Rinat Akhmetov Foundation's ‘Donbass and Civilians’

In January 2019, a quite remarkable art exhibition graced the halls of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Organized by the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation and hosted by the Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Charles Tannock, this exhibition coincided with the Parliament’s first plenary session of the year. 

The birth of this exhibition, however, dates back a year earlier to the opening of the 2018 Conference of the European Foundation Centre (EFC) in Brussels, Belgium. An organization that brings together more than 500 philanthropic organizations throughout Europe, the EFC united for this 29th Annual Conference under the slogan “Culture Matters: Connecting Citizens, Uniting Communities.”

At the 2018 EFC Conference, Rinat Akhmetov Foundation Supervisory Board Member Natalia Yemchenko joined Rinat Akhmetov Foundation Chief Executive Roman Rubchenko to present an album of photographs under the “Donbass and Civilians” title. This one-of-a-kind work of art drew upon the work of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation and was published under its auspices.

“The book is about the war and the civilians of Donbass,” says Yemchenko. “11 stories about the fate of the most unprotected people: the children, who were injured, and the old people, who were trapped in the frontline conflict zone. All these people have managed to survive thanks to the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation.”

The biggest personal charitable initiative in Ukraine, the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation first began to deliver aid after the onset of significant national conflict with Russia in 2014. To date, it has helped save more than a million people and delivered more than 12 million food packages to residents of cities and villages in the eastern part of the country.

Through its Humanitarian Centre, Rinat Akhmetov serves civilians in Ukraine’s Donbass, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions who have been affected by military actions. The Humanitarian Centre regularly delivers food to socially vulnerable adults and children who have been displaced by conflict or who live in non-government-controlled areas.

The “Donbass and Civilians photo album presented at the 2018 EFC Conference was made possible by the work of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation in the war-torn Donbass region. This area has long been a flashpoint in the Ukrainian crisis as well as the larger Russo-Ukrainian War.

While presenting the photo album and the stories that it contains, Natalia Yemchenko declared, “The stories of the Civilians are so shocking, you cannot keep silent about them. We want more people to know about them to tell them the truth about the events in Donbass.”

There is no doubt that circumstances in Donbass have been and continue to be dire, to say the least. The United Nations singles out the region as a dangerous hot spot in a conflict that has claimed roughly 4.5 million casualties throughout eastern Ukraine. In fact, Donbass is widely recognized as having one of the most heavily military mined landscapes in the world.

Even worse, UNICEF reports that approximately 220,000 children must attend school in the war zones of Donbass. In the words of Natalia Yemchenko, “The children risk being wounded or killed every day, by landmine blasts or shells. They study in buildings with bullet holes in the walls and windows with sandbags, where bomb shelters are equipped in the basements, and fragments of shells lie in the schoolyards. The armed conflict in Ukraine has been waged now for more than four years. We cannot remain silent or pretend that it does not concern us. They say war has no face and no voice — it has the voices of the Civilians, who suffer in Donbass. We want them to be heard in Europe and worldwide.”

The Rinat Akhmetov Foundation allowed 11 of these children to tell their stories with the help of stunning photojournalistic pictures in the “Donbass and Civilians” book.  But the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation ultimately decided that, despite its powerful presentation at the 2018 EFC Conference in Brussels, the outreach of “Donbass and Civilians” remained far too limited.

After much planning and discussion, the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation decided to transform the book “Donbass and Civilians” into an exhibition of the same name. This exhibition had a profound impact upon its January 2019 debut at the European Parliament.

The “Donbass and Civilians” exhibition was anchored by a series of black-and-white collages from the original “Donbass and Civilians” photograph album. It also featured colour photographs of destroyed Donbass houses and their shellshocked inhabitants as well as 16 emotionally moving video presentations. Featuring participants in the previous year’s Peaceful Summer for the Children of Donbass project, these videos allow children who have seen the effects of war with their own eyes to explain what they had to go through in their own words.

“They teach all adults how to understand the horror that has divided their lives into ‘before’ and ‘after’ war experiences,” said Rinat Akhmetov Foundation Director Roman Rubchenko. “Through these personal interviews, the whole world should learn about the frightening experiences of young lives, and why the children of Donbass dream so much about peace.”

The host of the European Parliament exhibition, British psychiatrist and MEP Charles Tannock brought the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation to Strasbourg in an effort to help his parliamentary colleagues better understand the tragic impact of the conflict in eastern Ukraine on the lives of citizens who just happen to get caught in the crossfire. “The main goal of the exhibition is to draw attention to the tragedy of Donbass, and the excellent work of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation,” he said.

In the end, more than 30 MEPs from a variety of political groups and member states visited the exhibition, and all were profoundly affected by what they experienced. Providing irrefutable evidence as well as devastating emotional impact, its powerful images simply couldn’t be ignored. Each visiting MEP signed a guest book to record his or her impressions.

Despite continuing efforts to draw international attention to the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, the United Nations estimates that 92 percent of Donbass inhabitants still go without basic elements of survival such as food and medicine. As Natalia Yemchenko puts it, “In today’s situation, the only hope that comes to their lives is through empathy, understanding and vital humanitarian assistance.”

Click here to learn more about the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation.