Sergey Ponomarev, Russia

Photographer, Pulitzer Prize winner, the New York Times

Sergey Ponomarev is a Russian photographer. In the last 20 years, he not only covered significant incidents in Russia and beyond, including Euromaidan in Kiev but also wars that took place in Donbass and Syria. His work has won several prizes documenting the European refugee crisis, Gaza and Iraq. He now lives in Istanbul.

Perspectives on Staying and Leaving in war

In this episode, I present two guests whose countries are in conflict. Tatyana is a Ukrainian pioneer of family mediation and has stayed in Ukraine. Sergey Ponomarev is an award-winning Russian photographer and has left Russia. This episode includes readings of two letters written by Tatyana. The letters are about how Tatyana’s life has been affected by conflict and how she uses her mediation knowledge and skills in coping. Following the readings is an interview between me and Sergey about the challenges he experienced leaving his home and starting his life from scratch in a new country. Both stories have common themes i.e both disbelieved there would be a war and both used the same words ‘starting from scratch’ to describe building a new life in a new country. It addresses their suffering, resilience and connectedness.


Welcome back to another program of `we can find a way`, a podcast about conflict resolution. My name is Idil Elveris. I am a mediator based in London and Istanbul. In this podcast I cover many issues about conflict that involve negotiation; workplace conflicts; pschology of conflict; societal conflict and restorative justice and much more.

This is a bilingual podcast and I have put episodes in English in a separate playlist for everybody to find. Please follow, write a review as this helps the podcast to be found easily in search engines.

Now, in this episode of WeCanFindAWay, I will present you the stories of two persons whose countries are in conflict. One of them is from Ukraine and she stayed in her country while the other is from Russia and he had to leave.

First, I will give the floor to my mediator colleague Tatyana Bilyk who is still in Kiev. She will speak through two letters where she describes how her life has been affected by this conflict and how she uses her mediation knowledge and skills in coping. The first letter of 14 March has been translated to many languages and shared in many mediation communities. I was one of those asked to translate the letter so I translated it to Turkish. Then she wrote the second letter on 29 March. I have her permission to read them in this episode. Tatyana is a pioneer of family mediation in Ukraine. She was accredited in the UK and worked on resolving family conflicts and crisis. She also trained and supervised mediators in Ukraine. Her letters are read by Suzan Tokcan.

When this war started, I also wanted to do something, just like many mediators. Thanks to being part of the mediation community here in UK, Tatyana’s letter found me with her story. As someone who believes in restorative justice, I thought what I could do was to enable storytelling in this conflict. Being from Turkey, I knew that Russians were leaving their country for Istanbul. So now I had to find a Russian with a story. Thanks to my journalist photographer friend Ahmet Sel, I found that person.

Sergey Ponomarev is a Russian photographer. I interviewed him via Zoom on 27 April 2022 after meeting him in Istanbul for the first time. In the last 20 years, he not only covered significant incidents in Russia and beyond, including Euromaidan in Kiev but also wars that took place in Donbass and Syria. With his work, he won several prizes documenting the European refugee crisis, Gaza and Iraq. He now lives in Istanbul.

What struck me when I read the letters and made the interview was the common themes that emerged from the stories. These two persons never met each other yet they talked about similar things. Both disbelieved initially that there would be a war. Then, home was a common theme like leaving home; the ability/inability to return home; the feelings surrounding home; dying at home. Third, they talked about the community and how much information sharing there was among communities who tried to cope with the same things. Lastly, they both used the same words to describe life in another country as “starting from scratch”.

Maybe you can spot more themes when you listen to this episode. Maybe you know other people whose lives have been affected by this conflict. If you do and they would like me to collect and share their stories, please let me know. I will start with Tatyana’s letters and then comes the interview with Sergey.

Just today while I’m writing these lines, the battle for Kyiv is taking place. A high-rise building was shelled at night, from which people have been evacuated all this morning. This building is very close to my house. My parents and brother with his family left their home that night due to the fact that their village had already been captured by Russian troops and military operations were taking place there. My family, my children and I made the decision to stay in Kyiv to support each other and get through this crisis together. Till that time, I have received and continue to receive many worried messages from relatives and friends that I urgently need to leave Kyiv as well. This is the difficult state in which I am now writing this post for the Facebook page[1] set up by my colleague in Belgium. Her initiative to create a page about the events taking place in our country is one of the signs of humanity which is not available to all people. It is not enough just to be born with two arms and legs in order to be a human, a person needs to make a lot of effort to become one.

