The stories we tell are important. They define how we view the world around us. Often, they outlast us, and come to shape the years we have seen, the events that occurred, the lives that exist – or are lost. The stories we tell right now, about the war in Ukraine, are vital for this very reason. These are the driving force behind Dattalion, a collective established a mere three days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, by a group of female volunteers determined to ensure that the stories of this war would be told accurately and would not – and could not – be ignored.
“In those first few days, I was sat in a bomb shelter with my children and I saw a story on the news, where a reporter, standing in an area of Ukraine which had not yet seen shelling, was talking to the owner of a cat café,” says Mariya*, the founder of Dattalion, who has since fled Ukraine with her children after receiving credible death threats and a cyberattack on her personal email account. “I looked around me at the people in the shelter, knowing that children had already been killed in this war and I thought: how is this story about cats what the rest of the world is seeing? We need to show them what is really happening to us.”
The moment provoked her to found Dattalion (an ellision of 'data' and 'battalion'); a database of scrupulously documented imagery, videos and eye-witness accounts from the front lines, founded and run almost entirely by women, with volunteers, not just in Ukraine, but across the globe. Within a matter of weeks, Mariya had hundreds of volunteers offering their services and press outlets across the world asking for access to their trove of imagery and video.
Many of these are Ukrainian women who secured their families – taking their children to safety – before returning to the front lines; others are fighting from abroad, utilising every resource available to them, from calling on their international connections to drawing on tech knowhow to withstand constant cyber attacks. Many like Mariya herself, are now refugees, wondering from one day to the next if their husbands or partners or family members are alive. Though they are women who have not taken up arms, information is the weapon with which they are fighting.
“These images are important. I see data everyday about the number of children who have been killed, but it doesn’t hit you the same way as seeing…” At this point Mariya tears up, relaying the “360” experience their data is capturing; the true brutality of life in Ukraine right now. She immediately tries to steady herself; “It feels like every day I see photographs of small bodies on the streets covered in white sheets. But you have to see it. You can’t look away, however much you want to.”
Dattalion’s work is proof that a picture tells a thousand words. The impact of their on-the- ground reporting cannot be underestimated, especially as this is one of the first major European wars to be captured on social media. Dattalion and other Ukrainians are utilising these platforms expertly, to show the everyday reality of life in a war zone on apps that millions of us use every day. Dattalion uploads frequently on Instagram and many Ukrainians are cannily adapting existing viral TikTok trends to report from the war, like young photographer Valeria Shashenok, whose ‘typical day in a bomb shelter’ video, set to the incongruously jaunty tune of Che La Luna by Louis Prima, has already been viewed more than 30million times.
Social media has become the weapon of choice for the high-profile Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitloina, currently ranked number 20 in the world. Playing over the last month, she has used her platform to make statements about the war, through both words and imagery, from threatening to boycott a WTA event unless Russian and Belarusian athletes were made neutral, to wearing the Ukrainian colours on court. "It's like what Dattalion are doing with their images," she says. "We have to open people's eyes to what is going on, and how important it is to help those fleeing the country."
Svitloina recently announced she is taking a break from tennis, due to injury and the emotional toll of the situation in Ukraine. She will be using her time to work on her foundation, which she has pivoted to aid the refugee crisis. "I feel like this is my mission, I want to give people a second chance to continue chasing their dreams," she says. "The main goal for me now is to try and use my social media platforms to raise money and to bring more attention to this horrible situation."
The politician Oleksandra Ustinova, currently the faction leader of the Holos party, was travelling in the US when war broke out and has since used her time there to lobby the United States government. She believes the imagery captured by Dattalion, and the use of social media platforms, can have enormous impact. “These photographs and videos have opened the eyes of people around the world and are causing them to push their governments to take action,” she says. “I remember the German government saying they would not do sanctions. And then they had 100,000 people protesting in Berlin on the streets, people who have been watching what’s happening online, and they changed their minds.”
“It is also one of the best ways to fight Russian propaganda,” Ustinova continues. She is 37 weeks pregnant – the reason she is unable to travel back to Ukraine; the bombing of the maternity hospital in Mariupol was particularly affecting. “Russian statements were issued that the hospital was cleared of patients and was instead being used as a military base. The photographs we see, especially that now-iconic image of the mother who tragically died soon afterwards, being carried out on a stretcher – proves it was not the case.” Ustinova shakes her head in disbelief as she discusses combatting misinformation within Russia. “The intel we have on Russian soldiers contacting home is so eye opening,” she says. “One calls his mother to tell her he hates what is happening, that he has been forced to kill civilians, and she replies, ‘Good, they’re all Nazis'.”
Once more, Dattalion is trying to tell the right story. One of Mariya’s original aims was to show the truth of what is happening in Ukraine to ordinary Russians being fed such propaganda. After social media was effectively disabled in Russia, this particular aim has shifted. “Now we are looking at documenting war crimes instead; our imagery and eye witness testimonies could prove incredibly useful should Putin be put on trial,” says Alicia Lewis, an American entrepreneur and friend of Mariya’s who has been working for Dattalion in the US from its earliest days; shaping strategy, organising PR and even lobbying congress in Washington DC. For the latter, she has found Dattalion’s constant social presence a hugely efficient tool, particularly in light of President Biden’s statements that US intervention would only be necessitated if ‘the red line’ was crossed. One of Dattalion’s latest campaigns, #WhatisTheRedLine, which Lewis has worked on heavily, is proving that this line has been crossed countless times. “You would not believe how much this campaign influences action in record time, because every senator has a Facebook account at the very least and their constituents are always online.”
Lewis is one of countless women overseas who are aiding this effort. Another is the British entrepreneur Emma Sinclair, whose father’s family came from Ukraine, fleeing pogroms. She is heading up Business Consortium, an initiative working with 120 British companies, to get jobs for all refugees (not only those from Ukraine) that are appropriate for their skills, therefore allowing them to live lives with dignity in the UK. For her, the work of Dattalion is underscoring the importance of her initiative. “First-hand storytelling like this is quite simply the finest way to get anybody engaged about anything ever,” she says. “These images have brought people to the table to get this work done because sometimes it’s easier to look away from tragedy, when actually you need to force people to pay attention.”
Sinclair is inspired, though not surprised, she says, by the fact that Dattalion’s work is founded and maintained by women. “In my world I am constantly working with female entrepreneurs, female leaders and women who get things done swiftly, efficiently and very practically. And so, it doesn't surprise me in the least. Women are great at supporting each other.” It is these women across the world, as well as in the shelters and towns of Ukraine taking videos and photographs at great personal risk, who also inspire Mariya every day. Her mother and mother-in-law have both stayed behind to help the war effort, though they are both in their seventies. “Every time I tell my mother to get out she tells me; ‘I'm on a mission’. And I'm just like, Okay, she’s right. I'm also on a mission, this is my mission.”
It is this mission that keeps motivating Larysa Mudrak, a prolific Ukrainian journalist and political communication consultant who works with Dattalion and recently fled Ukraine with her immediate family, though her husband has stayed behind to fight. Her story of escape is riddled with terror and tragedy, of near misses with death, of losing people she knew along the way. She is filled with a sense of incredulity that she is able to sit before a Zoom call today, safe, though lightyears away from the “wonderful life” she lived before 24 February 2022. Her work continues abroad, through her company, and through Dattalion. “There are days when it feels too much, when I just want to cry,” she tells me. “But then I look at all the women who are doing this work around me and I realise this is how we are fighting for our country, and we must keep fighting.”
*name has been changed for security purposes