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The first signs of war

UKRAINE / A compellingly grim account of the country's descent into war.

French photojournalist Pierre Crom does not describe himself as a war photographer. The fact that he was in Crimea in February 2014 when the Kremlin’s «little green men» – Russian troops without insignia – seized the Ukrainian peninsula merely put him «in the right place at the right time» to document the insidious slide into war that culminated in February 2022 with Putin’s full-scale invasion.

As a story of propaganda, emotional manipulation and rigged elections evolved into a full-scale conflict between Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, the drums of war beat ever louder. And Crom was always able to put himself in the right place at the right time to record the ever-increasing violence and mayhem.

Juri Rechinsky’s Signs of War is a lengthy interview with Crom woven around the photographs and videos that tell both his story and that of the unfolding violence that would lead to the biggest war in Europe since 1945.

Signs of War Juri Rechinsky, Pierre Crom
Signs of War, a film by Juri Rechinsky, Pierre Crom

Slow march

Crom, an observant man used to controlling his emotions, sits impassively in front of a large steel and glass structure – an anonymous setting in a civic building that is never identified. He is factual and meticulous. His recollection of events is as photographic as the images from his archive.

It starts on a rainy day in Sevastopol, where buses take pro-Russian locals to a rally in Simferopol – where they confront Crimean Tartars who have a history of distrusting Moscow since war-time deportations ordered by Stalin. It seems good-natured enough until the two sides press together, fights break out, and one young man dies on a stretcher after being crushed. Crom relates how he saw a cloud of breath condensing in the air above the young man’s face… and then no more. It is the first death he witnesses and records in the slow march to war. It won’t be his last.

Civilian militias quickly form; those little green men appear. Ukrainian troops give up without a fight and either leave or stay to defect to the Russian side. A bogus election is held – a staged piece of theatre designed for the TV screens of Russians ‘back home’. Crimea overwhelmingly ‘votes’ to rejoin Russia.

In Donetsk, there are tense stand-offs before opposing militias start shooting. Soon better-equipped and organised groups appear, and battles break out with regular Ukrainian forces. The bodies pile up, and every funeral becomes a propaganda event, winding emotions ever higher. Crom never explicitly says it, but it is clear that he is living through a textbook KGB operation on ‘how to start a war and claim your hands are clean.’

it is clear that he is living through a textbook KGB operation

Dreadful inevitability

There are times during Signs of War when you want to look away. At one point, Crom confesses it all became too much for him. He realised he was becoming cynical, and a colleague persuaded him to take a break. But he returns and is in Ukraine when Russian-backed rebels shoot down the Malaysian airliner MH17. He and his colleagues rush there, making their way through checkpoints until they reach the still-burning wreckage. Broken and burned bodies and belongings lie everywhere. A leg, severed above the knee, can be seen as he steps out of his car. He puts his feelings to one side and begins shooting pictures. Only later does he learn the flight came from Amsterdam – from the Netherlands, a country he has long made his home. And that all 283 passengers – families on holiday, people returning home – and 15 crew are dead.

There is a dreadful inevitability about Rechinsky’s film. No spoilers here. We all know where this is headed.

Crom’s story continues with a tank battle at Debaltseve and his eventual escape from Lugansk, where he had been recording rebel groups so desperate for publicity – for proving that they were part of this grand story, this politically manipulated dark fantasy – that they allow him to photograph the shelling of civilian areas during what is supposed to be a ceasefire. His brief reference to the Minsk Accords, diplomatic agreements to pause the secessionist conflict (largely on terms that suited Putin), is another sign of the cynicism of this long-running conflict. The Minsk Accords never stuck for long.

Signs of War Juri Rechinsky, Pierre Crom
Signs of War, a film by Juri Rechinsky, Pierre Crom

Essential viewing

The grubby story of the separatist clashes, the executions and deprivations, and the civilian suffering is a reminder that – as any Ukrainian will tell you – this war did not start on February 24, 2022.

Signs of War is essential viewing for anyone who wants to know or be reminded of the path to Russia’s brutal full-scale war, concluding with Crom’s images from Irpin in March 2022, a few days after Putin had ordered his army to invade.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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