Donbas town that lived under violent separatist rule fears return of armed Russian ‘junkies’

Donbas town that lived under violent separatist rule fears return of armed Russian ‘junkies’

With the Russian army now just a few miles away, Marina Chuparenko’s* small grocery store is the only one still open in the Donbas town of Mykolaivka.

Most of its 20,000 population have already fled, so after serving a trickle of anxious customers each morning, she shuts around lunchtime.

Even now, though, business is better than it was when armed Russians last came knocking – back in 2014, when Mykolaivka briefly fell under control of pro-Kremlin separatists.

“Half of them looked like junkies, and they looted my shop,” Ms Chuparenko told The Telegraph. “I don’t want them back here running things again, as they will ruin everything.”

Set amid gentle hills and wheatfields, Mykolaivka lies just east of the city of Slovyansk – the next main target of Vladimir Putin’s forces after their seven-week battle to take Severodonetsk.

On a hot summer’s day, the surrounding countryside could be somewhere in Tuscany, save for the gold-domed Russian Orthodox churches that glint in the sunlight. 

Amid the sense of an oncoming storm, the churches – like Ms Larionov’s shop – still get a handful of visitors each morning.

At St Nicholas’s in Mykolaivka, Valentina Nichporuk, 70, crossed herself every few minutes and fought back tears. 

“I have relatives in both Ukraine and Russia, and nobody wants our cities destroyed by war,” she said. “Whoever started it will have to answer to God for their actions.”

Whether that was Mr Putin, she declined to say. Like many in this part of eastern Ukraine, which has a large proportion of Russian speakers, she was guarded about just where her loyalties lay.

Few in Mykolaivka, though, seem to have much nostalgia for the town’s stint under separatist rule back in April 2014.

Masked gunmen from the newly-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk entered both Mykolaivka and Slovyansk, occupying council buildings and the SBU security service HQ.

They controlled both cities for three chaotic months, but were eventually driven out by Ukrainian forces that July.

“They tied a woman to a tree for waving a Ukrainian flag, and when they left, they even planted a landmine in my shop,” said Ms Chuparenko. “If they come here again, I will have no business to run anymore.”

Over in nearby Slovyansk, the separatists left a far bloodier legacy, as evidenced by a memorial plaque on the squat red-brick building that houses the SBU.

It commemorates Volodymyr Rybak, a local politician abducted by masked separatist gunmen as he tried to re-hoist the Ukrainian flag in the nearby town of Horlivka. Mobile phone footage of the incident marked the last time he was seen alive.

His body was later found in a river near Slovyansk, his stomach ripped open.

Igor Strelkov, a Russian spy who served as the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, later admitted that separatist militias had killed Mr Rybak.

“In this building in April 2014, while in the custody of terrorists and by their hand, the hero of Ukraine, Volodymyr Rybak was tortured until death,” the plaque reads.

Walking past it on Friday, Slovyansk resident Serhiy Nikolevich said that even locals who had cheered the separatists back in 2014 had since changed their mind. 

“Nobody here is screaming now for Putin to help us like they were in 2014,” he said. “Instead, we’re all just waiting for something awful to happen.”

*Names in this report have been changed

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Last Update: Fri, 08 Jul 22 15:51:05