Fragments from a War Diary, Part #53
The journey from Kharkiv to Sloviansk, in free Donetsk Oblast, via Izyum, the last settlement in the southeastern part of Kharkiv Oblast, is relatively straightforward. I imagined that I was travelling down the long, open road to the front line city in a private ride share but in fact it turned out that I was transferred to a marshrutka, a private minibus that undertakes intercity journeys for a handful of people, driven by a cheery man who like many on the minibus spoke a smattering of English. I was advised to leave early, as the road to Sloviansk can become a little complicated as the day goes on; and I followed that advice.
The car that drove me to Sloviansk had the same last two letters in its licence plate as my name, despite the fact that the driver, who communicated with my using multiple mobile phone numbers and instant messaging applications, had no idea what my name is. The statistical odds of such a fluke, I have calculated, are 0.148 per cent. Nevertheless this was just a fluke and I was being paranoid. The reason drivers presumably use such complex switchback mechanisms of communication is to prevent their being targeted by Russian infiltrators. Soldiers, aid workers and civilians with regular business travel to and from Sloviansk using these minibuses and it is essential to maintain security.
I must say that my fellow passengers did not seem from the looks upon their faces to be relishing the prospect of returning to Sloviansk; and as the journey continued I started to understand why. Sloviansk is heavily militarised, with constant streams of Ukrainian Armed Forces military vehicles ploughing up and down the road between Sloviansk and Kharkiv, all in an orderly fashion but it must be rather off-putting for the residents of what was a small and obscure small Soviet city suddenly thrust into the limelight when it was briefly occupied by Russian-backed military forces in the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine before the Ukrainian Armed Forces expelled them. (Sloviansk has not been occupied in the course of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that began in late February 2022; its citizens appear to be absolutely loyal to Kyiv.)
Aside from the omnipresence of military hardware, the drive occurs relatively without incident. There is an interminable series of checkpoints but they are all passed courteously and correctly on the part of the officers involved. My passport is photographed as I enter free Donetsk Oblast. I have noticed that this is a habit on the part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces: to take copies of the passports of all foreigners entering front line areas, presumably so that if a foreigner goes missing then they have a record of when and where that foreigner entered a front line zone and they can use that information to trace the person in question. I was asked why I was entering free Donetsk, which I thought a reasonable question in the circumstances; the answer I gave, that I am a civilian aid worker, elicited no further questions. The procedure is correct and proper in every way and this is a welcome relief from the old school Soviet / Russian way of conducting such checks which can involve hostile interrogations and demands for money.
Although Sloviansk is fairly “loud”, as the Ukrainians might say, with the constant sound of air defences being launched, it appears that the city itself has not been under aerial bombardment from Russian positions for some weeks or even months. It is approximately 25 to 30 kilometres to the Russian positions in Bakhmut, which lies to the southeast. A few weeks ago two aid workers were killed travelling in an internationally marked vehicle on that road, and to continue any further beyond Sloviansk is obviously extremely dangerous because Russian artillery can be accurate at a range of about 25 kilometres.
Obviously I am not revealing the location where I am staying. I hear that the Russians are paying their soldiers US$10,000 for every foreigner they kill with certain passports. I hold one of those passports. I won’t be stepping within accurate shelling range of the Russian front line. Nevertheless what I can say about my accommodation is that it is really of very high quality and once of the nicest places I have stayed in during by tour of duty so far in Ukraine. Also it is wedged between a number of taller buildings, which gives me a certain reassurance that even were artillery or other aerial projectiles to strike Sloviansk randomly at night, I would be relatively safe. Nevertheless this is not a place to be for the faint hearted: there is a constant background noise of dull thuds, which might be alarming were I not I suppose relatively intrepid. From my experience so far in Ukrainian military theatre, I would assess virtually all of these thuds as being Ukrainian Armed Forces air defence systems rather than incoming aerial assaults upon the city. I have heard no air raid sirens since I have arrived in Sloviansk, which places the city in stark contrast to Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaïv or Kherson.
Nevertheless the city has clearly taken a terrible pounding in the past, before the Ukrainian Armed Forces pushed the Russian artillery positions back to Bakhmut and far enough away from the city of Sloviansk to prevent it from being the target of relentless Russian shelling. Many or even most of the buildings in the centre exhibit obvious signs of war damage. Many residential buildings have had their windows blown out. Much of the civilian population has left, and the city has the feeling of a military garrison. There are, I establish, three principal groups of people in Sloviansk: soldiers going about their business; soldiers going about their business; and soldiers going about their business. I have encountered no hostility or quizzical words so far. Everyone is very correct and businesslike. But this is obviously a frontline town in which the civilian population remaining have suffered terribly and you can see that in their faces.
Notwithstanding, some shops are open. People seem pleased to see a foreigner in their midst. I get the sense they have a steady trickle of foreigners here, from the words of English that I have already encountered here. I have been greeted with warm smiles. What else awaits me in this poor, benighted, suffering town I do not yet know but I will soon find out. There are some shops open; I have spotted a couple of restaurants; there is life on the streets. This is not Kherson. Things here are vastly better than on the Kherson front where the fighting is extremely hot and by all accounts getting worse as the fighting season draws to a close. The fighting may rage down the road in Bakhmut; here in Sloviansk, while the scarred cityscape may be harrowing, the Ukrainian Armed Forces remain firmly in control and the city is peaceful and orderly. Meanwhile, in occupied Donetsk Oblast just down the road, the Russian puppet government is imposing comprehensive electronic communications interception and telephone call tapping upon the population as a means of social control in the face of apparent disquiet at Russian rule. Slava Ukraini.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.