SLAVYANSK, Ukraine (AFP) - Anna Gribnikova looks on as aid workers hand out loaves of bread nearby from the back of a truck to Slavyansk residents who she says had been held “hostage” by pro-Russian separatists for three months.
The retired teacher is relieved to see the back of the rebels who fled the small eastern industrial town that had become the centre of their separatist uprising after an onslaught by the Ukrainian army.
“Those so-called defenders, those terrorists, they are still dreaming of the Soviet Union,” Gribnikova lamented. “They do not seem to understand that this is the 21st century.”
“We were like hostages” of the separatists who wanted to break away from Kiev and its pro-Western leaders and join neighbouring Russia, she tells AFP.
Hundreds wait patiently under grey skies for their allotted two loaves of bread or other basic foodstuffs being doled out at the city hall where the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag again flies proudly.
On the square in front of the building, government soldiers take a “selfie” in front of an immense statue of Lenin.
Many residents in the Russian-speaking town – horrified by the pro-European path taken by Kiev which they saw as a direct threat to their culture and vital ties to Russia – had cheered when armed pro-Moscow militia seized the town.
“At first, in April, it was kind of romantic, no one could imagine that it would finish like this, that they (the army) would fire rockets at us,” said retiree Vladimir, who was in the food handout queue.
Like many, Vladimir firmly blames Kiev for the violence unleashed in the town which was brought to its knees by the weeks of fierce fighting.
“You see how great our government is? First they bomb us, then they feed us,” retorts a woman who went to fetch provisions with two of her friends as they pass the fire-ravaged security services building seized by Kalashnikov-wielding gunmen on April 12.
The asphalt is slippery with oil and damaged by the to-and-fro of armoured vehicles in front of the rebels’ first stronghold, still protected by walls of sandbags ripped open by gunfire.
Scores of hostages, including local and foreign journalists, were held by the rebels in the dungeon-like basement of the security services building, some for weeks on end.
Residents are still reeling from the sequence of events that began with heady aspirations to return to the fold of former Soviet master Russia – or at the very least gain some sort of autonomy from Kiev – and ended with the town being plunged into war.
Buildings in the town of 100,000 people – half of whom fled during fighting – are scarred from the barrage of shelling, windows are shattered and on one street a bicycle store has been razed to the ground.
“No one imagined it would end like this, no water, no electricity, no gas. Even during the war (WWII) it was better,” said Leva Staravoytova as she filled her bag with sugar, pasta and tinned goods.