For about the entire 2014 I was following the news about the conflict in Ukraine. I learned about the Euromaidan revolution and how eastern cities came under separatist control during Spring. Later, many civilians suffered from the attempts of the Ukrainian army to get them back. And now, after first having been in Kiev last summer, I am walking through one of those cities, and it’s not the average backpacking destination. In summer it was considered the ‘hottest war region’ of Ukraine: Sloviansk.
“On the left you can see the burned out building of the Ukrainian security services (SBU). This is where journalist Simon Ostrovsky [Vice News] was detained“, Andrew tells me. We met through Twitter and as one of few people in the city who speak good English, he and his girlfriend were happy to show me around their home town. “This is where they [the separatists/rebels] built a block post”, he adds while pointing at what now appears to be just a normal intersection. Minutes later we are staring at a snowed-under statue of communist Lenin in front of the administrative building. We then move towards the police station around the corner. Both buildings were seized by pro-Russian armed men back in April. Barricades were put up in front, militant checkpoints erected and Ukrainian flags replaced by (pro-) Russian ones.
These days all these reminders of that period are gone and the combination of blue and yellow can be found back again, I even notice a EU flag. Obviously Sloviansk is back in Ukrainian control and it does not actively want to seek any closer ties with Russia anymore.
As Andrew is explaining me more and more, my memories are slowly becoming more clear as I am visualising the reports I watched on Youtube. Throughout the entire Ukrainian conflict and the war with pro-Russian separatists, many (foreign) journalists have been working hard to report on what is going on in Ukraine. Most of the people I speak to are happy with these efforts. One person in particular, Simon Ostrovsky from Vice News, gained much respect in Ukraine. “He really tried to show both sides”, Andrew says.
Like in most countries at war, Ukraine was and still is the scene of a full scale information (or propaganda) ‘war’. Mostly state-owned propaganda news channels are showing largely incomplete pictures of the conflict, leading to a growing hate between pro-Ukrainians and pro-Russians. To see for myself what went on inside east Ukraine, I therefore decided to come to the liberated city of Sloviansk during my Christmas holiday.
Sloviansk is strategically located 37 kilometers (reportedly) from the front lines of the war in Donbass. Donbass is the name for the two Ukrainian administrative regions Luhansk and Donetsk, which are still partially under control of Russia-backed rebels. It’s mainly an industrial region, densely populated and with a relatively high percentage of pro-Russian citizens. In the controversial 12 May referendum that led to the creation of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Sloviansk proved to host the highest percentage of pro-Russian voters, Andrew told me. Some say that the referendum was rigged. Andrew however, a philosophy teacher by profession, explains me over a beer in a bar how voters were hoping for the so-called Crimean scenario: a republic would be declared, Putin would come for the rescue and not a single shot would ever be fired. This however never happened. Instead, the violence in the separatist stronghold only increased. Journalists and local residents were taken hostage, disappeared or simply got killed. Areas came under increased shelling and not only houses, but lives were destroyed. In the months after the referendum, people started to loose their fate in the separatists cause.
Andrew himself, never sympathising with the insurgents from the beginning, decided to leave his city at some point just like tens of thousands of others during those months. After numerous of failed offensives by the Ukrainian army at the outskirts of the city, on May 26th a mortar shell hit 20 meters from the school he was working at, killing one of his colleagues. With glass flying around in the nearby rooms, he decided to rush back home on his bicycle. “I made a mistake there, I should have gone into the basement like all the others because on my way home two more mortars struck around me. Miraculously the shrapnel did not hit me and I survived”, he confesses.
Back at home Andrew realised the war had now come too close and started packing his stuff. He escaped Sloviansk the next day to nearby Izyum, again on his bicycle. Due to a massive exodus from the city, no buses were available anymore and trains had even stopped running. “The bicycle was my only option”, he ensured me. Assumedly 40% of its population fled Sloviansk during the take-over by the Russia-backed insurgents. His route took him passed the militant checkpoints of both the rebels as well as the Ukrainian army. The stretch of road in between them he described as a scary place, for it being totally deserted and quiet.
Two weeks later, Andrew got back to Sloviansk for two days to gather more stuff. By then, he had found a way to avoid the separatist checkpoints. Each one, as he explained, was manned by masked soldiers with Russian accents. The fact that these men were not even aware of the fact that there was a nearby town called Kramatorsk (also under separatist control), made it clear to him that they were not from around. Andrew told me he had returned to an empty and lawless city with no electricity or phone reception. “It was a depressing scene, as if the whole city had gone back in time one hundred years. But thankfully at least it wasn’t winter at that time.” Only after the separatists had left on July 5th, Andrew returned to his home town for good.
