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!”
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.”