Fears remain after Ukraine's rebels flee Sloviansk
- 8 July 2014
- From the section Europe
Outside the police station in Sloviansk, there is a giant barricade made of concrete blocks. It wasn't built by the police, but by the pro-Russia insurgents who seized the town three months ago.
Now the fighters are gone. And a convoy of Ukrainian army vehicles is pulling up to take down the wall.
The military commander here tells me how significant it is that the army has retaken this town.
"Sloviansk was one of the strongholds of the militants," he explains. "It's like when you've been standing on two legs and you suddenly have one of your legs taken away from you. That's what losing Sloviansk is like for the insurgents."
But what is it like for the residents now the fighters have left town?
Walking around Sloviansk, it feels eerily quiet and vey empty.
Many of the town's 120,000 residents fled weeks ago. I see a string of apartment blocks damaged during the so-called "anti-terrorist operation".
The town suffered sustained artillery shelling. That's what eventually forced the insurgents to withdraw.
For those residents who remain, the authorities are distributing humanitarian aid: loaves of bread, tinned meat and bottled water. But that is not enough to convince everyone here that they have been liberated.
"The Ukrainian army bombed and shelled us for two months," Roman tells me outside Sloviansk City Hall. "The military keeps praising itself for having defended us. In fact they were killing us."
A man on a bicycle overhears our conversation.
"What's the matter with you?" he says to Roman. "There hasn't been any shooting for two days here now. Aren't you pleased about that?"
I get chatting to the man on the bike, whose name is Igor.
"What was the point of all this bloodshed we've had the last three months?" Igor asks. "Was it worth it just so some people could hang up their separatist flags?"
I visit one of the most infamous buildings in Sloviansk: the local headquarters of the Ukrainian security service. When they were in control here, the pro-Russia militants locked some of their hostages in the cellar.
Down in the dark basement I find mattresses the hostages slept on; the leftovers of a prison meal - a bowl of soup and a piece of bread. Washing facilities were basic: a plastic water bottle attached to the wall with a bucket underneath.
When the insurgents retreated, they took some of their hostages with them. Others were left unguarded and able to go free.
Back outside the police station, I notice a flag that wasn't there before. It's red and black: the banner of the Ukrainian ultranationalist group Right Sector. That will make some people feel deeply uncomfortable in this mainly Russian-speaking town.
As for the Ukrainian authorities, they have their own concerns. The insurgents say that many of their fighters from Sloviansk have now relocated to the regional capital Donetsk. They claim they're determined to fight on.