Australian artists George Gittoes AM and Hellen Rose are navigating landmines and documenting the destruction on the frontline in Ukraine.
For more than fifty years, Gittoes has documented the best and worst of the human condition. He is well known for his confrontational work inspired by his personal observations of the world’s most notorious conflicts.
He has used drawing, painting, filmmaking, photography and writing to tell the stories of what he has seen and experienced in a range of countries, including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cambodia, Iraq, Israel, Rwanda, Somalia and South Africa.
Rose, an acclaimed performance artist, has also dedicated her life to humanitarian work. In 2014, she was included on the NSW Local Women of the Year Honour Roll and hopes to use the power of song to help the world evolve.
Now, as a couple, they aim to use their art to begin the process of healing and uniting people in Ukraine.
Gittoes, 72, says in all his years of covering war, he has never seen a whole population as brave and committed to freedom as the Ukrainian people.
“They’re not going to give up, and it’s that spirit which is defeating the Russians,” he said.
“We hope that we are adding our voice to the millions of voices here in a cry for freedom.”
A city under siege
Bombs and missiles were raining down all around Kyiv when Gittoes and Rose arrived in March. They say every hour felt like they were literally playing Russian Roulette with their lives.
“The streets were empty … [There were] soldiers on every corner and you could have heard a pin drop in the street, in between the bombing sounds of Irpin and Bucha,” Rose said.
The Ukrainian Army blew up the bridge in Kyiv to prevent the Russians from seizing the city. The first cars to arrive as it collapsed couldn’t escape the Russians firing indiscriminately into them. Others were torched. Those who remained alive were executed in or near their cars.
“Going down what they’re calling the Bridge of Death was one of the most horrific things I’ve seen in my life,” Rose said.
“I’ve seen the remains of a mother still clinging to her child in the back of a car.
“The smell of death was overpowering.”
Gittoes says the destruction and devastation is like a thousand 9/11s. He recalls seeing a Russian tank destroyed in a fierce battle with Ukraine forces.
“There’s a dead Russian, like a Giacometti sculpture – he’s turned to coal. He’s just black and he’s inside a tank,” he said.
“I feel sorry for the Russian soldiers too, because they’re often poor and they need the money.
“They’re being paid a bit extra to come here, they’re being told all this propaganda and there’s no way they could hear the truth.”
Humans of war
Following the war closely, Gittoes and Rose are travelling and documenting its impact on civilians with the help of a Ukrainian translator.
“So many have already lost everything,” Gittoes said.
“In most of these places now the electricity is cut off, they’ve lost their homes and it’s freezing. It’s snowing and they’re living outdoors, finding little bits of wood and burning them to boil a cup of tea.”
As they continue to earn the trust of the Ukrainian people, they are increasingly taking on the role of social workers.
“As we walked out from Guernica, Hellen noticed an old woman, Galaya, gingerly approaching with a walking stick,” Gittoes said.
“Hellen was drawn to Galaya and soon they were hugging like mother and daughter.
“Galaya is 83. She told us that the Russians had killed her cow. Hellen drew her to her breast as she began to cry. The cow was her only remaining companion and she was able to make a little money from selling the milk.”
Gittoes has also been sharing his knowledge with the local farmers who are gradually de-activating the booby traps and digging up the landmines on a track to a popular recreation area.
“They were insidious … so invisible I would have walked into them,” he said.
“They were around child’s head height so dogs could get underneath them, but children and adults would trigger them. They were attached to hand grenades.
“There were others much worse than that. They completely mined the sports field and in between the trees, they put these wires with huge bombs made from two rockets.”
They say this is not the first time the Russian Army has targeted children, with “for the children” written on the rocket that struck the railway station in Kramatorsk.
According to Gittoes, bullet riddled cars had “children” painted across their doors, hoping to avoid being targeted. He says images of his grandchildren flashed through his mind seeing the toys, books and clothing left behind.
He recounts finding an expensive looking book resting on the driver’s seat of a car.
“It was black, and a pen was inserted holding a place between the pages. I walked to the other side of the car and opened it to discover it was a diary,” he said.
“The pages were dated. It ended the day the writer’s life ended.
“I put my camera through the shattered window and filmed my hand opening the diary to this last entry, flipping the blank pages. The diary would never be completed, like the life of the writer.”
Upcoming films and projects
Gittoes’ drawings capture images from life. One of his latest works depicts an old lady living on the steps into the Maidan Square train station. He says instead of photographing her in a series of portraits he has drawn her from his memory.
“She fills the underground with the sound of her wailing – it is loud, endless and heart wrenching,” he said.
“I have not known how to approach her even though I know she is The Scream of Ukraine.”
“It’s like World War II. I could almost hear the ghosts of the Jewish people running from the Nazis.”– Hellen Rose
Gittoes and Rose are arguably as well-known for their filmmaking as for their art. Rose says they plan to juggle Ukraine with their Yellow House Jalalabad project in Afghanistan, and that in an upcoming film, they plan to show that Muslims in Afghanistan and Orthodox Christians in Ukraine are united in their struggle to maintain their culture and sense of autonomy.
“Both have the common history of a Russian invasion destroying their countries,” she said. “We all fear; we all love; we’re all the same.”
Gittoes and Rose say they feel like they’ve gone back to the past.
“It’s like World War II. The scenery is the same. I could almost hear the ghosts of the Jewish people running from the Nazis, and that’s how I feel – that the Ukrainians are running from the fascists,” she said.
Both artists are used to working in war zones. Even so, the sights they have seen in Ukraine have had a profound effect on the couple.
Gittoes says that tripping over human remains, seeing dead bodies rotting in tanks, and body parts of mothers and children and their toys in shelled family cars are memories that will never leave them.
This article was previously published in the Sydney Sentinel