Portrait Ukraine 2023

This is the latest blog from our Portrait Ukraine 2023 series, following the journey of photojournalists Allan Mestel and David Graham through Ukraine and providing a firsthand view of current events on the ground. Through the art of powerful portraiture and personal storytelling, they convey the profound impact of the war in Ukraine—revealing its devastating and harsh reality on individuals. Yet, amidst this, they also uncover inspirational stories of resilience, courage, hope, and the unwavering resolve and spirit of the Ukrainian people. Click here to get the backstory on the Portrait Ukraine 2023 project and to read more from this series.

Ukrainian Patriots and World Central Kitchen: A Lifeline for Those Who Choose to Stay

By David Graham
Day 8 Reporting from Ukraine

Yesterday, Allan Mestel and I found ourselves near the front lines in the battle of Bakhmut, Ukraine. We spent the night in a locally discovered apartment in Kramatorsk since there are no available hotels in the area, and very few markets and stores. Despite the old and damaged appearance of the apartment building, once we stepped inside, we discovered a large and clean space. It was Spartan, but each of us had a bed, access to power, running water, and a basic kitchen.

Early the next morning, we set out to meet our team. We joined a unit dedicated to providing essential supplies, such as food, water, and more, to the people who still call this place home. Many residents we spoke to had poignant reasons for staying—either it was the only place they knew a cherished home, or they were elderly and preferred to remain. Unfortunately, most of these people lacked food, running water, and power.

Living Amidst Constant Peril

These units and volunteers from The Ukrainian Patriot and World Central Kitchen non-profit organizations serve as their lifeline for necessities, essential for their survival. Throughout the day, we witnessed constant shelling and explosions, some distant, some uncomfortably close. Each blast momentarily disrupted conversations and tasks. It was evident that these civilians had grown accustomed to these disruptions, which was truly disheartening.

No one should have to endure such living conditions.

Community of Compassion

Every day, the residents gather at different locations to receive donated supplies from the Ukrainian government and various charitable and volunteer groups. We encountered compassionate individuals of all ages, both from Ukraine and from countries such as the US, Canada, France, Germany, Poland, the UK, and many more, volunteering their time and efforts to aid these people. Most of these volunteers do not receive any compensation; their motivation is a deep-seated desire to help, prompting them to board a plane and assist.

A Taste of Humanity Amidst A Brutal War

The hospitality of the unit and all the volunteers was heartwarming. Everyone welcomed interviews and photographs, though it was crucial not to reveal our locations in our visual content to ensure everyone’s safety. Following our return to one of the depots, our hosts kindly provided us with a box lunch, courtesy of World Food Kitchen. The quality of the food was truly excellent. In a combat zone, a good meal can make a world of difference both physically and emotionally. World Food Kitchen is performing heroic work across the country.

Witnessing the Brutality of War

After completing our assistance to the local residents, our team took us to locations of various rocket and drone attacks. The size and weight of the shrapnel from these attacks were eye-opening, emphasizing the immense damage they could inflict. After wrapping up our interviews and photos, we expressed our gratitude and bid farewell to our team.

A Glimpse of Tragedy on the Road

We then embarked on a journey, driving to the east, south, and east again, to other battle-affected areas, passing through stringent checkpoints along the way. During this lengthy drive, we unexpectedly encountered a funeral procession in a small village. Every car displayed flags, beautiful flowers adorned the streets, and a proper military and police escort accompanied the procession.

Mourning in a Small Village

People lined the streets in front of houses and markets, many on their knees, crying, and waving Ukrainian flags. The collective grief of the mourners was palpable as we passed by. While it was another somber event to conclude our evening, I felt fortunate to witness it and share the experience.

Facts about Ukrainian Patriot and World Central Kitchen

  • Ukrainian Patriot is a non-profit organization dedicated to offering humanitarian aid to the people of Ukraine. They tirelessly provide food, water, shelter, and medical care to those affected by the war. Please consider donating to support Ukrainian Patriot’s work on the front lines. Find more information about Ukrainian Patriot here: https://ukrainianpatriot.org/
  • World Central Kitchen is a non-profit organization that provides hot meals to those in need during crisis situations. They have operated in Ukraine since the war’s onset; as of June 2023, World Central Kitchen has provided more than 235 million meals in Ukraine and seven other countries where refugees fled in search of safety. Spotlight Ukraine is proud to support World Central Kitchen’s efforts in Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion. Read our blog article about World Central Kitchen. Please also consider donating to Spotlight Ukraine’s campaign to support World Central Kitchen.
World Central Kitchen Fundraising Campaign
Photos courtesy of Allan Mestel. Use of these images without prior written consent from Allan Mestel s strictly prohibited.