Photograph by Rodion Uzbek
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Ten-year-old Kirill holds his younger brother on the balcony of their rented apartment in Izium, Ukraine.
Photograph by Rodion Uzbek

The Story of Losing a Homeland Through the Eyes of Those Living It

“Life goes on. There is no home anymore, but I feel incredibly free,” wrote Alisa Stoyanova, one of 20 students who participated in the National Geographic Photo Camp in Kharkiv, Ukraine, earlier this year. The students, all internally displaced by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the fighting in eastern Ukraine, spent one week documenting the stories of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country—and discovering much about themselves in the process.

Most of the students, who ranged in age from 17 to 30, had little or no experience making photographs. But having shared the experience of being an IDP, they connected with their subjects on a personal level, which shows in the work. The images are intimate, and a great deal is conveyed through body language.

As their photo editor, I had the honor of getting to know the students through their photographs—all 43,000 of them. Here is a small selection of those photos, as well as some of the students’ personal reflections. These excerpts have been translated into English and edited for length and clarity. —Whitney Johnson, deputy director of photography, National Geographic

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Romashka, an abandoned Soviet pioneer camp in the city of Kharkiv, has hosted over 5,000 IDPs. Photograph by Alina Polianska
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Aleksandr, an 86-year-old pensioner and former miner from Donetsk, smokes on the doorstep of his lodging at the Romashka camp. Photograph by Nikita Neh

War always happens somewhere else, but not with us. But it’s the moment jet fighters start flying over your head and the streets are suddenly full of armed people dressed in camouflage when this world stops making any sense to you. One would think, It’s the 21st century; it’s Europe—and yet suddenly there’s war.

You can see a playground from your window, but there are no children playing. It is quite possible though to see a man running through it, shooting a gun. Or somebody might be carrying a stretcher with a wounded soldier, or even stationing a truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher there.

You understand you cannot stay here any longer, that your life is in jeopardy. Naturally, it is hard for you to leave, for your home is here, and so are your friends, your family, your everything. But still you pack your things and leave your house, in tears.

In this forced deportation you assemble a new life, even though you don’t want a new life. You are about to hear a million nos while looking for an apartment to rent, because for many people you are a traitor, even though you can’t grasp how come. You will even spend nights at railway stations, charge your cell phone at cafes, and go without a shower for days. Then you will start moving from one place to another, or maybe from one city to another.

I want the whole world to get this feeling. When you go on vacation and get homesick, that’s one thing. Knowing the playground you can see from your window is being shelled, knowing missiles are being dropped on the sandbox where children used to play, is a totally different story. —Yelena Pemyakova

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Ulyana Kolesnikova and her eight-year-old son cool off in the water near a house they have been renting in the village of Studenok since being displaced from the Donetsk region. Photograph by Alina Lozova
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Twin sisters dance at a friend’s birthday party at a modular town for IDPs in Kharkiv. Photograph by Mariya Zmysla

Nobody is insured against war. In 2013 we were living in the beautiful, blooming European city of Donetsk. We never thought there would be war and so many people would die.

My hometown was captured by people with guns. We tried to oppose them but we were not armed, and the ruling elite of the city and a part of the population supported them. I left with my child, temporarily at first, hoping that law enforcement would free the city. But it never happened.

The war began. When we understood the city might stay under the armed separatists’ control forever, our family decided to leave everything that we treasured. It was a hard decision. But living in an artificial state that was forced upon us was impossible.

We left not because of the war. We left because we wanted to live in our home country. When we were passing the first Ukrainian checkpoint, I wept at seeing our flag. And even now this feeling hasn’t passed. It is hard to convey the emotions of people whose homeland is being taken from them. It’s inside, somewhere near the heart. —Lena Shunkina

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“This lady used to be an architect. She is now living with her two daughters in a half-ruined cottage in Kharkiv Oblast,” writes student Alisa Stoyanova. “The house is not supplied with running water [and] for that reason she has to wash the dishes in the river. She’d rather her face stayed concealed, though she is smiling to me, happy to be alive.” Photograph by Alisa Stoyanova

The scale of my battle can actually be measured, for the fight is basically just against my own thoughts, desires, broken plans, and love for the certain place. All this is stronger than ammunition; it is stronger than tanks. All these things are so deep under your skin, it feels like there’s no other way you can live.

Sometimes you feel almost strung out, missing your past life. When you arrive in a new place with your huge suitcases, you just can’t start living the way you always used to.

This is a very important time for everybody—a time of rediscovering yourself, of changes, and, maybe, of finding your real identity. —Anton Aleksakha

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Nikita, originally from Donetsk, is planning to enter barber school in Kharkiv. Here, he cuts a friend’s hair in a help center for IDPs. Photograph by Anastasia Turpetko

My story is not actually about my physical relocation. It is about the transformation of me as a human being, as a person. The war took practically everything from me, but it gave me the opportunity to find myself. —Olena Bilous

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A table is laid with food in the village of Sinichino. Photograph by Valeriya Treshchova

After the annexation of Crimea by Russia it became impossible to stay there any longer. I can still go there, but I cannot call that place home anymore. It has become dangerous and psychologically hard. There is tension in the air, and people who used to be my best friends have distanced themselves so fast they hardly say hello when we meet in the street. —Mariya​ Zmysla

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A woman and her child are photographed in the Romashka camp. “When the war came to Donetsk, my husband went to fight in the ATO [Ukrainian Antiterrorist Operation]. Since then I have been living alone with a kid,” the woman said. Photograph by Olena Bilous

When armed people from the neighboring state were capturing my homeland peninsula, town after town, I was there. I had to pass through the artificially created borders; I saw the military men with ammunition that looked like something you would see in the movies. Grandpa was yelling at me, telling me I knew nothing about this life. And I just wanted to cry because my dear and beloved country, whose independence is only one year older than me, was not there anymore. —Lidiya Ivanova

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Two-and-a-half-year-old Eva takes a nap inside her family’s lodging in the Romashka camp. Photograph by Alina Lozova

National Geographic Photo Camp Ukraine was a partnership between National Geographic, Vision Workshops, the Institute for Regional Media and Information, and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Ukraine Confidence Building Initiative. Students were mentored by National Geographic magazine contributing photographers Anastasia Taylor-Lind and Matt Moyer and National Geographic magazine’s deputy director of photography, Whitney Johnson.

More information about Photo Camp can be found here.