Five months after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, more than 10,000 Ukrainian deaths have been reported, and roughly 12 million people have fled their homes—a violent, chaotic, uncertain situation witnessed and captured by Bradenton photographer Allan Mestel during a recent trip.
In late February, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the regions in east Ukraine—the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic—as independent states, telling the world they were no longer part of Ukraine. Days later, he ordered troops into the two regions in what he said was an attempt to maintain peace.
Mestel visited the Polish border with Ukraine in early March to photograph the mass displacement and refugee crisis, then journeyed to southern Ukraine from July 1 to July 17. What stuck with him the most is the savagery of the Russian attacks and the resoluteness of Ukrainians.
“I've never seen the depth of this savagery and devastation," says Mestel. "Homes, apartment buildings, malls... everything. Nothing was spared."
"When I first went, the Russians were advancing on Kyiv. I stayed on the border and photographed the huge civilian exodus. This time, the war has changed. The Russians were pushed out of Kyiv," says Mestel. "We heard missiles and there were air raids every day, and they're under constant attack right now in the south."
"The indiscriminate nature of the assaults is clearly a strategy to demoralize [Ukrainians]," says Mestel. "But it's having the opposite effect. The savagery is creating so much hatred and rage toward the Russians. They may lose battles, and parts of Ukraine may be occupied, but it will never be a peaceful occupation."
According to Mestel, every few kilometers, you will find military checkpoints manned by Ukrainians. At night, there's a curfew and the country is locked down, and the beaches are lined with landmines to ward off a water invasion. Ukrainian flags and symbols cover the country in blue and yellow. The country's flag has two horizontal bands of yellow and blue—colors that represent the country’s blue skies and broad wheat fields.
According to the U.S. Department of State, total U.S. military assistance to Ukraine now amounts to more than $7.3 billion since Russia launched its invasion.
For now, "people are just surviving and helping each other and they're really short of resources," says Mestel. "Even in spots where it's not as bad. Everything is on hold until this is over."
Mestel's next mission is to keep a promise he made to his Ukrainian host and translator, Alya Cheban. He's is organizing an upcoming fundraising exhibition to benefit the victims he visited, along with the Renegade Relief Runners, a nonprofit that provides humanitarian aid to Ukrainians. Follow him here for updates.