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Photographing a year of war and resilience in Ukraine

In January 2022, a woman walks toward what was the only crossing between the rest of Ukraine and the northernmost occupied territory, manned by guards on both sides who check documents in Stanytsia Luhanska, in eastern Ukraine.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
In January 2022, a woman walks toward what was the only crossing between the rest of Ukraine and the northernmost occupied territory, manned by guards on both sides who check documents in Stanytsia Luhanska, in eastern Ukraine.

Last January, I visited Ukraine for the first time — before the Russian invasion — and I ended up spending over half of the year there. On numerous trips, I traveled back and forth across the country, covering thousands of miles and getting to know the place and the people. I've worked with incredible teams of local journalists, producers and drivers, photographing the effects of war.

This has given me the time to get to know not only how the war is being waged on the frontlines but how the current conflict has changed the lives of everyday Ukrainians in ways that are economic, cultural, environmental, psychological and personal. I've seen huge challenges for people and covered a lot of heartbreaking stories. But I've also experienced people overcoming those obstacles with resilience.

In the past year, I've seen how the conflict has affected lives in Ukraine and how quickly those effects have spilled over into the rest of the world. I photographed the sudden migration at the beginning of the war — the flood of people who left through Lviv and on to Poland — and I even later followed some to their new homes in Europe and the U.S. And I've photographed the slow return of others as areas have been liberated and as people have grown more accustomed to living in a conflict zone.

A girl looks out the window of a train leaving the station in Lviv for Poland after waving farewell to her father last March.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
A girl looks out the window of a train leaving the station in Lviv for Poland after waving farewell to her father last March.
Kids play in a temporary shelter in Poland after fleeing the war in Ukraine last February.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Kids play in a temporary shelter in Poland after fleeing the war in Ukraine last February.

I've worked on some really thoughtful stories with amazing NPR reporters, digging into issues involving the environment, education, labor, energy and global trade. The war has changed the lives of Ukrainians, but the strength and resilience that remains as people struggle through this experience has also been a constant part of the story.

When humans are at their worst, waging wars against each other, it's amazing how easy it is to also find humans at their very best at the same time. While covering this conflict, I've seen examples of both of these extremes. I spent days photographing the arduous work of Ukrainian crews exhuming hundreds of bodies from a mass grave site in Izium. And on other days, I was fed meals by shell-shocked grandmothers living in war-damaged apartment buildings who didn't have heat, but nonetheless wanted to share their generosity.

With experiences like these repeating themselves over and over, a year has passed and I'm still returning to Ukraine to keep following the story as it unfolds. And while I've seen the country and the people change from what it was when I first arrived, and I've seen a lot of dark things, I've also found beauty in the place and the people here. There are even moments of joy, as Ukrainians continue to live their lives despite the difficult circumstances.

