Two Ukrainian Families: One Fled, One Stayed

September 20, 2023 A tale of two families in photos. 16 photos

2024 Southern California Journalism Award: Second Place, Photo Essay (single topic), News/News Feature

This is Part of the "Fragments of Ukraine" Dig series
  • February 2022. The Mazur family in their two-bedroom flat days before the Russian invasion. It was small and musty, and their belongings meager. The walls were unpainted sheetrock that the kids used as their canvas. Work at the coal plant for the father, Igor, had become less consistent. The month prior, he earned less than $60. Like many other Ukrainians at the time, they felt that a Russian invasion was implausible.

  • February 2022. In 2014, when the Donbas war started and their neighborhood was being shelled, the family left for Kyiv, hoping for more stability. Job opportunities proved scant and the cost of living in the nation’s capital was untenable for them, so they returned. In 2015, during an artillery attack, a shell hit their apartment complex and killed seven people.

  • February 2022. To find some privacy and comfort in the apartment, Alona, the oldest of the children, would retreat beneath the kitchen table.  When I asked Eugenia, the mother, if they had a place to go if the air raid siren went off, she said no. The translator said that when it happens they huddle together but mostly they are just worried about surviving the day.

  • February 2022. The children eat and play in their bedroom.

  • February 2022. Outside the flat in Hirnyk. When the bombing became too much in April 2022, friends and relatives were able to cobble together enough money to be evacuated. Eugenia, through a translator, said: “We spent a few days in hell,” but they eventually made it to Poland. Ukrainian men 18-65 are required by the government to stay and fight and help with the war effort unless the family has three or more children. 

  • June 2023. The family is now living in Siedlce, Poland just outside of Warsaw. They have been there for over a year. The walls, once again, had become a canvas for the kids’ artwork. Igor is now working full-time at a mortar steel plant and Eugenia can only take small temporary jobs. The kids have been waiting for a year to be able to start school, but there is a long waitlist.

  • June 2023. “I cannot talk about the Russian invasion without cursing. My parents, my brother and my niece are being bombed daily,” Eugenia said tearfully. One of the children has developed a stutter and none “have been the same since we all experienced the bombing. I guess they are getting better, but they’re really not themselves.”

  • June 2023. Eugenia says that she’s happy that the kids can now run and play outside but that the entire family misses Ukraine and wants to return home as soon as they can.

  • Posad-Pokrovske is a village in ruins. This is the home of Nina and Vitya, two elderly retirees who did not leave when Russia invaded. Their home was hit by a mortar that destroyed almost everything they owned. They have no electricity, gas or functioning bathroom. Most of their clothes are piled high and rotting in what was once their kitchen. For water, they walk to a stream with plastic containers.

  • Nina and Vitya rely heavily on the Ukrainian military. During the months of fierce battles in the village, which sits roughly halfway between Mykolaiv and Kherson, Nina told us that the Ukrainian soldiers took care of them, and brought them food and water.

  • This gas station is at the end of Nina and Vitya’s street. There are few gas stations that survived a missile or a mortar hit along the highway between Mylolaiv and Kherson.

  • Nina shows us the interior of her destroyed home and through a translator, says that she has nowhere to go.

  • Vitya would not say much. He would mostly look at what was left of his possessions and shake his head in disbelief.

  • Nina and Vitya’s living room now also functions as their kitchen with a propane tank connected to a small portable stove.

  • The Ukrainian military often trains around Nina and Vitya’s property. Posad-Pokrovske is one of the cities in the Kherson region that Ukrainian President Zelensky has said he will dedicate resources to rebuild

  • The makeshift outdoor structure where Nina and Vitya often sit to escape the oppressive heat and musty smell inside the wreckage of their home.