A gray area of ​​loyalties splinters a liberated Ukrainian city

SVIATOHIRSK, Ukraine — When Myroslava, a 36-year-old construction manager, returned to her hometown of Sviatohirsk in eastern Ukraine last month, she expected to find her home destroyed by shelling.

In fact, his house was badly damaged, but he discovered something more disturbing: his neighbors, who had stayed behind during the Russian occupation, had stolen furniture, insulation and tiles from his house and from a property he supervised in the city.

They were people she had grown up with, she lamented. Worse yet, looted tiles were visible on the neighbor’s roof.

“Friends aren’t friends anymore,” she said on a cold November day, her brown hair tied up in a hat and her petite frame wrapped in a winter coat. “Neighbors are not neighbors. Relatives, a part of them are no longer relatives, because no one expected us to return.

Similar anxiety has been brewing among residents of the still mostly empty town since Ukrainian forces liberated it in September. The arrival of the Russians over the summer imposed something of a litmus test for Sviatohirsk and other close-knit communities in eastern Ukraine, where the Russian church and Russian television had been promoting loyalty to Moscow for years.

As civilians who fled Sviatohirsk reunite with neighbors who stayed behind, residents say they now look at each other with suspicion. And as the cold winter sets in, the city remains divided, not by trench lines and artillery, but by people’s loyalties: with Moscow or Kyiv.

Suspicions are so high that residents do not even agree which side, Russia or Ukraine, is responsible for the bombing that hit several neighborhoods in the city, damaging houses and killing several dozen people.

“No one is letting him know, who he represents and all that,” said one resident, an older man who declined to provide his name. He was sitting next to a hot steel stove in a makeshift cafeteria called the Bouchée that serves as de facto neutral territory: a place where both pro-Ukrainians and pro-Russians can get a bite to eat undisturbed, as long as they keep to themselves.

The city’s newly installed local government acknowledges the problem and hopes that residents with pro-Russian sentiments will finally embrace Kyiv, especially as conditions improve after living without electricity and basic services during the occupation.

“The cell phone connection is working, the bread factory is working, the Ukrainian post office is working,” said Volodymyr Rybalkin, head of the local military administration, which acts as a kind of acting mayor. “I think that even the people who knowingly remained under the occupation, hoping for the so-called ‘Russian peace’, sooner or later will understand how wrong they were.”

But that conversion will not be easy.

Even before the war, the presence of the Monastery of the Caves, loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church and considered one of the church’s five holiest sites, gave the city a pro-Russian reputation. That perception was compounded by Sviatohirsk’s location in the Donbas, a predominantly Russian-speaking region where Moscow for decades promoted the politics of Soviet nostalgia.

Propaganda, especially on television, has helped the Kremlin influence some Russian-speaking civilians in the east, even as it falsely portrays the region as an essential part of Russia and cites the alleged oppression of Russian-speakers there as a justification for encroach.

It is not yet clear how Sviatohirsk will emerge from its troubled interlude of occupation. About 650 people remain from a pre-war population of about 4,000, according to local officials. Approximately 120 residents have returned since the Russian withdrawal.

Returnees like Myroslava believe that more people with pro-Ukrainian sensibilities will return when the weather is warmer in the spring, diluting local sentiment toward Russia.

“They are already slowly starting to return, because many of them cannot pay rent in other cities and they return even if their house is destroyed,” said Myroslava, who returned home in October. She declined to provide her last name for security reasons.

The monastery, where nuns and the monks remained loyal to the Russian churchit exerts a significant influence on the city, adding an additional layer of complexity.

“Yes, people are returning to Sviatohirsk, but quality people will not be left here; the holy fathers say so,” said an older man, deploring the return of the pro-Ukrainians and suggesting they did not share the pro-Russian views of the church.

The man, standing in the town cemetery, declined to give his name. He was helping to rebury a boy killed in the bombing, whose body had recently been exhumed so that local police could examine it.

In recent weeks, Kyiv’s intelligence services have launched at least one operation and a series of arrests aimed at rooting out spies in the church, drawing condemnation from Moscow. and President Volodymyr Zelensky recently proposed to ban the branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that he is loyal to Moscow, saying the move was necessary to ensure that Russia cannot “weaken Ukraine from within.”

“Western Ukraine is thinking in its own way and Donbas is thinking in a different way,” said one of the monks at the monastery, who also declined to give his name. He likened those in the west to “occupiers.”

The old man sitting in the café Bouchée had done the same, comparing the Ukrainian liberation of the city to another “occupation”.

Local officials are still trying to determine if any residents actively collaborated with the Russians. Ruslan Tsymbal, a senior Sviatohirsk district police officer, declined to discuss the issue of Russian collaborators, but confirmed that investigations were ongoing. In the case of the looted belongings from Myroslava, the police and the army were able to recover some of their stolen furniture.

Another issue exacerbating tensions is the feeling among some residents that other members of the community may have turned against them. Ihor Ponomarenko, who owned an adventure park and served in the city’s territorial defense, said his name and personal information about him were posted in pro-Russian chats on Telegram, a messaging service, towards the end of March.

The same happened with others linked to the defense of the territory, he said, as well as with local volunteers and the town’s military administration.

“They created websites, claiming that we are fascists and so on,” said Ponomarenko, 51.

He returned to Sviatohirsk in October. Her park and cafeteria, where she hosted children’s birthday parties, were destroyed. The decorations she had put up for Valentine’s Day lay scattered in ruins.

Other local business owners who were pro-Ukrainian also lost their livelihoods when the Russians arrived, he said. Some businesses, like his, were destroyed by shelling, others looted by their pro-Russian neighbors, he said, though he did not cite any evidence.

Residents who survived much of the occupation from their dugouts are still surveying parts of their destroyed city, and there are widely differing views among some as to which army is to blame for the carnage.

More than 40 people died during the occupation, according to local officials, many from shelling.

“At first, there were a lot of people trying to prove that ‘it’s Ukraine that ruined our building,’” said Mr. Rybalkin, the military administrator. “Though they didn’t understand that the enemy was held at bay here, when the Ukrainians prevented the Russians from fording the river.”

But the neighbors were still arguing over how the battle for Sviatohirsk unfolded, which lasted from June, when the Russians occupied the city, until they withdrew in September.

The fighting took place in phases on both sides of the Siversky Donets river, which divides the city. A bridge connecting the two sides, where lovers once attached padlocks to its railings, was destroyed when Kyiv forces withdrew in the summer.

Russian forces on the north side of the river fired on the southern hills, occasionally hitting the monastery grounds. Ukrainian forces entrenched on the high bank fired across the river towards the town.

The monk at the monastery accused the Ukrainians of shelling the holy site, killing several people, although it was clear, at least from the damage visible from the outside, that the shells had come from the Russian side of the river.

Myroslava ignored claims by residents that they blame Ukrainians for the destruction of the city. “They like to say that ‘Ukraine was shooting from the mountain,’ but they wouldn’t have fired if seven Russian tanks weren’t parked next to my yard,” she said.

The rusting hulls of some of those tanks still stand in his neighborhood, blasted open by Ukrainian shells as are the houses around them, their roof panels rattling in the cold wind.

He repeated: “They would not have fired.”

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