Tension in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have seized control of government buildings in recent months, was already high on May 11. In Donetsk, one of the two largely Russian-speaking regions that was holding a referendum deemed illegal by Ukraine’s new government, residents were prompted for a yes or no to the question: “Do you support the act of self-rule for the People’s Republic of Donetsk?”
The vast majority of voters favored “self-determination,” according to the organizers, but it was a standoff outside a poll in the town of Krasnoarmeisk that showed how quickly confrontations can now turn deadly.
Paris-based Magnum photographer Jerome Sessini arrived at the town hall at around 3:30 p.m. Sessini has covered the unrest in Ukraine for months, from the protests and clashes in Kiev’s Independence Square to the March referendum in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which led to the quick annexation by Russia.
At the scene in Krasnoarmeisk were about 100 supporters of the breakaway movement who were eager to vote but had been barred after men identified as Ukrainian national guardsmen entered the building and pushed everyone out, sparking a protest.
A group of women loosely organized a poll in a nearby green space, but Sessini says most people were scared and opted against participation. Several men then went to speak with the guards. One of them whipped a protester in the face with the butt of a gun, Sessini recalls, thrusting the man down the steps and causing his head to violently hit the cement. Other people in the crowd pulled him away.
For a few seconds, Sessini says, “there was a dead silence.” Moments later, some people chanted “Why are you doing this? We just want to vote?” while others labeled the guards “Fascists!”
Less than an hour later, a group of people approached the entrance. A half-dozen armed men then appeared and pointed their guns at them, then began to shoot in the air. Sessini saw a man in front of him talking with the guards, then take a bullet to the leg. At the same time, the man next to Sessini dropped. The protester had been shot in the chin, right below his lips, and died quickly. Sessini promptly took cover behind a tree.
The crowd tended to the injured man, then returned to the guarded entrance once an ambulance had taken him away. A middle-aged man in jeans and a sleeveless, light blue shirt then appeared in Sessini’s viewfinder. The man had just thrown an object at the guards and was about to do it again. “He was very upset and he was protesting a lot since the beginning,” Sessini says. But just as he was about to wind up his arm, he was struck by a bullet.
It happened within the span of a few seconds, from the shot to falling near the other dead man to turning over, but Sessini captured it all. “You don’t have time to think, you just act by instinct,” he says.
Once he realized what had happened, he stopped taking pictures and ran with two journalists to the man’s aid. One tried to stop the bleeding as another cradled his head in his hands, trying to keep the wounded man awake. “We were trying to help him turn his body to stop the blood,” he recalls. “At one point, we saw that he didn’t have any reaction and the skin on his face was turning very white. And you can see in the eyes there was no reaction. No life.”
Three hours, and two killings, after Sessini arrived, he left. It was getting dark out, and therefore less safe, and it was all a lot for him to process. The next day, after he had watched a video of how the events unfolded, Sessini realized how close he was to it all. “I saw the moment when the guy was shot. I was standing right next to him,” he says. “It’s a strange feeling. I don’t know if I was lucky. I think that guy was shot by the sniper. It was not a random killing. I hope so, because the luck can turn.”
Sessini photographed their funerals on Tuesday. He learned their names and spoke with family members. He wanted to know more about the men he watched die, who were just there to vote. “One guy tried to throw one stone, one threw an egg, that’s it. They didn’t deserve to be killed.”
In recent days, Sessini says many people in the region told him they were participating in the illegal referendums not to pivot toward Russia, but as a show of force against the new government in Kiev. “It’s all about politics,” he says. “Normal people are always caught between politics and violence.”
Jerome Sessini is a French photojournalist represented by Magnum.
Andrew Katz is a homepage editor and reporter covering international affairs. Follow him on Twitter @katz.