretty well. I got wounded on the 8th of July. That’s all I’ve got, in brief.
Serhiy: My name is Serhiy Ovrazhko, I’m originally from Khmelnitsky Oblast, currently living in Boryspil, Kyiv oblast. I went to the ATO as a volunteer.
Taras Polataiko: Did you go there from Maidan?
I was at Maidan, back in the day. Then, after Maidan, I was doing a lot of work for Kyiv. Then I headed to the ATO as a volunteer. My call sign in the battalion was ‘Dynamite.’
How did you find out about volunteering? Was there a call for volunteers?
No calls or anything. My friends were going, and I went too. I wanted to volunteer for the 72nd [mechanized brigade], but my friends were going to Aidar, so I went with them.
Was this your first war?
What were your first impressions at the front line? Anything that particularly stuck in your mind?
Not really. I was morally prepared, so nothing shocked me. War is war.
Were you scared?
No. In my life, I’m not scared of anything. Fear is something I simply don’t understand. Survival instinct, yes. I have a very strong survival instinct, it’s like a sixth sense for me. But not fear. I’m never afraid.
Did your experiences in the war change you? Did your priorities change?
Somewhat, yes. You start treating different things as more important or secondary. Secondly, I knew that our country was at war, but after being there, I can see that we’re fighting two wars. The way things are going over there are beyond sense and reason. The army command is in complete disarray. Half of the higher-ups should be fired. More than fired – half the generals should be kicked out on their asses and stripped of their rank. They’re not fit for their ranks, and too many of their titles have been bought. This is something I could go on about.
When you end up in a life or death situation, what helps you hold on, in the most difficult moments?
The fact that we’re fighting for our own land. I want to live in an independent country, without some scum coming here and telling me what to do. I remember the words of my late friend about this. On our way to the ATO, we were passing Kharkiv, and the region once called Slobozhanshchyna [Sloboda Ukraine]. And my friend, from Volyn [western Ukraine] himself, he said, “This is a land you can give your soul for. Your very life and soul.” And this is the way this is going to be. We will not give away a single piece of our land.
Thank you. Slava [Glory] to Ukraine!
Maksym: At the time, we didn’t have enough bulletproof vests. We were also short on helmets, the good Kevlar kind. The rest was fine. That was back then. At this time, volunteers are helping, so I don’t think we’re short on anything right now.
Taras Polataiko: When was that?
Two months ago. I’ve been in the hospital since then.
Dima: First of all, the ATO is lacking supplies for individual medical aid. We also need more air drones for reconnaissance and target detection. We don’t have enough high-quality collimator [red dot] sights, they are expensive. Range finders, too. We need more protection, high-quality bulletproof vests and helmets, as well as good protection for armored vehicles. We also need anti-sniping devices.
Sasha: I heard from the guys that they’re lacking water and sleeping bags. Aside from that, they seem to have everything. The guys are very courageous, they will succeed.
Taras Polataiko: What is their situation like?
Their situation is one word – war. They sleep in the trenches.
Were you drafted to the ATO?
Yes, I was mobilized, on March 31st, nine years after I finished my compulsory service. I believe that all will be well.
Serhiy: There were supplies, but they weren’t for us, they were for officers.
What do we need? Well, we don’t have anything – no bulletproof vests, no helmets. The vests we had could be poked through with a knife. We’ve got nothing. The guys sleep on the floor all the time. We slept under the rain, too. If you’re waiting for the command to action, you sit neck-deep in the trench.
We don’t have any medicines, or anything. I got really bad food poisoning once, and there was nothing I could take. I went on duty some time around 2 am, then I got really dizzy, took a few steps, fell over and passed out. Woke up in the morning, still barely able to walk, threw up a lot, and that was the only way to recover. Like I said, no medicines at all. We need at least some basic stuff.
Sometimes, we spent whole weeks without food supplies. The deliveries wouldn’t come. Guys would go looking through green patches for anything to eat. Once, we found a bunch of grass snakes, skinned them and roasted them on the fire. They didn’t taste too bad.
Water was a problem, too. Sometimes, there would be no water for a few days. No way to wash ourselves, either. They need portable showers, or at least barrels of some sort, to fill with water and wash. We’ve got enough weapons, but we still need tents, because the guys are literally sleeping in the rain.
In short, they need any help they can get.
There were supplies, but they weren’t for us, they were for officers. They got food brought to them on trays, ate sweets, condensed milk, and stuff. (chuckles) And we just watched them. What more can I say?
Roman: Ever since we got to the Desna [military training center], we heard promises that we would all be fully equipped. Then we left for our base, a town in Luhansk oblast, and they said they’d equip us when we got there. When we got there, naturally, no one equipped us.
