Europe

Ukraine's Sloviansk divided over land and identity

  • 8 May 2014
  • From the section Europe

At the checkpoints on Thursday morning they were still tense.

The Ukrainian army was looking for rebels trying to slip into Sloviansk. Less than a mile up the road the rebels were still waiting for an attack.

In the distance we heard a short burst of automatic gunfire.

But in the centre of Sloviansk families were out on the streets.

It was a different city to the silent, forlorn place we visited three days ago. Whether this had anything to do with President Putin's statement on Wednesday or was simply due to a lull in the fighting is impossible to say.

Nervous rebels

We passed a grandfather and grandson strolling hand in hand within yards of the main security service building. Shoppers were moving about in the bright sunshine.

Image copyright AP
Image caption A Donetsk Republic flag flutters at half-mast on top of an administration building next to the monument of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in the centre of Sloviansk
Image copyright AP
Image caption Many in Sloviansk are frustrated by the Kremlin's call for a delay in holding a referendum on its future
Image caption There is some nervousness among Ukrainian troops looking for rebels trying to slip into Sloviansk
Image caption Former factory worker Valentin, 25, says that he is willing to die for his cause
Image caption The streets of Sloviansk no longer appear as deserted as they did a few days ago

On our first trip here we were the targets of warning shots fired by nervous rebels outside this very building.

Tension has decreased but we found disillusionment among some of those who were absorbing the apparently conciliatory stance taken by the Kremlin.

Yulia Tarasenko, 30, and a mother of two young children, said she was annoyed at the call to delay the referendum.

"We wanted the referendum because we believed that once that happened the Ukrainian forces would withdraw and peace and stability would return," she said.

When asked what she thought would happen next she replied: "We just want to return to normality."

'I know what I'm fighting for'

There was a different response from Oleg, a rebel fighter active in the town of Kramatorsk, about half an hour's drive from Sloviansk.

Image copyright AP
Image caption With passions unleashed, the conflict over identity on the ground in east Ukraine will not be easily or quickly resolved
Image caption At this shrine to a girl allegedly shot in the town of Kramatorsk, anti-Western sentiment is prominently displayed

"It's bad what Putin said. The referendum can't be stopped. It has gone too far. Russian peacekeepers should still be sent. We are protecting our land."

His comrade Valentin, 25, a former factory worker, said he was willing to die. "I know what I am fighting for," he said.

The preoccupation with land and identity are the most powerful themes I have encountered in this conflict.

Having covered conflicts of identity in Northern Ireland, the Balkans and Africa the fears I hear expressed in eastern Ukraine have a chilling resonance.

Yet the differences with those conflicts and what is taking place in East Ukraine can be as powerful as the similarities.

Communal violence

In east Ukraine the level of casualties is still comparatively small.

Image caption Oleg, a rebel fighter active in the town of Kramatorsk wants the referendum to go ahead and Russian troops to be deployed

Organised bands of killers have not engaged in large scale massacres of the opposing groups.

Although there have been kidnappings and some murders the widespread communal violence that characterises so many modern conflicts has not happened. That may change of course.

In Donetsk, the capital of the self-declared People's Republic of Donbass, I met a civil servant who had been evicted from her office by the rebels.

Elena Malyutina, 40, believes that some on the checkpoints represent the worst elements of society.

In her new office she points to the handful of pot plants and the computer she managed to rescue before the gunmen forced her out of the regional administrative building.

What hurt her most, she said, were the divisions being caused in society by the rebellion. "It is a psychological trauma. Families are being divided… I have known people being divorced because of this," she said.

People on both sides of the political divide, and the large numbers who occupy the middle ground, are still reflecting on President Putin's new stance.

His words may ease tension between East and West, between Moscow and Kiev.

But the passions unleashed, the conflict over identity on the ground will not be easily or quickly resolved.