In our recent blog, “Allan Mestel, Documentary Photographer – At the Borders of Humanity,” we shared some of Allan’s experiences at the Medyka border crossing between Ukraine and Poland – the shock and despair that he witnessed and documented, but also the compassion of the Polish people and international volunteers, and the spontaneous, grassroots coordination of aid and relief.
Those 10 days in March continued to have such an emotional hold over him that, in his own words, “I wanted to go back from the moment I landed back in the US.” The opportunity came in July, when Allan was able to piggyback on the Renegade Relief Runners’ humanitarian aid mission. In this blog, we share Allan’s story of his second journey to Ukraine as he reflects on the destruction that he witnessed first hand, the resilient Ukrainians who have inspired him, and the beautiful Ukrainian countryside that he traveled during his journey.
“This trip felt different.”
Renegade Relief Runners, based in Krakow, is a team of multinational humanitarian aid workers dedicated to bringing critical aid to the most needy and underrepresented communities deep in Ukraine. Allan first traveled to Warsaw, Poland, where he rented a car and drove to Krakow. That’s where he met up with the Renegade Relief Runners, which included Polish people and Americans. They took a bus across the border to Lviv. Allan then separated from the group after they helped him connect with two Ukrainians who served as guides/translators during different legs of his journey. Allan spent almost three weeks driving a sort of circuit of the country, which included stops in Vinnytsia, Odessa, Serhiivka, Kyiv, Bucha and Irpen.
Allan describes how this trip felt different than the first because of how rapidly the situation had developed in Ukraine. He says, “There was certainly more fear involved because I didn’t know what I was going to find in the country. The assault against Kyiv failed, but the south and the east were still areas with a shooting war where people were dying by the thousands.” Allan recalls, “There were sandbags and tank traps everywhere placed at the side of the roadways. They were ready to be dragged across the road at any time in order to slow down a military advance.”
There was a clear sense of readiness throughout the country – a feeling that anything could happen at any point. There was a strictly enforced curfew in the cities, as well as rigorous military checkpoints every 25-30 km. The whole country was firmly on a war footing, and the sound of air raid sirens had become the norm. Allan says, “This was July, so people were used to them [sirens]. When I checked into a hotel in Lviv, the first thing I was told was the location of the hotel’s shelter across the street and to go there if there was a real alert.”
Allan explained that there is nowhere in Ukraine that is completely safe. He reflects on his travels to Vinnytsia and a photograph that he took of an old aircraft monument for the Ukrainian air force located in a park in the center of the city. Just days after he left Vinnystia, the entire area was obliterated by cruise missiles. He saw photographs online of the exact spot where he photographed that monument – it is now gone.
A Brutal Strike, With No Pretense
After Vinnytsia, Allan drove to Odessa and that’s where he met Alya Cheban, his first guide and translator. Together they headed south to the coastal town of Serhiivka. Allan arrived on the very day of a brutal and devastating missile strike. As Amnesty International reported, in the early hours of July 1st, anti-ship missiles hit an apartment block and beach resort hotel, killing at least 21 civilians and injuring at least 35.
The aftermath of the attack on Serhiivka
Allan remembers hearing three huge blasts and a prolonged area alert siren when he was in the area at that time, while eating breakfast with his host, Alya. “In fact,” he says, “I have a videotape of myself at that breakfast, listening to that alert.” It was another shocking reminder that Russia is prepared to be utterly brutal and reckless in its attacks, and that nowhere in Ukraine is safe.
Amnesty International reported that the guided weapons used for the strike were designed for ship-to-ship combat and that their use in a populated area constitutes a war crime. The weapons were designed to destroy warships. As Allan puts it, “There was no pretense that they were attacking military targets.”
The level of indiscriminate destruction was excruciating – buildings, homes and lives had been quite literally blasted apart. There was report of one survivor who describes how she heard the explosions and ran into her sister’s apartment. She found her sister dead in her bed, and her nephew – who had been standing on the terrace – was “in shreds.”
Finding a Focal Point in a Sea of Devastation
Allan describes how he goes about trying to document such unthinkable destruction on such a staggering scale. He says, “Your camera cannot capture the totality of it. It’s beyond what you can see in any one frame.” His approach is to find “some detail, some little thing within the chaos that will personalize the image” to show that this was someone’s home, someone’s business, someone’s life.
One of his images focuses on a pink, smiling teddy bear in a pile of rubble, against the backdrop of the decimated apartment building. Another shows what remained of the daycare center in the hotel, unrecognizable apart from a dust-covered football in the foreground. An upturned pushchair, a carved wooden bed…all reminders that there is a human story, a life, a family behind every image. That there are real people and personal tragedies behind the statistics and the headlines.
– Andrii, Just a Super Kid
One of the people who also acted as a guide and interpreter for Allan for part of his second journey in Ukraine was a 19-year-old named Andrii. His father was serving on the front lines, which was another powerful and jolting reminder for Allan about the personal toll of war at the grassroots level.
