The Waiting Game

Torpshammar, Sweden. July 5th, 2016. Zakera, 24, Mahdi, 28, and their son Taha, 3, pose for a portrait at one of Mahdi’s favourite fishing spots in the village of Viskan, Torpshammer. The family is from Afghanistan and was previously housed at a ski resort above Sweden’s Arctic circle.

Torpshammar, Sweden. July 5th, 2016. Zakera, 24, Mahdi, 28, and their son Taha, 3, pose for a portrait at one of Mahdi’s favourite fishing spots in the village of Viskan, Torpshammer. The family is from Afghanistan and was previously housed at a ski resort above Sweden’s Arctic circle.

"and eat and drink until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from the black thread. Then complete your Sawm (fast) till the nightfall" [Al-Qur'an 2:187]

These are the rules laid out by the Quran for fasting, but here in the land of the midnight sun, the white thread appears firmly woven into the rolling hills of the horizon. At 3AM, the forests of Sweden’s Norrland remain coated in the soft glow of the sun, the local lake shimmering in an ethereal calm. It is the last day of Ramadan and many of the refugees based at this camp in Torpshammar are eager to end their daily 23 hour fast.

This is not the only challenge that the thousands of refugees based in Northern Sweden have had to face. We are reunited with Mahdi, Zakera and Taha, an Afghan family who we had visited at their previous temporary housing - a ski resort deep inside Sweden’s Arctic circle. Mahdi, describes how many of the refugees at the centre fell into depression “ we had many mental health issues here, the sun would never come in the winter and we had nothing to do - just 3 hours of Swedish language classes a week”.

Torpshammar, Sweden, July 5th 2016. Local couple Eva Nordin and Tomas Persson. They, like many in the area, are car enthusiasts, spending their free time fixing up old cars to race on the weekends.

Torpshammar, Sweden, July 5th 2016. Local couple Eva Nordin and Tomas Persson. They, like many in the area, are car enthusiasts, spending their free time fixing up old cars to race on the weekends.

When we spoke to Mahdi in April, he described how the refugees felt unwelcome in the local community, “we would say salam or hej and they would just turn and go back into their houses”. Goran, a refugee from Kurdish Syria, with a deep set brow and imposing frame, smiles as he leans on a walking stick; he is watching three local men drive their vintage American cars past their accommodation, country music blaring from the windows. This local rural community, who gather in the evenings at the local bar Happy Days (named after the American show) had, until last year, almost no cultural diversity. Now, the refugees outnumber the locals and for such a previously isolated community, it isn't surprising that many of them felt uncertain of how to act towards their new guests. Today, the local community and the refugees get on along, with some of the children playing in local football teams and locals involved in the maintenance of the centres. Eva Nordin a local resident reflects on the initial reaction from the community “ I know some people who thought there were too many at once, but now many of us recognize that it could be us who need help one day, and so we should do our best to help them”.

The monotony of life in the camp is palpable; even the menu has remained the same since they arrived many months ago. “We have had the same Chinese dish of noodles with chicken everyday since we arrived, for both lunch and dinner” says Mahdi. He now fills his time by fishing at the local lake, but he would rather be learning Swedish and looking for work. “We want to be useful citizens, we want to learn Swedish; I want to be a nurse, my wife a nurse and my son wants to be a policeman”. The issue for Mahdi, is that the asylum process has left his family in a no-mans land between being granted the safety of permanent residency or being sent back to Afghanistan. They have regularly asked how long it will be before they are given a decision - the estimates vary between 1-5 years.

The emotional stress has had an effect on Zakera, who was being treated for depression. She is now pregnant and the summer light has lifted her spirits but she appears more measured, different to the woman we had met in February. She had asked us then what the shopping was like in Stockholm; she was eager to head south to one of Sweden’s larger cities. Now, 6 months later, their reality appears very different to the one they had wished for.

