By FRANCESCA EBEL, Associated Press
Slovansk, Ukraine (AP) – A group of young off-duty Ukrainian soldiers gathered at a military distribution center to enjoy the rare relief from fighting that has recaptured their broken home in eastern Ukraine.
As they shared jokes and pizzas, artillery explosions could be heard a few kilometers away – reminiscent of the threatening battles that would unfold here in the Slovian city occupied by Russian proxy fighters in 2014.
“Everyone knows there will be a big war in Slovyansk,” said an unnamed soldier for security reasons.
Now, eight years after their city was last captured, the war is back. If Moscow is the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold of Luhansk province, 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of Ukraine’s predominantly Russian-speaking industrial center, Ukraine’s predominantly Russian-speaking industrial center, Donbass, could become another major target of Russia’s campaign.
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Another soldier, a 23-year-old accountant who joined the attack when it began, said the Ukrainian army did not have the weapons to fight the Russian army’s high-altitude approach.
“We know what’s coming,” he said with a sad smile.
The soldiers were teenagers when pro-Russian separatists occupied the city for three months. In 2014 a short career terrorized Slovyansk, where dozens of officials and journalists were taken hostage, and several murders took place.
Fierce fighting and shelling ensued as the Ukrainian army laid siege to retake the city.
“In fact, the war never left Slovyansk. It never left people’s heads,” said Tatiana Khimion, a 43-year-old dance choreographer who turned a fishing shop into a hub for local military units.
“On the one hand, it’s easier for us because we know what it’s like. On the other hand, it’s even harder for us to live in such a state of shock for eight years.”
Slovyansk is a city of divided loyalty. With a large retired population, it is not uncommon for older residents to express sympathy for Russia or hear old memories of their Soviet past. There is also distrust of the Ukrainian army and government.
Following the recent shelling of his apartment block, a resident named Sergei said he believed the strike had been started by Ukraine.
“I’m not pro-Russia, I’m not pro-Ukraine. I’m somewhere in between,” he said. “Both Russians and Ukrainians kill civilians – everyone should understand this.”
On Thursday, a group of elderly residents could not hide their frustration after a bomb blast ripped through their roofs and shattered windows.
Ukraine “They say they are protecting us, but what kind of protection is this?” Asked a man who did not want to be named.
“They kneel before Biden – he dies!” Her neighbor, Tatiana, pointed to US President Joe Biden.
After 2014, Khimion said, it became easier to know “who is” in Slovyansk. “Now you can easily see: these people are for Ukraine, and these people are for Russia.”
She says punishing people who cooperate with Russian proxies is not enough to stop the situation from recurring after 2014.
“So we can’t negotiate, we have to win. Otherwise it will be a never ending process. It will keep repeating, ”she said.
The mayor of Slovyansk, Vadim Lyak, reflects the new route of the city. At his behest from Ukraine’s wartime leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky, the mayor has decorated his office with Ukrainian flags, anti-Russian symbols, and portraits of national poets – including Winston Churchill’s biography.
But before 2014, he was part of a political party seeking closer ties with Russia. Lakh said pro-Moscow sentiment in the city has been lost over the years – partly due to the horrific events seen in 2014 – there are still “people waiting for the return of the Russian army”.
As the front line gets closer, the attacks on the city intensify. Three-quarters of Sloviansk’s pre-war population has fled, but the mayor said there are still many people here, including many children. He encourages them to evacuate. He spends his days coordinating humanitarian aid and strengthening the city’s security.
More and more, he is one of the first responders to the bombing incident. The Associated Press followed suit and recently witnessed witnesses describe what authorities described as a cluster bomb attack in a residential area. One person has been killed and several others injured.
According to the mayor, there is now at least four to five rounds of gunfire a day and the use of cluster weapons has increased in recent weeks. Although he is optimistic that the Ukrainian army can keep the enemy at bay, he is also clear about his options.
“I don’t want to capture anyone. I have to go when the enemy army is in danger of entering the city,” he said.
Leah said she couldn’t let herself rest for even a few minutes.
“It’s emotionally difficult. You see how people are dying and being harmed. But anyway, I understand it’s my job and no one else can do it except me and the people around me.”
One morning last week, Lach visited the apartment block, which was shelled overnight. Most of the windows in the building are broken, the doors are broken and the power lines are cut.
The same building was bombed in 2014, when a shell left a hole in the sixth floor and broke the bones of several residents.
Andrew, a 37-year-old factory worker who has lived in the building for 20 years, recalls the bombing and his profession. He said the separatist forces “did and took what they wanted.”
People in his circle have different views about Russia.
“Those who have suffered understand the meaning of this ‘Russian world’: it means broken homes, stolen cars and violence,” he says. “There are those who miss the Soviet Union, who think we are all the same people, and they do not accept what they have seen with their own eyes.”
In the eight years since the separatists withdrew, Slovyansk’s life has improved significantly, he said.
The statue of Vladimir Lenin, once standing in the central square, has been removed. Water and electricity supply was repaired. New parks, squares and medical facilities were built.
“Civilization was returned to us,” Andre said.
At the military distribution hub, young soldiers talk with surprise about their lives before attacking.
“I had a good car, a good job. I was able to travel abroad three times a year,” said the former accountant, who plans to live in Slovansk with others to protect the city. “How can we allow someone to come and take our life away from us?”
Khimion’s husband is at the forefront, and as soon as the attack began, she put her teenage daughter on the train for Switzerland.
“I have lost my home, my husband, my children – everything. What can I do now?” She asks. “We’re trying our best to stop (aggressively), to keep it to a minimum … but to be afraid is to leave this place.”
At the entrance to the city, a monument bearing the name of Slovyansk has been filled with bullet holes since 2014. It has been depicted many times. It now carries the national colors of Ukraine, and local artists have painted red flowers around each hole.
Residents of Slovyansk are wondering – with some hope, in great fear – if the sign will soon be painted in red, white and blue on the Russian flag again.
Valeri Rezik contributed to this story.
Follow the AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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