Freeing Sloviansk and Kramatorsk was the first big victory of Ukraine in this war, the first big hope that the terrorists` forces would be fully destroyed soon, and the first sad knowing: this military operation was for a long time.
5 July 2014. Donetsk railway station. Waiting rooms are unusually full: pensioners, children, women – the whole families are there. One can say that they`re not going to have a joyful trip judging by their big checkered bags – you don’t go to vacation with such a sombre luggage. And unusual silence for a railway station. Everyone is speechlessly waiting for a train.
People in cammies with patches of “South-east” are walking at the station – like something foreign. Passengers are trying not to look at them even though “the cammies” are blatantly staring at everyone themselves. Why do they feel so impertinent? Just six hours ago the main news of the day, or maybe even of the whole summer of 2014 hit the morning airwaves of all the channels: “Sloviansk and Kramatorsk are freed, terrorists in several columns are leaving the cities and moving in the direction of Donetsk”. For long 84 days they felt like bosses in these cities. “Perhaps terrorists in Donetsk are not for long as well?”. Who knows how many people had this naïve thought at the Donetsk railway station on 5 July 2014.
It all started on 12 April when the armed terrorists occupied the city police station in Sloviansk. Then one by one the buildings of the city council and the Security Service of Ukraine fell under their temporary control. The situation in Kramatorsk was evolving the same way: occupied official buildings, barricades and block posts in the city, people wearing balaclavas and with assault rifles. And later exchanges of fire will turn into shellings, hostages will be tortured and killed, and the war will take years.
On 1 July as a result of terrorist shelling, the TV tower on the Karachun mountain will fall, on 2 July Ukrainian army will take control over Raihorodok, on July 3 and 4 it will destroy terrorists` strongholds and ammunition depots in Mykolaivka and Semenivka, and will come close to the suburbs of Sloviansk. And already on the night of July 5 the terrorists leaded by Hirkin-Strelkov will run fast to Donetsk. Volunteers and politicians will go to the city, people will be queuing for bread and water, and streets will be painted in blue-and-yellow.
A pastor. An enemy of the terrorists
“Every day it was becoming more and more difficult: new block posts appeared, the railway connection was blocked, we had breakdowns in product delivery, “Nonas” (120 mm self-propelled mounts – author`s note) were moving through the city, the workers of the Security Service of Ukraine and OSCE were captured, in fact the whole city was trapped. We were thinking how could we help these people. We managed buying a thousand of loaves, we gathered around 60 people and wanted to cut and dry this bread together, and open a couple of stations with hot meals. And at that moment I look out of the window and see two cars arriving, snipers taking positions and terrorists getting over the fence. It was the first time our church was seized. People were placed face down on the floor and then they started to scour looking for weapon, “Right sector”, literature at our place”, – tells the pastor Petro Dudnyk.
He points at the window from which one can see the inner suburbs of Sloviansk. There is a collection of shrapnel and shells that he has collected during the war, and next to it – kids` drawings and photos from the different cities of Donbass, where his church has helped the locals.
For him the war started on 12 July when armed people seized a city police station. At that time the preacher with his wife were in Kyiv and were about to come back home. There they bought a blue-and-yellow flag, but finally didn’t dare to bring it to the city invaded by the people with tricoloured flag. Almost immediately Petro sent his wife and kids to the parents, and stayed in the city on his own. That is how his life in occupied Sloviansk started.
“After that the church was taken the second time and we were forced to leave it. I remember one of the balaclava militants leading me down the hall and saying: “Pastor, I had attended a Sunday school here”. So I asked: “What had I taught you then that you had to convoy a priest pointing a machine gun at him?” I didn’t find out who was this man. At that time there were several Russians who came to the church, the rest were locals. One of them was such an interesting guy, Lynx. He used to work as an electrician and disappeared the week before. And when he reappeared, he was already an active militant. Then I saw him in a video on YouTube: he was injured and was asking for money for treatment in Russia. And then he was killed”.
During the occupation of Sloviansk priests became a special target for the militants. Thus, the tortured bodies of four members of the Pentecostal Church – Ruvym and Albert Pavenko, Volodymyr Velychko, Victor Bradarskiy – were found in the same grave together with ten more bodies after the liberation of Sloviansk. The terrorists accused them of supporting the Ukrainian army.
“Ideologically we were enemies for them, – says Petro Dudnyk. – The logic was the following: protestants, means Americans, means enemies. Though even after all these events they tried to get me to the Russian Federation on a pretext of coming to the airwaves, doing interview. I`ll tell you about one boy, Vania. He grew up at boarding school and, when he completed the 8th grade, he got to Sloviansk. Our bishop`s parents took custody of him. It was 1997-1998. Vania lived at their place attending our school, we were just building it at that time and he was helping us as well. Then he left his parents and got to jail. 2014, and Vania appears in one same company with Hirkin. He held some position there and acted as a referee at the militant meetings. They wanted either to blow up or to ruin our church, and he was saying: “No need, let’s occupy the building ourselves.” So that`s what they did. At the beginning, they just put snipers nightly, and then around 15 people of Russian special forces arrived – one of them was Ken, Vania`s chief – and kicked us out of the church. There were also about 40 Don Cossacks and a militant group built of the local chavs of up to 100 people who lived here with us. “Nonas” stayed on the territory of the church, and fired from there.”
