Valentivna searched the 78-year-old woman’s belongings to find a photo to put on her grave, carefully stepping over shattered glass, bone fragments, and a pair of neatly folded bloody plastic cups.
“We are nothing to anyone,” he said.
Only nine residents of this largely destroyed 120-unit condominium have remained since it was struck by Russian forces on May 31, in an attack that neighbors said was likely targeting Ukrainian troops sleeping in the school next door. which was also affected.
Most of the civilians have fled as Russian forces approach this strategic city in eastern Ukraine. Many feared that artillery would strike their homes and the kind of brutal occupation the Russians had imposed elsewhere.
But this destroyed condominium illustrates the complicated choices faced by people in a place with deep historical, cultural and family ties to both Ukraine and Russia. Those who left ran in opposite directions: some south or east to Russian-controlled separatist territories, others west to safer areas of Ukraine.
Those who remain feel the same magnetic pushes and pulls.
Some are fiercely siding with Ukraine and are disgusted by Russian false propaganda that Moscow is “liberating” Ukraine from a tyrannical Nazi government.
Others feel the call of history and sympathize with Russia. Despite all the misery and death caused by Russian forces in nearly four months of war, even in their apartment building, they feel even more connected to Russia than to the government of the distant Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
Some are simply too poor or traumatized to leave. They described themselves as “beyond fear”, even as Russian forces made steady gains towards Slovyansk in a grinding artillery war designed to take control of cities and towns by destroying them.
Competing loyalty is heavy in the air here, as Valentivna acknowledged amid the rubble of the deadly explosion.
Born in Russia in the early 1960s, she moved to Ukraine in 1974 and found a job as a teacher. You have said that you are loyal to an independent Ukraine; her son is fighting in his front line army.
“This is my native region, but my heart has a place in Russia. Can anyone understand that? “She said.” I’m sorry for those guys and these guys. “
In the corridor, a young Ukrainian soldier in military uniform was repairing a neighbor’s door. He heard Valentivna and burst into the apartment furious.
“Do you feel sorry for them?” she screamed. “The ‘children’ you speak of came here to kill us! Who are you sorry for? “
“I’m Russian, look at me!” she screamed.
“Well thank God you don’t have a gun,” he yelled back.
It was all too much. The blood, the glass, the death … the fear of what might come next. Now a stranger was yelling at her for what she felt she couldn’t control.
“Don’t hide in civilian homes, so they kill us! Go out and fight! ”She yelled at him.
She rummaged in her bag for a sedative, then swallowed it. “I’m Russian, but I’m for Ukraine,” he said softly, then leaned against the wall and covered his face with one hand.
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Two weeks later, the debris was piled up in piles outside the building. Tangles of electrical cables hung from the walls.
Olena Voytenko and Nina Starushenko, who live opposite each other, were fed up with the mess.
They put on their gardening gloves and got to work, shoveling the remains of the neighbors’ apartments onto a white sheet, then hauling them out of the building.
Voytenko, 59, looked up at the vast concrete apartment building, pointing to the windows of the less fortunate: the old woman who died after being pulled out of the rubble; the man who burned alive on the fifth floor; another whose blood still stains the floors and walls.
Cleaning up, he said, is like living they are facing.
Starushenko went up the stairs. Most of the apartments were abandoned, some with doors open, others boarded up. He pointed to the apt. 73, where three young soldiers had slept the night of the strike, renting the space to take a break from the fighting. One was killed and his blood still covered the wooden floor.
Then he looked at Apt. 74, where the door was closed. “He walked away at the start of the war,” he said with a shrug. “The people who had money left. Even people who are pro-Ukrainian and have tried to present themselves as patriots have drifted away ”.
Starushenko pointed to the closed door of the Apt. 76, also abandoned today. “She was a separatist,” said Starushenko. “It was common. People were talking. “Then apt. 77:” That woman’s family moved her to the Russian side. “
The deceased old woman had lived in the apt. 78. “Olena dragged her out,” she said. “Her husband said he even saw her bone.”
