Roma in Pixel: Stories from the Front

Viktor, Mykola, and Oleksii are representatives of Roma communities in Ukraine. Each of them carries a hidden history of pain and loss, but also resilience, personal Viktories, and faith. All three are different and unique in their own ways. Their language often differs with distinct dialects and cultural features. In their religion, there is the presence of the Lord, Jesus, and Allah. However, there is something that unites these Roma men: love for their country. And the readiness to voluntarily exchange civilian clothing for military uniforms.


Medal for the Liberation of a City that No Longer Exists

 Viktor proudly puts on a military uniform lying on his wide bed. He does it slowly, unhurriedly, as if trying to capture another important moment in life, the imprint of which is tightly woven into the camouflage fabric. And into his own heart. A lively bunch of children – four of them – rush into the small room where Viktor is seated. In a moment, his wife joins. All of them, with curiosity and excitement, gaze at the military man. Quieting down and whispering something to each other in Romani, they sit on the wooden stairs leading from outside into the room. They hold their breath. Today, they will once again listen to stories from the front.

Viktor Ilchak is just over thirty. He belongs to the Roma-Lovari ethnic group, whose ancestors came to Ukrainian lands from Hungary in the past. He was born in Uzhgorod, where he grew up. From a young age, he earned some money to be independent. Then his family appeared, and the responsibilities of the man doubled. He got a job as a loader in his hometown, doing various physical work because it was hard for Roma to find other jobs. So, he did whatever came his way. In Uzhgorod, he didn't stand out among the ordinary Roma men in his community. However, ten years ago, he decisively and unanimously resolved to serve Ukraine. When Viktor voluntarily went to the local military enlistment office in 2015, during the medical examination, he was outright rejected. The conclusion was brief: unfit for military service. But he insisted. The Roma nature does not easily allow giving up. So, later, Viktor joined the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Transcarpathian Brigade.

"I decided for myself: if I live in Ukraine, then I need to go and fight for our Ukrainian land."

Viktor is taciturn. He answers my questions briefly and somewhat disjointedly. After each word, he lowers his head as if searching for memories from the front down there. He tries to rewind the reel of heavy memories that falls onto his dark eyelids. On the eve of February 24th, Viktor had a premonition that a big war would begin. In anticipation of the full-scale Russian invasion, the brigade where Viktor Ilchak served was sent to Volnovakha in the Donetsk region. The first days of February 2022 were the most merciless. Initially, the entire brigade carried out a combat mission in Volnovakha, staying there for 12 days. It was during the most intense battles for the city when the forces against the enemy were uneven. Two hundred fighters were brought in repeatedly. In a matter of days, the battalion had nothing left to defend with. Hopes of staying alive were slipping away every second. That's when the order came from the commander to abandon the position. While retreating, Viktor helped evacuate the wounded from the hellish circle of enemies, but at some point, he felt a dreadful blow and an unbearable sensation in his body. His strength left him. Blood flowed in a stream onto the hot, artillery-ridden ground. Soldier Ilchak was one of the three hundred.

On February 27, enemy forces initially captured Volnovakha, but they were soon ousted from the city by the Ukrainian army. Over the course of two days, Russian occupiers advanced towards the city, shelling it with "Grad" rockets and various artillery. On the night of March 1, fierce battles took place in the city, and it was nearly destroyed. According to official data today, Volnovakha as a city practically no longer exists, with its infrastructure completely destroyed.

When I saw the combat actions in Volnovakha, I already thought that's it. Like, I won't come back home alive and well. Guys had their limbs torn off there. I called my own, said my goodbyes. My wife and children were crying," the man lowers his head again. He sits motionless on a soft couch covered with several fuzzy, warm, multicolored blankets. Someone from the children runs up to the father, shyly hiding behind the man's broad shoulders. Others gaze intently into his eyes, holding their breath. The room we're in is small but densely filled with a wide bed, children's toys, carpets, porcelain souvenirs, and large mirrors reflecting the daytime sunbeams. A photo with his wife, framed in a golden frame, is displayed on a small shelf near the children's bunk bed. In the photo, a smiling, loving couple is captured in each other's arms. The wall is adorned with bright pink wallpaper. In the middle of the room, there is an expansive brown tapestry depicting Jesus Christ, and nearby, several large-format, collage-assembled photographs: in the center, Viktor in military uniform, and on both sides, images of his wife and children. A few more pictures are placed near the table, where the man in a black suit with a silver tie is shown during some family celebration. He is smiling, happy, and young.

"But there are times when I see the children in the photos, I miss them so much, sometimes I even cry for them. But the most important thing is that I know why I am at war: I am protecting my children," says the man, glancing at his eldest son.

Viktor perks up a bit. He straightens up, carefully adjusts his military uniform, stretches his shoulders like a bird, says something briefly in Romani to the children who are still sitting on the steps with bated breath, and walks over to a not very tall brown cabinet. His wife brings in a large bottle of Coca-Cola, and on a red plastic tray are crystal glasses, graciously offering me a drink. She does it so ceremoniously, as if before some special event.

The children, resembling a flock of chicks, huddle together, lifting their toes and peeking from the doorway. Viktor takes a folder in his hands and leisurely opens it. Inside, there is a note of appreciation from the head of the Zakarpattia Regional Military Administration, Viktor Mykyta, for "Personal contribution to the defense of the territorial integrity of Ukraine and on the occasion of the International Roma Day." Next to it, there is another medal that the man is particularly proud of: the Order of the third degree from the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Viktor received this medal for saving lives by evacuating comrades in Volnovakha during the height of the war. In a moment, he retrieves another medal from the drawer and solemnly reads it, barely smiling: "For heroism and personal courage." He received this medal in 2016.

On the street, the barking of dogs is audible, and people gather near the courtyard of the house. These are neighbors who came to see how Viktor gives an interview to the media. Among his own, he is a true star. Viktor lives in Radvantsi, a suburb and one of the districts of Uzhhorod, located southeast of the city center and known, in particular, for its large Roma community. A crowd of people gathers noisily, but in their words, you can hear joy, laughter, and satisfaction. Everyone tries to stand next to the man for a group photo. First, the closest ones approach. Although here you can't tell who is close relatives and who are distant relatives. In the end, Viktor is happy with everyone. He gestures for them to come closer and stand next to him. The little ones surround him immediately, the older ones are a bit shy, but eventually, they manage to join in while the camera captures the moment. Click-click.

Viktor smiles widely, shakes hands with everyone. His stern face takes on more comforting, slightly childish features. The dogs freeze, lazily basking in the cold sun. The white lace curtain hanging in front of the entrance doors of the house sways in the wind, wrapping the black shiny hair of the children in its whimsical patterns, as they playfully pull its snow-white fabric. Viktor enters the room and offers another photo from inside the house, this time with the family. Another moment captured.

The long, winding road leads to the central part of the city. We walk first on a narrow path where Romani people greet or wave from every corner. Viktor responds with restrained nods. Currently, he is on a long-term rehabilitation, but he is eager to return to his comrades and continue his fight. He says that the war leveled everyone, regardless of ethnic origin or social status. During his service on the front line, Viktor never felt discrimination or unacceptance. On the contrary, everyone he went through the combat path with, regardless of their background, became close and dear friends. He still maintains a warm connection with them and carefully preserves the chevrons of fallen comrades in his wardrobe.

Not Romani, but Gypsy

While Viktor Ilchak is recovering physically at home, he has also started working as an instructor at one of the military training grounds in the Zakarpattia region. Here, together with a team, he prepares new soldiers for service. He also motivates young Roma to join the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Viktor has a significant and challenging war experience behind him, leaving an imprint of pain, but at the same time instilling a humanity that remains forever. At least, that's what Viktor believes.

It's quiet on the streets, though poppies are blooming. Viktor sits in an old yellow "Hyundai" car, offering me a ride. He presses on the gas and we set off. In seven minutes, we are already near the main entrance of the city railway station. Now, the city's tranquility is disrupted by the sound of a arriving train. The man pulls out a small Romani flag from the car's glove compartment: a blue-green background and a turning wheel – a symbol of the eternal journey. It stands still for a few minutes, and then he adds:

“You know, when I was going to serve, everyone was surprised, and then they themselves said that I'm not Rom, but a Gypsy. And that's how we became friends,” Viktor smiles contentedly and speaks as if this were his biggest secret.

