Portraits and stories of people who have experienced
the inferno of war
Taras Polataiko’s project War. 11 Portraits showed in August and September at the National Art Museum of Ukraine’s [NAMU] charity fundraising initiative to help wounded soldiers and museums who have suffered or been damaged within the Ukrainian ATO (Anti-Terrorism Operation) zone. And it continues to show internationally into the new year.
Over several days in early August, the artist spoke with patients in the surgical department of the Central Military Clinical Hospital in Kyiv who came there from the front with serious injuries. Polataiko had 11 photo-portraits made of these men – who had been in the inferno of war – and recorded their stories. They are diverse: 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 own experiences.
Voices of Ukraine transcribed and translated each of the 11 audio stories that are part of this exhibition from Ukrainian and Russian, so that they may be read in English. This exhibition, and the stories, will travel to other parts of Ukraine, the USA and Canada. See it if you’re nearby and support our troops!:
• Center for Contemporary Art, Odessa, Ukraine (Oct 22)
• Toronto Art Fair, Toronto, Canada (Oct 24)
• Ukrainian Institute of America, New York, USA (Oct 28)
• Chernivtsi Museum of Art, Chernivtsi, Ukraine (Nov 25)
• Barbara Edwards Contemporary, Calgary (Jan 16, 2015)
This is the 4th and final in our series on this work and concludes all 11 story excerpts. The previous photo-portraits, audios and stories can be found here:
• Vasyl’s story, and all 11 portraits, curatorial statement
• Oleh’s story
• Denis, Serhiy, Roman, Maksym, Dima, and Sasha’s stories
This is Serhiy’s story:
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?
This is Roman’s story:
Roman, land forces: We were sent to a checkpoint, and given one ten-person tent for thirty men
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.
This is Oleksandr’s story:
Oleksandr, ‘Joker’: We lack specialists, and young officers lack courage. They’ve taught them all the wrong stuff in their schools.
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…
National Art Museum of Ukraine, Exhibition view.
Lions never abandon their pride / Lion’s Help, the Facebook page for the fundraising project connected to this show. Please help to support these men and the Ukrainian army.