A man stands on debris near his destroyed house following
what locals say was overnight shelling by Ukrainian forces,
in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk. Photo by
Dozens of charred bicycles stand upright in the rubble of
a burnt-out sports shop in Slaviansk, a strategic stronghold
for pro-Russian separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
After a week of intensified shelling by government forces,
windows of buildings on the outskirts of the city have been
blown out, fires have gutted stores and the hulks of damaged
Soviet-era cars lie abandoned in the road.
A few stores are still operating in the leafy town centre,
where the muffled sound of mortar fire drifts in from areas
around the city edges, but life has been transformed even
A few days ago, residents were showing defiance by carrying
on their lives as best they could. Now only a handful of
people dare to walk in the open near the city hall,
barricaded by sandbags and fenced off by the rebels. Others
"Why do my children and I have to know every day what time
the shelling will start?" asked Nina Moiseyeva, tears rolling
down her face as she walked with two bags of groceries. "We
know when to expect it every morning: eight or nine o'clock."
Although the army denies shelling civilians or buildings used
by civilians, a woman who gave her name only as Tatyana said
she had seen the incident in which the now burnt-out sports
store was hit: "People were burned, lying on the street.
There was a body lying there," she said pointing under the
rubble, her hands dirty because of a lack of water to wash
The transformation of Slaviansk in the past week is a result
of the two-pronged policy being pursued by President Petro
Poroshenko, the pro-Western leader elected last month and
sworn in on Saturday with a pledge to end the insurrection.
Although he has started talks with Russia on a peace plan he
has drawn up, he has also ordered Ukraine's armed forces to
step up their "Anti-Terrorist Operation" to win back control
of towns and cities held by rebels seeking unification with
He is treading a tightrope. The rebels show no sign of
surrendering, meaning force looks the only way of prising
them out; but pushing too hard risks civilian casualties.
That could both antagonise Moscow, whose troops are just
across the border, and alienate eastern Ukrainians, deepening
the nation's divide.
The military operation has focused increasingly on Slaviansk,
a city of 130,000 which has been controlled since April by
masked, camouflage-clad militants wielding assault rifles and
grenade-launchers who oppose central rule by Kiev.
It has strategic value because it sits at the centre of the
Donbass coal mining region, at the crossroads of the three
main regions of eastern Ukraine.
The Kiev government, battling to restore its authority after
Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula following the overthrow
of Poroshenko's predecessor, said over 300 rebels were killed
in one 24-hour period last week although the separatists deny
The violence is increasingly taking its toll on civilians as
well. Residents estimate a third of the population of
Slaviansk has fled hardships such as cuts in electricity and
Journalists enter and leave through an army checkpoint, at
which there is a steady trickle of cars ferrying out
residents, mainly women and children with their belongings
On the day of Poroshenko's inauguration on Saturday,
organisers of a relief operation say more than 100 women and
children left the city in minibuses to take refuge in
Soviet-era recreational camps in a region farther to the
Men were barred from leaving, turned back at a checkpoint by
the Ukrainian army, fearing they could join rebel forces
"We all tried to leave together last week, but the Ukrainian
military wouldn't let me pass. They said I might be a
terrorist," said a 34-year-old market trader who gave his
name only as Alexei and had hoped to leave with his two
The organisers of the evacuation convoy said they had reached
an agreement with Kiev forces not to shell Slaviansk until
they had left the city. As soon as the minibuses pulled away
explosions in the distance began again.
The New York-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch has
urged the Ukrainian government to review its operation in
Slaviansk and the neighbouring village of Semyonevka, saying
it has an obligation not to attack civilians or civilian
Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the military operation
in eastern Ukraine, has accused the rebels of shelling