The pastor describes that period as a period of mass fear that has been constantly fuelled by terrorists. Locals started realizing that it was dangerous to stay in the city. At the same time, Petro Dudnyk brought the first people – his friends – out of Sloviansk. And wrote a post about it on Facebook. In the comments, he started being immediately asked “Help us as well”, “Bring us out”. That is how the church representatives started to evacuate people: the elderly, women and children were brought to Kharkiv and handed over to the local volunteers, those who knew where to go and could afford it financially – to Izium, those who were completely out of money, were taken to Sviatogorsk and from there – to other regions.
“It may sound supernatural to you, but then I got a message from God. I was standing by the church when I heard: “Don’t go to the city by buses”. And we had four of them to evacuate people. So, I called the guys and told them not to come to Slovyansk. The next morning a jeep with militants drove into the yard. “Where are your buses? We need to bus the injured people out”. And they were answered: there is none. In the meanwhile, we have already lost five of our cars. And five of us were in captivity… But we continued bringing people out. During this period of time we have evacuated at least 4,000 people from Sloviansk, and around 12,000 in the whole region”.
In early June, Petro realized that he could no longer stay in the city. He asked his neighbour to come into the house, collect the documents and his laptop and put them in the car. With these things, the pastor left Slavyansk until the liberation of the city.
“At 5 am on July 5, I was woken up by the person on watch who stayed in the church, he said: “Pastor, there is no one in the church anymore. I`m walking around, closing everything and collecting weapons in the yard so that the locals do not take it”. Then he went to check the block posts – no one there as well. He told me: “I could see a jacket, partially emptied cup of tea, but no people there”. The militants simply fled from the city. So then I came back to Sloviansk. People were starving, there was no water, and we were gathering all that and bringing to the houses”.
Petro Dudnyk is still a volunteer, and together with his colleagues he continues to help people who live close to the war. He says that comparing to 2014, the degree of “pro-Russian sentiments” in Sloviansk has fallen, and the talks like “our guys will come soon” are non-existent.
A house where it`s remembered
August 2014. Five-storey building on 4 Boulevard Street is the most famous house in Sloviansk. It has seven entrances and one simply does not exist. When a shell got there, there was almost no one at home. Except one woman who managed surviving. Elderly women are sitting on the bench at the next porch.
– Its okay, our guys will come soon.
– Yes, our guys have already come. Ukrainian army is in the city for a while now.
– Our guys. They will come soon.
There is a school hundred meters away. It is not ruined, even though there is not even a single glass in the windows, the walls are pink, a bit damaged and just recently repaired. In it these women surpassed the shelling.
July 2019. One can guess what happened in Artema neighbourhood five years ago only by looking at the walls of the five-storey building. New and light second porch makes a contrast with the brick walls of the others. All the residents returned here. The only newcomers are the immigrants from Horlivka – a grandmother with a grandson who`ve just buried their daughter and mother and moved to Ukraine-controlled territory.
At the one of the entrances there is a married couple, they are over 60. Nina Ivanivna now is looking around, and now at Gennady Petrovych repairing the bike. At the playground between their home and school, children are fooling around.
“We often remember it, – says Nina Ivanivna. – We did not have any window left in the house. They were shooting all morning and all night long, and the last week before the “DPR militants” left – the whole day as well. At this time, we were hiding in the basement of the school. There were few of us, around 50 people”.
“We slept some here some there, – Gennady Petrovych adds. – Some found place on the table, some on the floor. Oh, it was shaking a lot here!”.
“There were very few people in the city. My husband and I were the only ones who stayed in our part of the building and even closed the front door with a stick”.
“At least we were lucky that there were no looters”.
“The looters came later when the “DPR militants” left. People did not come back to the town for a long time because there was no water for another two months. Once a journalist asked us: “How is it, to live with “DPR militants” at power?” And we have never even crossed them, they lived their own lives. The day, when our house was destroyed, I went for a walk in the afternoon. Other women were sitting at the benches as well. A young man walking a dog, came to us, and said: “You should go, “Nonas” have just drove up the street, something is going to happen now”. One of the Nonas stopped at the school’s football field. They started firing, and apparently got a responded from somewhere there. In our Artema village all the collective buildings were damaged. It was scary, very scary. People from the neighbouring houses said that some guys came, stayed a bit at the entrance, then left – and immediately the shelling began. They were artillery adjusters, I guess? It was my husband who told me that the “DPR militants” had left the town. On that day, he just cycled to the town centre for sugar, as neither shops nor the market didn’t work in our part of the town. So he came back and said: “In the centre there are people shooting and celebrating “DPR militants” leaving the town”.