Their journey to Sweden was particularly dangerous; they had travelled with many other families all the way from Afghanistan to the northernmost point of Sweden. Thieves on the Iranian border had threatened their lives and crossing the Mediterranean they had been forced to hold their child above their heads in an effort to persuade the Greek coastguard to rescue them. Taha, is 3 now, and has thoroughly enjoyed himself since he arrived; playtime has been never-ending, allowing him to spend most of the day as his alter ego - Batman. Mahdi pauses to catch him as he jumps off the bunk bed, he looks at his son and concludes, “the most important thing is we are all safe and we are grateful for that”.


To read about the family's previous experience in the Arctic ski resort click on the link below;

Juvenile Penitentiary

Jenya, the Warden, sits at the head of the long, worn wooden table and recites the prison rules; the guards, like the room, sit in a clumsy array of extravagant regalia. Perched beneath a dusty, crooked picture of the country's President, Jenya loosens his tie; his face softens as he finishes his monologue, he corrects his hair by flattening it onto his forehead and suddenly switching to English asks us to follow him. We are visiting a penitentiary centre, in Prylucky, situated in the Chernihiv Oblast of Ukraine, to find out why so many juvenile prisoners go on to spend a life in-and-out of the prison system; a system where, in some areas, they are statistically more likely to contract HIV than not.

The guards lead the way, their large official hats sitting awkwardly on their heads. We walk in the uneven shadow of the old prison, a huge building deemed to unsafe to use, it’s dilapidated stone front slowly crumbling into the immaculately pruned courtyard below. Inside the main building, the corridors are lined with artwork, the standard is particularly high; later, whilst visiting the dorms, we see one piece done in pencil, that depicts a boy sitting, gazing through half worn-out prison bars onto a beautiful meadow; the boy who drew this had told the Warden what it means - “even if I am locked up here, in my mind, I can be free”. We enter a room where the inmates sit quietly around a circular table; they are wearing oversized bright blue jumpsuits and all have shaved heads. As our eyes begin to adjust to the generic prison uniform their features begin to become more pronounced. The psychologist starts his group session, he is full of life, animated and energetic; his eyes are kind and later he talks to me about the emotional attachment he forms to these kids.  The smallest boy in the group is the only one to interact, he soon walks off to get a kettle for some tea and the boys sit in silence. The moment lingers uneasily and draws to our attention the vacant expressions that the boys wear; their eyes appear unfocused, betraying no emotion. They obediently do as they are told, but until they are left alone, they give little away.

The atmosphere is soporific; the guards yawn regularly, slouching on the cheap plastic chairs. The boys move on to attend a sermon held by a local church group. A collection of around 8 priests talk to the boys from a stage, singing and gesticulating whilst the boys stare blankly back. The boys are an obedient audience, they sing every hymn and recite every prayer; afterwards one of the boys claims that religion will form the rules for which he will lead his life by. The boys have committed a range of crimes from murder and rape to petty theft, but all of them will carry the stigma of having spent much of their youth in this institution, for the rest of their life. This makes it hard to find employment, and the church, is often, the only place where they can seek support - the only alternative to committing another crime and going back to prison where they will be given food and shelter.

The afternoon’s group session is on HIV; the psychologist is debunking some of the myths that the boys have picked up. He tells them that HIV cannot be transmitted by mosquito bites, shaking hands or through the air. These boys belong to an incredibly vulnerable group in society; many of the ex-juvenile prisoners have been exposed to intravenous drugs when they leave. You sense that behind the nods, the prayers, and the obedience lays their human side; a side they are too afraid to show. Perhaps that’s why their artwork is so impressive and why so many turn to drugs in the outside world – as a form of escapism.

Drug use is rife in prison and the government refuses to provide prisoners with substitution therapy, meaning it is almost impossible for prisoners to rid themselves of their addiction. The lack of clean syringes in prisons is one of the key drivers behind the countries HIV epidemic. As one ex-convict we met later in Dnipropetrovs’k said “it felt strange when I left prison; inside most of us seem to have HIV, but when I came out suddenly I felt like I was sick, like it was not normal”.

The Network

Roman, 31, is peaking, he leans his head back and has his mouth open. Behind him is the dealer's house and behind that the 'shooting gallery'. Kyiv, Ukraine. April 17th, 2016.