I am grateful for the opportunity to share my perspective as a professional mediator on what is happening in Ukraine, as well as to talk about how the war has affected my life and the lives of other mediators, and whether it has changed my idea of ​​myself as a mediator.

Today is the 19th day of the war, everybody has changed, and those who left and those who remained in the country will never be the same as they were before the war, and it is important to accept this. We are facing with an abyss, fog, uncertainty, no one knows how it will end personally for each of us and for the whole country, but only accepting reality as it is, can give such an important sense of certainty for us.

A huge number of people (today this figure reached 2.7 million people) have left the country. The war has deprived many people of their homes, careers, jobs, and hundreds of thousands of professionals around the world are now faced with the need to start life anew almost from scratch, being in need of money and for many people having lack of language knowledge. This also applies to mediators who have already left the country or have been evacuated from places where hostilities are taking place. And every day the number of professional mediators who have left their homes is growing, as the air raid alert is already sounding in most regions of Ukraine.

I was one of those who, until the last moment, did not believe that the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine was possible. It is so difficult to hear Russian propaganda about their coming to save us and at the same time we are being killed in our own homes. Mass burying of civilians have already begun in the yards of those who used to live there. Russian troops shell hospitals, schools, churches, and houses of civilians. It is unbearable to watch this and there are no words to justify what is happening.

Now I am a volunteer and every day I conduct crisis consultations for everyone who finds themselves in a difficult psychological state, distribute food and medicine for those who cannot leave the house or need help. Now there are many psychological consultations with women who have had to leave to save their children from the horrors of the war; with people who have remained in the country and are experiencing panic attacks, horror and depression from constant tension, hiding in basements and bomb shelters; with those who are tormented between the desire to save themselves, their families and the duty to stay with those who cannot leave, to support the country and the army. Working with these people, I don’t have the strength to help them make decision, to get through something or not to, if they don’t want it themselves, but I know for sure that the resources of the psyche are huge and our ability to survive and experience the terrible is simply colossal. Something simply unimaginable is happening at the moment, which is impossible to watch without tears. Or not even crying, because tears are already some way out, but just looking and feeling nothing. And then spitting, crying out, speaking out during consultations, otherwise a person is torn apart from the inside by a lot of accumulated deep feelings.

Just like my clients, I, being inside the situation, live through all the same stages of mourning from denial to acceptance of reality, filled with strong feelings of fear, pain, anger, disgust, depression, that allow me to stay in contact with the clients, showing empathy and concern for those who seek help. When I understand that I contain too many of my emotions, I turn to those who are dear and important to me for help and support, rest or even leave contact for a while to be able to live my deep feelings, which at other times would be abnormal, but absolutely normal now in the conditions of this abnormal reality. In the most difficult moments, I really want to just disappear and break all contacts, caring only about myself. However, empathy and sympathy for other people is a great value that fills and does not deplete a person at all. Life in a crisis should make sense, then the psyche has an answer how to live when it is unbearably painful and hard.

Conducting psychological consultations, I observe some changes in family relationships, and where there is mutual understanding and common values, this strengthens relationships and the family, and where marriage partners try to cope with intrapersonal conflicts on their own, they move away from each other, exacerbating the feelings of war. When I think about those who have left the country, I assume that not everyone will want to return to the place where their homes are broken, and family relationships are destroyed. For me, as a family mediator working with cross-border cases, this situation can add work, realizing that children will again suffer the most.

Going through this crisis from the inside, I and other family mediators have a chance to understand new meanings of what is happening in family relationships and create new tools for working with these types of conflicts. What we are living through now can give strength and the ability to stay in touch and be present even where before that it was unbearable not only to work, but even to be present.

