Preamble: Without hiding any of my, in part profound, disagreements with the characterizations set out in and the narrative of the article, I must admit it is a very well written piece. Moreover, it hints at a brewing change in Western perceptions on the civil war in Ukraine, and, in that alone, it is an important chapter in the chronology of the unfolding events. My sincere gratitude to the wonderful friends who translated it. My own contribution to this was miniscule.
by Benoît Vitkine (Slavyansk Special Correspondent)
Original: Le Monde
Graciously Translated by an Anonymous Contributor and @les_politiques
(with minor editing by Gleb Bazov)
On the road, a familiar face. Taguir, a separatist combatant from Slavyansk, is there, over thirty kilometres from his base at the Kostiantinovka checkpoint. He and four of his comrades have piled into an old Lada followed by two other cars. Heading towards Donetsk, in the south.
Taguir, always an Olympian calm, seems lost. The morning of July 5, he received the implacable order: “Evacuation”. Why? For what purpose? He does not know, but the rumor that started that morning begins to take shape: Slaviansk has been given up, the separatists are leaving.
The fall of Slavyansk marks a major turning point in the war between Kiev and the armed separatists who hold a part of eastern Ukraine. It was in Slavyansk where this war began nearly three months ago, when armed commandos emerged on April 12 to take the city, soon to be imitated in other cities by a growing number of local fighters and [volunteers] from Russia. That day, the anger that was boiling in the Donbass region since the coming to power of Maidan revolutionaries became an armed insurrection.
Slavyansk, the “Hero City,” as it is known in the East, in reference to Soviet cities devastated during the World War II; a martyr city, surrounded and besieged for two months, subject to a furious assault of the Ukrainian army, and whose population – 110,000 people in peacetime – has been paying a heavy price for this war.
“Farewell to Putin, Who Did Not Come.”
Further north we come across a column separatist of another order of magnitude. Twenty municipal city buses from Kramatorsk, filled with armed men. Trucks, a cannon and more cars. They are leaving Kramatorsk, another separatist stronghold, situated a few kilometers south of Sloviansk.
Two men at the side of the road watch the passing convoy. They too were ordered to leave, but they stay there, alone, with their Kalashnikovs.
“This is our city, we will defend it to the end. Say hello to the world from us, and farewell. Farewell to Putin, who did not come.”
How can such acaravan move without being attackedby the Ukrainianairforce? Was the surrender [of the city] and the departure of the separatists negotiated with Kiev?Certainly not.
To understand why, we must continue on our way north. Another car. Separatist checkpoints were abandoned in haste; there is food still in the bowls. One kilometer away from the town, the Ukrainian checkpoint, in place there since the beginning of May, was attacked in the night by a group of separatists who tried to break out of the city.
The fight was violent: the asphalt is riddled with craters, holes, blood. Five armored armoured vehicles lie there, ripped open. Inside a troop transport, a separatist fighter died in the explosion of the vehicle. His skull is crashed into the engine compartment. Three other corpses lie at his feet.
Ukrainian soldiers, some in uniform, others in shorts and flip flops, claim to have repelled the attack, at the cost of one killed and three wounded in their ranks. Communication is chaotic, these men do not know who controls the city.
The road is mined, we must take the small roads that pass Slavyansk to the southwest. Yet another Ukrainian army checkpoint. The men raise their fists in victory: Slavyansk has fallen. The soldiers have started to comb the city. Throughout the day, sounds of gunfire and explosions continue unabated. People hide in their houses, not a store is open.
The Separatist HQ Is Empty
At a deserted intersection, a woman raises her arm, looking for a car that would stop. She is Irma Krat, a journalist and famous Maidan activist, captured by the separatists in mid-April as she was live on the Ukrainian Channel 112.
Her body is shaking, from head to toe. That same morning, some Slavyansk residents opened the door of her cell in the basement of the town hall. Her jailers left without a word, leaving Irma wondering why no one brought her food.
She is now trying to get out of the city, holding tight against her [body] a thick notebook: the story of her detention, which she wrote in secret. On the cover, a warning: “If you find this book it means that I’m dead. But this is not important. Please send it to my husband.”
