Fragments from a War Diary, Part #54
Although Sloviansk is safe enough, the level of destruction wrought upon the city is colossal. The areas of free Donetsk Oblast that are under Ukrainian control are devoid of all life as the war rages just down the road. There are no air raid sirens and no curfews in Sloviansk. The region is just in a permanent state of war. The greater majority of vehicles on the streets are military ones. Restaurants and shops close by 6pm. Nobody has any time for anything in Sloviansk except day-to-day survival.
My plans went awry almost immediately upon arrival in Sloviansk earlier today. Therefore I consoled myself with a brisk hike around the elongated city centre, including a walk in the park and a view of some of the Soviet-era monuments. I managed to observe the destruction wanton destruction in every direction. Scarcely any substantial building has escaped war damage, but a lot of the damage seems to me very old and to date from the 2014 conflict when the Russians seized Sloviansk and were then evicted in street-to-street fighting. The city has not been rebuilt since, and the people who fled back in 2014 have not returned. In other words this city has been rotting, empty, for some ten years.
The railway tracks towards Donetsk, in Russian-occupied territory, are overgrown with dried, matted grass. An occasional factory can be found, burned out and gutted by fire from a decade ago. Entire districts of apartment blocks stand idle and uninhabited for the same period of time, their windows blown out and barely covered by tarpaulin or wooden boards. Nature and the elements have gradually been taking over control of the city, as the footpaths crumble and the sidewalks are overrun with weeds. A nightclub slumps forlornly at the back of the bus station, advertising 24-hour parties. I doubt it has been open for a single hour since 2014. The only intact and recently constructed buildings in the centre are a massive church and a new hotel, both seemingly built from reinforced concrete so as to resist any future blasts. But the new blasts are not coming. Nobody seems to care about Sloviansk anymore.
As far as I can tell, the population of Sloviansk that fled during the 2014 Russian occupation mostly fled for Kharkiv and Dnipro and in both cases they did not return. Now the grand parks that populate Sloviansk have a few old people sitting on the sad wooden benches. Some soldiers’ family members can be seen strolling around town with children in tow, waiting to see their husbands and fathers as they return from the front line a few kilometres away. Aside from that, the streets are empty. Silence haunts Sloviansk. I have seen such desolation before, but not often. I have seen worse war damage, but that was in bustling Beirut in the late 1990’s and then there was an optimism that everything would be rebuilt. In Sloviansk there is no hope because there are no people.
Miscellaneous vehicles, most of them military, roll around town without licence plates. Some have war damage such as bullet holes or shrapnel scars across them, but most do not. The major war damage at the moment is being done to people, who are being wounded or killed by small arms fire and mortars in the trenches on the front line. It would be an over-exaggeration to say that a front line city like Sloviansk is entirely safe, but it does not feel menacing and you have no sense of the possibility of imminent attack. Indeed the last recorded attack upon Sloviansk that caused property damage that I can find on a casual perusal of the internet is from April 2023. The Russians have really given up attacking Sloviansk, in all likelihood because there is nothing worth attacking here. Yes there are soldiers; but there are soldiers on the front line that are much more deserving of the Russian Armed Forces’ attentions than those on leave, recuperating, and in barracks, in and around Sloviansk.
I observe with interest that Sloviansk has a very considerable number of foreign soldiers. Military vehicles with pan-European licence plates abound. Sloviansk is used as a base for international military officials of various kinds, I suspect, precisely because it is safe and outside the current range of Russian shelling capacity, and therefore there is no risk of direct conflict between the Russian military and the troops of NATO member states that might result in the sort of escalation of the conflict that both sides are very keen to avoid. That may of course be another reason why the Russians are not shelling Sloviansk: injuries or deaths of NATO troops at Russian hands in Sloviansk would be an escalation the Russians are desperate to avoid. Hence an informal NATO troop presence in Sloviansk, whether they be monitoring missions or training missions or whatever they are short of actual fighters, serves as an effective buffer zone and deterrent. This is a model that the West ought to give more thought to in seeking to apply pressure on the Russian Armed Forces. Notwithstanding the reluctance to place NATO troops in harm’s way, they are not in fact in harm’s way but they are playing a valuable role in being present in theatre in that they deter Russian aggression. What I don't know is the precise status of these foreign troops. Are they volunteers in the Ukrainian International Legion? Are they working as private civilians to assist the Ukrainian Armed Forces? Or are they in Ukraine in an official capacity as representatives of foreign governments? The answer may in each case be different.
I wonder what the West should do about front line cities such as Sloviansk. How can we ever persuade the long-departed populations to return to such a place? Sloviansk remains tolerably safe, and it certainly feels far safer than any of Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaïv or Kherson, all of which I have recently visited. Indeed it feels safer than Kharkiv, that is still occasionally plagued by flying ordnance. Nevertheless after the Russian occupation nobody has wanted to come back - and that was almost a decade ago. The same fate may well lie in store for Kherson: the people who fled will not want to return. It may also lie in store for other population centres, if and when, as we hope they do, the Ukrainian Armed Forces, with all the determination and support the Western powers can muster, recapture the remaining occupied territories. But none of this detracts from the massive exercise in civilian reconstruction of damaged cities that needs to be undertaken if metropolitan settlements such as Sloviansk are not to be abandoned entirely. Nobody seems to have given these issues the slightest thought. Until they do, cities such as Sloviansk remain in limbo, half-dead, with their past erased but no future in sight either.
Right now, I think I have concluded, there is no aid work to be done in Sloviansk or its neighbouring settlements because there are hardly any civilians left and there is no prospect of their return until a massive project of reconstruction and urban regeneration is conceived, planned and executed. So far we have not even developed the ideas necessary to achieve this, never mind asked ourselves from where we might find the money.
The real challenge facing anyone wanting to undertake any sort of aid or assistance work, as I discovered, however, is that the city is completely dry. There is not a drop of alcohol to be purchased in any shop, or any bar, anywhere in the city limits. This is the sort of detail that all the internet research and private interviews in the world will not yield. You have to go there for yourself to find out. Lots of people told me that Sloviansk was perfectly safe to visit; nobody told me that there was no booze. For me, this is too much. I can tolerate plenty of hardships and dangers, but I like a glass of beer or two at the end of the day.
I am leaving on the early bus tomorrow morning. Every day is another adventure in this crazy war.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.