SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — A group of young off-duty Ukrainian soldiers gathered at a military distribution center to enjoy a rare respite from the fighting that has again engulfed their fractured home in eastern Ukraine.
As they shared jokes and a pizza, artillery explosions could be heard a few kilometers away - a reminder of the looming battle that threatens to unfold here in the city of Slovyansk, which was occupied by Russian proxy fighters in 2014.
“Everyone knows that there will be a huge battle in Slovyansk,” said one of the soldiers, who could not be named for security reasons.
Now, eight years after their city was last occupied, the war has returned. Slovyansk could become the next major target in Moscow’s campaign to take the Donbas region, Ukraine’s predominantly Russian-speaking industrial heartland.
Russia‘s defense minister said Russian army forces and a separatist militia on Sunday captured the city of Lysychansk and now controlled all of eastern Ukraine‘s Luhansk province. Slovyansk, located 70 kilometers (43 miles) to the west in Donetsk province, came under rocket attacks Sunday that killed an unspecified number of people, Mayor Vadym Lyakh said.
Another soldier interviewed earlier by The Associated Press, a 23-year-old accountant who joined up when the invasion began, said Ukrainian forces simply do not have the weapons to fight off the superior arsenal of the approaching Russian army.
PHOTOS: Splintered Ukrainian city braces for new battle with Russia
“We know what’s coming” he said with a sad smile.
These soldiers were still teenagers when pro-Russian separatists captured and held the town for three months. The brief occupation in 2014 terrorized Slovyansk, where dozens of officials and journalists were taken hostage, and several killings took place.
Fierce fighting and shelling broke out when the Ukrainian army laid siege to the city to recapture it.
“Actually, the war never left Slovyansk. It didn’t leave people’s heads” said Tetiana Khimion, a 43-year-old dance choreographer who converted a fishing store into a hub for local military units.
“On the one hand, it is easier for us because we know what it’s like. On the other hand, it is more difficult for us since we’ve been living like this for eight years in a suspended condition.”
Slovyansk is a city of splintered loyalties. With a large retired population, it is not uncommon to hear older residents express sympathy towards Russia or nostalgia for their Soviet past. There is also distrust of the Ukrainian army and government.
After a recent shelling of his apartment block, one resident named Sergei said he believed that the strike was launched by Ukraine.
“I’m not pro-Russian, I’m not pro-Ukrainian. I am somewhere in between” he said. “Both Russians and Ukrainians kill civilians - everyone should understand that.”
On Thursday, a group of elderly residents couldn’t hide their frustration after a bomb blast slashed open their roofs and shattered their windows.
Ukraine “says they are protecting us, but what kind of protection is this?” asked one man, who did not provide his name.
“They kneel to that Biden - may he die!” exclaimed his neighbor, Tatyana, referring to U.S. President Joe Biden.
After 2014, Khimion said, it became 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 not enough was done after 2014 to punish people who collaborated with Russian proxies to prevent a repeat of the situation.
“That is why we cannot negotiate, we need to win. Otherwise it will be a never-ending process. It will keep repeating” she said.
The mayor of Slovyansk reflects the city’s new trajectory. Taking his cues from Ukraine‘s wartime leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky, he has decorated his office with Ukrainian flags, anti-Russian symbols, portraits of national poets - even a biography of Winston Churchill.
But before 2014, Lyakh was part of a political party that sought closer ties with Russia. He said while pro-Moscow sentiment in the city has faded - in part because of the horrors witnessed in 2014 - there are still “people who are waiting for the return of the Russian troops.”
As the front line moves closer, attacks on the city intensify. Three-quarters of its pre-war population has fled, but the mayor said too many residents are still in Slovyansk, including many children. He encouraged them to evacuate while he spends his days coordinating humanitarian aid and strengthening the city’s defenses.
Lyakh said he cannot allow himself to relax, even for a few minutes.
“It is emotionally difficult. You see how people are dying and being harmed. But nevertheless, I understand that this is my job and that nobody but myself and the people around me can do” it.
More and more, Lyakh is among the first responders at the scene of bombardments. Associated Press journalists following the mayor recently witnessed what authorities described as a cluster bomb attack on a residential area. One person was killed and several others wounded.
The mayor says that shelling now occurs at least four or five times a day, and the use of cluster munitions increased in the last week. Although he remains optimistic that Ukrainian forces can keep the enemy at bay, he is also clear-sighted about his options.
“Nobody wants to be captured. When there is an imminent danger of the enemy troops entering the city, I will have to go” he said.
One morning last week, Lyakh paid a visit to an apartment building that was shelled overnight. Most of the windows were blown out, doors were broken wide open and a power line severed.
The same building was bombed in 2014, leaving a gaping hole on the sixth floor, and many residents suffered broken bones.
Andrey, a 37-year-old factory worker who has lived in the building for 20 years, recalled the bombing and occupation. He said separatist forces “did and took what they liked.”
People in his circle have different opinions about Russia.
“Those who have suffered understand what this ‘Russia world’ means: It means broken houses, stolen cars and violence” he explains. “There are those who miss the Soviet Union, who think we are all one people, and they do not accept what they see with their own eyes.”
In the eight years since the separatists retreated, he said, life markedly improved in Slovyansk.
The statue of Vladimir Lenin that once stood in the central square has been removed. Water and power supplies were renovated. New parks, squares and medical facilities were built.
“Civilization was returned to us,” Andrey said.
At a military distribution hub where they go to unwind, the young soldiers talk wistfully about their lives before the invasion.
“I had a great car, a good job. I was able to travel abroad three times a year,” said the former accountant, who plans to stay in Slovyansk with the others to defend the city. “How can we let someone just come and take our lives away from us?”
Khimion’s husband is on the front lines, and she put her teenage daughter on a train to Switzerland as soon as the invasion began.
“I have been deprived of everything - a home, husband, child - what should I do now?” she asks. “We are doing everything we can to stop (the offensive), to keep it to a minimum … But to be afraid is to abandon this place.”
At the entrance to the city, a monument bearing Slovyansk’s name is riddled with bullet holes from 2014. It has been painted over several times. It now bears the national colors of Ukraine, and a local artist has painted red flowers around each perforation.
Residents of Slovyansk wonder - some with hope, many in fear - if the sign will soon be painted yet again, in the red, white and blue of the Russia flag.
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