SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — Things are starting slowly to get back to normal in this formerly rebel-held industrial city, where until just three weeks ago, civilians were caught in the crossfire of heavy artillery as Ukrainian military forces battled a pro-Russian insurgency declaring independence.
Water is once again flowing from the taps of most of the city’s apartments and houses, although two neighborhoods’ pipes were too badly damaged to be reconnected to the main supply. Electricity is back on across the city except for a few scattered buildings, and grocery store shelves are stocked after weeks of being scarcely supplied with a meager selection of overpriced items. Workers have returned to their shifts in at least one of the city’s major factories.
While the focus of the conflict in Ukraine has shifted east to the regional capital of Donetsk and the prospect of a major battle for that city, the scene in Slovyansk is — outwardly at least — now one of striving to get back to normal. Practically every block in the center of town has workers repairing collapsed roofs or replacing blown-out windows.
Outside the city administration building, where rebels had sandbagged themselves in and created their local headquarters for the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, volunteer workers are reconnecting the pipes and wires of the main square’s musical fountain. Repair work should be completed soon, and the water spouts and colorful lights set to flicker to the beat of music will be back on.
“Just something to boost the morale of the people, you know?” said Tatiana Maliy, one of the city’s deputy mayors, who returned to work two weeks ago after living as a refugee in nearby Sviatohorsk with her 6-year-old daughter for weeks during the rebel occupation.
Outside Maliy’s office on the second floor of the administration building, municipal workers seemed to have fallen back in step with the daily grind of running a city, whose population was about 120,000 before the Moscow-friendly rebels assumed control in early April. The Ukrainian army pushed its troops in on July 4 after the rebels abandoned what had become a precarious hold on the city after weeks of some of the heaviest fighting seen in the government’s almost four-month-long conflict in the east.
When the army arrived, they found a city in shock. Locals described living with no running water and no electricity, with bodies lying in schoolyards and on sidewalks. Some had spent long nights hunkered down in basements as heavy artillery ripped through the city’s infrastructure and left gaping holes in high-rise apartment buildings.
Picking up the pieces of a broken city — in terms of infrastructure and morale — is a huge task, Maliy admitted. According to preliminary statistics from her office, more than 4,200 apartments were damaged in the fighting from April to early July and an additional 187 completely destroyed. The damage is likely to cost tens of millions of dollars to repair.
But where all that money for repairs will come from is a difficult question. Even before the war in eastern Ukraine began to drain the state budget and deplete the economy of a critical industrial hub, the country’s economy was teetering on the brink of default. On Thursday the country looked even more fragile as a parliamentary coalition fell apart and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a technocrat largely credited with securing a critical $17 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, resigned.
For now, the city is peaceful again. “We can say now that the city is — more or less — safe,” said Igor Rybalchenko, a colonel in the Slovyansk police force. “Mainly because the criminals who were with the rebels are now fighting elsewhere, in Luhansk or Donetsk.” The police now have 240 men working, some of them volunteers from neighboring regions. But none of the officers have weapons, since the rebels raided the city police headquarters and stole its ammunition and weapons.
Some residents fear a rebel return. “Of course, we’re worried about this. We never knew who these guys were or what they were doing to our city,” said Valentina Ivanova, 64, who gave her patronymic but declined to give her last name.
However, some things are starting to fall back into place in Slovyansk. For example, demands for payment have started to arrive at the medical staff dorms that Valentina manages.
“Look, we’ve gotten our communal services bills already,” she said, waving the stack of notes in her hand before depositing them in her neighbor’s mailboxes. “Usually we dread these things, but this time it seems like a little bit of normality.”