December 23, 2014 4:00 AM EST

When photographer Ross McDonnell went to cover the ongoing Ukrainian crisis as a freelancer, he felt his photographs didn’t stand apart from the hundreds being produced in the region at that time.

“You are dealing with very intense circumstances and you come away from that feeling like you haven’t had [any] real connection to the people involved in these situations,” the Irish photographer tells TIME. “I wasn’t able to put my visual stamp or to escape the news cycle of what was happening there, so I wanted to go back and do something a bit more personal and be a bit more engaged.”

Although the violent turmoil in eastern Ukraine has eased, the Ukrainian Army and pro-Russian rebels continue to battle over areas in Donetsk, now the self-proclaimed independent state of Donetsk People’s Republic. As a result, people without the resources to leave the region are now living in a network of underground shelters to hide from the continuous shelling.

Many of these shelters were built during the Cold War era, when the eventuality of a nuclear fallout felt real, and when McDonnell heard about them, he saw an opportunity to reconnect with his subjects.

In October, he went back to the region, and by that time, the local population had gotten used to the in-and-out swarms of journalists. McDonnell stuck around. It wasn’t until after several visits that he “started to get a sense of who the characters were, what the dynamics was among the people, what you were dealing with in the shelter,” he says. “There’s [a] kind of community but it’s a forced community. Essentially nobody wants to be there.”

“All they can focus on at the moment is [their] immediate surroundings, feeding themselves every day,” he adds. “I guess that’s what the aesthetics of this series are meant to represent – the kind of very narrow world they are surrounded by.”

McDonnell also attempted to put himself in the position of his subjects, in a space still decorated with photographs of Soviet soldiers and artilleries from the the Cold War era. “To see in these paintings of the actual instruments of war that are being used outside and to see the iconography, this Soviet past surrounding them all the time, it’s psychologically very stressful for them,” he says.

Together, these bleak images capture an atmosphere that speaks of the people’s state of mind – trapped in the present, without any idea of what the future will bring.

Ross McDonnell is is a photographer and filmmaker born in Dublin. LightBox has previously featured McDonnell’s work on the Ukrainian protests, the ‘Auto Defensa’ anti-criminal uprisings in Mexico, Irish public housing projects and Enrique Metinides. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.

Ye Ming is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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