Photojournalist Carol Guzy has witnessed her fair share of death and destruction over the past four decades. The four-time Pulitzer Prize winner has documented the humanitarian toll of some of the world’s most horrific wars and natural disasters, from Haiti to Kosovo.
But from the beginning, there was something different about the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. For one thing, Guzy told Yahoo News, like many Ukrainians, she never expected that Russia would actually invade its neighbor this time around.
For the “first time in 40 years, I’ve had this unbelievable feeling of dread that I couldn’t shake, and I still have it,” Guzy said. “I’m not sure if the dread is like a warning to me [for] my personal safety or it’s just been this overwhelming evil that’s happening.”
Rather than head for the frontlines, Guzy decided she would cover the war from the fringes, focusing primarily on stories about refugees. But as she watched the civilian casualties mount, she found staying on the sidelines in this conflict more difficult than she had expected.
“This is such a weird war. It’s like there’s no place that’s really safe for anyone,” Guzy said, referring to the blatant attacks on civilian sites that have come to define Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As of Monday, 4,890 civilian casualties had been recorded in Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion on Feb. 24, according to the United Nations, with 2,072 killed and 2,818 injured — though the actual figures are likely much higher.
“It’s one thing — soldiers on a battlefield having a war,” said Guzy. “These are civilians that are getting targeted. I’m sorry; that’s just over the line.”
The extent to which Russia has crossed that line became disturbingly clear earlier this month when Ukrainian forces liberated the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin. Guzy was among the journalists who traveled to Bucha to document the horror left behind when Russian troops retreated.
“It was quite a scene,” Guzy said. “It was just horrendous. Its apocalyptic, you know; it’s like you’re walking in a movie set.”
Footage from that scene, showing corpses scattered in the streets, along with reports that the bodies of roughly 300 local residents had been found buried in mass graves, quickly spread, prompting widespread condemnation and calls for investigations of possible war crimes. Many of the dead had reportedly been bound and shot in the back of the head, and survivors have described instances of rape and torture by Russian soldiers.
During a visit to Bucha last week, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, which began investigating possible Russian war crimes in March, called Ukraine a “crime scene.”
Guzy said Bucha has remained largely open to journalists and photographers as police and war crimes prosecutors wade through the devastation to collect evidence of alleged Russian atrocities.
“I think most people here know how important this is for history to be documented,” she said.
Such documentation has already proven critical in the face of the Russian government’s attempts to rewrite history. The Russian Defense Ministry has denied responsibility for any violence against the residents of Bucha during its occupation of the city, suggesting that footage circulated after the departure of Russian troops was staged.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Guzy said, calling the statements put out by the Russian government “blatant lies.”
“That’s why people … want us to photograph it because, you know, the photograph is pretty hard evidence of a lot of things over and over and over again,” she added.
For Guzy, documenting the truth of what happened in places like Bucha and Irpin is about more than just taking photographs of dead bodies — though that’s a big part of it. It’s also about shining a light on the lives that have been lost to war by documenting the things — and people — they’ve left behind.
“They’re not just bodies. They had a life; they had family,” she said. “It’s not just 300 dead bodies in a mass grave. It’s … all these lives and hopes and dreams that were, you know, snuffed out.”
Though the power of these horrific images is undeniable, Guzy, who spent the bulk of her career as a staff photographer, first at the Miami Herald and then the Washington Post, knows editors face a tough choice when deciding whether or how to publish them.
“The problem as a photographer is trying to document this tastefully,” she said. “There’s a lot of pictures I don’t even transmit because they are too gruesome.” Still, Guzy said, you “can’t sugarcoat reality.”
“This is the reality of the situation here,” she said. “War’s ugly. It’s ugly, and harsh, and awful, and horrible and terrible.”
As difficult as it may be for someone to look at these images, she added, “It’s worse to be here. It’s worse for these people.”
Witnessing such horrors firsthand is traumatic, even for the most experienced photojournalist, and Guzy’s years in the field have taught her not to suppress her emotions.
“We’re not walking cameras, you know. We’re not robots,” she said.
But it’s not the sight of dead bodies that gets to her, Guzy clarified, her voice quavering. “It’s the suffering of the people that are left behind that really… brings me to my knees.”
Guzy choked back tears as she described the warmth and kindness she’s received from people in Ukraine, like the “babushkas” who’ve welcomed her into what is left of their damaged homes and offered her tea or a hug.
“It makes it harder to see what they’re going through because everyone here has been so kind, and they’re such good people,” she said. “I wish Putin would know the people that he’s doing this to.”
Ultimately, the stories that are the most emotional for Guzy are the ones that she hopes can offer people hope amid all the pain and suffering.
“I still look for hope. Look for the angels. Look for the people who are here doing the good work and trying to save these people,” she said. “Or the woman who hands me the little vial of tea from her totally destroyed, bombed-out building because she wants to give the stranger a gift. That’s what keeps me sane.”