Personally for me, one of my limitations in the work of a family mediator was the presence of an exorbitant amount of hatred of one side of the conflict for the other, it was extremely difficult for me to maintain a neutral position in such cases and be effective in the mediation process. The amount of aggression and hatred that is now being heard from almost every inhabitant of our country is due to the incredible amount of fear, anxiety, and helplessness that we all face in this war. And this anger helps us defend ourselves against the invasion of the occupants and save our territory. At the same time, when defending from monsters, it is important not to turn ourselves into these monsters, who will then destroy everything surrounding, including our values ​​and freedom, which we are now all fighting together for. And this is one of the most important tasks facing the mediators of our country: how after going through all these sufferings, not to fall into despair? and how can we turn the war that enters us into the peace that comes out of us? We now have a unique opportunity to learn how to live within anxiety so that we can then act as a peacemaker.

Now we are all standing on the edge of the abyss, and all of us face our own thresholds when we are going through this crisis, but only by going through it on our own, and save our humanity, we have the opportunity to become useful to those who will need the help of mediators after the war. This is a process when something immeasurable enters us, passes through unbearable feelings, and comes out already as immense. But the humanity remains. This is some another person, but whole enough to be useful to other people.

War is an invasion into our lives, which we reflexively want to defend ourselves from, but only the humanity of the people around us gives hope for a miracle.

“In the dark times you can clearly see the stars!” Right now, in our dark times of the war, we can clearly see who is next to us and why; what is valuable to us and who we can share our life with. Many of my colleagues mediators from different countries, those who are in touch with me every day, support my volunteer activities emotionally and financially, have lit up for me in the role of such stars. So much humanity around me allows me to go through this crisis, sometimes completely horrible and deadly, to maintain the courage to follow my heart, showing peace and goodness.

This article is dedicated to my family, friends, and colleagues.


Below is the second letter of 29th March 2022:

I write about myself and what is happening around me so that those, who are interested in the way we live now, can find out about it. Due to the fact that my last article was translated into different languages and published in different publishing houses of mediation communities, colleagues from different countries text and ask me how they can support us in this fight against the occupiers.

Recently, I have noticed such phenomenon of my psyche: when I am flooded with a feeling of powerlessness and can’t endure the situation any more, then phone messages from those in need and even worse conditions give me strength to continue acting.

“… Could you conduct a consultation with a young mother who wants to commit suicide?”,

“… The father who is left with a two-year-old child urgently needs help: diapers, baby food, clothes”,

“… Please help with food and medicine, I have no job, I live with my mother with a disability”,

“… It is necessary to tape the windows in the house of elderly people: a bedridden man, 82 years old, with his wife, 69 years old, who cannot leave their home”,

“… Please help evacuate families with young children from the war zone, they need money”,

“… We can’t cope, we need a vehicle to evacuate the wounded”,

“… Help my mother, she is in a state of shock after the evacuation from Mariupol, we have barely escaped, but there is grief in our family”,

and every day these messages are getting worse and worse…

It may sound paradoxical, but the state of well-being returns when you start working. Meeting with reality, an honest look at it requires a certain amount of sanity and courage. It is impossible to come to terms with the war, and every time an explosion rumbles, tears roll from my eyes, a lot of pain appears at the thought that someone’s house is now being destroyed like the house of my parents and someone died like some friends and relatives of my colleagues. And then the anxiety of waiting for information about the dead and photos from the explosion field with torn apart residential buildings.

Today I have read the news from “Ukraine Today”: “Four villages in the Kiev region are on the verge of the humanitarian catastrophe due to the constant shelling from Russian troops.” My parents lived in one of these villages, and we managed to take them and my brother’s family out when the occupiers were already in their area. Only God knows whether they will be able to return to their home and whether the war will wipe all life in this village out of existence.

With all this horror, nevertheless, the psyche begins to adapt, and I notice that my reactions are slowly starting to change. Instead of the primary stupor and fading, there is already some resource to withstand the stress under the weight of this reality, and it becomes possible to support those, whose reality is even harder than mine. The psyche tries to accommodate new knowledge about the world and about people, but sometimes overload happens and therefore the fuses are forced to turn on. It still takes time for the old coping strategies to adjust to the new reality, and I increasingly discover in myself some defense mechanisms that previously were inaccessible to my awareness and I am trying to approach this more consciously, thus giving myself support. One of the ways to support myself today in war conditions is the mobilization-relaxation formula, that works like inhaling and exhaling. In order to have something to give to others, you need to learn taking, that means – to do something for yourself, at least the simplest (eating hot food, sleeping under a warm blanket, hugging your loved one), these are moments of peace to survive and be able to live on, but becoming not a petrified creature, but remaining in contact with my own feelings.

