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Ukrainian soldiers in Luhansk Oblast’s Popasna brace for Independence Day attack

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POPASNA, Ukraine – Residents of the front-line city of Popasnaya in Luhansk Oblast have become so used to constant shelling that the blast that rang out on Aug. 21 went almost unnoticed.

“I can’t sleep when it’s quiet and there’s no shelling. I can only sleep now when I hear the shelling,” said 54-year-old Alexander, a resident of Popasnaya who did not give his surname because he has relatives in Russian-occupied territories.

Alexander was working two days ago when the city — with a pre-war population of 25,000 people — was shelled.

“We’ve just come to terms with it. If they kill us, they kill us. If you end up in the path of a shell, oh well. Hopefully it’ll be quick. It’s not so scary if it’ll be quick,” he said.

Residents go about their day as if nothing in the city has changed, with many stores still operating and a few cafes still getting a sizeable turnout each day.

The city administration building, which had previously been severely damaged, is in the midst of reconstruction.

“We’ve been bombed even while the work crews are up there trying to repair the previous damages,” Alexander said. “I’ve seen them jump off their ladders and flee when the separatists started firing mortar rounds at us.”

Soldiers life has been mostly calm recently, but attacks had picked up ahead of Ukraine’s Independence Day on Aug. 24.

“Everything here is just screwed up,” said Stas, a fighter from the Kyivskaya Rus Battalion, which is stationed in Popasnaya at numerous checkpoints. Stas refused to give his surname because he said he was too well-known among the Russian-separatist forces in Luhansk and didn’t want to put his relatives in danger.

“Most residents have left, and those who remain simply can’t leave. They either have nowhere to go or they support the separatists on the other side,” he said.

Many residents of Popasnaya support the Russian-backed separatists based just a few kilometers away, he said, and some have relatives fighting alongside them.

“We were shelled late Friday night but it was in response to shelling from our side. They just want to show us that we’re weaker and remind us that all of our positions have been shot up,” he said.

Stas and his fellow fighters said they were ready for a separatist offensive and would be surprised if the upcoming holiday were not sabotaged by separatist forces.

“There will be an offensive in any case. It’s supposed to be tonight or tomorrow. It might not be as huge as people think, but they always have a way of ‘congratulating’ us on the holidays. So we’re ready and waiting,” said Valery of Kyivskaya Rus.

“And as always when it comes, it will be unexpected. They always count on the element of surprise,” Sergei chimed in.

“The earliest this war will be over is in five years,” said Valery, adding that Popasna had been relatively calm until recently.

“Today we’ve seen a lot more residents leaving than usual. Normally we see three people drive out every hour or so, today we’ve seen about fifty during that time,” he said, adding that most residents were expecting an attack to mark the holiday.

“When people start leaving in droves, that’s when you know something is right around the corner,” he said.

Staff writer Allison Quinn can be reached at a.caseyquinn@gmail.com.

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