Voices of horror, loss and despair haunt Ukraine during the war

Natalia Efimkina collects the voices of the war.

Like a young Russian soldier telling his mother about the torture he witnessed when his comrades cut off the fingers of Ukrainian soldiers: “Mom, I think I’m going crazy, we’re killing people.” He added, “I wanted to be a good person.”

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” his mother replied. “These Ukrainians are not people.”

Part of a telephone conversation intercepted by Ukrainian security services is one of many recordings cataloged by Ukrainian director Efimkina. since Russia invaded her native land in February. She collected hundreds of hours voices of relatives, strangers and friends. Many Ukrainians, others Russians. Through timbres, accents and tears, she heard the devastation and surrealism of the conflict that destroyed millions of lives, gave birth to mass graves and saw Russian artillery. city ​​after city in eastern Ukraine.

Viktor Kolesnik crying over his wife's body

Viktor Kolesnik cries over the body of his wife Natalya, who died in a Russian bombing in a residential area of ​​Kharkov, Ukraine.

(Eugene Maloletka / Associated Press)

“I don’t even hate those people [Russians],” said Efimkina, 39, who lives in Berlin and translates conversations into German. “I understand that everyone has something evil. And then there are modes that bring out the worst.” She adds about the Russian soldier: “Perhaps in another country, in another situation, he would always remain good.”

Another voice that bothered her was that of Sergei Semyon, a young Ukrainian factory worker from the capital, Kyiv. “When the war started,” he said in the audio recording, “he asked his girlfriend to marry him. She agreed. But wedding plans were put on hold as he spent his days – like many young people in the capital at the time – preparation of Molotov cocktails for throwing against Russian troops.

Volunteers make Molotov cocktails to use against invading Russian troops

Volunteers from the Territorial Defense Units make Molotov cocktails to use against invading Russian forces in Kyiv, Ukraine, in February.

(Markus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

“I wanted to make this the ultimate hell for the occupiers,” said Semyon Efimkina. “I didn’t think about running away, where should we run? I don’t want to die for Ukraine. I want to live for it.”

A few weeks after the interview, Semyon was killed in an attack. His body has not been found.

The war continues as the Russians advance east. Efimkina listens to those on both sides without judgment, while at the same time capturing the raw feelings of lives entangled in the bloodshed that reshaped the borders of Europe and shook the world. Her work is a combination of art, forensic science and oral history, culminating in the age of podcasts in witnessing what has been stolen and what has been lost.

Ukrainian military walk through the ruins

Ukrainian soldiers walk through the ruins of a courtyard between the Industriya Hotel and civilian homes after an airstrike in the center of Kramatorsk, Ukraine, on July 7.

(Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)

A tall, slender woman with long brown hair and Yefimkin’s deep voice is used to exploring human stories. She spent months on her latest film, Garage Men, meticulously documenting her life. Russians on the Kola Peninsula, where many escape the misery of being in prefabricated high-rise buildings by escaping to the freedom they find in their garages. She followed them for so long that they openly spoke and acted as if the camera had been forgotten.

Right now she is focusing on phone calls from her Berlin studio to record the syntax of the war. The stories, diaries and audio tracks have been translated and published on the website of the main Berlin broadcaster. Questions to her subjects are direct and specific: Name. Age. What are you doing now? How did you survive the start of the war? What do you feel? What worries you?

“People keep asking me: why are the reports so credible, so intense? What a question,” said Yefimkina, who left Ukraine as a child when her mother took a job at a German university. “I listen. I’m genuinely interested in people. I just listen to what they have to say.”

One of the people she talks to is Anton, whom she met while working on Garage People. He lives in northwest Russia and recently told her about his conversation in the doctor’s waiting room. According to him, none of the other patients believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin who immersed his nation in state propaganda and cracked down on anti-war protests, sent warplanes to attack a neighboring country.

“What Russian planes?” they asked me. “Others, not Russians, fly there,” said Anton, whose last name was not released, fearing retribution. “You will never convince them. For them, they are some kind of mystical plane. They believe in Putin. These women go to the Orthodox Church. And the regime for them is like another church arranged.

Anton’s 75-year-old aunt Ira, who lives in Ukraine, says differently: “Imagine, the other day Ira said that she would give her life for Putin to die. [die]Anton said. “She didn’t hesitate for a second. And this is the same aunt Ira, who only 20 years ago loved Russia.” He added: “There is nothing but hatred.”

“The bad thing is that they not only kill, but also change people. They are [the Russians] came to “denazify” them. After all, they produce people who hate them. What an idiot you have to be to make so many enemies.”

Anton told Efimkina that he felt helpless. “I also have this hatred that torments me,” he said. “It’s so deep that I don’t know what to do with it. The first week I cried several times. Nine people that I would call my friends, and they all experience it this way. When we meet to discuss this, we feel like traitors.”

The conversation is over.

Others start or continue where they left off. Efimkina has long been worried about Bogdan, she knows the soldier of the Ukrainian army well. One day she called him on the phone in a rare moment of calm. He was at the Azot plant, the last Ukrainian stronghold in military city of Severodonetsk. The plant was constantly bombarded by Russian troops.

“They just bombard us with thousands of tons of metal,” said Bogdan, who, like other soldiers, asked not to be named for security reasons. “They are following a scorched earth policy. They bomb at random and they seem to have billions of these shells.”

Bogdan, who was not called up for health reasons, volunteered for the army after the start of the war. None of his friends fought. They stayed at home in Kyiv or in one of the nearby villages. But Bogdan said that he needed to join the fight.

Ukrainian soldier holding a walkie-talkie in a doorway

A Ukrainian soldier holds a walkie-talkie during heavy fighting on the front line in Severodonetsk, Luhansk region of Ukraine, in June.

(Alexander Ratushnyak / Associated Press)

“Who if not we?” he said to Efimkina during a conversation on Telegram. Such calls were often interrupted when a Russian Orlan-10 drone was spotted. “We have instructions to disable Starlink as soon as the bird is in the air because they detect our Wi-Fi network and then send out missiles.”

Efimkina heard a crack that looked like laughter. She couldn’t be sure, given all the fighting around the plant.

Bogdan did not want to speak at first. “No one understands what is happening here,” he said. “And no one cares.” But Efimkina is his best friend’s cousin. He remembered how they moved around Kyiv, smoking weed in one of the passages. “My friends are all in the cafe. They go dancing, and I, I can’t even wash.”

He seemed to be in another universe. The conversation with Efimkina was like therapy, or at least relief. It was good for her too: “Recording all the conversations helps,” she said. “Helps me process it all.”

She said she was amazed at how far she was from the front lines, living in a European capital where wars are almost non-existent, even in a continent that has seen two world wars in the last century. The Germans “have lived so long in prosperity and security that they cannot emotionally sink into the complete loss of everything,” she said. “My friends here tell me what kind of cuisine they want to buy or where they want to go for dinner. It’s very hard for me to come to terms with that.”

A half-blind woman lies in a front-line hospital in Severndensk, Ukraine.

A weakly blind woman rests in a hospital in Severodonetsk.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Bogdan was easier to talk to.

“I am doing the right thing,” he told her. “I am fighting for my country against the aggressor. Everything in my life has improved. Previously, somehow everything was broken, my financial situation and personal life too. I am 41 years old and have no family or children. So what am I living for? Here I see a goal, the country needs to be protected and developed. I have so many plans. And I want to realize them all when there is peace.”

A few days after their conversation, Severodonetsk fell to the Russians. Efimkina does not know what happened to Bogdan. Is he among the survivors? He ran away? Is he a prisoner? She looks forward to hearing his voice again.

Zener is a special correspondent.