He remembers being at a gas station just outside of Odessa when Andrii got a phone call from his father. He had finally managed to call his son after several weeks of no contact, and Andrii was clearly emotional about it. He was so happy to have had a few moments to speak to his father.
A few weeks after returning to the US, Allan learned that Andrii’s father had been killed. He says, “He was just a kid, really. He was just a super kid…19 years old, and he’s lost his father to the war.”
– Valia, the Storyteller
Allan had the opportunity to speak to many of the survivors of the Serhiivka missile attacks in a hospital about 20 km outside the city and there was one woman who particularly stood out in his memory.
Valia hadn’t been injured in the attack, but she had been rendered homeless. As Alya translated for him, Allan talked with Valia about her family and her life story. She was eager to talk, and very emotive, with big and expressive hand gestures. This made it very easy for Allan to photograph her in a way that really conveys something of her personality and her energy.
She got very emotional as she shared about her family’s experiences during WWII, and how her father had died in the war. Allan says, “You could tell she was just heartbroken that the beginning of her life and the end of her life were somehow mirroring each other.”
Afterwards, she hugged everybody and told Alya that she was so happy to have been able to tell her story. Clearly there had been something therapeutic, some level of healing, in the act of telling her story and having it heard by others.
– Alya, the Hometown Host
And Allan’s host and translator has an incredible story of her own. Having connected with her through the Renegade Relief Runners organization, Allan met Alya in Odessa and they drove together to Serhiivka.
He learned that she was originally from Serhiivka but had been working for an aid organization in Kharkiv. At 32 years old, she had abandoned any personal career ambition and just wanted to do whatever she could to help. Alya’s aunt still lived in Serhiivka, in the building next to the one that was destroyed in the strike. She had been at the window when the missile hit, so the window had blasted in and left her injured.
Allan couldn’t help being deeply impressed by Alya as he learned more about her on the drive from Odessa. He says, “You don’t know how much is the war and how much is just who she is, but she was so committed to trying to do what she could for the victims of this attack, and for her hometown.”
Apart from the tragic death toll, the injured, and the devastation to buildings and infrastructure, one of the biggest problems that Serhiivka now faces is that it is cut off from the rest of Ukraine. The access is a bridge over a river, and the Russians have destroyed that lifeline. The only way to get into the town now is to go through Moldova, where a temporary corridor has been opened up, but it’s a nightmare of queuing and border checkpoints. Many people who are able to leave Serhiivka have gone, but Alya is desperate to try and help to get some supplies to the people who are still there and is setting up a nonprofit to raise funds for her beloved hometown. Many of the survivors of the missile strikes were seriously injured and are still in need of medical support.
Allan has stayed in touch with Alya after returning home, and he talks about someday going back to the town to follow up with the people he met there. In the meantime, we’ll be sharing more information about Alya’s nonprofit and how you can help the people of Serhiivka in an upcoming blog post.
The Spirit of the Young
Many of those that Allan and Alya spoke to in the hospital in Serhiivka were young people who had been celebrating their graduation in a hotel when it was hit by the missile attack. They were lucky to survive, but many have been left with serious and life-altering injuries. Despite this, the youth, in particular, seemed to be in high spirits, and almost defiant in their hope and resilience.
As Allan puts it, “It wasn’t what they said. It was their energy, this positivity. I could tell that these kids were all going to survive this, you know? They weren’t broken by it. Despite the disfigurement, the injuries – they were in good spirits, their friends had come to visit them. They were laughing.”
He counts these as some of the most affecting experiences from his time in Ukraine, talking to the young people and soaking up their energy. There was no self-pity, and they seemed to Allan to embody the resilience and almost stubbornness of the Ukrainian people in the face of the Russian bully.
He says, “The resilience of the Ukrainian people – I can’t really describe it. It’s a bit of a stubbornness…living almost defiantly, you know?” The brutal and indiscriminate nature of this attack on defenseless civilians was undoubtedly an attempt to terrorize and demoralize the Ukrainian people but, Allan observed, it appears to have had the opposite effect.
As he describes it, “It’s a David and Goliath situation and they are rightfully proud of what they’re doing. There is an enormous sense of national pride.” He observed that the Ukrainian flag is everywhere you look – flying from buildings, spray painted on walls, and draped over the rubble of destruction. In Allan’s words, “They are not bowing down.”
Seeds of Beauty & Hope
And it wasn’t just the people he met that left their mark on Allan, epitomizing the beauty and spirit of Ukraine. As he traveled between towns and cities, he also drove past rural villages, luscious countryside, and rustic farm plots that gave him a glimpse into another facet of Ukraine’s rich character and culture. He describes, “these beautiful rolling hills, and these fields of grain and sunflowers that go on forever – all the way to the horizon. As far as you can see, left and right, it’s just a sea of fields. It’s stunning.”
Just like the young people that Allan encountered in the hospital, and captured so authentically in his photographs – in spite of the raging war, and in the face of Russia’s attempts at obliteration, these things endure: standing tall, defiant, and beautiful. And, thanks to Allan’s photography, the journalistic efforts of so many others, and the power of storytelling itself, the world has taken notice.