‘After Bucha, I’m afraid of Russian soldiers’: Eastern Ukrainians brace for another onslaught | Ukraine

The city of Kramatorsk seems empty. Only a few supermarkets, restaurants and hotels are still open. The windows along the main streets are boarded up. Many residents have left their buildings to settle in houses in neighboring villages, where they believe it will be safer.

The few locals walking around behave as if they couldn’t hear the sirens wailing and seem unflinching to the occasional thunder of incoming shells.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is entering a new phase centered on the Donbass region to the east, and most of its citizens are taking no chances. The regional mayors told the Observer they estimated that around 70% of the population had left since the start of the Russian offensive in February.

Ukrainian-controlled Donbass is surrounded by Russian forces from the north, east and south. Ukrainian authorities believe Russian forces are aiming to encircle the territory by cutting off their supply lines from the west.

Russian-backed forces have held about a third of the region since 2014. Russia had hoped and perhaps anticipated that its attempts to gain more territory would be popular with the predominantly Russian-speaking population. But eight years of conflict, and especially the last eight weeks, have taken their toll.

“The number of people supporting Russia has dropped dramatically,” said Oleksiy Yukov, the head of Black Tulips, a volunteer organization that has been collecting and transferring the bodies of people on both sides of the conflict line since 2014.

Yukov said the Kramatorsk region has been relatively calm. He hadn’t seen a significant increase in body counts since the all-out offensive in February. But he and his team picked up more civilians. They picked up 52 of the 58 people killed when the Kramatorsk train station was hit by a Russian missile on April 8.

“But [pro-Russian views] still exists. There are people who don’t like Ukraine and can’t even explain why. Their explanations are void of analysis,” Yukov said. “If someone is killed in front of his eyes for no reason, it doesn’t seem to change anything. They want to believe what they already believe and they don’t want to reassess. The propaganda continues to pass and Ukraine has not done enough in these eight years to stop it.

Oleksandr Goncharenko, the mayor of Sloviansk, in an underground shelter. Photography: Ed Ram/The Observer

But Kramatorsk Mayor Oleksandr Goncharenko said the blockade of Mariupol in the Donetsk region and its dire humanitarian consequences had played a decisive role in changing the mood.

“If in 2014 60% of the city was pro-Russian, I would say today it’s around 15%,” he said.

Goncharenko is one of many Donbass politicians who have represented pro-Russian parties in Ukraine. Goncharenko said his policy changed after former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych “betrayed” Ukraine in 2014. He said there would be no “Donetsk People’s Republic” in Kramatorsk and that he would take up arms if the city was occupied.

In nearby Sloviansk, just north of Kramatorsk and closer to the frontlines, Mayor Vadym Lyakh said he received numerous phone calls and messages from the Russian side offering him property and his family’s safety in exchange. of a change of camp. Lyakh said he ignored them. The Russian side did not promise the safety of Sloviansk residents, he said.

As a local councilor, Lyakh had welcomed Russian-backed separatist forces when they seized control of his city in 2014 and voted to establish the Donetsk People’s Republic, something he was now reluctant to comment on.

“I don’t think there is a difference between Kramatorsk, Sloviansk and Kyiv. It’s all Ukraine and society will not agree to be part of Russia,” Lyakh said.

He said most residents of Ukrainian-controlled Donbass saw they had a better life under Ukrainian rule than in the Russian-backed republics created in 2014.

He said, “But I can’t say that everyone understood that. I can only say that more people have done it, and military activities have further reduced the number of people who are for the Russian world.

Apartment buildings damaged by shelling in Kramatorsk, Ukraine.
Apartment buildings damaged by shelling in Kramatorsk, Ukraine. Photograph: Andriy Andriyenko/AP

He said that when he came to Sloviansk to study in 1995, no question of identity was discussed. “At the time, we were all Ukrainian towns, there were no problems. Then in the 2000s politicians started fighting for us.

In the nearby town of Kreminna in the Luhansk region, next to two frontline towns where fighting between the two sides would continue, dozens of people were packing their bags.

“Most people here are expecting Russian soldiers,” said Viktoria Slobodyansk, a 61-year-old retired English teacher who had volunteered for the Ukrainian army.

“People only want to hear what they want to hear. They think that if they were in Russia they would live much better. That’s why I decided to leave the Kreminna.

“I’m not afraid of bombardments, she says, but after Bucha and Hostomel, I’m afraid of Russian soldiers.

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