Photo — by Anastasia Vlasova, Lily Hyde.A man rebuilds a wall of a rehabilitation center in Sloviansk on Aug. 15. © Anastasia Vlasova
SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — For 10 years, the rehabilitation center run by the Good News Church in Krasny Molochar in Sloviansk sheltered lost souls: people made homeless as a result of drug and alcohol addiction or other personal disasters, who wanted to rebuild their lives again.
On May 20, Alexander Pugach, one of the remaining residents still there after three weeks of fighting around Sloviansk between the occupying Donetsk People’s Republic and the Ukrainian army, watched Russian-backed insurgent fighters drive up outside. They began firing machine guns and grenade launchers at the Ukrainian army position.
A man rebuilds a wall of a rehabilitation center in Sloviansk on Aug. 15. © Anastasia Vlasova
The Ukrainians, of course, fired back.
“The army didn’t know there were civilians here,” Pugach says. He recalls how all the windows blew out. “The sky just exploded, it seemed like the end of the world, as if the sky was about to break open and Christ was going to appear.”
As soon as there was a break in the firing, Pugach and the others fled. Three days later a shell scored a direct hit, blowing a huge hole in the building.
A volunteer cooks lunch for the workers and dwellers of the center. © Anastasia Vlasova
Nearly three months on, with Sloviansk under Ukrainian control since July 5, it is hard to believe the extent of the destruction — and reconstruction.
The roof has been completely repaired by volunteers, and new walls are going up rapidly. The center is providing shelter again for another kind of lost soul in search of new beginnings: people made homeless by eastern Ukraine’s disastrous collective conflict.
Sloviansk may be peaceful now, but the men sitting round the table in the center’s makeshift kitchen one day in August come from towns where fighting still rages, destroying lives and livelihoods.
Volunteers and workers eat lunch. © Anastasia Vlasova
Ukrainian activist Bohdan Novak fled Donetsk when he was warned that he was on the separaists’ list of enemies to be tracked down and got rid of.
Alexander Syulokov spent four days in the cellar after a mine landed in their yard in rebel-occupied Krasny Luch. When the family escaped they had to beg for petrol as they reached Ukraine-controlled territory, because they had no money left. Alexander had left Horlivka the day before, driven out not so much by daily shelling as by the need to find work as he too ran out of money. And Roman, half his face obscured by cuts and bruising, had escaped militants in Donetsk who cut off his finger, stole his passport and threatened to press-gang him to dig trenches.
A wall inside the rehabilitation center in Sloviansk. © Anastasia Vlasova
These men tell their stories in breaks from labor.
Refugees from all over Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts arrive in Sloviansk daily, independently or evacuated by volunteers supported by local churches and foundations. Some move on to accommodation elsewhere; others are housed temporarily in holiday camps and hostels around Sloviansk. Many Ukrainians complain that these displaced people do not want to do anything to help themselves. But Novak, Syulokov, Alexander and Roman have come to the rehabilitation centre because they want to work.
“I’m here to learn what we will have to do later, in Krasny Luch,” says 22-year-old Syulokov, who says he hopes to start with rebuilding the family home, damaged when the mine blew up their car outside. “I hope Krasny Luch will be liberated soon and will be able to get back to life, just as Slovyansk was liberated and is a live, working town again.”
A volunteer cooks lunch for the workers and dwellers of the center. © Anastasia Vlasova
Alexander from Horlivka did not want to give his last name for fear of reprisals from separatists in the prevalent atmosphere of suspicion and blame as fighting sets “separatist” against “nationalist,” neighbor against neighbour.
A 59-year-old miner, mostly he talks about his fears that the network of mines in Horlivka and Shakhtyarsk will flood and collapse if fighting continues. He went on working as long as he could, until his mine was forced to close because there was no electricity. Workers like him have received no salaries or pensions for months.
“I left because I had nothing to live on and I can’t rely on my mother, I have to pull my weight,” he says. His mother, son and divorced wife remain in the besieged town, where all post offices, banks and ATMs have long since closed. “I’ll stay here for now because people need to be helped, but all the same I’ll look for paid work too, because I’ve got to keep up with credit payments. If I’d had money, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere,” he says. “I’m a Horlivka patriot.”
