CNN Photos

Drafted in the Ukrainian army

Amid the spiral of violence and chaos in eastern Ukraine this year, British photographer Christopher Nunn set out to document the quieter side of the conflict.

He spent a couple of days in late May with conscripted soldiers of the Ukrainian army, observing ordinary people who’d been dragged into an extraordinary situation.

The scene in the unit, based outside the main combat zone, was a strange mixture of boredom, joviality, confusion and fear, he said.

“You’d see guys playing volleyball and football, playing cards and drinking tea,” Nunn said. But he also saw tensions spike when an unidentified vehicle approached one of the army’s checkpoints.

The soldiers trained their weapons on the road, and Nunn’s translator told him to stay out of the way.

A guard approached the unknown vehicle, and after a brief exchange of words it turned around and drove off.

“It was very difficult for anyone to know what was really going on because there were so many reports about separatists attacking army bases and roadblocks,” Nunn said.

His own arrival in the region, a train ride from the flashpoint city of Donetsk, was rife with uncertainty.

He got off the train alone and was met on the platform by three men in mismatched camouflage gear holding aging AK-47 rifles.

“I thought, ‘These guys could be anyone.’ I wondered if my emails had been intercepted,” Nunn said, noting the cases of journalists and other observers who have been kidnapped in the region.

But his welcome committee turned out to be genuine. They took him around various parts of their operations, which were plagued by a shortage of equipment like bulletproof vests and helmets.

During dinner, the men laughed, joked and drank with Nunn, telling him about their wives and showing him pictures of their children. At night, he slept in their tent barracks.

Many of the conscripted soldiers expressed their determination to defend their country as best they could amid fears of a Russian invasion. But some also voiced frustration about the way in which they were roped into the army.

Nunn’s translator, who studied accounting, said he’d received a letter from an army department telling him to join a military program for 10 days. Two months later, he was still in service.

“You could see the psychological strain on these guys who had left home,” Nunn said.

His own reason for venturing into such a daunting environment stems from his grandmother, who grew up in an area of western Ukraine that belonged to Poland at the time.

She moved to England when she was 16 and married a man from Yorkshire. But Nunn says her roots give him “a faint thread of family history” in Ukraine.

He’d been visiting the country long before the latest period of unrest.

“I’ll be traveling there long after all this has settled down, I’m sure,” he said.

- Jethro Mullen, CNN