Evgeniy Maloletka / AP

Amid ruins, Slovyansk residents nervously welcome end of siege

Ukraine recaptures key separatist stronghold, but fighting continues in east as pro-Russian forces regroup in Donetsk

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — For four days Vera and her neighbors spent their nights huddled together in a musky basement, waiting out the heavy artillery shelling and shooting on the street.

The 50-year-old’s apartment building was located between two pro-Russian rebel block posts just outside the center of this embattled city in eastern Ukraine. The fighting at night was so intense that the residents didn’t dare go outside before sunrise each day.

Even during daylight, residents like Vera said that fear still ruled the streets of this once heavily industrialized city, which until Saturday had been the focus of the Ukrainian military’s operation against pro-Russian fighters. The violence kept them inside, fearful of losing their lives.

That has changed now.

At the crack of dawn on July 5, Vera and her neighbors emerged from their basement shelter to see that the rebels had abandoned their posts in her neighborhood. In fact, the armed men had fled the entire city late the night before. Then a few hours later, the Ukrainian army rolled in and hoisted Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag on top of the city’s administration building. It was the first time the flag had flown there since rebels captured and held the building in early April.

The Ukrainian military has now declared the city of Slovyansk liberated from what it claims is a Kremlin-funded insurgency meant to destabilize the post-Soviet nation and bring it back into Moscow’s sphere of influence. The next day, the rebels who had held nearby Kramatorsk also evacuated.

On Sunday the Ukrainian military began delivering humanitarian aid to Slovyansk, which had been without water and electricity for several days. Residents reported that grocery store shelves have been nearly empty for weeks and that available products were four times as expensive.

Tens of thousands of people have left the city in the last several weeks, fleeing to other parts of the country and across the border to Russia.

When the trucks arrived Sunday afternoon in the center of Slovyansk to deliver water, bread, pasta and other basic supplies to the remaining residents, several hundred gathered in the sprinkling rain outside the city administration building to wait in line. Some were pleased to see the military.

“Those who could have left — if they had money or a place to go — they left,” said Natasha Akimova, who was waiting in line for water and other supplies with her 18-year-old daughter, Carolina. “Where would I get money to stay somewhere for more than a few days? This is our city, our Ukraine. We never wanted these separatist guys here. What did they do for us? Nothing!”

We never wanted these separatist guys here. What did they do for us? Nothing!

Natasha Akimova

Slovyansk resident

Those left in the city of 120,000 were either too poor to leave or had someone too sick to take with them, Akimova said.

When the Ukrainian army entered Slovyansk, Akimova said, she and her friends cheered them on. “Best day of my life,” she said. “I would have toasted them with Champagne, but we have nothing left in our cabinets to offer them.”

For the last several weeks, as things in the city deteriorated, she and her daughters survived on whatever food they could scrape together from their cabinets.

“Look, we’ll be fine now. We were fine. Let’s just hope the Ukrainian army can get rid of these bandit separatists — or whatever you want to call them — for good,” she said. “We’re not terrorists. We’re for Ukraine.”

Lyudmila Zhovnerenko surveys the damage in her kitchen after her apartment building was hit by shelling.
Sabra Ayres

But others — reflecting the very deep and real divides in Ukraine — blamed the trouble and the destruction on the government. Across the city in the Artyomsk neighborhood, Lyudmila Zhovnerenko looked at the remains of what was once the small kitchen of her two-room apartment. Tears filled her eyes as she described the remodeling she had done to the small space just two years ago.

“This was my beautiful kitchen,” the 65-year-old pensioner said, as she took in the shattered glass from her blown-out window and the peeling wallpaper she so carefully chose and applied to the walls not long ago.

Two days ago her building was struck by mortar fire that tore through the building’s basement just below her kitchen window. The force of the shelling destroyed the front section of her apartment and left a large crater in the side of the building. Four people were killed.

“I don’t know what happens next. Our president said he’ll pay for this. I heard him on the radio this morning. So we’ll wait for that, I guess,” she said.

Things were fine in Ukraine before all this protesting and separatist talk started, she said. “We all got along fine. I can’t imagine who these rebels were and what they wanted.”

Outside her five-story Soviet-era building, Zhovnerenko’s son was boarding up the gaping holes on his mother’s first-floor apartment. His anger at those who had conducted the shelling that destroyed his mother’s home was palpable.

Zhovnerenko’s son tries to board up his mother’s destroyed windows.
Sabra Ayres

“Tell the operators of this what happened. Let them know what they have done,” he told a group of journalists who arrived to survey the damage.

If the Ukrainian army’s securing of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk holds, it will be a significant victory for Kiev’s three-month military campaign against the rebels. However, many of the fighters have retreated to other parts of the region, including the city of Donetsk. Few expect the conflict to end immediately.

The country’s military is poorly equipped and poorly trained to carry out a counterinsurgency, and many of its weapons are better suited for a taking out tanks than for routing rebels holding hostages — or surrounded by civilian supporters — in city centers.

As a result, the fighting often has created more anger in the east as civilians and their homes have been caught in the middle of heavy shelling and mortar fire from the Ukrainian army. More than 430 people have died during the military operation, including some 130 Ukrainian troops, since it started in April.

Despite the rising death toll, the Ukrainian military has vowed to push on with its campaign against the separatists. “We will continue the acute phase of the operation until there is not a single terrorist left in Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” Ukraine’s Minister of Defense Valeriy Heletey told reporters at the ministry’s base in Izyum, a city about 25 miles from Slovyansk.

But the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said they have not lost their strength. They promised to continue their fight against Kiev.

“We will begin a real partisan war around the whole perimeter of Donetsk,” said Pavel Gubarev, the self-described governor of the Donetsk People’s Republic, at a rally in central Donetsk on Sunday. “We will drown these wretches in blood.”

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