Roman, 31, is peaking, he leans his head back and has his mouth open. Behind him is the dealer's house and behind that the 'shooting gallery'. Kyiv, Ukraine. April 17th, 2016.

Spal’niy raio, a Russian expression that translates as sleeping area, is often used to describe the district we find ourselves in this muggy Sunday afternoon. A bland, unkempt and culturally vacuous no-mans land that despite its central location isn't served by the city's extensive metro system. We sit in a soulless café on the third floor of a shopping centre with Roman, a heavy drug user who is here to stock up on Methadone. He shifts awkwardly in his seat whilst keeping his eyes fixed on a small screen that is playing endless Romanian pop videos. He is waiting for Konstantin, who is always late; he assures us he is 5 minutes away, every 5 minutes, for an hour and a half. 

Konstantin is a Doctor, social worker and bar manager; as a drug user during the 90s he has seen many of his friends die from AIDS. He suffers from Hepatitis C and has now devoted most of his time to helping drug users test, and take the necessary precautions to avoid a similar fate. He is instantly recognizable as he steps outside of a taxi - standing at around 6'5, his jeans hang loose around his emaciated waist; a facial trauma he suffered during the Chechen conflict coupled with regular drug use has left him with one glass eye and a gaunt complexion.

The unsafe use of intravenous drugs was the key driver behind the HIV/AIDS epidemic that blighted Ukraine in the mid 90s. Now, largely due to the side effects of the recent conflict, the country is looking at another sustained period of increased HIV and Hepatitis C transmissions. The conflict with Russia in Crimea and anti-government separatists in the Donbas region has put an enormous stress on the vulnerable groups in society. Many young soldiers – which include conscripts and volunteers – are returning with posttraumatic stress as well as the 1.5 million internally displaced refugees who often find it hard to find a job or suitable housing. The answer, for many of these people, is to seek an escape in the form of cheap, homemade drugs.

We have convinced Roman to show us how the drug scene in Kyiv operates; we are all nervous, including Konstantin, who has brought his girlfriend, Natasha, also a doctor, along for support. We enter an off license; the owner throws a knowing look across at us and goes back to doing nothing. There is a queue for the cash machine at the back of the store; everyone is here for the same purpose - to deposit money to his or her drug dealer. 

Roman leads the pack as we walk down one of Kyiv's main roads; the constant drone of traffic drowns out any conversation. A small yellow bus screeches to a halt, breaking far too late and accelerating far too quickly; for locals this is an area that everyone has passed but very few have visited. After 15 minutes in the baking sunshine we turn left into a leafy neighborhood, the tree lined avenues, throw a welcome shadow over the dusty streets. Roman, is fair skinned and now the effects of the sun are showing on his skin, a film of sweat lies across the back of his red hair, it hasn't helped that he has insisted on wearing a hooded sweatshirt despite the heat. He is uncomfortable but appears focused; soon, 17 floors high and overlooking Kyiv's skyline he will find his peace.

The area is not as we had expected, the sound of children playing and the sights of trees in full blossom makes it feel vaguely idyllic. A young girl with pigtails swerves past us on a scooter, heading towards the local playground. Three young men walk behind her, they are all wearing sports clothes, one of them is missing his hand and forearm, his stump appearing just below his sleeve. This is our first exposure to the side effects of Krokodil, an incredibly toxic drug, cooked using household pharmaceutical products. It was first registered in Siberia around 2003, as an alternative to heroine after a government crackdown, and has since spread to Ukraine. If a user misses their vein during use, the surrounding flesh will die and rot; the smell, Konstantin assures us, is unbearable.

A google earth screen grab of the 'sleeping area'.

A google earth screen grab of the 'sleeping area'.

The area is divided into two types of buildings; tall modern apartment blocks and low dilapidated buildings built by German POWs after WW2. The cosmetic effect of the spring sun and cherry blossom is wearing off as Roman stops outside a garden of one of the older houses, inviting us to sit on some garden furniture ensnared by the surrounding shrubbery. This is where, amongst 42 drug users who co-inhabit the building, the ‘cook’ produces Methadone. We are later allowed inside; the conditions are appalling, with unlit mould infested communal showers and leaks dripping down the sodden walls of overcrowded rooms. A short, stocky man walks out of the building and into his car; he is wearing a black tracksuit and his gelled fringe appears to seamlessly merge into his sunglasses. The cliché seems too obvious but as he drives off, in his blacked out BMW, Roman confirms that this is one of the local dealers. The garden sits in the cool, dark shadow of a modern uninhabited tower block. A building that, until it finds an owner, will continue to be frequented by drug users who ascend the claustrophobic lift in the pursuit of an elevated state of consciousness. This is the shooting gallery where drug users can use certain sections of the staircase to inject drugs.


Roman stands with a syringe in his hand; he is from a middle-class family and still lives with his parents, unlike Konstantin, his arms are not perforated with holes from needles. He pulls down his shorts and underwear; to the left of his penis is an open wound, this is where he will insert the needle - he uses his groin so that his parents do not notice he is a drug user. 

He walks out to the balcony and looks onto the building opposite - its clean exterior simmering in sun-drenched opulence – this, is the District Police Station. The station, explains Konstantin, is every bit as important in the local drugs network as the other buildings we had just visited. The local cook, dealers and users need to know that they are protected, and as long as the right officials are being paid, business can operate uninterrupted. There is a status quo, everyone knows what they can and can’t do. As we leave, Konstantin makes sure all rubbish is cleared “the only rule in this building is not to leave a trace, as long as you do that, no-one will bother you”. The reality however, is that the toxic and unregulated nature of homemade drugs means that things do go wrong and when this happens, there is no-one there to help.

We return briefly to the cook’s house before being led by Roman on a mazy tour of the neighborhood. Natasha has been affected by what she has seen and appears distracted. She is watching Roman who is ‘peaking’ now; we find him standing in various locations with his head raised to the sky and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. We ask him how he feels “I feel everything is so easy and nice, like someone is massaging me from the inside. Anything you would ask me to do, would make me so happy, I would be so motivated”. He continues down the pavement with an exaggerated gate, swaying from one leg to another, eyes fixed above the horizon as if mesmerized by some heavenly apparition. A policeman, lounging in the driver’s seat of his car, briefly glances at Roman. He is making slow and steady progress down the centre of the sidewalk, forcing two older women to circumnavigate him. They begin to scold him but soon realize their words are falling on deaf ears - Roman’s mind has ascended beyond the grey concrete buildings and left us all behind.

The difference between the situation today and the early/mid 90s when drugs became especially popular is that now there is a greater stigma associated with the habit. Alexei Bobrik, the Technical Officer for HIV/AIDS at the WHO, explains, “ the first HIV epidemic, was driven by people experimenting with drugs, before information was widely available about how the virus could be transferred”. Konstantin describes how he lost many of his friends who he studied with “ they would try it a few times at parties, then stop and move on with their lives having forgot about it”. He explains, “Nowadays the image of a drug user, has shifted from a student experimenting at university or parties to the stereotype of a homeless junkie”. This image has entwined itself with the traditional Orthodox and Catholic values entrenched in Ukrainian society. Father Vasyl of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine describes how “drug users who are ill or desperate are welcome in the church but they will be taught that they are suffering for their sins”. He shows us his Church’s most popular painting that represents hope; a depiction of a miracle in which a man’s hand, which had been severed, regrew thanks to his faith in God – you wonder if the victim of Krokodil use we had passed earlier would appreciate the symbolism. This stigma and discrimination, means it is hard for users to find employment or medical support; like Roman many of them look to hide their addiction making it extremely difficult for the HIV prevention programs to monitor the situation.

Natasha, a doctor for 6 years, who has seen the most graphic effects of drugs, is visibly shaken by what she has witnessed “I knew this happened in my city, but it is different when you witness it first hand”. The unsafe use of drugs is a huge health risk for the young and vulnerable in society, a situation that the authorities appear to protect, rather than combat. Just as drug use in the 90s, the full effects will only become apparent in the years to come; the results could be equally as shocking.


