‘I believe in our army’: Life in Donbass as the front line draws closer | Ukraine

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After five grimy days on the front line, Slava Vladimirovich stripped down to his underpants and plunged into the glistening Torets River. A seagull fluttered above the water and the willows. “Life goes on, even in times of war,” Slava said. Wringing out his khaki T-shirt, he added, “In battle, there’s nowhere to wash.”

Slava ran down a muddy embankment and showed off his armored carrier. On the roof was a joystick-controlled machine gun. Shrapnel had hit the right side of the vehicle. There was a crack in a porthole window. “A Russian rocket landed 20 meters from us. We were fine, but two civilians were killed,” he said.

A member of the Ukrainian Donbass battalion, Slava had evacuated civilians from the besieged city of Lysychansk. A few kilometers further north, Ukrainian soldiers clung to the southern part of Sievierodonetsk, the last portion of Lugansk province territory under Kyiv control.

Volodymyrovich washing clothes in the river. Photography: Anastasia Taylor-Lind

Slava was optimistic that his team would prevail. On Friday, Ukrainian forces launched a counterattack, with fierce street-to-street fighting. “The Russians have neither reserve nor motivation. A country of 140m and they lack infantry! he said, adding: “No one wants to die for Vladimir Putin. He’s a bloodthirsty dog.

Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine didn’t quite go as the Kremlin had planned. In February, Russian troops failed to encircle and capture the capital and retreated to Belarus. The Russian president’s latest war goal is more modest, though still staggering in its ambition: to capture the parts of Donbass not yet in separatist hands.

For seven weeks now, Moscow’s vast firepower has been focused on an eastern theater in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking industrial heartland. His army seeks to conquer Sievierodonetsk. The next targets are the towns of Slavyanask, a former spa town, and the garrison town of Kramatorsk. A terrible battle is approaching.

Sitting on a bench outside Slaviansk Town Hall, Deputy Mayor Yuriy Pidlisnyi said he told residents to flee. About 25,000 people out of about 100,000 residents had stubbornly ignored his advice, he said. Some were old and didn’t want to go. Others pleaded sick parents or much-loved cats.

A damaged school in Slaviansk.
A damaged school in Slaviansk. Photography: Anastasia Taylor-Lind

Conditions inside the city continue to worsen. There is no gas or water, and only intermittent electricity. Gasoline being expensive, many inhabitants travel by bicycle. Some who left came back after running out of money. The local economy is destroyed. Soldiers line up outside a market cafe to buy 60 Hryvnia at cost price [£1.80] skewers.

The front line, meanwhile, is getting closer and closer. The Russians began shelling the city in late April, the deputy mayor said. They were now 12 km away. “They hit us with rockets, airstrikes and ballistic missiles,” he added. The enemy had shelled Svyatohorsk Lavra, north of Sloviansk, killing a nun and burning down the wooden All Saints Monastery.

The omens were grim. Could Sloviansk avoid the tragic fate of Mariupol and other Ukrainian urban areas that the Russians had razed and then invaded? “I believe in our army. I hope there are enough forces,” Pidlisnyi said. “Russia has an imperial complex. Putin thinks his time is running out.

In the distance, a dull noise sounded. And then another. The noise came from outgoing Ukrainian artillery, Pidlisnyi said. “If it happens, you feel it in your legs. The ground vibrates. He broke off to make a quick phone call. One of his aides sounded the airstrike siren, which sounded across the city from the roof of his office.

Damaged buildings.
Damaged buildings. Photography: Anastasia Taylor-Lind

In the spring of 2014, a Russian militia seized the administrative building and occupied Slaviansk for three months. It was a time of terror and kidnappings. Pidlisnyi described the separatists as “drunks, drug addicts and lumpenproletariat”. A minority in Slaviansk sympathized with Russia, he said, while ethnic Russians supported Ukraine.

As the fate of the city hung in the balance, death rained down from the sky. Last week, three people were killed and several injured when a night rocket hit Yaroslav the Wise Street. The neighborhood was a dizzying mess. A burnt-out Lada sat in the road. The blast blew off balconies and splashed walls. The glass showered a common garden.

Worst affected was building number 10, where Vitaly Kolesnichneko slept with his wife, Neliya. “We live on the third floor. It was dark. There was a huge explosion. It blew the bathroom door. I saw yellow and green smoke,” he recalled. He added “I looked for my wife. She had become very quiet. She said, ‘My legs, my legs.’

Vitaly, who walks with a stick, said he tried to drag his wife out. Rescuers took her away. She died on her way to hospital in Kramatorsk. “We were married for a month under 30,” he said, showing a photo of Neliya on his phone. A 21-year-old soldier living across the hall was killed, he said, and the nearby school was damaged.

Residents outside damaged buildings.
Residents outside damaged buildings. Photography: Anastasia Taylor-Lind

On the fifth floor, at number 10, was another scene of grief. Alyona Boivet and her husband, Viktor, left Slaviansk on April 6, shortly after their civil marriage. They had not returned since. Alona’s mother, Oksana, returned to the couple’s destroyed apartment on Sunday. Sobbing, she retrieved her daughter’s wedding dress and shoes.

Her sister Tatiana comforted her while male family members tried to patch up a broken 2-metre-long frame. Through the open window you could see swifts howling in a sultry summer sky. “I want to live in my own country. It’s ours. We love Ukraine. We don’t want to be in Russia,” Tatiana said. “We hope that God will take care of us.”

“The mayor’s office should send a commission to assess the damage and help us, but they didn’t,” said another resident, Elena Voitenko. “And then Russia should pay for all this. I am of Russian origin but my homeland is Ukraine. She added: “I didn’t ask them to come here. My daughter lives in the DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic] and is zombified. We can’t talk anymore.

Elena Voitenko (left) and Alla Petrivna in front of their damaged building.
Elena Voitenko (left) and Alla Petrivna in front of their damaged building. Photography: Anastasia Taylor-Lind

On the road to the front, military traffic rolled through a landscape of green wheat fields and slag heaps. There were armored personnel carriers, tank trucks, engineer units and civilian vehicles painted military green. A convoy had broken down; a sergeant hit a tank tread with a hammer. The soldiers waited in the afternoon sun.

There was no sign of the game-changing long-range multiple launcher systems promised by the US administration. The impression was of a medium-sized army doing its best against a powerful enemy. “Now there are a lot of rockets and artillery,” said Maksym, a Ukrainian commander. “In 2014, Russians didn’t want people to know them. It must have looked like DNR.

Returning to the Torets River, Slava said he was from Popasna, a town in Lugansk. He signed up to fight in 2014, joining a volunteer battalion that later became part of the National Guard. He re-engaged in February. Russian forces recently engulfed Popasna and were attempting to reach the Seversk to the north, cutting Ukrainian supply lines.

“Why did God punish me by having me born here? Slava asked ironically. “I liberated Popasna and Lysychansk eight years ago and took part in the greatest battles. And then the Russians came back to us. Russia was advancing on the same axis, just west of Slaviansk, where the Red Army fought the Germans in World War II, he pointed out.

Could Ukraine win? And what might victory look like? “A difficult question. How can you talk about victory if 50,000 people are dead. War is absolute madness,” he said.

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