Sloviansk remembers, recovers two years after ending occupation by Kremlin-backed separatists

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People enjoy the rock-festival Barrel Music Fest in Varadero beach near Sloviansk on July 8.

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine -- A shabby early 20th century mansion known in Sloviansk as Villa Maria is a little-known landmark with a big place in the history of the Donetsk Oblast city 671 kilometers southeast of Kyiv.

On April 12, 2014, dozens of armed men in military camouflages and balaclavas left this building to capture the police station and other government offices in the city of some 115,000 in Donetsk Oblast.

It was the beginning of a 84-day occupation of Sloviansk by Russian-backed separatists and a starting point of the Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine, which has already brought more than 10,000 deaths.

Sloviansk was liberated by Ukrainian troops on June 5, 2014, while most of the local separatists led by the Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin managed to escape to Donetsk, making the provincial capital their new stronghold.

There were more than 100 local residents killed and over 2,000 houses destroyed in Sloviansk when it was under Girkin’s control.

And the war is still well felt in the city in two years after its liberation.

The remnants of separatist’ ruler are now exhibited at the museum of a local lore, located just next to Villa Maria.

The museum workers say they saw some suspicious preparations in this villa days before the capture of Sloviansk, but the police didn’t react to their reports. Villa Maria was given by the city authorities for rent to the Orthodox church of Russian patriarchy, and it still belongs to this church.

“Villa Maria was collecting humanitarian aid for the insurgents,” said Vira Kushnir, the museum guide, adding that the Orthodox priests were often seen on the separatists’ barricades in Sloviansk.

In the museum, Kushnir showed the separatists’ leaflets as well as letters of the Sloviansk’s residents complaining about their relatives and cars taken over by Girkin’s combatants. The exhibition also has the typical camouflage uniform of a Sloviansk insurgent, Russian-made canned meat left by the separatists, and part of a Ukrainian military helicopter hit by the separatists near Sloviansk in early May 2014.

There is also a picture of an exhumation, where 14 people were found in a mass grave dug up after the separatists left the city. Four of those killed were members of a local protestant church. By the entrance to the newly repaired Sloviansk police station, there is big board with some 50 portraits and names of those wanted for separatism. One of them is Vladimir Kononov, the so-called defense minister of separatists’ republic with the center in Donetsk. He was the one of those who left Sloviansk together with Girkin.

While the police staff has been totally replaced in the city, Sloviansk’s new mayor Vadym Liakh is a former deputy of Nelia Shtepa, who was mayor in 2014 and who spoke in support of the separatists. Despite Shtepa now being on trial over separatism accusations, Liakh used her name to win his campaign in October, with billboards saying: “Love the city as Nelia does.”

President Petro Poroshenko briefly visited Sloviansk on July 5 and greeted Ukrainian soldiers who participated in the liberation of the city. But after he left, the locals started complaining in social networks about the asphalt being destroyed by the armored vehicles that participated in a military parade on that day.

Ukrainian rock bands came to a quarry lake beach near Sloviansk from all over the country to the Barrel Music Festival on July 8-9, celebrating the anniversary of city’s liberation. Ukrainian flags were seen in the crowd, and Ukrainian songs were sung by the spectators. But the festival collected significantly fewer people than the organizers expected.

For the residents of Sloviansk, crossing the checkpoint to the separatists-controlled area, where many have relatives and friends, is more important than Ukrainian rock. A local newspaper, Delovoi Slaviansk, has published advice on how to safely pass the hours spent waiting at the checkpoints under the summer heat. There is a good reason to do so – a middle-aged man died at the checkpoint controling access to the separatists-controlled city of Horlivka on July 7.

Text by Oksana Grytsenko

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