So Chien-Chi wrote the following for a Taiwanese publication. Accompanying photos, of course.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, getting from Vienna to Kyiv took a little less than two hours in the air. But now the journey takes about two days, using all forms of transportation—train, car, bus, taxi—plus hours of waiting at borders and numerous checkpoints.
Still, I am finally home again from war-torn Ukraine. I dropped my helmet and body armor on the floor and tossed the clothes I have been wearing for almost a month into the washing machine. Besides the swooshing and the occasional thump from the machine, it’s eerily quiet, as always, at home, with the snowcapped Alps on the distant horizon. I watered my cacti, left a voice mail for my kids, and opened a bottle of red wine. I wanted to decompress and thought I could use a bit of intoxication. I fell asleep with my head on the kitchen table. But then the spinning of the washing machine became the air alarm siren in Ukraine, and I startled awake.
In the past thirty years, I have photographed conflicts in different parts of the world, but I am not a war photographer per se. Still, I have determined to document Russia’s evil invasion, for I fear Taiwan could be the next country to be attacked by a large and powerful neighbor. I want to share my observations and documentary coverage, particularly with the younger generation in Taiwan.
In early March, several days after entering Ukraine, I decided to be honest with my kids and let them know that I was in Ukraine, not Poland as I had told them before I left. But I promised them that I would be extra careful and that we would video-chat every night and I kept my promise during seven weeks and two trips to Ukraine. My children have kept my sanity intact, but every time I tried to move closer to the front line in the Donetsk region or the far south of Zaporizhzhia, where Russian soldiers are on the other side of the river, I hesitated, as I could hear the distant incoming and outgoing artillery from all directions.
Never pee in the woods, I was told, because I might step on a landmine or hit a booby trap. I was also reminded that a tampon could not stop catastrophic bleeding. As many times as I practiced the use of a tourniquet kit, I doubt I could use it in time if I were in shock. And shouldn’t I carry four tourniquet kits? After all, I have four limbs.
In the late afternoon of March 26, 2022 in Lviv, two Russian cruise missiles flew over my head and struck the oil depot ten kilometers away from the city center. After several loud, shattering and pounding explosions, thick black smoke billowed out of the depot throughout the night. The city was in an extremely tense mode with police and fire engine sirens screaming by from all directions.
Lviv, some 70 kilometers from the Polish border, had been considered safe. It was where most of the foreign diplomats had relocated from Kyiv weeks before the war. But clearly no place is absolutely safe or secure. There are about ten thousand calls a day about suspicious activities. The hunt for Russian saboteurs has always been clandestine and on high alert.
Perhaps it is the absurdity of my profession that I tend to run towards the places people are running away from. Yet I have never seen a nation that is so emotionally and strategically united, on every level of society, to fight the aggressor. The unjust war has also united Europe and the majority of the world’s democratic nations. Ukraine has earned and deserves this support and respect. There has been an outpouring of international donations, but just as important are all of the Ukrainians helping their own people since the invasion began.
As far as I am concerned, the war in Ukraine started in 2014 with Russian separatist militia in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and the Russian illegal annexation of Crimea. Thus the Ukrainian military has been fighting for eight years and has received military training from Western nations for those eight years!
Now, the international community is uneasily monitoring China’s support of its northern neighbor. Since both leaders in this strategic partnership are now without term limits, many see the European conflict as a mock-run for an invasion in Taiwan. Isn’t it a warning for everyone who lives next door to a puissant nation with a taste for empire? If Taiwan is under attack, will we have the will and courage to unite and fight at any cost? Will I hang up my camera and pick up a rifle?
Will the international communities come to help? Will foreign fighters join us to fight the aggressor? Two members of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense in Donetsk said to me that Ukrainians are aware that Taiwan could be attacked by China! If that happens, they said, we will come to defend Taiwan. I hugged them and raised my hand with my fist clenched. “I stand with Ukraine!”