by Maximilian Clarke
In the wake of February’s mass protests in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, which saw pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych chased from office, unrest flared up in the country’s east as pro-Russian activists occupied numerous government facilities in an attempt to break away from what they perceive to be an unrepresentative and illegitimate government in Kiev.
Hotel Ukraine, on Kiev’s iconic Maidan is shrouded in smoke as firefighters tackle burning barricades erected by protesters
Under the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR respectively), separatists hastily organised referendums in an attempt to legitimise their succession.
In early April (2014) unrest in the country’s Eastern Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts developed into an armed conflict after newly appointed president Petro Poroshenko denounced the separatists as terrorists and announced the start of the ongoing Anti-Terror Operation (ATO).
Ukrainian government forces, reinforced by dozens of volunteer batalions from across the Ukraine, attempted to drive out the separatists widely believed to be funded, armed and even trained by Russia.
By mid-summer pro-government forces had retaken large areas of Donetsk and encircled Lugansk, leading to a protracted and bloody siege that resulted in widespread damage to infrastructure as well as scores of civilian casualties.
Freelance photographer Maximilian Clarke travelled to the breakaway regions from July through to September in order to document the escalating conflict, as well as the civilian populations caught in the middle.
A child’s bedroom is gutted after the building suffered a direct hit from a howitzer shell in Donetsk’s Kievsky district. The family had vacated the apartment the previous day, though four were killed on nearby streets (23/08)
A body lies on the steps outside the city’s overflowing morgue (15/09)
Attempts by government forces to undermine areas under rebel control saw the widespread targeting economic assets and infrastructure, with mining towns in the coal-rich region especially targeted.
Thick black smoke, visible from across the city, billows from an oil refinery hit by Ukrainian rocket artillery on the outskirts of Donetsk (25/08)
Powerlines toppled by artillery, supposedly targeted by Ukrainian forces; South of Donetsk
Another target was the town of Morspine which was repeatedly struck by grad rocket artillery in early August, as well as by the heavier Uragan rocket system which can launch a 100kg warhead some 35km. The town’s mine was entirely gutted by fires that burned hot enough to melt the glass fronted administration building, and numerous residential buildings were also damaged or destroyed.
Maviikva, a coal mining town some 20km to the East of Donetsk that is effectively merged into a single conurbation, was also repeatedly targeted, again leading to widespread collateral damage.
13-year-old Janina recovers in a Makiivka hospital after suffering numerous shrapnel wounds, allegedly at the hands of Ukrainian government artillery
Above: Volunteers remove bodies of civilians killed by artillery on 19/08; A man stands over the body of his friend killed in the same strike
Below: civilians seek refuge in a bomb shelter after the area was struck by Ukrainian army mortars targeting a nearby DNR base (above) 26/08
Artillery from Ukrainian positions continued to target DNR positions in and around Donetsk on a daily basis whilst the separatists returned fire, with high levels of inaccuracy from both sides resulting in widespread collateral damage. Fires ignited by artillery raged daily, doused by a dedicated team of municipal firefighters who had stopped receiving a wage from the Ukrainian government early in the summer.
Following a string of victories in July that saw a significant reduction in the size of the rebel-held areas, Ukrainian forces were halted and eventually pushed back from the outskirts of Donetsk by the separatists, purportedly with the use of heavy military hardware newly acquired from Russia; claims Russia and the separatists deny.
The town of Olenivka, some 16km south of Donetsk, had been under Ukrainian control since early summer until a DNR offensive pushed south forcing Ukrainian Army to retreat on the 1st September.
On the town’s outskirts an encampment consisting of a series of trenched dugouts encircling a woodland where perhaps a platoon of men had been stationed, accompanied by 23mm autocannon and a T-72 tank, had been hastily abandoned by the Ukrainians who left behind live ammunition, rations and even a Ukrainian Army officer’s beret insignia.
A DNR soldier poses with a grenade by a Ukrainian truck hit by an artillery rocket the previous day, obliterating its driver, outside Olenivka
The conflict continued to escalate, with the bloodiest week in the conflict’s history claiming an estimated 300 lives on both sides, until a ceasefire beginning at 6pm on Friday 5th September, was brokered. Though outgoing artillery fired by DNR forces close to the centre of Donetsk could be heard on the stroke of 6pm, and daily breaches were recorded by both sides, the fragile truce did mark a temporary de-escalation in hostilities, allowing civilians to emerge from cellars and bombshelters.
However, the following Sunday (14th), the temporary quiet of the fragile ceasefire had been well and truly shattered when Donetsk’s Kievsky district came under protracted bombardment. The area, whilst predominately civilian, is home to concentrations of DNR including artillery batteries which could frequently be heard returning fire.
Eleven civilians purportedly died on the bloodiest day since the ceasefire, whilst an ambulance crew was injured by an errant mortar bomb. Fires raged throughout the day on Sunday, with firefighters having to douse infernos whilst periodically running for cover as yet more artillery rained down on the area.
Meanwhile, volleys of small arms fire reinforced by heavy machinegun and autocannon could be heard throughout the day as Ukrainian forces attempted to flush DNR fighters from their positions around the fiercely contested airport.
All images copyright to Maximilian Clarke