Thousands of civilians are fleeing the eastern town of Slovyansk amid growing speculation that the Ukrainian army is preparing to launch a full-scale assault to rid the region of pro-Russian separatists.
On Friday, cars and minibuses packed with frightened residents drove out of the city. The scene has been the same over the last few days with reports suggesting a Ukrainian army build-up across the province.
“They’ve been going for days now. The busses are packed full of women and children and baggage,” said a soldier checking passing vehicles and documents at the Ukrainian army checkpoint just outside Slovyansk on the road to Kramatorsk.
Inside Slovyansk, the streets are barricaded. Felled birch trees lie black and white across roads and heaps of tyres block sandy lanes, making navigation difficult. Some people could be seen visiting produce shops before they closed at 6pm, the curfew under martial law.
Exodus from Slovyansk
But the most people to be seen were at the central bus station.
“People have started calling around 6am everyday for the past few days. They’re looking for tickets out of Slovyansk – anywhere but here,” said Elvira, a ticket seller at the bus station.
They should open up a corridor and allow people to leave. How can the army shoot at a town filled with people? How can the army prepare to conduct a clearance operation if there are still people in town?
“I would say that around ten thousand people have left already, out of a population of about 130,000. All of my friends have gone and I sent my two daughters away last week to stay with their grandmother in Kramatorsk.”
The exodus from Slovyansk has gathered pace since Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko vowed to wrest the region back from the hands of pro-Russian rebels.
“They should open up a corridor and allow people to leave. How can the army shoot at a town filled with people? How can the army prepare to conduct a clearance operation if there are still people in town? And even if they were allowed to leave, where would people go? It is expensive to move a whole family,” Elvira, the ticket seller, said.
Yan and Vika, a young couple who waited with their luggage to board a minibus out of Slovyansk, said they have had enough. They are headed to Krasnoarmiisk – a nearby town controlled by the Ukrainian army that has also seen fighting, but is now relatively peaceful.
“We’re leaving. We’re going to go stay with my relatives in a village near the town,” Vika said. “I don’t really know what to say about living in a Ukrainian army controlled town, but at least it’s peaceful there. They’re not just shooting randomly. We couldn’t stay any longer. We think an operation will start soon and it’s just too scary for us.” Yan said.
Others cannot leave so easily. “What would I do with my flat and my car?” said an ethnic Azerbaijani taxi driver living in town. “They would be looted straight away.”
Ahead of a possible army assault on the rebel town and the Donetsk People’s Republic in general, the people of Slovyansk are right now faced with many difficult questions and no easy answers.