Nadia Kuzhukhar, 27, fled Kyiv with her sister and 2-year-old son, Maksim. They temporarily sheltered in the Church of St. Lazarus in Lviv last March.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Nadia Kuzhukhar, 27, fled Kyiv with her sister and 2-year-old son, Maksim. They temporarily sheltered in the Church of St. Lazarus in Lviv last March.
Katerina Beliakova, 21, shows a photo she says she received from her father of her parents' home in the besieged coastal city of Mariupol in March.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Katerina Beliakova, 21, shows a photo she says she received from her father of her parents' home in the besieged coastal city of Mariupol in March.
Ukrainian journalist-turned-soldier Viktor Dudar's mother (center) grieves at his grave as he's laid to rest in Lviv last March.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Ukrainian journalist-turned-soldier Viktor Dudar's mother (center) grieves at his grave as he's laid to rest in Lviv last March.
Soldiers and priests walk into the Church of the Most Holy Apostles Peter and Paul on Tuesday in downtown Lviv carrying a cross and an image of Ivan Koverznev, a Ukrainian lieutenant who was killed by Russian forces in March.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Soldiers and priests walk into the Church of the Most Holy Apostles Peter and Paul on Tuesday in downtown Lviv carrying a cross and an image of Ivan Koverznev, a Ukrainian lieutenant who was killed by Russian forces in March.
Tags found on the body of a Russian soldier in Moshchun, a suburb of Kyiv, after the area was liberated in April.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Tags found on the body of a Russian soldier in Moshchun, a suburb of Kyiv, after the area was liberated in April.
A forensic team looks under the clothing of the Russian soldier to assess the cause of death in April.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
A forensic team looks under the clothing of the Russian soldier to assess the cause of death in April.
Pavlo Rebenko, a Ukrainian war crimes prosecutor, enters the rubble around a house to look at a human skeleton in Moshchun in April.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Pavlo Rebenko, a Ukrainian war crimes prosecutor, enters the rubble around a house to look at a human skeleton in Moshchun in April.
People ride scooters in Kyiv in April, looking at buildings that were damaged by a Russian missile strike the previous week.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
People ride scooters in Kyiv in April, looking at buildings that were damaged by a Russian missile strike the previous week.
Sandbags surround a statue on a spring day in Kyiv.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Sandbags surround a statue on a spring day in Kyiv.
Ukrainian Col. Roman Kostenko stands in a redbrick farmhouse with a gaping hole in one of the walls in May. This is where Kostenko taught soldiers how to set explosives.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Ukrainian Col. Roman Kostenko stands in a redbrick farmhouse with a gaping hole in one of the walls in May. This is where Kostenko taught soldiers how to set explosives.
<strong>Left:</strong> People get water to take home since the water is out in Mykolaiv in May. <strong>Right:</strong> Aid is collected and distributed from what was previously an arts space before the war began in Mykolaiv in May.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Left: People get water to take home since the water is out in Mykolaiv in May. Right: Aid is collected and distributed from what was previously an arts space before the war began in Mykolaiv in May.
Local volunteers share an afternoon meal after completing some work, like cleaning up sidewalks and tending to gardens in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi in May. Villages in southwest Ukraine are generally small and poor. Soviet monuments still decorate the parks. And the area is ethnically varied, with Bulgarian towns, Moldovan, Russian, Ukrainian and others.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Local volunteers share an afternoon meal after completing some work, like cleaning up sidewalks and tending to gardens in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi in May. Villages in southwest Ukraine are generally small and poor. Soviet monuments still decorate the parks. And the area is ethnically varied, with Bulgarian towns, Moldovan, Russian, Ukrainian and others.
Anna Mordiukova gave birth to her baby, Victoria, with a Russian doctor while her village was under occupation in the spring.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Anna Mordiukova gave birth to her baby, Victoria, with a Russian doctor while her village was under occupation in the spring.
Shelling struck a kindergarten in Kharkiv in August, injuring two educators, damaging classrooms and shattering windows.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Shelling struck a kindergarten in Kharkiv in August, injuring two educators, damaging classrooms and shattering windows.
Yana Tsyhanenko, the head of a kindergarten that was shelled in Kharkiv, stands in front of student lockers that contain personal belongings that were left behind before the war began.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Yana Tsyhanenko, the head of a kindergarten that was shelled in Kharkiv, stands in front of student lockers that contain personal belongings that were left behind before the war began.
At a small private school in Dnipro, one of just a handful of schools offering in-person classes in the city, a teacher leads new first-graders to the front of the room in a welcoming ceremony in September.<em></em>
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
At a small private school in Dnipro, one of just a handful of schools offering in-person classes in the city, a teacher leads new first-graders to the front of the room in a welcoming ceremony in September.
Volodymyr Artemchuk shovels a path through debris for water to drain out of the village of Demydiv, where Ukrainian forces purposely caused a flood to deter the Russian invasion of Kyiv. In August, months later, residents were still dealing with the repercussions of the flood.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Volodymyr Artemchuk shovels a path through debris for water to drain out of the village of Demydiv, where Ukrainian forces purposely caused a flood to deter the Russian invasion of Kyiv. In August, months later, residents were still dealing with the repercussions of the flood.
Signs of destruction throughout Izium can be seen after its liberation in September.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Signs of destruction throughout Izium can be seen after its liberation in September.
<strong>Left:</strong> Ukrainian investigators gather while they exhume bodies from a mass grave site in Izium in September. <strong>Right:</strong> Soldiers stand over the exhumed bodies that are lined up in rows in body bags.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Left: Ukrainian investigators gather while they exhume bodies from a mass grave site in Izium in September. Right: Soldiers stand over the exhumed bodies that are lined up in rows in body bags.
A group of Ukrainian soldiers from the Territorial Defense load a rocket under the cover of trees in the Kherson oblast in October. Ukrainian military units and Western military analysts said at the time the approaching winter might force a change in soldiers' tactics.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
A group of Ukrainian soldiers from the Territorial Defense load a rocket under the cover of trees in the Kherson oblast in October. Ukrainian military units and Western military analysts said at the time the approaching winter might force a change in soldiers' tactics.
An employee at a coal mine in eastern Ukraine travels deep into the mine during the summer.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
An employee at a coal mine in eastern Ukraine travels deep into the mine during the summer.
A soldier stares up at a gaping hole in an apartment building in the aftermath of a Russian missile attack in Dnipro in January.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
A soldier stares up at a gaping hole in an apartment building in the aftermath of a Russian missile attack in Dnipro in January.
The coffin of boxing coach Mykhailo Korenovsky arrives at a cemetery where he's to be laid to rest after he died in the residential building that was hit in Dnipro in January.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
The coffin of boxing coach Mykhailo Korenovsky arrives at a cemetery where he's to be laid to rest after he died in the residential building that was hit in Dnipro in January.
Flowers are scattered beside the grave site of a civilian that was killed in a Russian missile strike on an apartment building in Dnipro in January.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Flowers are scattered beside the grave site of a civilian that was killed in a Russian missile strike on an apartment building in Dnipro in January.
Nikolai Pastuchenko crosses himself as he dips in the river in Dnipro as part of a tradition for the Eastern Christian holiday the Epiphany in January.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Nikolai Pastuchenko crosses himself as he dips in the river in Dnipro as part of a tradition for the Eastern Christian holiday the Epiphany in January.

This story was edited by Emily Bogle and Zach Thompson. Photo editing by Emily Bogle.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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