Initial local support for the when it appeared in April along with its Luhansk equivalent the LNR, was often a desperate protest at the closure of industry that left people here without any income or jobs to take pride in. But the DNR and LNR regimes have not provided jobs other than as fighters, either for their supporters or for those who tried not to take sides. Roman, who says he is one of the latter, was punished with utter brutality by the DNR for his simple desire to work and support his family.
Volunteers Ania and Sasha serve lunch. © Anastasia Vlasova
Roman, who was afraid to give his last name, worked in a Horlivka garage until DNR militants paid a visit to his boss in May. The boss closed the garage immediately and fled town. With two children to feed, Roman found a job in a garage in Donetsk.
Militants frequently ‘borrowed’ cars without paying. When Roman objected, he was taken to the DNR security headquarters. In the basement, the people who questioned him cut off his finger before letting him go.
Incredibly, Roman stayed in Donetsk and went back to work. He stopped going home at weekends, because he didn’t want his wife to know what had happened. “I understand there’s a war going on but I had to feed the family somehow,” he says. “I worked to the last, as long as I could I worked.”
‘The last’ came when militants paid a second visit. When Roman did not give them the keys to two cars, they beat him and said they would return next morning and take him to dig trenches.
He did not wait to find out if they would make good their threat; as soon as he regained consciousness he left. As well as the cars, the militants had taken all his documents; somehow he managed to get through a dozen DNR and Ukrainian army road blocks on his way to Slavyansk without being checked. Now he fears his stolen passport will be used to frame him for the theft of the cars.
No one can offer Roman or Alexander paid jobs so far in Slovyansk, where the economy is as damaged as the infrastructure. But at the rehabilitation centre there is plenty of work rewarded with food, accommodation, and friendship. “I don’t want to just hang around, I want to do something; help out,” Roman says. He hasn’t seen his family for two months; his children are in a camp in central Ukraine but his wife is still in Horlivka where she too is working, baking bread in one of the only supermarkets still open.
The rehabilitation center occupied the second floor of a former collective farm administrative building; the dilapidated first floor rooms – still adorned with murals of Marx, Engels and Lenin – were used for storage and workshops. As well as the structural damage, the building was completely looted of all furniture and appliances. Now both floors are going to be refurbished with funding from the Good News Church, providing accommodation for up to fifty refugees as well as the rehabilitation centre.
“Unhappiness helped us to happiness,” says Nona Sokolenko, quoting a Russian proverb as she describes how the restored building will be better than ever before. One of the rehabilitation centre’s original residents who survived the shooting on May 20, Nona came back to cook for the volunteers. Her room is a small airy oasis for plants salvaged from the wreckage and for a rescued kitten curled up on the bed. The gaping hole where the window should be looks out through trees to the highway where armoured vehicles drive past, Ukrainian flags flying.
With fierce fighting to the south around Donetsk and north in Luhansk region, the centre provides a refuge for ordinary people caught up in a war they cannot comprehend. When asked the reason for the conflict, or why neighbours who lived alongside each other all their lives suddenly took sides against each other, their only explanation is to blame distant ‘politics’ and ‘oligarchs’. But they are clear that they don’t want to take part in any more destruction.
“War is never good for ordinary people; no normal person wants war,” says Alexander. “I’m too old to be called up but I wouldn’t want to go and fight anyway. We’re all Slavs: Russians; Ukrainians. I’m Russian although I was born here and lived here all my life.”
Instead, they want to work towards rebuilding their region.
“I don’t know why I was on the (separatists’) wanted list; I’m not important, I don’t represent anything,” says Bohdan from Donetsk.
When the war started, fellow activists who fled Donetsk founded the emergency organisation Donbas SOS, or went to Kyiv and to Europe to speak out about the situation. “I decided my words couldn’t really influence anything, or other people can do that better than I can,” says Bohdan. “So I volunteered to work here. I’d never done building work before but I’m ready to learn new skills and do whatever needs to be done.”