A moment that got stuck in my head, from when we were arriving. As we approached the base, we saw an air drone get shot down by a tracer fired from an APC. Two drones were flying around, and one of them was shot down. This was my first memory of getting to the base.
When we got to the base, one company was shipping out, right away. None of them had bulletproof vests. The rest of the guys in our battalion took off everything they had, vests and all, and gave it to that company. It was shipping out to help the 13th battalion.
Then we were sent to a checkpoint and given one ten-person tent, for thirty men. It’s been raining for four days. Everyone who arrived there was exhausted, and slept where they could. Some, under a tree, huddled in a raincoat. Some got a place in a tent. Some would sleep in a sleeping bag lying in an ankle-deep puddle of water. We were wet all the time, and there was no way to dry ourselves.
Taras Polataiko: Are there still not enough bulletproof vests?
Roman: At first, we weren’t issued any. Then, volunteers sent us vests, Kevlar helmets, and assault vests, too. These volunteers basically dressed and shoed our whole army, head to toe. We got some diesel generators, too. But at first, when we got to our checkpoint, we had nothing. We were waiting for night vision devices, and never got them. We were told that a car with supplies was sent for us, but the delivery never arrived. Any useful things sent to us tend to get misplaced at the base – sold off on the side, I guess. I don’t know who’s responsible for that, let our [military] prosecutor’s office find that out.
Then we moved to another checkpoint, guarding Grad [missile systems]. That was a strategic point, a high ground, and a large area to hold. We soon got reinforcements for that one. Spent maybe five days there, then went on to another checkpoint. That one was a transfer point, where a lot of military equipment was being brought. I haven’t seen so much hardware in my life. There were as many tanks as you’d see cars in Khreschatyk [central street in Kyiv].
What forces were you in? Have you served before?
I was in conscription service, back in 2003. Now I got mobilized, and served in land forces.
What are the biggest needs right now?
Over there? There isn’t enough water, or decent food. Now and again, volunteers would bring some food, grains and stuff. At other times, there’s tinned meat and fish in tomato sauce. You can easily get food poisoning from those. I did that once, and was bed-bound for a whole day. Couldn’t do anything except lie there and swallow pills till I got better.
What is the situation like with medical supplies?
There aren’t any at all. Most of us packed our medical kits ourselves, back in Kyiv, at the Desna [training base]. Medicines are very, very scarce.
Oleksandr: What we lack lacking is specialists, and our young officers lack courage. I can tell you what I’ve seen with my own eyes. When the 28th brigade arrived to support [my unit], the guys in it didn’t know what to do with a 242 cannon [Bushmaster M242, carried on board of APC]. They didn’t even know how to service it.
When young officers arrive, you can see they’ve taught them all the wrong stuff in their schools. There’s a war around, and he sits there saying, “No, I won’t shoot, because I don’t know the proper procedure for writing off ammo.” That, there is a disaster.
Our military manual is back from 1942-1943, and fighting according to it means – draw your swords, rush into the field, and crush the enemy by sheer force of number. But that doesn’t work in our case. We can’t fight by those rules anymore, and we don’t have the strength of numbers for that.
Taras Polataiko: Have you fought before?
Oleksandr: I was a contract soldier. Then, in 2001, when [Yuliya] Tymoshenko came to power, our salaries dropped down to zero, allowances were gone, and you were no longer on the list to get an apartment for your service. Had there been better conditions, I might’ve stayed on.
Were you an officer?
If I’d stayed, I might’ve gone for promotion. I have a higher education degree, so I had some prospects. But the state didn’t encourage that.
Were you mobilized this time?
Yes, mobilized on March 11th.
What kind of supplies does the army need right now?
The army needs everything. The uniforms they issue last a month, at most. They were kept in reserve warehouses, so they practically rotted, and they disintegrate after a month. All the guys had to buy their own uniforms. As for bulletproof vests, Korsar [M3] isn’t too bad. But consider this. To restart a human heart during CPR, the chest cavity must be bent 22 mm inwards. To stop a heart, you need 38 mm. Korsar, when struck with a 7.62 caliber round, bends 64 mm inwards. What can one say.
As far as everything else goes… We’ve got weapons, but our equipment has seen better days.
What are the most pressing needs?
Like I said – we need everything. But coordination between forces is a huge problem right now. Today, the 2nd battalion and the 72nd brigade de facto don’t exist, because they’ve been disbanded and thrown around. Some guys are sitting, surrounded, near Zelenopoillya, another part of the battalion, sits in the Donetsk airport…