Ukraine's war leaves deep scars on former rebel stronghold

Mass grave uncovered in Slovyansk as town tries to return to normal life

The bulldozer pawed the ground for hours, as if afraid of what might appear if it dug too deeply into the soil of Slovyansk. Then, as a streak of pink showed through the dirt and the hot air turned acrid, the suspicions of local people and investigators were confirmed.

This patch of ground at a small war memorial beside a children's hospital in Slovyansk is the first mass grave found during Ukraine's battle with pro-Moscow separatists, who allegedly receive reinforcements, arms and funding from Russia.

The grave is believed to contain more than 20 bodies, of people murdered by the rebels during their three-month occupation of Slovyansk and of militants killed in clashes with government forces who retook the strategic town on July 5th.

Four of the men thought to be buried here were abducted by rebels outside a local Protestant church straight after a service. The Pavenko brothers, Ruvim and Albert, were sons of the church pastor; the other men were Vladimir Velichko, a father of eight, and Viktor Brodarsky, who had three children.


Anton Gerashchenko, an interior ministry official, said the rebels kidnapped the men to steal their cars, and also accused them of giving information to the Ukrainian army. They were abducted on June 8th and shot dead the next day.

Gerashchenko accused Igor Girkin, the rebels' Russian military chief who uses the nom de guerre "Strelkov", of choosing this burial site because he intended ultimately to transform the area into a monument to Novorossiya – a swathe of eastern and southern Ukraine that Russian nationalists want to reclaim for Moscow.

'Victims of Putin'
"Instead, it will a monument to victims of terrorism," the official said, before taking aim at Russian president Vladimir Putin, who insists on Moscow's right to use force to defend Russian-speakers everywhere, including Ukraine.

“These people are all victims of Putin and terrorism. If he hadn’t filled people with hatred and propaganda, they wouldn’t have killed anyone . . . If they hadn’t taken up guns and gone on the attack, all these people would still be alive.”

Soldiers in fatigues ringed the site, and two snipers monitored the area from the roof of a dormitory for hospital workers and their families.

“Everyone around here knows what’s there. I saw them dig the hole with a bulldozer,” said Valentina Ivanovna (64), who stood with friends and her granddaughter Alina (12) as a different bulldozer uncovered the bodies.

“I stayed here right through the bombing,” she added, recalling weeks of terrifying shelling from government forces that killed hundreds of civilians, left dozens of buildings in ruins and wrecked the 120,000-strong town’s infrastructure.

“Now people can say what they couldn’t when the rebels were here,” said Yelena, a nurse living in the dormitory.

“They occupied people’s flats, drank and swore and scared people. When the government called a ceasefire they shot at the army from near civilian buildings and then ran away, and of course the army fired back.”

“The bombing was just terrifying,” said another nurse, Irina. “There was no food in the shops, no electricity here and the water went off. We had to collect rainwater on the roof just to flush the toilet.”

“But now the power and water are back on,” added Valentina, who helps manage the dormitory. “We’ve even got the internet.”

On Slovyansk’s main square, blue and yellow Ukrainian flags again fly above a local administration building that served as the sandbagged, heavily guarded headquarters of rebel “people’s mayor” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov.

With Girkin, who was also based in Slovyansk, and other rebel leaders, Ponomaryov claimed to be protecting locals from Russian-hating Ukrainian “fascists”, while overseeing the murder of critics and abduction of journalists.

“The town’s pretty stable, though a few rebels who couldn’t get away are still causing trouble on the outskirts,” said Vitaly Kiashko, Slovyansk’s chief architect.

“Some were from Russia and other parts of Ukraine, but many were local guys. Mostly bums who didn’t know any better. And they were giving teenagers beer and vodka and then a gun. It was terrible to see kids and drunks and drug addicts manning those checkpoints around town,” he said.

“I remember seeing an old classmate on a barricade, with a gun, and I told him: ‘I’ll see you at another time and place and we’ll sort this out properly.’ He’s disappeared now, of course. But you do recognise faces around town: one guy who was on the barricades is now selling fish in the market.”

Some of Slovyansk’s police officers joined the rebels and others ran away, and the force is now being rebuilt along with water and gas pipes, electricity cables, trolleybus lines and other essentials.

"The town was dead, no one was on the streets. Children were collecting shrapnel from shells when they should have been picking flowers," said deputy mayor Tatyana Malyi. "But normal life is already returning, people are coming back."

But the old life is unlikely to return to Semyonovka, a village on the edge of Slovyansk that was abandoned by residents and occupied by hundreds of rebels, who were subsequently driven out by relentless army artillery. Shells and mortars have gouged great holes in almost every building, barely a window is intact, and metals roofs have been ripped apart like tinfoil.

'We had such a nice place'
"I've lived here 40 years, but now I have to go," said Tamara Zolotushenko (65), as her brother Sasha helped her gather a few belongings. "I have no idea what I will do now, but I don't want to come back and see this. We had such a nice place, so tidy, with flowers everywhere."

As she left her battered house she found a pile of flyers warning residents bomb damage meant they would not have heating this winter. Tamara only smiled. Without walls and roofs and windows, why would people expect warmth? “You must visit us another time, and have a glass of the wine we make,” she said. “When life is peaceful again, in better days.”