Refugees, mass graves and liberation: A year on the ground in Ukraine – in pictures from The Independent’s Bel Trew
At dawn on 24 February 2022 Russia shook the world by invading Ukraine, launching the bloodiest war in Europe in generations.
International Correspondent for The Independent, Bel Trew crossed the land border from Poland and began documenting the destruction, as millions of desperate Ukrainians were forced to flee their homes. She has spent a year photographing the devastating impact of the conflict on civilians across the country.
Twelve months on, as Russia has only ratchet up its attacks in the east and the south, there is little hope of peace.
Part one: the refugee crisis
“We spent three days looking for a car and in the end hitchhiked our way here. There is 40km of humans trying to get into Poland right now,” Svetlana, 45 a mother-of-four from Ivano-Frankivsk who fled after the airport next to her home was bombed.
A family walks the last 40km of the journey to the border with Poland as the queue of cars is days long. (February 2022)
A woman wrapped in a blanket looks at the camera as her family camps in the snow on the platform of Lviv railway station hoping for a train to safety. (February 2022)
Refugees en route to the border sleep at a church turned into a refugee camp in central Ukraine as the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War unfolds. (February 2022)
Part two: Civilians join the war effort
“The lines of people willing to sign up to the territorial defence are so huge there are not even positions available to cater for them. But still people keep coming.” Leonid, an army veteran who joined the territorial defence in Vinnytsia, about 150 miles west of Kyiv, straight after Russia invaded.
Like tens of thousands of Ukrainians across the country Yulia and her husband, who have two children, join the territorial defence in Vinnytsia to protect their home town. (March 2022)
A DJ in Lviv, western Ukraine, starts a collective to make explosive molotovs out of wine and beer bottles to send to troops at the front line. (March 2022)
Builders in Khmelnytskyi, central Ukraine, forge anti-tank ‘Czech hedgehogs’ with the words “Russian ships. Go f*** yourself” scrawled on the side. (March 2022)
Young volunteers in the southern city of Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine, make home-made bullet proof vests out of truck springs. (April 2022)
Part three: Mass graves uncovered in the first liberation after Russian occupation
“At first we had the body bags from the morgue but they quickly ran out so all we could do is place the bodies in this hole. We don’t know how many are buried here. We stopped counting at 100.” Father Andrei, of St Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints church, who survived Russian occupation in Bucha,. before the area was liberated at the end of March 2022.
Father Andrei, stands by the mass grave he was forced to dig under shelling and occupation in Bucha. He said most of those buried had been bound and shot by Russians (Taken April 2023, talking about the events of 2022)
Roman, 15 stands next to a destroyed tank on their street Vokzalna one of the most destroyed streets in Bucha. Russian soldiers put him through a mock execution. (Taken April 2023, talking about the events of 2022)
Andrei one of eight civilians held in an underground torture chamber in Trostyanets, north-eastern Ukraine, shows where he smeared his own blood on the wall of the cell in April. (April 2022)
A Fireman helping dig out the dead that have been trapped under rubble for a month in Borodyanka, in Kyiv region. (April 2022)
Part four: the Siege of Mariupol
“The corner of every kindergarten is a grave. We had 15 bodies buried in the garden next to our building,” Alia, 20 a student from Mariupol while holding her cat, who was wrapped in a Christmas blanket.
Paulina, 2, is comforted by her sister, after fleeing intense shelling in Mariupol to a supermarket in Zaporizhzhia that had become a makeshift IDP reception centre. (April 2022)
Children climb out of a truck holding over 50 people from occupied Melitopol that travelled 11 hours across enemy lines to safety in Zaporizhzhia. (April 2022)
A child wounded in shelling in occupied territory is treated at the sandbagged hospital in Zaporizhzhia. (April 2022)
Part Five: The Missing
“It is worse than hell, because one second lasts like an eternity. It’s not just fearing what is happening to you now, but what could happen next. Every family has at least one close person who is in captivity or was in captivity. It’s like a small country of missing people.” Maksym, 29, an ecologist from the southern region of Kherson who was arrested by Russians, disappeared and tortured.