On the top floor, the smell of fire still lingered in the air. On the corridor floor lay a burnt pigeon carcass.
Starushenko happened to be sleeping at his daughter’s house on the day of the explosion. Otherwise, he said, the shelf fell on his bed in the apartment. 61 “would have crushed me”.
When she returned after the attack, she realized that her world was shattered. Last summer she had spent her days visiting friends’ houses and playing mah-jongg. She now she was wiping out the remnants of her neighbors’ lives.
“I’m 72. I have other things I should be doing,” he said. He has decided to stay in Slovyansk while his best friend of 50 years has fled to Russia, a decision he finds unthinkable.
Starushenko worked alongside the Russians for years and considered his colleagues like family. Yet now the Russians are the enemy: how could his friend not understand? “We shared a spoon,” she said. Now they don’t talk at all.
He knew the risks that came with staying. He feared the building might be hit again.
However, the thought of moving to a new place seemed heavy and burdensome. His daughter still works in the city. And Starushenko, who left his native village decades ago, doesn’t want to go back to rural life. “I want things to go back to the way they used to be,” he said.
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Voytenko was standing in his tiny kitchen across the hall, washing the mushrooms he’d picked up outside and cutting the cabbage he was making for a borscht. In the other room, her husband slept peacefully in bed.
After weeks without water, the taps had just been turned on. But Voytenko didn’t mind walking down the block to fill buckets of water or even crouching outside to relieve himself. He would rather do it in Ukraine, he said, than use a toilet in Russia.
She is a seamstress and has two daughters. One lives abroad. The other lives in pro-Russian separatist territory and hasn’t seen her since 2017. They haven’t even spoken to each other on the phone since February, when they fought for the war.
“You’re not releasing us,” he recalled telling his daughter. “I don’t want to be released.”
“We can’t communicate, we just fight,” he said.
Before 2014, when pro-Russian forces briefly conquered Slovyansk, Voytenko had some pro-Russian views. But he said he changed his mind when he saw how they bombed his city of him.
He said some of his few remaining neighbors still hold those views. A mother and daughter living a few doors down try to talk politics as Voytenko sits outside on his bench. When they mention Russia, she leaves.
“They think the Ukrainian army shot this building,” he said. “They just talk nonsense.”
Even at 59, Voytenko said he is considering joining the army.
“I was a first choice marksman,” she said. “My eyesight is not that good now, but if necessary, I will wear glasses and fight for Ukraine.”
He sees staying as an act of resistance. “If there are people here, life will go on,” she said. “But if the people leave, the Russians will move in and destroy this place.”
On the morning of the explosion, 89-year-old Ideya Svistunova woke up in Apt. 75 to the screams of the young soldiers he had seen coming across the corridor just the day before. She somehow she wasn’t hurt in the blast. The doors were torn off their hinges and in the soldiers’ frantic attempt to move their dying friend downstairs, they stacked the doors in front of her, locking her.
She waited in terror until the firefighters rescued her and escorted her out. Even today, with glass and debris staining her apartment and blood staining in the apartment across the hall, she knew she would stay. “They were good guys,” he said of the soldiers.
Two weeks later, he said, he doesn’t think about what happened. There was still a pile of bloody suits and tents in the corner.
“It’s life,” he said. “Someone lives. Someone dies ”.
She was born near Siberia, moved to Slovyansk as a young man and worked in a pencil factory. She has lived in this condo for 50 years. She is now the only one left on the floor. Her son passes by every day, delivering food and water.
She had gotten used to the noise of war, she said. But as the Russian forces got closer and closer, she felt as if an eerie stillness had descended upon the city, “like the calm before the storm.”
In the abandoned apartment in front of her, flies still buzzed on the young man’s dried blood. Downstairs, she could hear Voytenko sweeping the glass. Outside, the air raid siren sounded in the distance.
She closed the door and went back to her apartment, alone.