Table tennis tournament. Hydropark, Kyiv, Ukraine. April 13th. 2016.

Table tennis tournament. Hydropark, Kyiv, Ukraine. April 13th. 2016.

Kyiv is enjoying an unseasonably warm spring; the atmosphere is calm, almost lethargic in the oppressive humidity. This is not how you would imagine the capital of a country that had its borders and infrastructure shattered only 2 years ago. It feels important to stress, that Kyiv is, and feels safe; like any large city you need to exercise caution, but even in Kyiv's most notorious districts we have never felt uncomfortable. The conflict in Ukraine has been described as frozen and the country is experiencing a tenuous peace but Kyiv feels vibrant, busy creating its new identity.
We visit Hydropark, located on the banks of the river Dnieper, a creative amalgamation of dilapidated entertainment centres scattered across an urban idyll. Skirting along one side of the river, we come across ominous blacked-out BMWs and Mercedes parked by the river bank; their owners sit by the water, fishing and watching the sunset. The woods soon engulf us; our walk is occasionally interrupted by an SUV passing by, but otherwise you feel far from the hustle and bustle of central Kyiv. We come to a clearing and visible behind a large rusty steel mesh appear around 60 concrete table tennis surfaces. A tournament is taking place and we tentatively manoeuvre our way through this collection of bare chested enthusiasts; our lack of appropriate attire makes us somewhat unwelcome. Our camera is spotted and we are able to perforate the social barriers formed of sweaty machismo; we are invited to attend what is described as ‘the best table’. We watch as an unlikely duo (see picture above) perform perhaps the most impressive, yet unorthodox display of table tennis we have ever witnessed. We move on, passing a boxing gym, an amusement park and finally arrive at an outdoor gym, created entirely from scrap metal. We hear the screech as a man's skin slides down a pole, he has long curly hair, is wearing jeans with no top and appears to be pole-dancing. He tears across a section of the gym and nimbly jumps up on a platform, where he continues dancing to a power ballad that plays from his phone; no one reacts with anything other than quite amusement. We pass bench presses made from railway steel, an arm wrestling table and end up in an alcove, where a well-built man is pounding a pile of tyres. The atmosphere is amicable, but heavy, these men (there are only two women, and they are not alone) are serious about their exercise. This park seems to embody the spirit of Kyiv, diverse, exciting and eccentric in it's behaviour, yet carried out with nonchalant indifference.

Fishing by the Dnieper. Kyiv, Ukraine. April 13th, 2016.

Fishing by the Dnieper. Kyiv, Ukraine. April 13th, 2016.

The underground system, seems a fitting reflection of the city's eclectic influences. We pay the equivalent of 10 Euro cents and descend the never-ending staircase at Arsenala; the deepest tube station in the world, and arguably, one of the most beautiful.  A few minutes later, we ascend from the opulence of the Sviatoshynsko-Brovarska Line into the low, grey Soviet inspired Kurenivsko-Chervonoarmiyska Line. The chandeliers and grand arches are replaced with LED strip lighting and pushed along by the crowd we are pulled in and then spat out by the low narrow entrance. If the world deep underground is confusing enough, the cityscape above proves even more so.

Blue and yellow stripes - the colours of the Ukrainian flag - drape themselves across concrete towers, historic buildings and even disused tyres. This is a city embracing its national identity; the ubiquitous Tryzub, a trident shaped symbol of Ukraine, has experienced an impressive array of graphic interpretations. Kyiv seems to embody the spirit of a young adult, eager to exercise its independence, yet still forming its identity. With a communal mistrust of the political institution and a growing realization that the EU is more worried about keeping people out than letting another country in; you sense that people here have accepted that they are responsible for their city and country’s future. Yanukovych had left the army in complete disarray, underfunded and understaffed; the army now defending the country is crowdfunded mainly by individual contributions, with many young people donating a large part of their salary voluntarily to the armed forces.

