Werri Beach artists and freedom fighters George Gittoes and Hellen Rose have finally returned from documenting the war in Ukraine.
The pair had armed themselves with nothing but camera gear and the mere clothes on their back, spending three-and-a-half months capturing the horror and devastation caused by Russia.
"I couldnt do anything about the fires, the floods, I couldn't do anything about COVID-19, but I felt when we went into Ukraine, at least we can do something about this," Rose said.
"The people were amazed and thrilled that we were there. It meant so much to them because they felt they weren't alone in fighting this monster."
Despite not having the decades of experience as Gittoes has had - dodging bullets in war-zones in a bid to highlight attrocities the world needed to see - a strong-willed Rose insisted she too make the journey to Eastern Europe.
The husband and wife team may not have been physically holding machine guns and marching with Ukrainian soldiers, Rose said the local people felt their solidarity by making the effort to be there.
"The people were amazed and thrilled that we were there; it meant so much to them because they felt they were alone in fighting this monster," she said.
"It's just horrific, this guy [Vladimir Putin] has no quams in bombing the crap out of civillian areas. A town as big as Wollongong is like Mariupol, the whole area was reduced to rubble."
She said it felt strange being in the country, like a "doorway between life and death, creation and destruction", and described their arrival to Kyiv like walking into a "ghost city".
"I've never seen anything so horrific all my life, I just kept imagining what it would be like to be in Werri Beach and hearing bombs falling and and seeing your neighbours shot to death on the street," she said.
The couple filmed as much as they could for an upcoming documentary, whilst also creating art and sending information and images back to the Illawarra Mercury.
They travelled around from Poland into Kyiv, to Irpin and Odessa, Bucha and Borodyanka meeting the most amazing people - some very broken from the brutality and some ready to help them in any way possible.
Gittoes said the Russian army had targeted places of culture in Ukraine, for what he believes was to deny the the nation had any independent culture.
However, art is a common language, he said, and artists can convey a unique perspective of war unlike foreign correspondents travelling with the military.
"The local people just adored us because we're different to soldiers and reporters, we're just people," Rose said.
"They see the importance of the arts to enable expression and you don't need to speak the same language, a picture can paint a thousand words."
This will be the premise for their upcoming documentary about their time in Eastern Europe, to prove to the non-believers that the war is really happening and not "fake news" as they discovered some outsiders think.
"There was so much horror," Rose said. "I'll never forget, on the 'bridge of death' [a bridge in Irpin with civilians, destroyed by Russian forces] and I saw a family that had been burned alive in their car, the mother still holding a child. That was something I'll never forget."
But there were also hugs and tears of happiness. Like a hotel cleaner when they first arrived, being overjoyed at hearing Rose sing Ukraine in my Heart.
Or hugs and flowers from young children who stumbled upon their art exhibition at the ruins of a cultural exhibition in Irpin.
Or a hug of support for a woman named Valentina, ready to share her heartbreaking story to camera of her husband being short dead and her family torn apart.
"I have been unable to finish the drawing I did about that [last] experience, as it gives me shivers to recall it or be taken back there by memory," Gittoes said.
"I have visited Valentina a few more times at the farm since and taken food and other things as there was no income now her Husband was dead.
"I promised her the scene of her husband's shallow grave will be in our film and the world will never be allowed to ignore the crimes the Russians have committed against innocent people."
Despite the hardships and sufferings caused by suburbs being wiped out from missiles, children being shot or booby traps setup in playgrounds, the duo described the local people to be in good spirits.
"Even though they are stressed and under pressure everyone we had contact with was friendly and kind," Gittoes said.
"Even the soldiers at roadblocks were super nice - normally in places like Iraq they were gruff and unhelpful."
Two Australians heading to Ukraine meant "playing dice" with their lives to support their European neighbours, and Gittoes said that gained them the utmost respect.
" We did not wear mandatory body armour and became one with people running the same risks."
What's next for Gittoes ...
"When we are away, we dreamt about the moment on the drive from the airport when we will look down from Kiama Heights to our little village of Gerringong and our house facing Werri Beach," Gittoes said.
"We will not be home for long as we are heading back within a couple of weeks to our Yellow House in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
"The whole time we have been in Ukraine we have been conflicted knowing we are needed, possibly more, in Afghanistan."
He explained they had worked very hard with the Taliban to allow their "yello house" of culture to continue, and he needed to continue negotiations so that it could remain.
Until September, the artists will remain in the middle east, before aiming to return to Ukraine at the year's end.
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