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Slovyansk: A City Liberated From Separatists, But Badly Wounded

Ukrainian soldiers deliver food to residents of Slovyansk one day after liberating the city from pro-Russian separatists.
Ukrainian soldiers deliver food to residents of Slovyansk one day after liberating the city from pro-Russian separatists.

For three months, Slovyansk's city-hall chamber had served as the nerve center for pro-Russian separatists.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-declared "people's mayor," used its small chamber as a personal soapbox from where he would denounce what he called the "junta" in Kyiv. And the building's dank basement served as a virtual cell to detain hostages.

Now, the Ukrainian forces who retook the city on July 6 are using the building as a makeshift food bank for Slovyansk's 130,000 shell-shocked residents.

In the city hall and in the main square surrounding it, long lines have formed for residents to collect handouts of goods like bread, kielbasa, and watermelon.

Oleksandr, a Slovyansk resident, expresses relief, telling RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that local stores had not been able to provide staples for over two weeks and retired residents had not received their monthly pensions in months.

Ukrainian Army Delivers Aid To Slovyansk Residents
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WATCH: Ukrainian Army Delivers Aid To Slovyansk Residents

And in a video released by Ukraine's Defense Ministry, dozens of residents -- some with children -- gather to embrace and thank Ukrainian troops for liberating the city.

'The Rebels Defended Us'

But the food lines and public displays of affection in the city that had become one of the separatists' central strongholds and a major front in armed battles with Kyiv do not necessarily signal an easy road ahead for the central government.

Interviews by Ukrainian media with local residents reveal a tension between those who are relieved by what appears to be a halting of the recent violence and those who blame Kyiv for the unrest.

"The rebels defended us," one woman told HromadskeTV, a Kyiv-based online video news service. "They didn't go to Maidan, they were here in their native city -- they were our boys. Not Russians, not Chechens, no one but our people."

But another, carrying two loaves of bread in her hand, nervously talks about the darker side of rebel control.

"I saw from the window that the 'defenders' had arrived," she said, sarcastically referring to the pro-Russian separatists and their intimidation tactics. "Taking people, placing bags over their heads, and putting them in car trunks."

A third woman, offended, demanded she prove her charges, while a fourth called the accusations "nonsense."

Other residents interviewed, including those who support Kyiv, said they had neighbors and friends who have joined the separatists, signaling potential long-term divisions in the city.

Long Road Ahead To Rebuild City

Assuming Kyiv holds onto Slovyansk, its repair will require investment.

Dangerous remnants of separatist militants still remain prevalent.

And in addition to repairing damaged buildings and homes, there are immediate demands like restoration of water and electricity to much of the city.

Authorities have promised residents will have water and power by the end of the week, and say they will continue distributing food until government pensions are restored.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report
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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer.