Skip to main content

Ukraine rebels bury the fallen -- the story behind the images

By Jonathan Alpeyrie, Special to CNN
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
Photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie took a series of images of pro-Russian rebels burying four fallen fighters in Ukraine, August 18. Photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie took a series of images of pro-Russian rebels burying four fallen fighters in Ukraine, August 18.
Burying the fallen in Ukraine
Burying the fallen in Ukraine
Burying the fallen in Ukraine
Burying the fallen in Ukraine
Burying the fallen in Ukraine
Burying the fallen in Ukraine
Burying the fallen in Ukraine
Burying the fallen in Ukraine
Burying the fallen in Ukraine
  • Photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie has been covering the siege of Donetsk, Ukraine
  • Donetsk is held by pro-Russian rebels but the Ukrainian Army has gradually encircled it
  • Alpeyrie managed to follow a rebel convoy to a funeral for their fallen fighters
  • He and his colleagues were arrested but later released after photographing the scene

Editor's note: Photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie has been in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine for the past two weeks, covering the Ukrainian military's siege of the city, which is held by the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic." Here he explains how he managed to shoot unique images of the pro-Russian rebels burying their dead.

(CNN) -- Working inside Donetsk presents various challenges as a photojournalist. One of them is working directly with rebel forces defending one of their last bastions against government forces.

Each day their defensive perimeter shrinks due to constant shelling. Journalists need to acquire proper accreditation given and approved by the Donetsk People's Republic.

There are just very unique moments like that when you get lucky -- it was a very personal moment for them, they were crying, you know, it was quite powerful.
Photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie

The funeral series of photos is both rare and hard to come by, as the rebels typically don't give access to the kind of events which show their military losses.

If you're a reporter or anybody from the press you have to apply to get two different ID cards from the rebels. One is more general; it allows you to go through checkpoints. It's like an official accreditation.

The second one is supposed to allow you to photograph military areas -- although in practice it's up to the discretion of the local military commander and usually they're friendly but they'll say 'no.' We suspect the document is also a good way to control us and the info we provide to the world, by checking the internet.

This accreditation also carries another risk -- if you're in Ukrainian Army-controlled areas and they see that, they'll probably arrest you ... because it's official documentation from the "Donetsk People's Republic."

Nonetheless, we have both, so every time we go through checkpoints, the rebels check our car and they ask for our accreditation and we show them these documents and they let us through.

Pentagon condemns Russian convoy movement
Donetsk residents flee Ukrainian chaos
Photographer describes Syria captivity

In this case, while driving with our fixer on the road we passed a convoy of rebel cars and two armored vehicles each carrying troops and two coffins. We decided to follow it and try our luck.

After a mile, a car from the convoy stopped us, pointed its machine gun at us and asked why we were following them. We explained to them that we wanted to follow the funeral. For some reason they agreed.

We drove another 20 minutes to a small village on the front lines - you could hear the constant shelling as government forces were nearby.

For an hour we photographed the entire ceremony, only to be arrested as it ended under the pretext that the rebel's faces were shown and some lived nearby.

They put us in different cars, drove us to their headquarters in Donetsk, and forced us to delete all the photos. Which we did. But back at the hotel we managed to retrieve all of them.

There are unique moments -- it was very personal for them, they were crying. It was quite powerful.

See more of Jonathan Alpeyrie's photos of Donetsk and read about the siege of the city.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:17 AM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Donetsk's neediest line up for food handouts. There are long queues at the bus station as people try to leave town. There are no banks left open.
updated 5:25 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
Barking overwhelms the thud of artillery fire. An animal shelter is crammed with 1,000 dogs, many orphans of the conflict with owners who have fled or been killed.
updated 3:51 AM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Reza Sayah looks into why thousands of Ukrainians have left their old lives to volunteer to fight.
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
CNN's Ralitsa Vassileva speaks to The New Republic's Linda Kinstler about Putin's motives with Ukraine and China.
updated 10:36 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
updated 5:58 PM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The Commander of NATO forces in Europe says Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems and Russian troops -- all heading into Ukraine.
updated 8:58 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 broke apart in the air after it was hit by a burst of "high-energy objects" from outside, a preliminary report by Dutch aviation investigators said Tuesday.
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Wed September 3, 2014
On a country road in eastern Ukraine, a scene of bucolic tranquility was suddenly interrupted by the aftermath of carnage.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
In the city of Donetsk, the devastation wrought by weeks of fighting between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces is all too apparent.
updated 8:00 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
CNN's Diana Magnay reports from the front lines in the Ukrainian conflict.
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
A few miles south of the town of Starobeshevo in eastern Ukraine, a group of men in uniform is slumped under a tree.
updated 9:43 AM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
A shopkeeper's mutilated body, relatives' anguish, homes destroyed ... this is Donetsk.
updated 7:12 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
A 20-minute drive from Kiev takes you to a neighborhood that feels more like Beverly Hills than central Ukraine.
updated 9:12 AM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Photos illustrate the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as fighting continues to flare in the region.
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Future imports, exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts continue.
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
updated 5:25 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.