A project aimed at countering “Russian propaganda” that gives people around the world a chance “to immerse themselves in the reality of war” has been launched a year since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Viewers can click through different regions of Ukraine that have come under Russian bombardment similar to using Google Street View to see how civilian infrastructure, including apartment buildings, hospitals, universities and museums, has also been targeted during the one-year “special military operation”.
Mykola Omelchenko, 47, one of the founders and photographers, told i he started the project along with two friends, Yuriy Zozulya and Dmitry Matyash, to raise awareness of the toll the conflict has taken on innocent people as the world starts growing “tired” of war news.
“We decided we can fight behind the cameras and give the truth to the world,” he said.
The photographer recalled the Ukrainian ambassador to Berlin seeing the work and saying: “The world must see this.
“We had not understood before how much damage the Russians have caused… we never could comprehend the massiveness of the destruction.”
The project has already been been showcased in Washington, Berlin, and Warsaw, with plans for it to be unveiled in Oslo, Rome, and Paris.
War Up Close also powers The Undeniable Street View, a project collaborating and supporting United24, an initiative by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as other support groups, providing vital support to Ukrainians.
Mr Omelchenko said the reactions were tremendous. “People cried, people wept, some couldn’t finish the video as they recognised their own apartments, city and friends… it was tragic.”
One Ukrainian girl in Berlin attended the exhibition and recognised her flat. “It’s gone,” she said.
‘Are you going to bomb us?’
Mr Omelchenko recalled some of the civilians he met in areas that had come under attack by Russians.
One five-year-old girl who lived on a farm in Chernihiv and had been scarred by the violence saw the team approach and asked: “Are you going to bomb us?”
Mr Omelchenko, who is a father of two, said: “It was difficult to speak; we almost cried. We gave her candy and told her we are not here to bomb.”
Civilians from two villages near Chernihiv told Mr Omelchenko how some Russians, who thought they were in the suburbs of Kyiv because of the asphalt roads and electricity, shot those who tried to tell them they were in the wrong place.
“They killed them because they were just telling the truth, that they weren’t in Kyiv yet, like they thought,” the photographer said.
One elderly man in Izyum, which was under Russian occupation for six months before being freed in September, asked what the team was doing in the area.
“We explained we were going to show the world the disaster. He went back and brought us plum. That person had nothing but he still shared whatever he had to make sure we had enough food to go on and shoot more.”
Another woman in Galyna, Izyum, described how she had gone to fetch some water only to come back and see her “house had been destroyed with her whole family”.
One village only had one building that was targeted. Mr Omelchenko asked residents why this was the case and they replied saying Russians were wanting to specifically target the home of a Ukrainian teacher.
“They permitted her to take the children away but as soon as she left the house they completely bombed it with tanks and destroyed it,” he said.
Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February last year, saying a “special military operation” was needed to “de-Nazify” and “demilitarise” its smaller neighbour. That’s despite Ukraine’s leader, President Zelensky, being Jewish.
Ukraine and the West say the invasion was unprovoked and Western allies have provided billions in military support and financial aid to the country.
Moscow has been accused of committing more than 71,000 war crimes since the war began. It denies ever attacking civilians or committing atrocities.
‘My hair is going grey’
Mr Omelchenko said the aim of the project is to expand it further to incorporate all targeted areas in Ukraine, but they must wait for active hostilities to cease so as not to put their team at peril.
He recollected how on one occasion, he had been taking photos of a building that was hit. Once he got back to the hotel, the police called him to say the building had been struck again.
“If we had been there a few hours later, we probably wouldn’t be speaking to you,” he told i.
The job has taken its toll on Mr Omelchenko. “I do have more grey hair, I don’t sleep well, just like the whole team. It’s so difficult.”
Describing how his wife recently jumped at the sound of thunder while in Warsaw, he said both of them have been traumatised by the “hours and hours” of being in a bomb shelter in Kyiv. “Every time we hear a loud sound we turned around and look at each other… [and wonder] is it a bomb?”
Mr Omelchenko hopes the project will raise awareness of what has been going on in his home country and “remind the world that the war is still going, Ukrainians are still fighting and the nation is still suffering”.