Before the war, I managed a project to provide a family mediation in cooperation with social services and family centers in Kyiv. In addition, the League of Mediators of Ukraine is a resident of the Veteran Hub organization, which provided support to ATO veterans (Anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine from 2014) and their families. More than 50 family mediators worked in our organization, providing family mediation services free of charge to all families in need. Working with the families of veterans who fought in the Donbass and were in a family crisis, it was difficult to fully understand their experiences associated with participation in hostilities. Now we are all “ours” and there is more understanding of these emotions and the level of stress that people face finding themselves in a war. And the conflicts with relatives become more unbearable and sharper, when each person is waiting for support. In such situations of family crisis, the world collapses not only outside, but also inside, because in terms of stress, divorce gets the second place after the death of a loved one. The very touch of this issue in family mediation causes too much pain and despair in a person. This is a physical feeling of being torn to pieces, emptiness, and loneliness, as if someone died, or you, or your loved one, or the whole world, feels as if nothing else is left. And this is what we will face in our work more and more often in the near future.

Now I am a volunteer, and likewise many of my colleagues, I am doing what is most needed now in the current reality, but I hope that psychologists tell the truth that professional competencies are the last to collapse even with psychosis and dementia, and therefore I can return to my work as a family mediator as soon as it is necessary for Ukrainian families.

We also continue to keep in touch with each other and together with the Association of Family Mediators of Ukraine, which I am a founder of, we are now collecting information about all our members to understand who is where, who stayed in Ukraine, and who went to some other place, who needs help, who and which way is ready to help volunteers. Now everyone is left without a job and livelihood, and many mediators with children are forced to live in other houses, cities, countries and build their lives from scratch. Physically, they are safe, but psychologically, many of them are in very difficult conditions.

Due to the information war, we lack information about what is really happening in our country right now: the real number of dead people, the real political situation and what will happen tomorrow and when this war will end, we don’t know anything. Those who stayed in Ukraine live here, where explosions are heard every day, and we see corpses lying near the blown-up houses, and this is our reality. When the brain draws pictures of the humanitarian crisis in Kyiv, ideas come up on how to protect ourselves and others from such consequences, and I really hope that we will continue to be able to get food and medicine to those in need, and in every possible way help those who could not leave the city for various reasons.

Many countries support us in the fight against Russian aggression, collecting humanitarian aid and sending essential goods and medicines to the civilian population, as well as hosting our refugees in their homes. We can observe a large number of different good initiatives around the world, and my colleagues and friends from different countries also support us emotionally and financially. Thanks to your support we can help our people, and thanks to you, I can save myself by saving others.

IE-Can you please tell me about your life before this war? What were you doing?

SP-Well, the life before war was quite fun, although and before even the Pandemic, I used to travel 300 days a year, and then we got all locked with the Pandemic and I had to shift my work in my context and my expertise to Russia. I did several nice projects in Russia during the Pandemic, and I published a book about the city scapes of empty Moscow during the lockdown, and I’ve been working on stories in Russia. When the news about the troop build up started to appear in the media, we also focused on what’s going on there and some kind of a troop movement, etc. There was a news alert that refugees started to come from separatist held republics to Russia. On some strange notice, there might be a Ukrainian invasion or something. So basically I went to south in Russia to Rostov region to document this small influx of refugees. I think there was about  thousands, not more than that, mostly women with kids and elders.

So when the war started, I was still in the south of Russia near the border with separatist republics, et cetera. I woke up from the call of my fixer who said, like, where should we go? It’s a war now, it has started. And I told him, “we’re not going anywhere”. The ball, the news is on that side. It’s not on our side anymore. So no one would be interested in stories happening inside Russia because there is already an invasion. There is a war in Ukraine. I just went back to Moscow, realized that the laws and the mood in the country is becoming much more grim and the laws are becoming tough. So even though the government forbid to name a war “war”, the censorship laws were as if the country is in a war stage. Once we heard just rumors about the new law that forbid naming war as such, and it also threatens those who still do this, jailing for 15 years. That was a clear censorship act, and I decided that OK, that it’s time to leave.