On Karl Marx street, we see the headquarters of the SBU, the Ukrainian Security Service, captured by the pro-Russian militia on April 12. Part of this red brick building was burned by the start of a fire. It was there where the Military Staff of the separatist Sloviansk installed itself. It was also there where they kept their prisoners – pro-Ukrainian activists, journalists and ordinary citizens. The National Guard has installed themselves in its vicinity. Someone has yet to enter the building.
On the burned down ground floor are the offices of the officials of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk.” We look, without finding it, for the office of Igor Strelkov, the commandant of the city, whom Kiev considers to be an agent of Russian military intelligence. Official documents are scattered everywhere. In one corner, a small notebook: a list of the various commanders of Sloviansk, and pages upon pages written by hand – a physics course on explosives.
The cellars of the SBU. One of them was used as a cell. Three wet mattress thrown on the bare floor, bowls still filled with chicken broth. Socks hanging in a corner, some abandoned Bibles. Where are the hostages? Nobody knows. Other rooms have been emptied. A woman arrives in search of Vasily Nesterenko, her sister’s husband, captured while bringing food to the Ukrainian army. He has not been seen since May 6.
“Are You Going to Kill Us All?”
The Ukrainian army is now approaching the building. A resident who came by to satisfy his curiosity is arrested and interrogated. Armored vehicles are pointing their guns at the building, about fifty soldiers take up positions, their weapons pointed to the surrounding buildings. One has surgical bandages wrapped around his head. “Are there any terrorists inside?” – shouts the commander. Not far away, the explosions continue to reverberate. The first floor appears to be mined. It will be partially destroyed by an explosive charge placed by the Ukrainian army.
Now the soldiers angrily tear down the posters of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” plastered all around the building. Starting with the humiliation incurred at the beginning of the “antiterrorist operation” when, just a few kilometers away, haggard soldiers covered in black grime were stopped by crowds of civilians, the army has suffered, before raising its head. According to official statements of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, more than two hundred soldiers have died.
Another woman approaches, haggard. “Are you going to kill us all?” She thinks that she is addressing members of the National Guard, one of the military units that entered the city, formed out of volunteers and which has fueled all the horror stories.
Luisa, 28 years old, is afraid to return to her neighborhood which is still being shelled. Afraid of everything, really. She was “for Europe,” and did not vote in the self-determination referendum organized by the separatists on May 11. But she does not know yet if she should rejoice in their departure: “As long as they were here, I survived. It is too early to think about the future.” Other people come to congratulate the soldiers.
On the immense square that faces the cityhall, soldiers are now busy piling up dozens of crates and metal tubes. Heavy weapons, taken one by one from a hastily abandoned building, where Irma Krat was held: grenade launchers, bazookas, missiles …
Valerii Gueleteï, the newly appointed minister of defense has arrived. He claims that the weapons do not originate in Ukraine, and that their origin will soon be clarified.
The Battle for Donetsk is Taking Shape
The wounds of Slavyansk will be slow to heal. The city has suffered more than any other. The most important buildings have been destroyed. Many apartment buildings bear the scars of the Ukrainian army bombardments.
A resident holds in his hand small metal darts the size of a nail. He picked up “half a bucket” of them, and this is only from his apartment, where they were strewn, he said, after the explosion of a Ukrainian shell.
It is difficultto know who is toblame for the shellingthat ravagedthe city.The army,andseveral residents, claim that the residential neighborhoods affected were those from which the separatists were firing. This is without taking into account the blunders and errors from both sides. Entire apartment buildings have collapsed.
Starting in April, and as the fighting intensified, the city has emptied. Those who stayed had to live for a whole month without water, without electricity, with minimal food supplies. An officer assures that substantial humanitarian aid will reach the city very soon.
But the army, as the separatists, are already planning their next steps. The Battle of Donetsk is taking shape. Columns that were sighted in the morning, but also tanks, and also hundreds of pro-Russian fighters have entered the great city of one million inhabitants. At the Kostiantinovka checkpoint a tractor arrives. The field bordering the checkpoint is now split by a large trench.
Thank you for your noble cause
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I applaud this what feels to be unbiased work. It is not pro Novorussia, but even in its sympathy to Ukraine, it is objective, full of fear and sorrow and confusion. It is about the people, caught between.