Some signs of pro-Russian sentiment can still be found throughout town though. I spot several calls for Novorossia, a new country that most separatists are dreaming about. People have also warned me for going out at night. “There are still some stupid people in Sloviansk who support the separatists. So at late hours, better stay at home”, I was adviced by a local. However, the Ukrainian army is well present in Sloviansk, and I quickly got used to seeing men in camouflage clothes everywhere.
ANTI TERRORIST OPERATION
Sloviansk, and nearby Kramatorsk, are now in the heart of the Anti Terrorist Operation (ATO) zone. After president Poroshenko declared this full offensive against the separatists in the east, Sloviansk was one the first cities to come under siege. After months of shelling and attempts to take back the city, the insurgents found themselves at some point encircled by Ukrainian troops. On July 5th these rebels were ordered to retreat to Donetsk, the largest separatist stronghold, marking the liberation of the city. Kramatorsk followed shortly after.
The fact that Sloviansk is still in the ATO zone, makes it is theoretically impossible for regular foreigners/tourists like me to visit the region. On top, the Dutch embassy in Kiev advised me not to go (though embassies are notorious for their over precautious travel advises). Through the internet, I heard how journalists need to request permission to visit the ATO zone, so in order to be on the safe side I decided to request permission as well. Miraculously it worked. With a print of the email I had received from the Ukrainian Security Services I travelled by train from Kharkov towards Sloviansk. While the road between the two cities is full of Ukrainian military checkpoints, for some reason the train connection is completely free of any, so I never had to show it.
My only experience with any military checkpoint came from the day on which another Andrew, whom I met through Couchsurfing, took me to Semenovka on the outskirts of the city (see the first picture of this article). Particularly in these areas, shelling from artillery and heavy fighting was taking place when the insurgents had erected numerous of their own checkpoints around the fortified town. Complete neighbourhoods, already abandoned by its residents, were levelled by the Ukrainian army as the rebels were hiding in the houses’ basements.
Standing in between the bombed out abandoned houses, shrapnel damage, in between huge craters from helicopter attacks and howitzer shells, for the first time in my life I experienced what the direct aftermath of a war must feel like. Before, I had only seen ex-war zones in Bosnia but that is from 20 years ago. Shelling in the area I was standing now happened just half a year ago, and some regions could still hide some booby traps. With the nearby active front lines further along the highway every now and then I saw army material passing through the street coming from Donetsk and Horlivka. One truck was completely filled with empty shells of a large caliber artillery, most likely howitzers. It made me wonder if the Ukrainian army actually obeys the cease fire like it says it does.
In Semenovka however, the fighting is over. In between the rubble, I spot a house owner who explains me how volunteers are now helping everywhere to rebuilt the houses. Some of his neighbours will never come back though he says, while I am staring into a street with a few half rebuilt houses still scarred from the flying shrapnel. His house was repaired, and his mother was soon to return back he told me.
At about 400 meters further, rebels blew up a bridge when they retreated to Donetsk. On top, they had also left the entire area full of booby traps that in the aftermath assumedly had killed many dogs. The army spent two days to remove them for as much as they could, and then built a temporary bridge to restore the strategically important road towards Donetsk.
On the river bank, next to the new bridge, I spotted a military checkpoint. We decided to walk up there, and I engaged into a conversation with the soldiers using Andrew as my translator. What followed was an invitation into the barrack, where I enjoyed several cups of tea and lots of cookies and sweets donated by the local community. The place was dark and boiling hot from the wood stove. Some soldiers were sent outside, only to carry back in some additional supplies.
With so many gifts coming in, at some point it almost felt like I was hanging out in some kind of semi-sauna camping hut where everything was just fun and jokes. The difference is though that the walls were lined with loaded modified AK47s and bulletproof vests. Going outside for a walk along the river was not advised since there are still a lot of unexploded mortars laying around, the commander explained.
At some point he is called outside by a soldier to inspect a ‘suspicious’ vehicle. He grabs his weapon, puts on a vest and goes outside. It’s a false alarm. Shortly after, the next car stops and a civilian steps out. He came to bring even more sweets and cookies, another donation days before the Orthodox Christmas celebrations. It proves that, despite the shelling of residential areas, the army still gets the support it needs.
The army is still under heavy attack at the front lines of the war in Donbass. The Ukrainians I speak to are very concerned for the civilians who are still caught in between the fighting because they have all witnessed it themselves as well. They pray for peace and stability and hope the cities will one day get liberated soon. However I am doubting if this will ever happen. I ask the commander where he sees himself one year from now. “Somewhere else in Donbass, but not here anymore”, he says. Also he is not confident that the war will be over soon. The rebels are heavily supplied with Russian military equipment and I suspect it will still take some time before both parties will realise that continuing the war is completely pointless.
I will be waiting for the day that the rest of Donbass will become a frozen conflict zone, perhaps like Transnistria or Abchazia, so I can visit it as soon as it becomes safe. I am wondering what kind of stories from the locals I will be able to share with you then.