SLOVIANSK, Ukraine – For 45 years, Tamara Fyodorovna has called Sloviansk home. During that time it had been “a peaceful city” of 120,000 people in Donetsk Oblast. Everything changed in April, when it became the focal point of Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operation against Russia-backed separatists who had garrisoned in the city.
For much of the last three months, Fyodorovna and her neighbors hunkered down inside their apartments with their windows taped or boarded and prayed that they would dodge the bullets that whizzed past and heavy artillery that exploded loudly on the city's outskirts. They stayed inside except for the few trips needed to buy provisions.
On July 2, amid an exchange of mortar fire by the two groups, she was nearly killed when a shell hit her building, reducing a five-floor section of it to rubble. Today, a cabinet teeters precariously on a top-floor ledge of the destroyed building, a ceiling fan dangles from what’s left of a living room and sofa cushions lay among a pile of bricks and mortar.
A man contemplates the damage caused by a mortar blast on an apartment building in Sloviansk's Artema district.
“We heard it coming… and when it hit, it ripped through the building,” Fyodorovna told the Kyiv Post from her third floor balcony, gesturing at the ruins as she was hanging out her laundry to dry. One woman is said to have been killed in the blast – 76-year-old Maria Maximovna Reznychenko – but her neighbors say they aren’t sure. She was seen bleeding profusely from the neck when medics took her away, they say, but they haven’t received news since.
Fyodorovna and her neighbors had endured weeks of heavy fighting that knocked out power, destroyed water lines and cut off gas to residents.
She decided to stay put, as did her neighbor Sasha, who declined to give his last name.
“Where are we to go?” Sasha asked rhetorically, saying that a lack of money prevented most people he knew – and himself – from joining tens of thousands of others who had left the city in a hurry amid the turmoil. Some headed toward neighboring Sviatohirsk, while others made a break for Russia.
They finally got some respite when the rebels, led by their commander, Igor Strelkov, a Russian who also goes by the name Igor Girkin, ordered his troops to retreat to Donetsk and consolidate their forces after days of perpetual artillery bombardments from government troops.
The basement of the Sloviansk security services building, where rebels held several hostages for weeks.
The regional capital, as well as the rebel-held city of Luhansk about 100 miles east, are now shaping up to be the next flashpoint cities in Ukraine’s fight against separatists. In an attempt to keep government forces from laying siege to the cities, rebels on July 7 blew up three bridges and erected new roadblocks.
Rebel leaders have vowed to fight Ukraine's military to the end.
The press card and passport of journalist Irma Krat, who spent more than two months as a rebel hostage and was held inside the basement of the Sloviansk security services building.
“We will begin a real partisan war around the whole perimeter of Donetsk,” Pavel Gubarev, the self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk People’s Republic, told separatists at a rally at Donetsk’s central Lenin Square on July 6. “We will drown these wretches in blood.”
Ukraine restarted its military offensive on July 1, following President Petro Poroshenko’s refusal to extend a 10-day ceasefire declared on June 20 because of multiple violations on the Kremlin-backed side that led to the deaths of 27 Ukrainian soldiers.
Two days after reclaiming Sloviansk, which Kyiv has painted as a major turning point in its fight against separatists, Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov made some big promises to its residents in an attempt to win hearts and minds.
In Sloviansk’s central Lenin Square, with the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag waving behind him – a sight not seen here for months – Avakov on July 7 pledged to restore power, running water and public transportation in Sloviansk “as soon as possible.”
“We are working on it right now, and some electricity should be restored today. The transport minister will arrive shortly to assess the situation with transportation,” he said.
He also vowed to rid the city of tens of block posts and dozens of barricades erected by the rebels to keep Ukrainian troops from penetrating the stronghold, adding that pensions would begin being paid again immediately, information the country’s treasury department reiterated.
Asked by a local woman in a blue rain slicker outside the city hall what kind of city Sloviansk would become, Avakov said, “a beautiful one.”
But the road to full restoration is sure to be long and rocky, as Sloviansk remains severely scarred, although still mostly intact. It will be a long time before any semblance of normalcy returns here.
Shattered glass, power lines and trolleybus cables are strewn across streets marked by giant potholes and the scorched carcasses of vehicles. Gas stations are destroyed and several apartment blocks have been ravaged – their rooftops caved in or their walls completely blown to bits – and perhaps beyond repair.
The neighboring village of Semyonivka, which felt the brunt of Kyiv’s military bombardment, has been completely razed. Debris from homes and businesses are scattered everywhere, dozens of unexploded mortars stuck in the pavement precariously mark the roads.
A destroyed home sits empty in the village of Semyonovka near Sloviansk.
On July 7, a weeping woman soaked from afternoon showers walked barefoot through the desiccated village toward Sloviansk. Besides a small dog, she was the only sign of life there.
A mortar rests at the intersection between Sloviansk and Semyonovka.
And then there is the psychological damage, which will take much longer to repair.
While residents are pleased that much of the heavy fighting is over, not all are happy to have been liberated by government troops some say are under the command of “fascists” and the “junta” in Kyiv for whom they harbor deep resentment and blame for much of the surrounding destruction.
“How can we ever forgive them, after they have destroyed our homes?” said Lyubov Petrovna, a local pensioner who worked as an engineer as a Sloviansk plant for 45 years. However, she admitted that the Ukrainian troops now controlling the city had been friendly to her.
“They saved us from starvation,” she said. She came to the city’s central square to receive humanitarian aid handed out by Ukrainian troops who had arrived with trucks full of bottled water, bread, pasta, rice and other provisions.
The rebels who had controlled the city for months had not been so kind in providing for the population, she said. Meanwhile they lived “like kings,” she added.
While many were grateful for the much-needed supplies, earning the trust of residents here will be no easy task using the tactics such as those employed by Oleh Lyashko, the controversial Radical Party leader and a member of parliament who garnered eight percent of the vote in May’s presidential election and employs his own militias to fight the rebels.
Inside Sloviansk’s city hall on July 7, bolstered by armed men from the Ukraine and Azov battalions, Lyashko forced the head of Sloviansk’s city council, a Party of Regions representative supported by many people here, to pen his resignation.
Radical Party leader Oleh Lyashko and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov stand in front of Sloviansk's city hall on July 2.
After repeatedly resisting, the man wrote the notice with trembling hands. Then in a final act of humiliation, Lyashko ordered him, “Write, ‘Glory to Ukraine, death to occupiers.’”
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action. The content is independent of these organizations and is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post.