This is a city that is still riding on the energy of revolution, sincere, ambitious but still uncertain. The youth culture appears lively; young people are politically engaged and well travelled compared to their previous generation. The sight of trendy youths with beards, New Balance trainers and skinny jeans stand in stark contrast to the style and demeanor of the older generations, but this style seems to be driven by a desire to conform or emulate the generic trends of the major western European and US cities. The younger generations appear keen to adopt the styles you see in Berlin and London, but to an outsider Kyiv’s identity lies less in its commonality with other European capitals and more in its uniqueness, borne from its eclectic eccentricity and historical diversity.


Outskirts of Kramatorsk. April 8th, 2016.

Outskirts of Kramatorsk. April 8th, 2016.

Kramatorsk, since October 2014, has become the provisional capital of the Donetsk Oblast after the government re-gained control of the city from pro-Russian rebels. The city appears calm, the warm sunshine reflecting off the bright blue and yellow paint slathered on almost every wall and lamppost. Spend a few hours in the city and you realize this is a place that has been reluctantly thrust into the spotlight; a traditional industrial hub, now at the centre of a tense standoff between two nations that are both ingrained in the city's history.
The city lies 20 km from pro-Russian held territory and every other person seems to be a Ukrainian soldier. Kramatorsk, is also home to a number of displaced refugees from the pro-Russian part of the Donetsk region. The relative calm and warm sunshine proves deceptive; many houses are riddled with cracks and bullet holes from the recent conflict. Trade and movement continues to some extent across the border - a border which is always referred to as temporary - but the locals provide only cryptic responses when asked about it.

Kramatorsk, is a good example of how conflict effects the most vulnerable in society. The economic, social and psychological stress that the war has inflicted on the men in the region has led to an increase in GBV (gender based violence). This displacement and stress has also led to a rise in intravenous drug use and the presence of a large amount of soldiers living amongst the local community has led to an increase in sex work, or 'survival sex' as one UN representative told us it has been referred to locally.  He is keen to point out that a lot of the soldiers are good people, but there is a lack of education and no effective program, isolated barracks or restrictions in place to manage contact with the local community. The presence of more IDUs (intravenous drug users) and unsafe sex has resulted in a higher prevalence of STIs and HIV transmission. A toxic situation, made all the more potent by the fact that no region-wide program can be implemented or reliable statistics collected

Maternity ward. Kramatorsk, Ukraine. April 8th, 2016.

Maternity ward. Kramatorsk, Ukraine. April 8th, 2016.

There are a number of initiatives set up on the Ukrainian government side of the border, as it is generally acknowledged that the Donetsk People's Republic has a different approach to GBV, and although they are willing to receive medical kits and supplies, they have been resolute in their denial that GBV, drug use and sex work is a problem in the area. Any comment made about the decision making process in Donetsk is usually followed by an inference that it is actually made somewhere else. Infused with this culture of denial, is the stigma attached to being a victim of any of these issues; the result is a large number of women crossing the border for support. Safe houses have been set up to help victims of GBV, with psychologists, lawyers and doctors on hand. One maternity centre helped women considered at risk, with one ward dedicated to premature births, just one of the many serious side-effects of drug use during pregnancy.
Ukraine has long suffered from one of the highest rates of HIV in Europe, yet a lot of progress had been made to prevent the spread of the virus. Now the conflict has thrown this into jeopardy and the country stands on the brink of an epidemic. Reliable statistics are hard to come by in the region of Donetsk, but one study showed Hepatitis C, a proxy of HIV, had a 18% prevalence amongst troops.
We met an HIV positive woman in her apartment (who wished to remain anonymous), she had three healthy children with her; she had given birth to them after her diagnosis. They had received the necessary ARV treatment; her first child had not and died soon after being born. Ukraine had made huge progress in reducing mother-to-child transmission to 2% but now the conflict will undo a lot of this good work and many children face being born HIV+ despite the existence of this therapy. Not only will they face the health risks but a potential lifetime of stigma; her husband also died from AIDS, and so deep-set was the stigma that no-one would help bury him.
The beauty of human progress in medicine and technology that has helped reverse the spread of HIV in the region is now being undone by the irrationality of human behaviour and politics. This is a crucial period in Ukrainian history and the actions taken now will help determine how this situation will look in years to come.