SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — If Zoya Kolosovksaya had her way, the national anthem would be ringing out each morning from the central square of this tattered former rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine.
Now that security forces have chased out the armed separatists who’d made this provincial outpost of around 120,000 their nerve center, the 51-year-old resident believes the anti-government hysteria that was recently so prominent here should quickly fade.
“People are capable of getting used to anything,” Kolosovskaya said. “They should get used to the fact that Ukrainian statehood exists.”
But that’s a tough sell to countless others who endured not only weeks of rebel occupation but also what many insist was indiscriminate shelling by Ukrainian forces they say terrorized the local population in equal measure.
It means that even though the rebels and their brand of gun-rule may be gone, the battle for hearts and minds has only just begun.
“People are expecting fairness,” says Andriy Mischenko, a Slovyansk city council official. “It’s very important that our government doesn’t miss this chance.”
The authorities have hailed the seizure of Slovyansk — a stronghold for the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic since April — as a turning point for the country’s crippled military, which for weeks had waged a largely ineffective “anti-terrorist” campaign.
Visiting here earlier this week, President Petro Poroshenko declared it a “symbol of the liberated Donbas,” referring to the area that’s home to the rebellious Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
But that sense has yet to take root in Slovyansk, where local residents are still adjusting to the sudden peace that’s come to the shattered city, where electricity, water and gas was virtually nonexistent during the occupation and many now get around on bicycles.
They wander central streets cracked under the weight of tank and armored personnel carrier tracks and examine the bombed-out apartments, bullet-ridden housing blocks and shattered remains of storefronts that dot the city.
Encountering acquaintances for the first time since the military arrived, residents often greet each other in the same cheerful if morbid way: “So you’re alive, thank God!”
Many who were unwilling or unable to flee the fighting remained holed up in their apartments or basements, waiting anxiously for an end to what they say was regular bombardment.
For Kolosovskaya and others here, the experience of life in a war zone seemed unreal.
“The explosions, the artillery, that whistling sound above our heads, all of it is impossible to describe,” she says. “You can only live through it and feel it for yourself.”
The local authorities are now busy restoring basic infrastructure whose breakdown amid heavy fighting had thrust life here into what seemed like the dark ages.
Once a key outpost for the separatist fighters in town, city hall on Wednesday was abuzz with activity as local officials and emergency ministry workers scrambled to restore power and tend to other pressing municipal needs.
Hordes of locals crowded the entrance, demanding answers to a kaleidoscope of problems: When will the water in their districts be restored? Whom do they see about their apartments’ blown-out windows?
On the central square nearby, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov strained to field questions from a small crowd about everything from the postal service and shuttered banks to alleged price hikes by the few vendors in town with decent food.
He assured the crowd that most basic services, including electricity, water and a supply of cash for local banks, would be in place by the end of the week.
“And don’t worry about not receiving your payments for the past months,” he told the crowd, addressing pensioners who haven’t been paid for more than two months. “Everyone will be paid.”
However, some appeared more interested in settling old scores than looking ahead.
Bitter arguments broke out among residents, with pro-Ukraine supporters and rebel sympathizers trading accusations of disloyalty and treason. The absence of the authoritarian separatists — who brooked little dissent — means ugly political and social cleavages are now back in the open.
Mikhail Morozov, a 66-year-old pensioner with leathery skin, leaned heavily on his cane as he watched the commotion.
Yes, the military’s arrival put an end to the violence. But that doesn’t mean widespread disenchantment with the new Kyiv authorities — decried by many locals, the separatists and the Russian state-run media that fueled the uprising here as “fascists” — has disappeared.
“That’s why I’d say that right now, my mood is neutral,” Morozov said.
Local officials believe it’s still possible to win over those disenfranchised with Kyiv for its alleged role in repressing Russian-speakers, who form the majority in eastern Ukraine.
Mischenko, the city council official who rushed about city hall working to fix the electricity, suggests part of the toughest job — reassuring locals that they belong in Ukraine, not in a lawless, breakaway statelet — has already been done.
“The separatists themselves convinced people of that through an absence of ideology and their own actions,” he said, claiming that rebels had resorted to pillaging the city and terrifying many of its residents.
But others appear harder to convince.
Vitaliy, a 66-year-old former military man who said he was a veteran of several Soviet conflicts, sat idly on a bench in central Slovyansk, his legs dangling above the ground, as he pointed to the apartment building he witnessed being bombarded in an attack that killed his best friend’s wife.
“There was nothing left of her,” the slight, goateed pensioner said, claiming the artillery came from the Ukrainians. Like several others, he declined to give his last name.
Vitaliy, who praises the uprising an “experiment with rebellion” — “We in southeast Ukraine just wanted to show we should be reckoned with,” he said — nevertheless acknowledges the Ukrainian military’s effort at restoring peace in Slovyansk.
“But they gave their oath to the people of Ukraine, and now they're serving their manager and a group of oligarchs,” he said, referring to Poroshenko and his tycoon allies.
The fog of war that descended over Slovyansk in recent weeks, coupled with the vicious information war waged between Kyiv and Moscow, has made it virtually impossible to prove who shelled whom, how and from where.
Officials allege that incompetent or scheming rebels inflicted much of the worst violence here and in other parts of Ukraine, including Luhansk.
The insurgents and many locals blame the Ukrainian military and a patchwork of volunteer battalions for carelessly bombing civilians into submission.
Vlad, a portly 60-year-old, stands flummoxed in front of one of the heaviest-hit structures in the city — where a shell gutted five floors of an apartment building — and curses the government forces.
It was impossible for the rebels to inflict that kind of damage, he insists.
“If they had that kind of firepower, they'd have made it all the way to western Ukraine by now,” he said. “This is no way to unite Ukraine.”
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