It’s zero degrees inside the flats, and people are cooking on bonfires outside – very close to the entrance to the basement, so they can drop everything and run inside for shelter.
“What do you mean, what do we need?” shouts one man cheerfully, in response to a question from the humanitarian aid workers I’m with. “We’ve got everything! Everything except gas. And water. And windows and doors…” I’m not sure if he’s really trying to be cheerful, or if this is how he expresses rage.
“We’re living like pigs,” says one of the women. Maybe she was house-proud once, maybe she kept her flat daintily spick and span. Maybe that flat there is hers, the one with destroyed shelves still heaped with dusty books and clothes, visible through the broken window where a forlorn lace curtain hangs… “Like pigs. We’re stuck on the frontline here, but we are people too, why doesn’t anyone remember that?”
“Don’t take pictures of our house, go to the school,” says Marina, a woman in her forties wearing a grubby white bobble hat. “I really wish someone would write an article about the school, it’s completely ruined. It’s not important to me anymore who ruined it, what’s important is the result. And I pity the children most. None of this is their fault.”
The sun is setting, gilding the rubble and picking out like diamonds the broken glass everywhere. It turns Marina’s face gold, lights her eyes for a second so that she’s beautiful, as if lit from within.
Sunset isn’t a time to linger admiring the light, it’s a signal for the daily shelling to intensify. We’re starting back towards the car when Marina emerges again from the ruined block of flats with a bag of home-made pirozhky – fried pasties. “For you! You must take them! You’ve been travelling all day.”
She thrusts them into our hands and won’t let us refuse, even though we all know she and her family have nothing; no jobs, no money, no windows, no water, no end to the nightmare…
I never take pictures of these people. I only take pictures of their ruined houses. I’m not a photographer, and photographing their faces feels too much like intruding on their misfortune.
But that’s wrong. It’s the people who matter, not the devastation. I want to show you Marina in her grubby bobble hat, beautiful Marina caring about the children, feeding us pirozhky.