Andriy spent a month disappeared into a Russian jail he is still looking for his father-in-law taken with him. Picture taken in the city of Trostyanets, about 250 miles east of Kyiv. (August 2022)
In the city of Dnipro, eastern Ukraine, Maria – a manicurist – weeps over the photos of her missing fiancé who was conscripted into the army and then disappeared during his first-ever battle. (August 2022)
The Lord’s Prayer in Ukrainian is etched into the wall of a cell in Balakhiya, eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainians were disappeared, held and tortured for weeks. (November 2022)
Part Six: Global impact
War in Ukraine threatened to unleash “an unprecedented wave of hunger and destitution, leaving social and economic chaos in its wake,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres in July 2022.
Craig - a man from Stockwell - is pictured in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine. He joined thousands of foreigners who flocked to Ukraine to fight in the international legion (July 2022).
Amid concerns of global famine - Vadym Martov, a farmer in Donbas – which includes the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk – says all he can do is pray that the advancing frontline doesn’t overrun his fields after a shell lands nearby. (July 2022)
Russia pounds Ukraine’s power grid plunging millions of homes into darkness and cold, in the worst attack on energy infrastructure in European modern history. In response mechanics in Kyiv weld makeshift stoves. (October 2022)
Part 7: Life on the eastern frontline
A member of the territorial defence warms himself in an underground trench in Lyman, northern Ukraine. (October 2022)
Olga - who lives in no man’s land along the Donetsk frontline - was wounded in shelling a few hours before she was photographed. She sits next to her injured neighbour whose daughter was killed day before in a strike (July 2022)
A resident of Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine cooks on a fire outside under shelling in the frontline town. Bakhmut has seen some of the war’s bloodiest fighting and residents have little to no access to electricity or water. (November 2022)
An elderly resident of Bakhmut shows her oven in the underground of her building where she lives because of heavy shelling. (October 2022)
A man stands by the destroyed remains of his home in Kharkiv. (July 2022)
Part eight: the liberation of Kherson
“God bless you; I haven’t had a decent meal in months. It’s been hell,” Ludmilla, 76, clutching her parcel of food aid like a lifebuoy in the southern city in November. Russian forces had left just two days before.
Families receiving food aid for the first time in months hug humanitarian aid workers as they enter city with the Russian withdrawal. (November 2022)
Many houses have been destroyed in the area around Kherson during Russian occupation. (November 2022)
Russian forces lie just a few hundred metres away from Kherson city, across the Dnipro river. Fierce battles continue (November 2022)
President Volodymyr Zelensky makes a surprise visit to Kherson which was held for eight months and liberated in November. (November 2022)
Part 9: Front-line defenders
“And each day it is getting worse. Last week we got 10 separate calls about 10 different fires happening simultaneously but again, we couldn’t even get out of the station. Like so many days, if we had left we would have been instantly killed,” Major Yuriy Galich, the 37-year-old department chief, intermittently interrupted by the boom of shelling.
Volunteers try in vain to save a soldier injured in Soledar – not far from Bakhmut – in a field hospital. (October 2022)
Firefighters in Bakhmut wait for a call – the fire department was struck by shelling days later. (October 2022)
De-miners get to work on a road in Kherson which had been liberated just a few days ago after months of occupation. (November 2022)
Part 10: The Body In the Woods
“I would count this decades. This problem of Ukraine trying to find and identify its dead persist. Hopefully the Ukrainian authorities and the international community can pour all its resources into this and make that time even less. But that is a hope. “ Photis Andronicou, forensic anthropologist, at the International Commission on Missing Persons about the desperate search for unidentified bodies.
Regional police in Izyum, located eastern Ukraine, say they are still discovering bodies, over 400 were found in this mass grave in the woods. (November 2022)
A solider smokes a cigarette as he walks through a destroyed block of flats in Izyum. (October 2022)
Police uncover another body in a destroyed village around Izyum. (November 2022)
The graveyard of unidentified bodies in Bucha, outside Kyiv. (February 2022)
Part 11: Ukraine in mourning, one year on
Residents of Bucha mourn their dead on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of the country. (February 2023)
Anna, 24 comforts Tetiana, 47 who lost her son, Oleksy. Anna’s fiancee a soldier who died a month ago in Bakhmut. (February 2023)
Maria, 78, marks the anniversary of the invasion from the portacabin where she now lives after a Russian airstrike killed her family and destroyed her home. (February 2023)