by Askold Krushelnycky AEJ Special Correspondent, Severodonetsk, Luhansk Oblast
When war engulfed Lysychansk, a sprawling, industrial town in Ukraine’s Luhansk province, in April 2014, pro-Moscow forces swooped in and imposed a terrifying occupation until Ukrainian troops drove them out that summer.
Svitlana Borovkova, head teacher of the town’s large Galanta Junior School said every window in the building was shot out during the week-long fierce fighting before the pro-Russians, who included Chechen mercenaries, withdrew. “As they left they stole everything they could: they took cars, looted all the shops, robbed people of money and valuables.”
Now, with intense fighting breaking out some 20 miles away from here, where Ukrainian and the pro-Kremlin troops face each other in trench networks, it looks like Moscow’s troops will try to return to Lysychansk.
Borovkova said: “The people of Lysychansk will resist. After the occupation many of our people, including teachers at my school, volunteered to got to the front. Our army was in disarray and our troops were abominably equipped. Many of us worked to keep them supplied with food, clothing, equipment – everything. Together we learned how to fight our enemy. “
As some of her 672 pupils rushed out on lunch break there was a joyful cacophony of laughter, screams and shouting and Borovkova’s expression saddened. “We will try to protect our children as best we can, perhaps evacuate them if fighting approaches. But there are no guarantees. We’ve seen how Russian planes have bombed schools and hospitals in Syria,” she said.
“Many of us think that Putin is insane,” she said, “He worries us but we don’t fear him. If the Russians come here, they will die here.”
Standing in front of the bicycle shop he and a business partner founded in 2013, Ihor, who did not give his surname, said: “Nobody knows what’s in Putin’s head but he doesn’t know how Ukraine has changed since 2014. Then people in this area were saturated with Russian propaganda in the newspapers, TV and internet. Now they know more about the truth and they’ve seen how miserable life is in the Russian-occupied areas.”
Ihor, 33, said that he will take his wife and their two children, aged eight and 13, to stay with friends in western Ukraine, which he believes is less vulnerable to attack. “Then, I am returning here and I will get a Kalashnikov and I will defend this city and my country,” he said.
Teacher Kateryna Yeliseyeva said: “In 2014 I didn’t even think of myself particularly as a Ukrainian or of the Russians as an enemy. Many of us bought into the Kremlin’s propaganda that we were brotherly nations,” she said.
Yeliseyeva said: “But after they invaded, it made people think about who they really were. I realised that Ukraine is my country and that I’m Ukrainian. This time I, and many others who fled in 2014, aren’t leaving. I have faith in our army and I have taken a combat first aid course. I will do everything I can to stop the Russians coming here. I’m learning to use firearms and if necessary I’ll stand with the many others I know who will take up arms.”
In Soviet times Lysychansk and the nearby town of Severodonetsk were industrial powerhouses with dozens of coal mines, an oil refinery, a glassworks, and chemical plants. Now almost
everything is shut or knocked down and the drab, dilapidated high rises fringing the broad Victory Avenue compound the worn-out feel of the town.
Many older people feel nostalgia for the USSR and although not welcoming a Russian invasion are not infuriated by the prospect of aggression as most younger people seem to be.
Valery Tokarek, 72, was visiting the town’s World War Two monument, a T-34 tank on large concrete base. February 23 used to be Soviet Armed Forces Day, dropped by independent Ukraine. Tokarek, a former Soviet soldier himself, lamented that there were only a few children playing on the tanks and not the huge parade of past times.
“Take a look around – everything is going to ruins and nothing has been built in this town since Ukrainian independence. Things were stable in Soviet times,” he said wistfully.
A man in his twenties who was passing by heard Tokarek’s comments and told him: “Yes, that was the stability of the grave.” The man who said his name was Artem said: “I was born after Ukrainian independence and I’m Ukrainian, not some kind of Russia’s little brother. Why the hell should Putin think I want to help him rebuild the Soviet Union or a Russian empire? There are a lot of problems in this country but, if they come, I’m going to fight.”
This article also appeared in this morning’s London Times.