The thud of the locomotive moving along the railway reverberates with a long, dense sound. The sun rolls down behind the horizon like an orange ball. Twilight descends upon the city. Urban landscapes outside the train window transform into blue mountain ridges, echoing, and then instantly disappearing.

Marine infantryman with the call sign Italian

Mykola Almazov, with the call sign "Italian," decided to join the Ukrainian army when Russian forces fully invaded Ukrainian territory. In the first days of the major war, without hesitation, he went to the military enlistment office in his city to voluntarily join the Armed Forces of Ukraine. However, they didn't want to take him into the army. They said there were long lines of guys, so initially, they were taking those with combat experience or military training. Mykola was sent back home.

"I don't give up that easily," Mykola says with a smile. "It was my duty to defend the country. Deep down, I thought that Romani men should also take pride. If we didn't go, who would?"

Mykola is 46 years old. He was born and raised in Kremenchuk, in the Poltava region. According to his maternal lineage, he belongs to the ethnic group of Servi, while his father is part of the Romani subgroup known as Lovari. Before the war, Kremenchuk, with a population of around 340 thousand, was home to three to five thousand Roma, predominantly from the Servi ethnic group. However, since the beginning of the major war, keeping official statistics has been challenging due to many members of the Romani communities leaving, and the influx of displaced individuals from the eastern part of Ukraine, doubling the population. Nevertheless, the Romani community remains fairly numerous in the area. Mykola is one of them. Since childhood, he dreamed of becoming a soldier and joining the French Foreign Legion. However, fate had other plans for him. Initially, he got a job at the Kremenchuk car assembly plant, where he worked for several years. Later, he decided to work as a taxi driver, and eventually, he opened his small business servicing and repairing cars. After February 24, 2022, he wrapped up all his entrepreneurial ventures and traded his civilian attire for military uniform.

Initially, Mykola Almazov underwent training in the military formation of anti-aircraft defense and was part of the 299th Tactical Aviation Brigade of the Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. He acquired the profession of a machine gunner and also completed training as a drone operator. Last year, while on a combat mission in Mykolaiv, located in the Kherson region, the battalion where Mykola served experienced serious attacks and shelling from enemy forces. In September 2023, Mykola Almazov was assigned to the 137th Separate Marine Battalion of the Naval Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

 "I became a marine infantryman," he smiles again. "It's the toughest profession. No matter where you are, danger comes at you from all sides."

In October 2023, "Italian" sustained injuries. It happened in the village of Krynky in the Kherson region when enemy aviation was bombing from the sky the positions of Ukrainian infantrymen, where Mykola was stationed. When Mykola was bringing wounded guys ashore, despite the order to leave the position, Russian forces launched artillery and drones. It hit everyone and everywhere. A combat projectile exploded just a few steps away from the guys. One soldier standing nearby had his foot blown off, and another bled profusely for 40 minutes in front of others. Mykola Almazov was hit by shrapnel in the abdomen. At that time, he underwent a complex operation in one of the hospitals in Mykolaiv.

"Kolyan, you'll be Budulai."

 "When they're shooting at you with everything they've got, you can't stop. You keep going to evacuate the wounded on yourself," the man's voice slightly softens. However, in a moment, Mykola transitions to more pleasant memories and proudly talks about friendships during the war. In the military, he met many reliable friends of different nationalities: Georgians, Moldovans, Turks, and, of course, Ukrainians. He says that regardless of nationality, everyone shares one dream: to defend their country. To be someone they can be proud of. He especially dreams that Romani warriors will be spoken of with the same respect as Ukrainian ones. Therefore, through his actions, Mykola tries to prove this daily. The man confesses that he has already managed to teach his comrades a bit of Romani language. He also shared aspects of Romani cuisine, culture, and way of life. Jokingly, he says that to cook Romani borscht, you first need to steal a horse.

"Once the guys told me, 'Kolyan, you'll be Budulai,'" he laughs. There's joy and love for those with whom he endured the horrors of war in the man's voice. Now, the forty-year-old Mykola Almazov is undergoing rehabilitation in his hometown of Kremenchuk. However, he is already making new plans: he wants to help the Roma community in his city at the state level. He intends to run for a seat in the parliament, become socially active, and do everything in his power for new changes. He wants to be useful to others and change the perception of Roma people in Ukrainian society.

