A group of young off-duty Ukrainian soldiers gathered at a military distribution center and enjoyed a rare rest from the fighting that swallowed a broken house in eastern Ukraine again.
As they shared their jokes and pizza, they heard bombardments a few kilometers away. This is reminiscent of the oncoming threatening battle in the city of Slovyansk, which was occupied by Russian surrogate fighters in 2014.
“Everyone knows that there will be a large-scale battle in Slovyansk,” said one of the soldiers who could not be named for security reasons.
Eight years after their city was last occupied, the war is back. Slovyansk could be the next major target for Moscow’s campaign to occupy the Donbas region, the center of Ukraine’s predominantly Russian-speaking industry.
Russia’s defense minister said on Sunday that Russian troops and separatist militias occupied the city of Lysychans’k and now dominate the entire Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine. Located 70 kilometers (43 miles) west of Donetsk Oblast, Slovyansk was hit by a rocket on Sunday, killing an unspecified number of people, Mayor Vadim Riak said.
Another soldier previously interviewed by the Associated Press, a 23-year-old accountant who participated when the invasion began, said that the Ukrainian army simply does not have the weapons to repel the superior weapons of the approaching Russian army. Said that.
“We know what’s coming,” he said with a sad smile.
These soldiers were still teenagers when pro-Russian separatists occupied the town and detained them for three months. The short occupation of 2014 terrorized Slovyansk, where dozens of officials and journalists were taken hostage and several were killed.
Fierce battles and artillery occurred when Ukrainian troops besieged and regained the city.
“In fact, the war never left Slovyansk. It never left people’s heads,” said Tetiana Kihimion, a 43-year-old dance choreographer who turned a fishing shop into a local army hub.
“On the one hand, it’s easy for us because we know what it looks like. On the other hand, it’s more difficult for us because we’ve been out of control for eight years like this. is.”
Slovyansk is a city of divided loyalty. Due to the large retired population, it is not uncommon to hear older people sympathize with Russia and express their nostalgia for the Soviet past. There is also distrust of the Ukrainian army and the government.
After the recent bombardment of his apartment, a resident named Sergei said he believed the strike was initiated by Ukraine.
“I’m neither a pro-Russian nor a pro-Ukrainian. I’m in the middle,” he said. “Both Russians and Ukrainians kill civilians — everyone should understand it.”
On Thursday, a group of senior citizens couldn’t hide their frustration after a bomb cut through their roofs and shattered their windows.
Ukraine says, “They say they are protecting us, but what kind of protection is this?” Asked one man who did not provide his name.
“They kneel down on that Biden — he may die!” Neighbor Tatiana shouted, referring to US President Joe Biden.
Since 2014, Kimion said it has become easier to know “who is who” in Slovyansk. “Now you can easily see: these people are for Ukraine and these people are for Russia.”
She said that since 2014, not enough has been done to punish those who worked with Russian agents to prevent the situation from recurring.
“That’s why we can’t negotiate, we have to win, otherwise it’s going to be a never-ending process. It’s going to keep repeating,” she said.
Mayor Slovyansk reflects the city’s new trajectory. Inspired by Ukrainian wartime leader Volodymyr Zelensky, he decorated his office with the Ukrainian flag, anti-Russian symbols, portraits of national poets, and even the biography of Winston Churchill. rice field.
But before 2014, Lyakh was part of a political party seeking close ties with Russia. He said there were still “people waiting for the return of Russian troops”, partly because of the horrors witnessed in 2014, while the sentiment of pro-Moscow in the city faded.
As the front line gets closer, the attacks on the city become more intense. Although three-quarters of the prewar population fled, the mayor said too many people still live in Slovyansk, including many children. He urged them to evacuate while spending his days coordinating humanitarian aid and strengthening the defense of the city.
Lyakh said he couldn’t relax in a few minutes.
“It’s emotionally difficult. You can see how people are dying and being harmed. Still, this is my job and no one but me and the people around me can do it. I understand that. “
Increasingly, Lyakh was one of the first responders at the scene of the bombing. Associated Press journalists following the mayor recently witnessed authorities describe it as a cluster munition attack on a residential area. One died and several others were injured.
The mayor says the bombardment is now at least 4-5 times a day and the use of cluster munitions increased last week. He is optimistic that the Ukrainian army can keep the enemy away, but he also has a clear outlook on his options.
“No one wants to be caught. I will have to go when there is an imminent danger of enemy troops invading the city,” he said.
One morning last week, Lyakh visited an apartment that was bombarded overnight. Most of the windows were blown off, the doors were wide open, and the power lines were cut off.
The same building was bombed in 2014, leaving a gapped hole on the 6th floor and breaking many residents.
Andrey, a 37-year-old factory worker who has lived in the building for 20 years, remembered the bombing and occupation. He said the separatists “did and took what they liked.”
People in his circle have different opinions about Russia.
“People in distress understand what this” Russian world “means. That means broken houses, stolen cars, and violence, “he explains. “Some people miss the Soviet Union, which we all think is alone, and they don’t accept what they see with their own eyes.”
Eight years after the withdrawal of the separatists, Slovyansk’s life has improved significantly, he said.
The statue of Vladimir Il’Nin, who once stood in the central square, has been removed. Water and power supplies have been refurbished. New parks, squares and medical facilities have been built.
“Civilization has been returned to us,” Andrey said.
At the military distribution hub where they go to relax, young soldiers mournfully talk about their lives before the invasion.
“I had a great car and did a good job. I was able to travel abroad three times a year,” he said, planning to stay in Slovyansk with others to protect the city. The former accountant said. “How can someone come and rob us of our lives?”
Kimion’s husband was at the forefront, and as soon as the invasion began, she took her teenage daughter on a train to Switzerland.
“I have been robbed of my house, my husband, my children, etc. What should I do now?” She asks. “We are doing everything we can to minimize (aggressive) outages … but the fear is to abandon this place.”
At the entrance to the city, a monument named after Slovyansk has been filled with ammunition holes since 2014. It has been drawn several times. It is now Ukrainian national in color, with local artists painting red flowers around each perforation.
Residents of Slovyansk suspect that the sign will soon be repainted in the red, white and blue of the Russian flag.