For the first time in three months, Alla Grebenkova says she can go out on the streets of this city in eastern Ukraine without fear of being recognized as Ukrainian.
“I lived in hell. It was complete chaos and lawlessness,” the 68-year-old teacher said of life in Slovyansk after it came under the control of pro-Russia separatists in April. “I was afraid to admit that I am Ukrainian. Finally, this absurdity has ended.”
The rebels fled Slovyansk, a city of 100,000 that had been their stronghold, over the weekend as Ukrainian troops mounted an offensive. They left behind a city heavily damaged by fighting and riven by vehemently differing views.
President Petro Poroshenko made a surprise visit to Slovyansk on Tuesday and announced that electricity was being restored after the city went weeks without power, water or gas.
Poroshenko also promised that all schools would be repaired by the first day of classes on Sept. 1, saying children going to school would be “a symbol of peace.”
The government soldiers may have won the battle for the physical city but not yet for its people’s hearts and minds.
Many residents in Slovyansk feel Russian by all measures except their passports. The city, 90 miles from the border with Russia, had once been part of the Russian Empire, and Russian is its dominant mother tongue.
Dmitry Novikov, like the teacher Grebenkova, is relieved that the fighting in Slovyansk is over — yet for him, it’s not liberation but failure and disappointment. The separatists and their sympathizers were eager for Russian military intervention and had begged Russian President Vladimir Putin to annex the region like he did the mostly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula in March.
“Russia sold us out,” the 56-year-old Novikov said.
Many pro-Russia residents claim the Kiev government aims to wipe out their ethnic identity.
But Grebenkova says the insurgents were just as much to blame for the ethnic animosity. Her sister, Olga, was held for more than a month by the separatists just for using the Ukrainian language, she said.
“This is our Ukrainian land and it will remain Ukrainian,” she declared.
There are severe physical scars to heal in Slovyansk as well as psychological ones from the fierce battles that led to the city being recaptured. Although most of the city’s buildings are still standing, many suffered damage.
“My house is no more. I live on the street,” said 54-year-old Nataliya Manzello.