IE: You have stated that nobody would be interested in a story in Russia. Can you elaborate on that?

SP: Because before, it was this refugee exodus, troops build up on the border and context was the build up, the preparation for war was just bluffing you know or just political games. But once the war started, yes, no one is interested. I mean, the troops have already started their move. The next story, are the protest in Moscow, they happened, but in a very small scale. And all of the protesters were immediately detained and they could not even come together to have a voice. So police were just grabbing anyone suspicious walking on the streets. And then they moved even further that they started to check the smartphones. So they were demanding to unlock the phone and show what kind of chats you have, what kind of news channels you read, et cetera. If they see some pro Ukrainian ones, so then you probably will be suspected. They can arrest you or send you to jail, and then they can accuse you of anything they want. Not only censorship against the journalist, just blanket censorship about any different way of thinking or just normal intention of a person to have several sources of information.

So I’m a photographer, so I document what is visual and what is really happening, and it should happen in front of me or I need to be just there. So as an independent journalist, I can’t be embedded with Russian troops. There is only a state owned media who were able to go there and also documenting things on the streets became at some point very difficult and dangerous for journalists, even though we were clearly marked with press ID, with vest, etc. The press are looking like yellow vests in France. No matter that, the police became very tough to journalists as well.

IE: How long did it take you to leave Russia then after you said to yourself, “it’s time to leave, I’ve got to go”.

SP: Got a call, got a notice from my editors who said that we have some reports that there is going to be some tough decisions against journalists and you need to consider leaving. And then I just called several of my friends to try to confirm that independently. I called three or four who are in Russia and who are outside Russia, and they all confirmed that their sources are also saying something. At that moment, we thought that it would be a marshal law and the borders will be closed for all males from 18 to 55 although it turned the other way. And I decided within a couple of hours. I just bought a ticket to the flight next morning, and I went to talk to my colleagues at the Dorsht Channel who got the notice about the closure almost at the same time when I came there. And they were also considering what their next step is going to be, and they decided that they have to leave. So some of my colleagues bought the tickets to the same flight, and we all left together about ten journalists on the same flight from Moscow to Istanbul.

IE: Did you have a chance to say goodbye to your family and friends?

SP: I spoke to my family, yeah. And I spoke to my girlfriend, so she was there when I was packing my stuff. And so I had a feeling that, I mean when I was packing, I just dropped a sight to some places, and I thought “probably I’ll never see these things back”. I had some feeling. I don’t know why, but it’s really gonna to give me a kick to understand that this exile might go for a long time, and I need to praise and prepare for that. Just not to leave any sentiments and hopes just be ready for a long run.

IE: And how did you do that?

SP: I just did. Once you decide, you just do that. Yeah. No doubts, no sentiments. Just go. It’s a feminine thing. Send to me and later, like, you cancel them and never come back.

IE: So what are the difficult things that you experience in your new life in Istanbul?

SP: Well, you have to start your life from scratch. And it also was a knife in the back when Visa and Mastercard disconnected Russian banks from their service. So when I came to Istanbul, I had only my Russian Bank. And I just realized that my cars will turn to plastic in a couple of days, and I need to take all my money from account, take cash out of ATMs. So I just woke up and run from one ATM to another. And same did, I think probably thousands of Russians all over the world. We just,  emptied all the ATMs in one day. It was really hard. I mean, all ATMs in the downtown were empty. So I had to go to suburbs or to big shopping malls to try to get cash out of there. And I was tolerating even terrible withdrawal fees from the ATM and from my bank because I just realized that either I pay this price or the next day the price might be even higher.

And then I started to build my new life from scratch. So just get a new insurance, get a new bank account, get a new flat, get a residency permit, get travel permits, visas, et cetera, et cetera. So everything that you usually do one thing and at a time, now I had to do everything at once.

IE: So how do you resolve any problems that you run into?

