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Poroshenko’s Promises of Safety and Peace Ring Hollow in Eastern Ukraine

Surrounded on all sides by the Ukrainian army, civilians trapped inside Sloviansk are subject to daily shelling from mortars and artillery.
Photo via AP

Today, Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, took the reins of power with a powerful speech promising to bring the crisis-ridden country “lasting peace” and a “guarantee [of] reliable safety."

"I do not want war, I am not seeking revenge, even though I can see before my eyes the great sacrifices made by the Ukrainian people. I am seeking peace and will achieve Ukraine's unity. This is why I am starting my work by proposing a peace plan," he said.


Officials from across Europe, Washington, and Moscow attending the ceremony in Kiev offered their applause to the new president.

But for the thousands of civilians still trapped inside Sloviansk, the epicenter of a two-month long anti-terror operation launched by the government in the country’s east, the words have already rung hollow.

At 9AM, just one hour before the inauguration celebrations began in the capital, thunderous crashes reverberated through Sloviansk city center.

Locals ducked under cover and hid inside buildings as heavy artillery fire reined down from the Ukrainian army’s shelling position on top of Karachun TV tower.

The sound of rocket propelled grenades from the unseen positions of the pro-Russia rebels bellowed back in reply.

Order from Chaos: Moscow’s men raise a rebel army in Ukraine’s east. Read more here.

Following this morning’s bombardment, black plumes of smoke were visible rising above the area near the central train station; located next to the city’s market and several residential blocks. Locals say the attack hit a food storage unit.

As the Ukrainian army has pushed the pro-Russia rebels that hold the city ever further back, fighting is now entering the city center and residential areas on a regular basis.

On Friday night, in the suburb Cherevkivka, at least four houses were destroyed following hours of heavy shelling in the area.

Today, as the president gave his speech in the capital, in Bilbasovka the only remaining Ukrainian military checkpoint open to civilians seeking to flee the Sloviansk, cars and buses queued in the boiling heat for more than a kilometer as National Guard in black uniforms without insignia brusquely searched trunks packed with everything from business documents to children’s strollers and family pets.


Above soldiers the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag billowed, as the booms echoed in the valley below.

Sloviansk, has become an increasingly difficult area for journalists operate in.

Both the pro-Russian forces and the Ukrainian military operating in the city have sought to limit press access in the area as part of a jostle to win what is seen as an informational war.

The result is an underreported humanitarian crisis.

Watch all of VICE News' dispatches, Russian Roulette: The Invasion of Ukraine here.

Surrounded on all sides by the Ukrainian army, civilians trapped inside the city are subject to heavy daily shelling from both mortars and heavy artillery. The assaults appear increasingly indiscriminate with shells now often landing in areas with a dense civilian population.

More than 15,000 people are now thought to have fled Sloviansk, which has a population of just less than 130,000 — many to nearby salt lake resort Sveta Gorsk.

But despite the efforts of non-governmental organizations, a lack of information and governmental support for those seeking to leave means many more remain inside the city — too poor, too afraid or simply unwilling to leave behind a whole lifetime.

For those who have stayed, daily life is a constant and growing struggle.

The Struggles in Eastern Ukraine
Water supplies have been cut off to almost all areas of the city — in some places for at least four days — after shelling damaged water pipelines. On Friday, the city was plunged into darkness after the Ukrainian army took out the electricity hub supplying the city in Nikolaevka.


Residents in Mashchermet walk to a local well for water, in the background helicopters buzz and gunfire crackles.

In Mashchermet, a suburb of Sloviansk, pensioner Nelli and her family friend Ivan show VICE News their daily route to get water from a well in the nearby allotments.

As they walk down the flower lined pathway, the crackling exchange of machinegun fire is audible less than half a kilometer away, more than close enough to be hit by a stray bullet. Above them the hum of helicopters choppers, which have been used in air attacks on the city, can be heard overhead.

Pensioner Nona, who has stayed in her city center apartment with her granddaughter, told VICE News that she and other residents in her apartment block are now resorting to taking their water from a local fountain.

Mashchermet and neighboring Cherevkivka, both hit last by heavy shelling night, are residential areas where locals estimate up to 70 percent of the civilian population remains.

Many women and children remain inside the city where heavy shelling is a daily occurrence.

"We have nowhere to go and no money to go anywhere with," says 25-year-old Irina as she bounces her 14-month-old baby, who smiles happily, now unperturbed by the sound of falling shells in the background.

Pensioner breaks down into tears. "There are still children here, how can this been happening?" she sobs.

On a nearby bench Ludmila, a pensioner just returned from hospital sobs silently comforted by neighbors, "there are still children here, how can this been happening?"

The enclave is sandwiched between two of the heaviest shelling zones in the city.

Andreevka to southwest and Semenovka to the northeast of the enclave were both identified early on as areas of rebel operations and a constant bombardment of shelling has left the areas as near ghost towns.


Food is also becoming scarce, as supplies are increasingly difficult to get inside the city. Only one local shop in Mashchermet remains open. Its shelves are nearing empty, but people are no longer waiting to buy what remains, instead they are increasingly dependent on what they can get from the land.

“We have nearly no money left,” said Nelli as she chops homegrown onions from the allotment in her kitchen. “Bread prices have risen by thirty percent, so we do what we can.”

Many have stopped receiving wages as nearly all factories, shops and offices in the city are now closed. Pensions, benefits and payment to state employees, such as teachers and doctors, have also stopped after Kiev ceased making payments last month amid claims the money was being used to fund terrorism.

Resident in Mashchermet shows the only dry basement accessible for the hundreds of citizens to shelter in when shelling starts.

Down the road from her apartment in Mashchermet, 27-year-old Ana showed VICE News the damage where a shell hit the pavement. She and her husband only narrowly missed being hit by it as they tried to make it to the shelter beneath a factory at the edge of the residential area.

As in many areas of the city, there are now few places to hide when an attack starts.

After the pipeline was hit by shelling, the Soviet era water infrastructure has burst in several places causing basements beneath apartment blocks previously used as bomb shelters to be flooded.

The water, which is stagnating in the heat, has attracted droves of flies. Residents keep the door firmly shut but the angry buzzing is still audible behind it.

“When the shelling is heavy, we just pray and hope,” said local resident Andrey with a sad smile. “What else can we do? Hope is the last to die.”

All photos by Harriet Salem

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote to Poroshenko. It has since been updated and corrected.