Nina Ivanivna is telling me everything: that her husband was finding shrapnel around the house for a long time, and the neighbours were collecting broken glass of their windows, how their house and all the neighbouring ones were reconstructed, about puddles of blood on the market, which was hit by the shell, that now there is no work in the town, but the number of inhabitants increased as a lot of immigrants arrived from the occupied territories. Suddenly, she turns to me and asks me anxiously: “Do you think that all this can happen to us again?”.
“Of course not,” – I reply.
“But we are still at war. Even though there is no shooting right here, but the war is still going! People are suffering, they are dying. For how long?”.
Gennady Petrovych is leading me to the destroyed garages on the outskirts of Sloviansk. We are walking slowly and reach them after quite a while. On the way, he`s telling me about his findings and how the city looked like after the combat activity – out of curiosity he has explored the entire area. And the words of the woman who can feel other people`s pain are still spinning in my head. Even though it was five years ago when she heard the sound of shelling last time, but she knows – somewhere nearby is the same war.
We approach the garages. Actually, now it’s hard to say what has destroyed them: war or time. “And now let’s go and have look at the abandoned trenches and dug-outs” – says Gennady Petrovych. “Whose ones?”, – I ask. “Well, of course the ones of DPR”. And then he will guide me to the bus stop, wait for a trolley to come, shake my hand firmly, and wave goodbye.
Living at the ruins
Sloviansk and the village of Semenivka are separated from each other by a lively route. There are roadside cafes and shops situated here, and opposite to them, across the road, there is a monument to the dead “Alpha” officers, the colonel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the senior warrant officer of the National Guard of Ukraine. Fresh flowers are on the monument. Combats in this area were the first ones in the history of the Russian-Ukrainian war. According to the official data, during the military operations at the outskirts of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk Ukraine lost 70 defenders. As a reminder of the spring and summer of 2014 – one can see ruined buildings and the psychiatric hospital building on the back of the monument.
In Semenivka one still can see the war marks – iron gates damaged by shrapnel, cracks in some houses and fresh maintenance in most of them. But in order to imagine what happened here five years ago, you can just go to the part of the village where the psychiatric hospital used to be.
Despite the late morning, its quiet and creepy outdoors. Thick greenery looks out from the ruined houses and their jagged walls. If you go inside and pass by the ruins, you come across the repaired children’s clinic building. The door is assembled with an intercom, and a sign at the entrance says that the building has been renovated with the support of the German government and the Red Cross. Children’s voices come from within. But outdoors there is no one. Building work nearby is also silent. Judging by the sign on the iron fence, the reconstruction of the main building of the Regional Psychiatric Hospital is in process, and it has started in May 2018 at the direction of the Cabinet of Ministers. The only person in this area – apparently the guard – doesn’t talk to us. He escapes as soon as he sees the camera.
I’m walking down the street. And am extremely surprised to find a renovated two-story building among two destroyed houses.
– Good afternoon. Aren’t you scared to live here? – I ask to the woman in the housecoat who`s sitting on a bench, and I`m so glad to see at least one person in the area.
– Do I have any choice? Or maybe any other roof over my head? – she answers nervously.
Neither this woman nor her husband will not say their names. She will briefly tell us how they survived the shelling, that “they didn’t know who fired: Ukrainians or “pro-Russian fighters”, about neighbouring houses on fire, about a string of journalists from all the channels and countries, deputies and volunteers, representatives of various organizations that came to look at their misfortune and promised to help.
“We have been walking here for a long time, collecting shrapnel and shell casings. And what was there in the hospital! And what did we get as the result? The repair was done somehow (and only started in the fall), and we didn’t get any heating! So, we`re wintering like that. And we are ten families here and two little children. We used to have a shop, a kindergarten, and now – there is nothing. Just those bombed and burned down houses in the neighbourhood. People were never given housing. And where, where to go? They say that there is some program in the executive committee, that promises to provide us with the temporary apartments. And what for? People already have temporary ones. And at the same time, they`ve spent 18 million for the beach in Sloviansk. And even that was not enough!” – the woman is almost screaming.
They hate the war, it has brought them five years of household problems.
On the way to the city department of the Security Service of Ukraine (perhaps the most frightening place to be found in Sloviansk) I’m looking at the billboards and cannot find even one reminding that soon it is five years of the city liberation, five years that this city lives without war. Instead of them – there are blue posters with the familiar faces of the former members of the Party of Regions, from which they are claiming that they need “a victory only”. On the pillars there are announcements of “Boombox” concerts, and next to them – flyers offering “Trips to Crimea”.
As a reminder of the atrocities of five years ago, there is a sign on the wall of the old, built in the middle of the nineteenth century, building of the SBU department. “In April 2014 in this house was detained and tortured by the terrorists, the organizer and leader of the pro-Ukrainian movement in Gorlivka, Hero of Ukraine Volodymyr Rybak”. In the basement of this house, Strelkov-Hirkin and his militants tortured and killed dozens of their victims. Dozens of Ukrainian officers gave their lives for the freedom of these cities. And here it seems like a lot of people set a low value on living five years without war.