SP: It’s surprising but right now we have a very good and helpful community. I see that everywhere in these cities who received the influx of Russians in Istanbul and in Tbilisi and Belgrade, Yerevan or other places. So we have chats, we have guides, we have teams of people who constantly work on updating and rewriting the guides that can help to find the furniture, to find a real estate agent, to find where to make everything from a booster shot or first shot of the scene up to where to find a manicure. So all that stuff, we share all useful information that we get ourselves, and we just put that into some chats. And there are some people who are organizing this, and your life is now easily written in a guide. So what I did, I just opened the relevant chapter in that guide about settling in Turkey, and there was a to do list. So I just did that.

IE: You mentioned Belgrade, Tbilisi, Yerevan, Istanbul. What do you think these cities have in common?

SP: Well, historically, some of them were also main cities of White exodus 100 years ago. And also it looks like a belt around Russia of those Russians who are now not accepting the present policies of their country. I can add Riga, Vilnius, Berlin and Paris at some extent, but just comparing to them all, I think Paris is way too expensive.

IE: Yeah. How do you see the reaction of people in Russia in this conflict so far, like normal people on the street?

SP: Well, I’m very surprised, but this is a part of human nature and psychology that I see some people are kind of… we all see the atrocities of the war. We all see those crimes that Russian troops are committing in Ukraine. But some people want to believe and admit this. And there are a lot of people who don’t want to admit and understand that their country is doing this, and they tend to name all that as a fake. And it’s kind of easier way of thinking that it’s not true, it’s not true, and it doesn’t exist. And you just disconnect yourself from this kind of news. And there was also a theory of small deeds, but we all were sharing at some point, like we should do good things, but on a small scale and in general, it will do a better picture. I see that probably some people are still going and doing that. You can do that at some extent, but not for all, for long and not in a state of war. You can turn blind when you see those atrocities. And some people really tolerate that. They disconnect themselves from the news environment entirely. That’s the human nature. Your brain doesn’t want to admit this. Probably the same thing was happening in Germany. I heard that some people were asked, like, why did they never saw the chimneys of Auschwitz? And they said, “we just didn’t turn our heads that way”.

IE: Lastly, what do you think can be the role of normal people on both sides in dealing with this conflict in future?

SP: Honestly, I have no idea how to deal with that, because I think that in a war environment and with the propaganda, both sides fall into the rabbit hole and you can’t get out. I have no idea how we can now talk to Ukrainians and how Ukrainians can talk to us. This is a dead end. I have no idea how it will turn out.

IE: But there are many people who are married to Ukrainians in Russia and vice versa.

SP: Yes, they are. And I spoke to many of them. They just prefer to save their families, live together, but to live in the third country. Ukrainians can’t live in Moscow, Russians can’t leave in Ukraine. So if they want to save their families, many of them just decided to leave and leave whatever they can in Turkey, Georgia, Serbia, whatever.

IE: So you don’t know how this can start.

SP: You mean the reconciliation and dialogue?

IE: Yeah.

SP: I think it would start at some point, but just you need to remove those things that prevent: people who started this war.

IE: If that doesn’t change, can you think of a way that where dialogue can start between the peoples, for instance?

SP: Yes. I understand.

IE: Maybe you run into a Ukrainian in Istanbul. I don’t know if there are many but..

SP: There are some….But I mean, we Russians will always have to apologize. And Ukrainians also just need to understand that not all Russians are supporting the war and all of them will want to wear this Z sign or something. So basically, on a human level, you have to show who you are at first.

IE: And how do you do that?

SP: I personally wear a Ukrainian pin. Ukrainian flag.

IE: Do you?

SP: Yes.

IE: Did you get any reaction to your pin already?

SP: Yeah. A lot of people say that it’s cool.

Speaker D: Okay. Thank you very much.

SP: It’s a pleasure to talk to you and thank you for just poking me to do that.

When I listened to their stories, I felt there was suffering but obviously of different kinds, resilience and connectedness. This reminded me of an article by John Braithwaite “Putin’s war: restorative reflections” which I read recently and will include as a link in Podpage of this episode.

I will upload pictures of Tatyana and Sergey in the Instagram account of  #WeCanFindAWay. I will share some excerpts from the program in Instagram Stories as I always do.

I would like to close by thanking musician Imre Hadi and artist Zeren Göktan who allowed me to use their materials.

Thank you and see you in the next program.