A brief game of football on Ukraine frontline
Svitlodarsk, Ukraine, Feb. 17, 2015 - Just hours after a ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels was supposed to have come into force, the AFP team headed out along the road to Debaltseve, a key town that has been the scene of the fiercest fighting in recent weeks.
After more than ten months of bitter conflict in east Ukraine no one really knew if the truce -- negotiated faraway by leaders of Ukraine, Russia, German and France -- would actually happen and few believed it would really stick.
For weeks now the road to Debaltseve has been a treacherous gauntlet that any vehicle runs at its own risk. Shelling has boomed out along it in a relentless, terrifying cannonade.
As we drove that morning there was a dense fog and something we haven't heard for a while here -- near silence. When we approached the first Ukrainian checkpoint we saw a long line of military trucks and armoured vehicles parked up along the road.
Standing around we found a group of Ukrainian soldiers. For days, these men had been facing death at any moment-- tense, nervous, warning us to go no further. Now, as we chatted to them, the sense of relief at the lull in fighting was obvious. It all of a sudden felt like a schoolyard and grown-up men were behaving not like warriors but more like kids.
Yes, they admitted, firing was still going on and while we were there we heard occasional incoming artillery explosions. But the shooting was nothing compared to what it had been.
Some of the soldiers were just talking and smoking, others were cleaning their weapons, one sat reading a book. A few -- still with their kalashnikovs on their backs -- began randomly kicking a muddy football across the road. Hitting the ball, missing, running to get it.
The spontaneous kickabout really felt like a moment that was truly relaxing. So I started shooting. I hoped the pictures would speak for themselves and illustrate the spirit of a ceasefire. It's an iconic image-- the soldier celebrating a halt in fighting with a simple game of football.
After covering the fighting in my homeland, like everyone, I am desperate to see this brutal, crazy conflict stop. We all want to believe that the dream of peace can come as quickly as the nightmare of the war began.
But the period of relief the truce brought with it already seems to be deceptive. It was possible to get closer to Debaltseve but even while we stood where the men played football the sound of the bombardments started to grow more frequent. We turned around and headed back to the government-held town of Artemivsk, further from the front.
The Ukrainian soldiers say that the ceasefire is impossible. The current state of things is just a pause as the sides get a chance to resupply their forces, take away the wounded to the hospitals and recharge their weapons. Ukrainian soldiers talked to the enemy through the radio and insurgents told them they were in Ukraine to earn money, not to wait.
For civilians trapped in the crossfire the situation is atrocious. The evacuation of residents left behind in Debaltseve is now impossible as the separatists have cut the main road as you approach the town. Even for those that do get out, life is uncertain and rocket fire has hit towns like Artemivsk and Kramatorsk that were thought to be safely back from the frontline.
Soon after we'd been at the checkpoint, reports grew that fighting around Debaltseve was rising fast again. Here the ceasefire didn't hold for more than twelve hours, if it ever really started at all.
As for the soldiers we saw playing football -- later in the day our colleagues told us that the place where we had watched the game had been severely shelled with artillery.
Volodymyr Shuvayev is a freelance photographer working for AFP in Ukraine.