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In Ukraine and Moldova, a photojournalist from Maine tells the stories of war victims

“This is a man-made crisis that is just perhaps the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.”

PORTLAND, Maine — As an award-winning photojournalist for the Morning Sentinel newspaper in Waterville (the National Press Photographers Association named him New England Region Photographer of the Year in 2018, 2019, and 2020) who has shot not only in Maine but around the world, Mike Seamans has seen his share of pain and grief.

He covered Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Ebola in the African nation of Sierra Leone, and the stories of life and death that unfold in the back of a Maine ambulance. But nothing prepared him for the suffering he has witnessed over the last three weeks covering people who have fled their homes in Ukraine.

“This is a man-made crisis that is just perhaps the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” Seamans told me in a Zoom call from Moldova, a small country on Ukraine’s western border into which tens of thousands of displaced Ukrainians have poured. “It’s difficult to reckon with emotionally when it doesn’t need to happen.”

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The senselessness of the heartbreak he has witnessed has at times left him in tears. 

“I came across a 73-year-old woman,” he said, recalling the story of one of the many people who had fled the shelling in her hometown. “She’s packing her leather suitcase from the Soviet era, with all of her belongings, by candlelight. And I think, 'That could be my mother, now forced to flee through a war zone to try to find some safety.'”

The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, a non-profit that “raises awareness of underreported global issues through direct support of quality journalism,” is underwriting Seamans’ work in eastern Europe, and USA Today is publishing his photos. Seamans is grateful for their support and also praised what he calls “the miracle workers” from non-governmental organizations who provide refugees with food, shelter, clothing, and other basic needs. 

“It’s just a non-stop flow for these [workers],” he said. “And they’re not resting; they’re not sleeping. They’re on the go all the time.”

On the day we talked, Seamans, exhausted and emotionally drained, was getting ready to travel in a few hours from Moldova into Ukraine. Again his storytelling would focus not on combat but on the human toll the war has inflicted. 

“It’s to put a face and an identity to the people who are fleeing,” he said, “to try to bring that back to the United States for others to hopefully feel and see as I do.”

Want to make a donation to help people who’ve been affected by the invasion of Ukraine? Here’s a list of charities provided by the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

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