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‘Here We Survive’: The Women of Ukraine’s Forgotten War

When photojournalists Ksenia Les and Lisa Hermes started a project on the war in Ukraine, they discovered that women’s voices were being silenced and their courage dismissed. In this photo essay, they share the everyday struggles of women on both sides of the conflict.

Written by Lisa Hermes, Ksenia Les Published on Read time Approx. 10 minutes
Ukraine war opener
Lena holding empty bullet shells she collected from her garden. Her family's new home in Slavyansk was destroyed by the Ukrainian bombs meant for the pro-Russia separatists living next door.Ksenia Les and Lisa Hermes

When Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) signed the Minsk Protocol in September 2014, it was supposed to stop the fighting in east Ukraine that had begun five months earlier. And yet, despite the official cease-fire, the conflict in the Donbass region between the Ukraine army and Russian-backed separatists rages on.

Almost every week, people die in the battles that regularly flare up, mostly unnoticed by the rest of the world. The country’s economic situation continues to worsen, and people are still being forced to flee their homes.

Photojournalists Ksenia Les and Lisa Hermes set out to document the impact the conflict is having on the people for whom war has become part of everyday life – and they discovered that the women’s perspective was being sidelined. Women were being cut out of public discourse and relegated to the home; courage, strength and heroism were seen as attributes reserved only for men.

Les and Hermes embarked on a project to collect and share the stories of the women in east Ukraine, which we have excerpted here. They visited soldiers’ mothers and female fighters, housewives and activists, all living in Ukrainian territory close to the conflict zone. Some of the women they met support the Ukrainian side, others stand with the Russians. But all of them are part of the invisible front line in Europe’s forgotten war.

Lilya

“Donbass won’t be conquered. Our people stood up and said we won’t allow the Kiev junta to suppress us. Why should I quit speaking Russian, my mother tongue? For that reason alone I could tear out their jaws. If I didn’t have a son, I would be fighting already among the militias for my Donbass.” (Ksenia Les and Lisa Hermes)

Lilya, 38, was living in the village of Spartak, near Donetsk airport, when the fighting started in April 2014. She fled with her son to live with her girlfriend in Odessa. A few weeks later, she was diagnosed with stage 2 uterine cancer. Lilya, who works as a cleaning lady, needs to undergo a series of chemotherapy treatments, at the cost of 10,000 hryvnia (around $380) per treatment. But she only gets 3,000 hryvnia (approx. $110) every month for disability pay. As Ukraine has become mired in war, the government has cut social expenditure such as welfare payments, education and healthcare to free up funds for things like public debt service and military spending.

Tanya

“I didn’t know how to cope with my husband’s death. I started baking cakes like mad, but it didn’t help. When I heard from a friend that he joined a volunteer battalion to fight against the separatists, I finally knew what to do.” (Ksenia Les and Lisa Hermes)

Tanya’s husband, Andrey, was shot in the war when their son was only a year old. In 2014, she and her family were evacuated from Luhansk, which is now part of the territory occupied by the separatists. Now Tanya, 30, lives in Dnipro and volunteers for the Ukraine army, organizing and bringing provisions to the volunteer battalions at the front line. Her mother stayed behind. “My mom can’t bear to leave our family flat. She is afraid to go out on the streets: If the information about me being a volunteer for the Ukrainian army comes out, she won’t be safe anymore,” Tanya says. “Now that I’m on the official death list of the separatists, the risk is even higher.”

Lena

“It is three months now that my son Roma passed away. After Roma’s death, all my pity for the other side has gone.” (Ksenia Les and Lisa Hermes)

Lena’s son, a soldier for the Ukraine army, was shot by a sniper near Mariupol in February. He was trying to save his comrade who had been shot in the stomach, but caught a bullet in the neck himself. He had just turned 20. Now Lena, who works in a nursing home as an elevator operator, clings even tighter to her daughter Oksana, 12. “She is the only hope and joy left for me,” Lena says.

According to the U.N., the war has already killed more than 10,000 people, among them around 2,800 civilians.

Oksana

“My dog always knows when I’m sad. He became my best friend.” (Ksenia Les and Lisa Hermes)

Oksana, Lena’s daughter, drew this picture for her mother on Mother’s Day. On the left, she drew her brother Roma as an angel and beneath him, her little dog. After Roma’s funeral, his friends bought a little puppy for Oksana.

Sveta

“One of the worst things in war for me used to be the thought that I wouldn’t be able to realize my dream and have a second child.” (Ksenia Les and Lisa Hermes)

In May 2014, Sveta, 42, escaped from Donetsk, on the separatist side, to Slavyansk, 90 miles (145km) away in Ukrainian territory, leaving behind her husband and 18-year-old son. “Then during [my husband’s] short visits, I got pregnant,” she says. “I knew it was going to be hard, but I kept the baby.” Sveta, who works as an estate agent, gets 800 hryvinia ($30) each month from the government to help care for her baby, but has to send most of it to her husband who lost his job. “So I must work and carry my six-month-old daughter with me all the time when I show a flat for rent to a client.”

Alla

“Our home in Makeevka was burned. Here we survive, not live.” (Ksenia Les and Lisa Hermes)

Alla, 55, her daughter Ljuba, 32, and her 14-year-old granddaughter Margarita live in a home for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). In a 13-square-meter- (15.5 square yard-) room, they cook, sleep, eat, wash, and Margarita does her homework. The space is so small, they have to use the bed as a table during the day. Around 66 percent of the adult IDPs forced out of their homes by the conflict in east Ukraine are women.

Irina

“Through this work, I can support my sons’ studies. Being a single mother, supporting them would be almost impossible if I didn’t have this job.” (Ksenia Les and Lisa Hermes)

Irina, 38, started working as a military paramedic in 2014, when the war started. She is one of the women who now make up 8.5 percent of the Ukrainian military. Her two sons, 19 and 21, are living with her mother. One reason she joined the army was the money, she says. “But it’s also great fun. In contrast to my marriage, I can now be self-determined and at least experience something.”

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