A group of off-duty young Ukrainian soldiers have gathered at a military distribution center to enjoy a rare respite from the fighting that has once again engulfed their fractured home in eastern Ukraine.
As they shared jokes and pizza, artillery explosions could be heard a few miles away – a reminder of the impending battle that threatens to unfold here in the city of Sloviansk, which has been occupied by fighters Russians by proxy in 2014.
“Everyone knows there will be a huge battle in Sloviansk,” said one of the soldiers, who could not be named for security reasons.
Today, eight years after the last occupation of their city, the war is back. Sloviansk could become the next major target in Moscow’s campaign to take over the Donbass region, Ukraine’s predominantly Russian-speaking industrial heartland.
Russia’s Defense Minister said on Sunday that Russian armed forces and a separatist militia had captured the city of Lysychansk and now controlled the entire province of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. Sloviansk, located 70 kilometers (43 miles) west of Donetsk province, was the target of rocket attacks on Sunday that killed an unknown number of people, Mayor Vadym Lyakh said.
Another soldier interviewed earlier by The Associated Press, a 23-year-old accountant who enlisted when the invasion began, said Ukrainian forces simply did not have the weapons to fight the superior arsenal of the approaching Russian army.
“We know what’s coming,” he said with a sad smile.
These soldiers were still teenagers when pro-Russian separatists captured and held the town for three months. The brief 2014 occupation terrorized Sloviansk, where dozens of officials and journalists were taken hostage, and several murders took place.
Fierce fighting and shelling broke out as the Ukrainian army besieged the city to retake it.
“In fact, the war never left Sloviansk. It never left people’s heads,” said Tetiana Khimion, a 43-year-old dance choreographer who turned a fishing shop into a hub for local military units.
“On the one hand, it’s easier for us because we know what it is. On the other hand, it’s more difficult for us since we’ve been living like this for eight years on borrowed time.”
Sloviansk is a city of split loyalties. With a large population of retirees, it’s not uncommon to hear older residents express sympathy for Russia or nostalgia for their Soviet past. There is also mistrust of the Ukrainian military and government.
After a recent bombing of his building, a resident named Sergei said he believed the strike was initiated by Ukraine.
“I’m not pro-Russian, I’m not pro-Ukrainian. I’m somewhere in between,” he said. “Russians and Ukrainians are killing civilians – everyone should understand that.”
On Thursday, a group of elderly residents could not hide their frustration after a bomb attack tore open their roofs and shattered their windows.
Ukraine “says it protects us, but what kind of protection is it? asked a man, who did not give his name.
“They kneel to this Biden – let him die!” exclaimed her neighbor, Tatyana, in reference to US President Joe Biden.
After 2014, Khimion said, it became easier to know “who’s who” in Sloviansk. “Now you can easily see: these people are for Ukraine, and these people are for Russia.”
She said little was done after 2014 to punish people who collaborated with Russian proxies to prevent the situation from happening again.
“That’s why we can’t negotiate, we have to win. Otherwise it will be an endless process. It will repeat itself,” she said.
The mayor of Sloviansk reflects the city’s new trajectory. Inspired by Ukrainian warlord President Volodymyr Zelensky, he decorated his office with Ukrainian flags, anti-Russian symbols, portraits of national poets and even a biography of Winston Churchill.
But before 2014, Lyakh was part of a political party that sought to get closer to Russia. He said that while pro-Moscow sentiment in the city has faded – partly due to the horrors of 2014 – there are still “people waiting for the return of Russian troops“.
As the front line draws closer, the attacks on the city intensify. Three-quarters of its pre-war population fled, but the mayor said too many residents were still in Sloviansk, including many children. He encouraged them to evacuate while he spends his days coordinating humanitarian aid and strengthening the city’s defenses.
Lyakh said he couldn’t afford to relax even for a few minutes.
“It’s emotionally difficult. You see how people die and get hurt. But nevertheless, I understand that it’s my job and no one but me and the people around me can do it.”
Increasingly, Lyakh is among the first responders to the scene of bombings. Associated Press reporters who followed the mayor recently witnessed what authorities described as a cluster bomb attack on a residential neighborhood. One person was killed and several others injured.
The mayor says shelling now occurs at least four or five times a day and the use of cluster munitions has increased in the past week. While he remains optimistic about the ability of Ukrainian forces to hold off the enemy, he is also clear-headed about his options.
“Nobody wants to be captured. When there is an imminent danger of enemy troops entering the city, I will have to go,” he said.
One morning last week, Lyakh visited a building that had been shelled overnight. Most of the windows were blown out, the doors were thrown open and a power line was cut.
The same building was bombed in 2014, leaving a gaping hole on the sixth floor, and many residents suffered broken bones.
Andrey, a 37-year-old worker who has lived in construction for 20 years, remembers the bombings and the occupation. He said the separatist forces “did and took what they wanted”.
The people around him have different opinions about Russia.
“Those who have suffered understand what this ‘Russian world’ means: it means broken houses, stolen cars and violence,” he explains. “There are those who miss the Soviet Union, who think we are all one people, and they don’t accept what they see with their own eyes.”
In the eight years since the separatists withdrew, he said, life has improved markedly in Sloviansk.
The statue of Vladimir Lenin that once stood in the central square has been removed. The water and electricity supplies have been renovated. New parks, plazas and medical facilities were built.
“Civilization has been returned to us,” Andrey said.
In a military distribution center where they go to relax, the young soldiers speak with nostalgia of their life before the invasion.
“I had a great car, a good job. I was able to travel abroad three times a year,” said the former accountant, who plans to stay in Sloviansk with the others to defend the city. “How can we let someone come and take our lives?”
Khimion’s husband is on the front line and she put her teenage daughter on a train to Switzerland as soon as the invasion began.
“I have been deprived of everything – a home, a husband, a child – what do I do now?” she asks. “We are doing everything we can to stop (the offensive), to keep it to a minimum… But to be afraid is to give up this place.”
At the entrance to the city, a monument bearing the name of Sloviansk is riddled with bullet holes dating from 2014. It has been repainted several times. It now wears Ukraine’s national colors and a local artist has painted red flowers around each perforation.
Sloviansk residents wonder – some hopefully, many fearfully – whether the sign will soon be painted again, in the red, white and blue of the Russian flag.