Along the front lines in Ukraine, cut off from resources, a resilient city holds on

by | Aug 31, 2022 | Top Stories

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A man stands in front of a crater that was made from a missile strike in Slovyansk on Sunday morning.

Claire Harbage/NPR

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Claire Harbage/NPR

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — When you enter this small city in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, a metal sign above the road greets you saying, “Slovyansk is Ukraine.” After more than six months of Russia’s invasion, it still is. The front line of Russian-held territory in the east — where fierce fighting has reached a stalemate in recent weeks — is just about 10 miles away. Ukrainian officials have ordered evacuations, saying resources are too scarce and it’s just too dangerous to stay. Three residential areas of Slovyansk are without electricity, which won’t be able to be repaired in the near future. There is a dire shortage of fuel and constant shelling most nights.

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

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Despite all this, and a mostly shuttered city center, nearly 20% of residents — about 20,000 people — remain, according to Svitlana Viunychenko, the mayor’s spokesperson. Among them are Oksana Morgun and her longtime friend Oleksandr Olaiarov. They’re biking home together, for safety; a habit they started when the war began. “We sleep separately [as couples] but everything else is together,” says Morgun, who, along with her husband, is neighbors with Olaiarov and his family. She has a bag of grapes tied to her bright orange bike. Many people here travel by bike since electricity is spotty and there’s no public transit anymore.

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Oleksander Olaiarov (left) rides his bicycle with Oksana Morgun through the center of Slovyansk.

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The two friends are constantly in touch, especially at night, when the city is shelled.

“When night comes and the thunder from the missiles begins, we are on the phones: ‘Everything is fine? Everything is fine? Everything is fine?’ we ask each other,” says Morgun. “It’s really difficult. We survive, we don’t live.”

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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 boarded up.

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

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Most shops in the city center are boarded up, the public gardens and parks are overgrown and buildings are damaged from recent shelling. A few coffee shops remain open, mostly fueled by the groups of Ukrainian soldiers stopping in for a coffee and to relax before heading back out to the front. “We are stationed nearby,” explains a soldier who goes by the call sign Petrovich. He doesn’t want to use his full name for safety reasons. He says the lines haven’t moved much in recent weeks, and a stalemate for troops means you’re constantly on edge without much happening.

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Soldiers walk through the entryway to a coffee shop in downtown Slovyansk.

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A soldier who goes by the call sign Petrovich holds a string of beads while he sits outside a coffee shop in Slovyansk.

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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 drew several onlookers, mostly older residents who live in the buildings nearby. Liudmyla Fakhrutdinova and her neighbor stopped by to look on their way home from picking up humanitarian aid at 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 blast. She and her neighbors have been spending nights in the hallway of their building since their bedrooms have windows.

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Left: In January, the lights of residential buildings come on in the evening. Right: In August, a woman looks up at the damage from the morning’s strike on the residential building.

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Liudmyla Fakhrutdinova walks through central Slovyansk past the morning’s missile strike on her way back from church on Sunday.

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For Viktoria Batychenko, looking at the damage is painful. “I feel total despair,” says Batych …

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