October 1, 2022

On the front lines in Ukraine, cut off from its resources, a resilient city holds its ground

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine – As you enter this small town in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, a metal sign above the road greets you, saying, ‘Slovyansk is Ukraine’ . After more than six months of Russian invasion, it still is.

The frontline of Russian-held territory to the east – where fierce fighting has reached a stalemate in recent weeks – is about 10 miles away. Ukrainian officials have ordered evacuations, saying resources are too scarce and it is simply too dangerous to stay. Three residential areas of Sloviansk are without electricity, which cannot be repaired in the near future. There is a severe fuel shortage and constant shelling most nights.

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Left: In January, a brightly lit kiosk stays open at night. Right: In August, the kiosk is closed and vines grow on it.

Despite all this, and a mostly closed city center, almost 20% of the inhabitants – around 20,000 people – remain, according to Svitlana Viunychenko, spokeswoman for the mayor.

Among them are Oksana Morgun and her longtime friend Oleksandr Olaiarov. They return together by bicycle, for safety; a habit they started when the war started.

“We sleep separately [as couples] but everything else is together,” says Morgun, who, together with her husband, is a neighbor of Olaiarov and his family. She has a bag of grapes attached to her bright orange bicycle. Many people here commute by bicycle as the electricity is spotty and there is no more public transport.

Oleksander Olaiarov (left) rides a bike with Oksana Morgun in central Sloviansk.

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Oleksander Olaiarov (left) rides a bike with Oksana Morgun in central Sloviansk.

The two friends are in constant contact, especially at night, when the city is bombarded.

“When night comes and the thunder of missiles starts, we’re on the phone: ‘Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you okay?’ we wonder,” Morgun says. “It’s really difficult. We survive, we don’t live.”

Left: In January, a man walks through a painted pedestrian tunnel.  Right: In August, the shop next to the tunnel is condemned.

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Left: In January, a man walks through a painted pedestrian tunnel. Right: In August, the shop next to the tunnel is condemned.
A bed of roses grows in the central square of Sloviansk.

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NPR

A bed of roses grows in the central square of Sloviansk.

Most downtown shops are boarded up, public gardens and parks are overgrown, and buildings are damaged by recent bombings. A few cafes remain open, mostly fed by the groups of Ukrainian soldiers who stop for a coffee and relax before heading back to the front.

“We’re stationed nearby,” says a soldier using the call sign Petrovich. He doesn’t want to use his full name for security reasons. He says the lines haven’t moved much in recent weeks, and a stalemate for the troops means you’re constantly on edge with not much happening.

Soldiers walk through the entrance to a cafe in downtown Sloviansk.

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Soldiers walk through the entrance to a cafe in downtown Sloviansk.

A recent missile strike here left a crater along a residential boulevard and damaged eight residential buildings and a school, according to the mayor. The damage attracted several onlookers, mostly older residents who live in nearby apartment buildings.

Liudmyla Fakhrutdinova and her neighbor stopped to watch on their way home after picking up humanitarian aid from a local church. Their bags are filled with food and clothes, thanks to Ukrainian and international donors. She says she had just finished watching a movie the night before when she heard the explosion. She and her neighbors spend nights in the hallway of their building since their rooms have windows.

Left: In January, the lights of apartment buildings turn on in the evening.  Right: In August, a woman looks up at the damage caused by the morning strike on the apartment building.

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Left: In January, the lights of apartment buildings turn on in the evening. Right: In August, a woman looks up at the damage caused by the morning strike on the apartment building.

For Viktoria Batychenko, watching the damage is painful.

“I’m totally desperate,” Batychenko said sobbing. “I think of people who have lost their homes.”

Her grief is deepened, she says, because of the story here. Sloviansk was the first city to be seized by Russian-backed fighters in 2014. Ukraine reclaimed it soon after and Batychenko says they have been working hard to rebuild.

“We are Ukrainians,” she says, “we have always been part of Ukraine. I want to live in Ukraine.”

Nearby, Liubov Mahlii, 75, with an orange scarf tied around his head, listens to the conversation. It shows a building just beyond the missile crater. “This is my house,” she said. “I saw the missile last night. But we’re used to it now.”

Liubov Mahlii recites a poem she wrote about peace in the Donbass as she stands in front of a building that was bombed that morning.

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Liubov Mahlii recites a poem she wrote about peace in the Donbass as she stands in front of a building that was bombed that morning.

She lives alone in the fifth floor apartment. Her husband died and her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all left Sloviansk for the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and other parts of Europe.

For months there was no water in the city, so Mahlii had to climb five stories with jugs. About two weeks ago, authorities restored the water supply, so she finally has water in her apartment, although, she says, it’s finicky.

Left: In January, passers-by walk past an open kiosk in central Sloviansk.  Right: In August, the kiosk is closed and a man is riding a bicycle.

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NPR

Left: In January, passers-by walk past an open kiosk in central Sloviansk. Right: In August, the kiosk is closed and a man is riding a bicycle.

However, she does not intend to leave anytime soon. Who would watch her at home, keep her apartment safe? she asks.

“I can’t leave,” she said. “I don’t want strangers in my house.”

She spends her days writing and reciting poetry.

She shares one with NPR, about bringing peace home:

“I’m waiting for peace

Even though it makes us wait so long

Our patience is not yet exhausted

Peace is near, we look forward

Peace be

It’s so hoped

And let the storms pass too

Long live Donbass and Sloviansk!”

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Viktoria Batychenko rides her bicycle through central Sloviansk where missiles struck on Sunday morning.

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NPR

Viktoria Batychenko rides her bicycle through central Sloviansk where missiles struck on Sunday morning.