Ukraine on foot: Two friends find what unites and divides
Two friends from the city of Lviv in western Ukraine can boast of having first-hand knowledge of the whole country.
First-foot, actually, because the two walked across a large part of Ukraine, from west to east.
It took Oleksandr Brama, a 29-yearold theatre director, and a 30-yearold actor Andriy Buchko over six months to travel from Ukraine’s western edge, the town of Chop, to the war front in eastern Donbas – mostly on foot.
The friends decided to take videos during their 1,500-kilometer trip and to make them into a documentary called “Enter UA” to showcase Ukraine. For them, the journey was in fact a piece of research into their homeland.
“The gist of this experiment was to see how Ukraine was changing with every city and village. We were looking for something common to all Ukrainians, which would be deeper than ethical, religious or social differences,” Brama told the Kyiv Post.
They came to a conclusion that “everyone is like a unique planet,” and people have to learn how to respect this diversity, and each other.
Buchko and Brama saved up Hr 225,717 ($8,615) for their trip: they invested Hr 150,000 that they had earned from a theater performance in Lviv, and raised Hr 75,717 through the Big Idea crowdfunding platform. Using the money, they bought a camera, a drone and other equipment they needed for the journey, and gave themselves a monthly budget of Hr 3,000 (about $115) to spend on food and other daily costs. They didn’t plan to spend anything on accommodation, as they expected either to stay in a tent, or at the homes of anyone willing to put them up for a night.
The two set out in early June from Chop, which is located on the border of Hungary, Ukraine and Slovakia. They say the first part of the journey, across the western Ukraine, was the least stressful, as the local way of life was familiar to that they were used to.
Volyn, Chornobyl and eastern Ukraine were quite different, however. They reached Volyn Oblast in the north-west of Ukraine by October. Initially they had planned to finish the trip by then, but the journey was taking longer than expected because filming and charging their equipment had slowed them down significantly.
“Black metal and noire,” is how Buchko and Brama described this region, located near the border with Belarus.
First of all, they found the area to be “quite isolated” because of poor infrastructure. The roads in the region are generally bad, they said, but some have been com- pletely destroyed by illegal amber mining, which was another thing that shocked them.
The region is very rich in amber, but there is no legislation to regulate its extraction. The uncontrolled illegal mining of the substance is leading to an ecological catastrophe in the region, because the miners cut down trees and make watery pits in the ground to harvest the amber.
After Volyn, they went to the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone in Kyiv Oblast, around the Chornobyl nuclear plant, where a reactor exploded in 1986, poisoning the area with radioactive fallout. They spent a week there, living in abandoned houses, where they found a lot of letters. The letters helped them “see what was invisible,” Brama said.
"Traveling through the dead villages, we imagined what life was like there all those years ago," he said.
Their next destination was eastern Ukraine. There, the two, who had never been to the Donbas before, wanted to see what life was like in the cities located close to the frontline of Russia’s war on Ukraine. It was winter already, so they gave up the idea of going on foot. It was too cold to live in a tent, and the couch surfing approach was not working for them in the eastern cities. Buchko and Brama switched to traveling by bus, and stayed either with people who had heard about their project through Facebook, or with soldiers.
They visited the port city of Mariupol, Kostyantynivka, Bakhmut, and Avdiyivka, located in Donetsk Oblast, and were amazed how differ- ent life was there compared to what they were used to in Lviv.
“The atmosphere we found there was very similar to that of the exclusion zone in Chornobyl,” Buchko told the Kyiv Post. “The atmosphere there is post-apocalyptic. It’s like a zone with its own rules — dead villages, the fields covered with wild grass. The houses are quite destroyed, and the empty lands are transforming into an area for looters. It is an analogy that appears at the emotional level, as a mix of different feelings, such as fear and discomfort.”
After spending a month in the eastern cities, Buchko and Brama returned to Lviv in February.
“Now I just remember the positive moments about this adventure, all the hard things that we had to overcome have dissolved in my memory,” Buchko said, adding that for a while they were “too overwhelmed with everything we had experienced,” and couldn’t share stories of the trip even with their family and friends.
But Buchko and Brama are now ready to share their experience, so they are working on a documentary performance that would combine screenings of their videos, and a theatrical play. The budget for the performance is Hr 700,000, and they are still Hr 200,000 short and looking for funding. However, they plan to present “Enter UA” by the end of the year in Lviv, and say they are inspired by the people they met on their trip.
“Individuality and diversity are exactly the things we tried to document. Still, there is one fundamental thing which unites us – every one of us wants to be happy,” Brama said.
Oleksandr Brama (L) and Andriy Buchko pose for a photograph near the road sign at the border of Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast in western Ukraine in July. (Courtesy)
Oleksandr Brama holds a cat on his shoulder in Rzhyshchiv, a city in Kyiv Oblast, in December. (Courtesy)