Meanwhile, the fighter with the call sign "Italian" prepares his military backpack to return to the front at the end of February.

"Roma Samurai"

"The hardest part in war is seeing wounded people," says Oleksii.

On his right arm, he has a tattoo depicting a Japanese samurai holding a sword—a symbol of loyalty and the spirit's strength of an Eastern warrior from the Land of the Rising Sun. For Oleksii, this tattoo gained special meaning when he joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine. He went to defend his homeland, his city, and his home.

Pavlohrad is the center of the coal basin of the Western Donbas, located in the interfluve of the Samara and Vovchi rivers. The city is situated between Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro, Donetsk, and Kharkiv. Despite its ancient history and the richness of black soil, with the onset of the full-scale Russian invasion, the city has repeatedly become a target for Russian missile attacks. Today, it is one of those front-line cities where, despite everything, life continues its course. Oleksii Kutmyzyrov was born and raised here. His family background is complex; he belongs to the ethnic group of Crimean Roma. His mother was a Romani, and his father, who had Ukrainian origins, was adopted by a Romani family. Therefore, he was brought up in a household that strictly followed Romani traditions and customs.

The subethnic group of Crimean Roma is considered to be descendants from Crimea, and therefore, the Muslim faith is the most prevalent among them. Although there are Christians among them as well. In many photos that Oleksii shows from the front, the military often makes a symbolic gesture typical of Muslim tradition: the index finger raised upward, which signifies "Inshallah!" or "if it is God's will."

"Yes, that's my thing. Everything has its time," Oleksii firmly says, anticipating my question about the Muslim gesture of the Romani soldier in the Ukrainian army.

The language of Crimean Roma also significantly differs from other Romani dialects because it belongs to the Turkic language family and is close to Crimean Tatar. Oleksii explains that Crimean Roma don't always understand Romani speakers from, let's say, Zakarpattia or other regions of Ukraine. Therefore, to communicate effectively, Oleksii often uses Ukrainian. Before the major war, the Romani community in Pavlohrad numbered around 2,500 individuals. Since 2014, many Roma from Donbas, forced to leave their homes due to continuous Russian attacks nine years ago, have come here.

The calling

Since childhood, Oleksii has been eager for new activities, and he has never stayed in one place. Among friends, he was the soul of any company, enthusiastic and with character. He never felt any negative attitude towards himself. However, he never really pondered over his own identity, as he was always engaged in, as he says, "life matters." In 2016, Oleksii's friend underwent training as a combat medic. His friend, who at that time served in the "Azov" battalion, motivated him to join military service. Later, Oleksii served in the medical battalion "Hospitaliers" in Pavlohrad for over a year. Later, he decided to return to his own business and opened an auto service station in his city, where he mostly assisted the military in repairing their pickups and provided support in maintaining medical vehicles for volunteers and medics. Since 2022, he has dedicated his entrepreneurial efforts entirely to the Ukrainian army. Later on, he started to volunteer for missions, evacuating wounded and fallen soldiers.

Oleksii is 28 years old. For the past two years, he has been involved in evacuation as a military personnel serving in the First Volunteer Mobile Hospital. He mentions that the most challenging aspect of his military work is evacuating the "300s" (heavily wounded) and witnessing their suffering. Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, Oleksii has traveled to the hottest spots in the country: Bakhmut, Sloviansk, Kupiansk, and other areas where enemy attacks are still ongoing. In both military and civilian life, Oleksii effortlessly connects with his comrades. In turn, they often marvel at Oleksii's identity.

"They tell me, 'Well, there are no gypsies in the army.' And I tell them, 'How come, here stands a gypsy right in front of you.' And they reply, 'But you're not a gypsy. You're some Euro-gypsy,'" Oleksii says with a quick smile. His mobile phone persistently drums its ringtone. He quickly switches to another call and apologizes.

After the war, Oleksii Kutmyzyrov dreams of continuing his military service. He believes that everyone should participate in rebuilding their own country, each in their own way. The involvement of Roma communities will be crucial, primarily for themselves.

But for now, all of Oleksii's civilian clothing has been completely replaced by camouflage in his wardrobe. He himself no longer wants to wear anything other than military uniform. However, he says that after the Viktory, he will definitely wear something he used to love in his past life. Before the war.

The content was created with the support of The European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC).