In the frozen landscapes of Eastern Ukraine, where government forces and pro-Russia fighters are fighting a bitter war of attrition, the specter of another vicious and unforgiving war looms.
“Shortly before the ceasefire, the scene was reminiscent of a World War I battleground,” says photographer Ross McDonnell, who has spent the last two weeks working along the Ukrainian front lines in Donetsk and Luhansk. “[There was] a lot of heavy shelling all day and all night, with tactical machine and mortar fire from open trenches on what was once the main road to Donetsk.”
McDonnell stayed in those trenches, near Shastya, a small town whose name means “Happiness.” For its inhabitants, however, the last few months have offered anything but joy, as it has repeatedly exchanged hands between the separatists and pro-government forces.
For the Irish photographer, who’s been covering the conflict since the first days of the Maidan revolution in early 2014, the goal now is to present a snapshot of the day-to-day life on the battlefield from the Ukrainian side. “There’s a sense of daily life in the trenches [establishing itself],” he says. “Many of the fighters have been there for months and they are exhausted. In Debaltseve, most of the fighters were in the encircled city for three months before withdrawing in the last days.”
On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced the withdrawal of more than 2,000 government troops from the disputed and strategic town of Debaltseve, trying to cast the move in a positive light while Russia-backed rebels claimed victory.
Despite the bitter winter and heavy losses on both sides, the spirit has remained warm, says McDonnell. “The people are pragmatic, and we get a sense that the soldiering life is a job and a duty,” he tells TIME. “On the Ukrainian side, at least, there’s a huge amount of pride. As individuals, they feel let down by their new government and by the West. They want to think they are ready to defeat the pro-Russian rebels, but they can’t take on Russia itself.”
And there’s no end in sight for this conflict, despite the fragile cease-fire that went into effect recently. “It will depend on the rebels’ ambitions,” says McDonnell, “but after their recent victories, it’s difficult to see any lasting ceasefire.”
Ross McDonnell is a photographer and filmmaker born in Dublin. LightBox has previously featured McDonnell’s work from Ukraine. Follow him on Instagram where he shares short films of life in Eastern Ukraine’s trenches.