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The fragmented Ukrainian city is preparing for a new battle with Russia

SLOVIANSK – A group of young off-duty Ukrainian soldiers gathered at a military distribution center to enjoy a rare respite from the fighting that has once again engulfed their shattered home in eastern Ukraine.

As they shared jokes and a pizza, artillery blasts could be heard a few kilometers away – a reminder of the looming battle that threatens to unfold here in the city of Slovianskwhich was occupied by Russian proxy fighters in 2014.

“Everyone knows that there will be a big battle in Sloviansk,” said one of the soldiers, who could not be named for security reasons.

Now, eight years after their city was last occupied, war has returned. Slowyansk could be the next big goal Russia’s campaign to capture the Donbass regionthe predominantly Russian-speaking industrial heartland of Ukraine if Moscow captures Lysyhansk – the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in Luhansk province, 70 kilometers (43 miles) to the east.

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Another soldier, a 23-year-old accountant who joined early in the invasion, said Ukrainian forces simply didn’t have the weapons to fight back the superior arsenal the approaching Russian army.

“We know what’s coming,” he said with a sad smile.

These soldiers were still teenagers when pro-Russian separatists took the city and held it for three months. The brief occupation in 2014 terrorized Sloviansk, where dozens of officials and journalists were taken hostage and several killings took place.

Heavy fighting and shelling broke out as the Ukrainian army besieged the city in an attempt to retake it.

“Actually, the war never left Sloviansk. People couldn’t get it out of their heads,” said Tetiana Khimion, a 43-year-old dance choreographer who converted a fishing shop into a center for local military units.

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“On the one hand, it’s easier for us because we know what it’s like. On the other hand, it is more difficult for us as we have been living in a suspended state for eight years.”

Sloviansk is a city of fragmented loyalties. With a large population of retirees, it is not uncommon for senior residents to speak out sympathy for Russia or nostalgia for their Soviet past. There is also mistrust of the Ukrainian army and government.

After a recent shelling of his block of flats, a resident named Sergei said he believes the strike was started by Ukraine.

“I’m not pro-Russian, I’m not pro-Ukrainian. I’m somewhere in between,” he said. “Both Russians and Ukrainians are killing civilians – everyone should understand that.”

On Thursday, a group of elderly residents couldn’t hide their frustration after a bomb blast ripped open their roofs and shattered their windows.

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Ukraine “says they protect us, but what is that protection?” asked a man who did not give his name.

“You kneel before this Biden – may he die!” exclaimed his neighbor Tatyana, referring to it US President Joe Biden.

After 2014, Khimion said, it became easier to tell who’s who in Sloviansk. “Now it’s easy to see: these people are for Ukraine, and these people are for Russia.”

She said not enough had been done after 2014 to punish people who worked with Russian proxies to prevent the situation from repeating itself.

“That’s why we can’t negotiate, we have to win. Otherwise it will be a never-ending process. It will happen again,” she said.

Sloviansk Mayor Vadim Lyakh reflects the city’s new course. In homage to Ukraine’s wartime leader, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the mayor has decorated his office with Ukrainian flags, anti-Russian symbols, portraits of national poets – even a biography of Winston Churchill.

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But before 2014, he was part of a political party seeking closer ties with Russia. Lyakh said that while pro-Moscow sentiment in the city has faded in recent years — partly because of the horrors witnessed in 2014 — there are still “people waiting for the return of Russian troops.”

As the front draws closer, the attacks on the city intensify. Three quarters of Sloviansk The 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 beefing up the city’s defenses.

More and more often he is one of the first responders at the scene of bombardments. 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.

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The mayor says there is now shelling at least four or five times a day and the use of cluster munitions has increased over the past week. While he remains optimistic that Ukrainian forces can hold the enemy at bay, he’s also clear-eyed about his options.

“No one wants to be captured. If there is an imminent threat of enemy troops entering the city, I must go,” he said.

Lyakh said he couldn’t relax even for a few minutes.

“It’s emotionally difficult. You see people dying and being hurt. But still I understand that this is my job and no one can do it but me and the people around me.

One morning last week, Lyakh paid a visit to a block of flats that had been shelled overnight. Most of the building’s windows were blown out, doors were wide open, and a power line was severed.

The same building was bombed in 2014 when the shell left a gaping hole on the sixth floor and many residents fractured bones.

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Andrey, a 37-year-old factory worker who has lived in the building for 20 years, recalls the bombing and occupation. He said Separatist forces “made and took what they wanted”.

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 do not accept what they see with their own eyes.”

In the eight years since the separatists withdrew, life in Sloviansk had improved significantly.

The statue of Vladimir Lenin that once stood in the central square has been removed. Water and electricity supply have been renewed. New parks, squares and medical facilities were built.

“Civilization has been returned to us,” Andrey said.

At the military distribution center, the young soldiers wistfully recount their lives before the invasion.

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“I had a great car, a good job. I was able to travel abroad three times a year,” said the former accountant, who wants to stay in Sloviansk with the others to defend the city. “How can we allow someone to just come and take our lives?”

Khimion’s husband is on the front lines, and she put their teenage daughter on a train bound for Switzerland as soon as the invasion began.

“I’ve had everything taken from me – a home, a husband, a child – what do I do now?” she asks. “We’re doing everything we can to stop (the offensive) to keep it to a minimum … But to be afraid is to leave this place.”

At the entrance to the city, a monument with the name Sloviansk is riddled with bullet holes from 2014. It has been repainted several times. It now bears the national colors of Ukraine, and a local artist has painted red flowers around each perforation.

Sloviansk residents are wondering – some with hope, many with fear – if the sign will soon be painted in the red, white and blue colors of the Russian flag again.

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Valerii Rezik contributed to this story.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/07/03/splintered-ukrainian-city-braces-for-new-battle-with-russia/ The fragmented Ukrainian city is preparing for a new battle with Russia

Sarah Y. Kim

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