A group of off-duty young Ukrainian soldiers have gathered at a military distribution center to enjoy a rare respite from the fighting that has once again engulfed their fractured home in eastern Ukraine.
As they shared jokes and pizza, artillery explosions could be heard a few miles away – a reminder of the impending battle that threatens to unfold here in the city of Sloviansk, which has been occupied by fighters Russians by proxy in 2014.
“Everyone knows there will be a huge battle in Sloviansk,” said one of the soldiers, who could not be named for security reasons.
Today, eight years after the last occupation of their city, the war is back. Sloviansk could become the next major target in the Russian campaign to take the Donbass region, Ukraine’s predominantly Russian-speaking industrial heartland, if Moscow captures Lysychansk – the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in Luhansk province, 70 kilometers (43 miles) away. ballast.
Another soldier, a 23-year-old accountant who enlisted when the invasion began, said Ukrainian forces simply did not have the weapons to fight the approaching Russian army’s superior arsenal.
“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 2014 occupation terrorized Sloviansk, where dozens of officials and journalists were taken hostage, and several murders took place.
Fierce fighting and shelling erupted as the Ukrainian army besieged the city to retake it.
“In fact, the war never left Sloviansk. It didn’t leave people’s heads,” said Tetiana Khimion, a 43-year-old dance choreographer who turned a fishing shop into a hub for local military units.
“On the one hand, it’s easier for us because we know what it is. On the other hand, it is more difficult for us since we have been living like this for eight years on borrowed time.
Sloviansk is a city of split loyalties. With a large population of retirees, it’s not uncommon to hear older residents express sympathy for Russia or nostalgia for their Soviet past. There is also mistrust of the Ukrainian military and government.
After a recent bombing of his building, a resident named Sergei said he believed the strike was initiated by Ukraine.
“I’m not pro-Russian, I’m not pro-Ukrainian. I’m somewhere in between,” he said. “Russians and Ukrainians are killing civilians – everyone should understand that.”
On Thursday, a group of elderly residents could not hide their frustration after a bomb attack tore open their roofs and shattered their windows.
Ukraine “says it protects us, but what kind of protection is it? asked a man, who did not give his name.
“They kneel before this Biden – may he die!” exclaimed her neighbor, Tatyana, in reference to US President Joe Biden.
After 2014, Khimion said, it became easier to know “who’s who” in Sloviansk. “Now you can easily see: these people are for Ukraine, and these people are for Russia.”
She said little was done after 2014 to punish people who collaborated with Russian proxies to prevent the situation from happening again.
“That’s why we can’t negotiate, we have to win. Otherwise it will be an endless process. It will keep repeating itself,” she said.
Sloviansk Mayor Vadim Lyakh reflects the city’s new trajectory. Taking inspiration from Ukrainian warlord President Volodymyr Zelensky, the mayor decorated his office with Ukrainian flags, anti-Russian symbols, portraits of national poets and even a biography of Winston Churchill.
But before 2014, he was part of a political party that sought to get closer to Russia. Lyakh said that while pro-Moscow sentiment in the city has faded in recent years – partly due to the horrors of 2014 – there are still “people waiting for Russian troops to return”.
As the front line draws closer and closer, the attacks on the city intensify. Three-quarters of Sloviansk’s pre-war population fled, but the mayor said there were still too many people here, including many children. He encourages them to evacuate. He spends his days coordinating humanitarian aid and strengthening the city’s defenses.
Increasingly, he is among the first responders to the scene of bombings. The Associated Press followed Lyakh and recently witnessed what authorities described as a cluster bomb attack on a residential area. One person was killed and several others injured.
The mayor says shelling now occurs at least four or five times a day and the use of cluster munitions has increased in the past week. While he remains optimistic about the ability of Ukrainian forces to hold off the enemy, he is also clear-headed about his options.
“Nobody wants to be captured. When there is imminent danger of enemy troops entering the city, I will have to go,” he said.
Lyakh said he couldn’t afford to relax even for a few minutes.
“It’s emotionally difficult. You see how people die and get hurt. But nevertheless, I understand that it’s my job and no one but me and the people around me can do it.
One morning last week, Lyakh visited a building that had been bombed overnight. Most of the building’s windows were blown out, doors were thrown open and a power line was cut.
The same building was bombed in 2014, when the shell left a gaping hole on the sixth floor, and many residents suffered broken bones.
Andrey, a 37-year-old worker who has lived in construction for 20 years, remembers the bombings and the occupation. He said the separatist forces “did and took what they wanted”.
The people around him have different opinions about Russia.
“Those who have suffered understand what this ‘Russian 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 don’t accept what they see with their own eyes.”
In the eight years since the separatists withdrew, he said, life has improved markedly in Sloviansk.
The statue of Vladimir Lenin that once stood in the central square has been removed. The water and electricity supplies have been renovated. New parks, plazas and medical facilities were built.
“Civilization has been returned to us,” Andrey said.
At the military distribution center, the young soldiers speak wistfully of their life 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 Sloviansk with the others to defend the city. can we let someone come and take our lives?”
Khimion’s husband is on the front line 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, a husband, a child – what do I do now?” she asks. “We are doing everything 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 the name of Sloviansk is riddled with bullet holes dating from 2014. It has been repainted several times. It now wears Ukraine’s national colors and a local artist has painted red flowers around each perforation.
Sloviansk residents wonder – some hopefully, many fearfully – whether the sign will soon be painted again, in the red, white and blue of the Russian flag.
Valerii Rezik contributed to this story.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine