Just one day after taking power, Ukraine’s new president Petro Poroshenko opened peace negotiations in an apparent bid to quell fighting in the country’s east. But today, as the Ukrainian army renewed its efforts to take back rebel-held Sloviansk, the violence showed no signs of dying down, and residents in the east endure further hardship.
On Sunday, at a three-way meeting of Ukrainian, Russian, and European representatives in Kiev, Poroshenko called for a halt to the hostilities. “We must ensure a ceasefire this week,” he told the group. “The situation where people die each day and Ukraine is paying such a high price is unacceptable,” he added.
At his inauguration speech Saturday, the billionaire president, nicknamed the “Chocolate King” because of his investments in the confectionary industry, laid down a framework for a potential peace settlement with the two breakaway republics in the east.
Among the concessions offered was an amnesty for rebels who laid down their arms, and a “controlled corridor” which would allow Russian fighters who have joined the rebel movement to return home. Poroshenko also pledged to improve Russian language rights and decentralize government to allow the eastern regions more control over local affairs.
Water and electricity have now been cut off and all phone networks are down. Difficulties getting supplies into the area and a lack of money are leaving many short of food.
But the president’s unwillingness to sit down at the negotiating table with leaders of the pro-Russian forces may prove a sticking point in turning the talk of peace into a practical reality.
Kiev and its Western allies have accused Moscow of augmenting the unrest in the country’s east and allowing a free flow of men and weapons to pass across Ukraine’s porous border. However, it is unclear how much direct influence the Kremlin has over the swirling mix of paramilitary rebel groups now fighting in the region.
In Sloviansk, the heartland of the pro-Russian rebels operating in the region, Valery, a militia commander, told VICE News: “All these people in the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] fight for some political power, it’s just games. But we who stand here, we are fighting for an idea and we will stand until the end”.
Today, despite the high-level talks, violence on the ground continued as the Ukrainian army reined down shells on Sloviansk, and their two-month-long anti-terror operation aimed at ousting pro-Russian rebels from the country’s east continued.
The Ukrainian military continued operations in the separatist-held eastern city of Sloviansk on June 8, reportedly shelling locations in the city. At least four people were killed, according to a report by Russia Today. Videos via YouTube/Andrei Petrov.
Mortar and heavy artillery fire have encroached into civilian areas and multiple residential buildings have been hit inside the city as the Ukrainian forces have widened their area of shelling.
'There are very few people in these two places now. It’s mainly fighters.'
Water and electricity have now been cut off and all phone networks are down. Last month, Kiev stopped social warfare payments and state-sector wages to Sloviansk and nearby Kramatorsk. Difficulties getting supplies into the area and a lack of money are leaving many short of food.
The fighting in Sloviansk has interrupted water and electricity supplies. This video is said to show residents in line for drinking water on Saturday. Video via YouTube/Andrei Petrov.
“I am so scared for my family and friends that are still there [in Sloviansk], we have no way of talking or knowing if they are safe,” 27-year-old Victoria told VICE News. Victoria and her family have left the city, but her parents-in-law have remained behind to look after the family house and an elderly relative.
Nearly a month of heavy shelling has turned the Sloviansk suburbs of Andreevka and Semenovka into ghost towns. “There are very few people in these two places now. It’s mainly fighters,” one of the city’s residents told VICE News. “You would have to be crazy to stay.”
Locals in Yasnogorka, a small village on the outskirts of rebel-held Kramatorsk that is sandwiched next to a Ukrainian military checkpoint, told VICE News how they are forced to hide in the basement when shells whistle over their houses. “Ask any child here who is shooting and they will tell you that the Ukrainian fascists are trying to kill us” said Svetlana, also 27.
On June 5, the town of Krasnyi Lyman, a 16-mile drive from Sloviansk, was cleaned of rebels and brought back under Ukrainian army control. The shelling hit a local hospital and several houses. Around half a dozen shot up and burnt out cars were abandoned in the streets as Ukrainian soldiers rolled in on APCs to reclaim the territory.
At least 15,000 people are now thought to have fled Sloviansk — which had a population of nearly 130,000 — and the surrounding towns and villages due to the fighting.
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem