Valery, Alexey, Sergei, and Vitaliy were camping in their usual spot on the bank of the Seversky Donets River in eastern Ukraine, with a lamb-filled pot swinging above the campfire. A white Lada off-road vehicle was parked nearby, ready to rescue visiting cars should they get stuck in the mud. The Lada also provided light during the vodka-fueled evenings.
There was one big difference from previous years, however; this time, the men didn’t know when the trip would be over. They only knew that it wouldn’t end until they stopped hearing daily explosions.
Along with their families, the four Ukrainian men were staying in the forest resort town of Sviatohirsk, about 19 miles from their homes in Sloviansk. They left a week ago, after the Ukrainian Army began the latest and fiercest episode of its “Anti-Terrorist Operation.”
Valery, Alexey, Sergei, and Vitaliy had mixed feelings about that operation. They were loyal to Ukraine, but didn’t appreciate seeing their town become a war zone. “Sloviansk is like a fortress; [the Ukrainian Army] will have to destroy it to take it back,” one said.
Sloviansk, a city of 130,000, is one of the epicenters of the violent conflict in eastern Ukraine. In early April, pro-Russian gunmen took over various administration buildings. The Ukrainian army tried to reclaim the city several times, but the separatists only grew stronger.
Armed with heavy weaponry, including modern anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS) they obtained from captured army posts, the pro-Russian forces downed multiple Ukrainian helicopters and even an army transport plane.
When the army decided to put a siege on Sloviansk this month, an estimated 40 percent of the city’s residents chose to flee.
Alexey, one of the refugees camping in Sviatohirsk, owns a sunflower seed warehouse in Sloviansk. Due to the army surrounding the city, he can no longer go back to check on his business, but the last time he could, three days ago, he encountered a massive hole in the ceiling created by an artillery shell.
He thinks the more than 1,000 tons of seeds he was storing are lost. “I don’t know what to tell the farmers who own the seeds,” he said.
The campers cannot agree on which Sloviansk residents support the separatists—or why.
Valery thinks only poor people and pensioners endorse them. Alexey agrees, noting that none of his workers, who make a minimum of 4,500 Hryvnias ($380) per month, support the rebels. But Sergei says his driver, who banks 6,000 Hyrvnias ($507) per month, is pro-Russian.
Sergei is an ex-military man who resembles Vladimir Putin, and he used to see Russia as a brother nation. Now he thinks Ukraine should be part of NATO.
“I can’t understand why [Russia is] doing this now,” he said, after explaining that he believes Moscow’s special forces took over Sloviansk. And while he backs the Ukrainian “Anti-Terrorist Operation,” he has little trust in the army’s capabilities.
Sviatohirsk is an idle forest resort, usually popular with families and the elderly. The Seversky Donets River wends through the town of 5,000, and its banks are a popular camping destination. Walking through the tree-shadowed streets, one can hear the chirping of birds and croaking of frogs.
In addition to a few stores whose shelves are filled with vodka, Sviatohirsk features a 16th-century monastery, a shooting range, a few hotels/motels, and some sanatoriums for those who need clean air for healthier lungs.
These days the monastery and motels house people who had to leave Sloviansk. One man—with a mattress and other miscellaneous belongings covering the roof of his car—said he chose to run after an army bombardment.
“We heard the army attack using helicopters, planes, artillery, mortars. We decided to leave with my family,” he said.
Another man, sitting in the playground of a sanatorium, was watching his toddler play on the slide of a jungle gym. He recalled a conversation he had had with his son before fleeing Sloviansk:
“During a storm, I said to my kid, ‘Son, this [sound] is thunder.’ But he said, ‘No, Dad, thunder was before. This is shelling.’ Children can now tell the difference between sounds of thunder and shelling.”