In Ukraine, the city recalls the last Russian occupation as a “sea of ​​bodies”

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine – The last time Russian-led forces were in charge in Sloviansk, in 2014, they abducted four men from a Protestant church, tortured and killed them, then dumped their charred bodies in a mass grave with ten others.

The city thought the nightmare of this and other atrocities was over when the kyiv army ejected the Russian-led fighters nearly three months later. But now, with the advance of Russian invaders on major Ukrainian cities, the events of eight years ago are a warning to the whole country of the darker lessons of life under Russian occupation.

It was in Sloviansk, in eastern Ukraine, that a few dozen men seized the police station in April 2014 and declared themselves in charge, triggering a chain of takeovers of cities in the eastern Ukraine by people calling themselves rebels. The events of that year, including detentions, disappearances and summary murders, represent the threat of the Russian occupation which caused soldiers and thousands of civilians to take up arms to fight.

Oleksiy Yukov, 36, who helped dig mass graves left by the militants, including the one in which the four men were found, said Ukraine’s first conflict with Moscow proxies was a lesson on the cruelty of the Kremlin’s methods. .

“They destroyed all of humanity in this war,” he said. “That time was horrible, pure destruction and just a sea of ​​corpses.”

Oleksiy Yukov, who helped dig mass graves left by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine, said: “People are already looking at each other to see which side they are on.”


Photo:

Manu Brabo for the Wall Street Journal

Russia has been accused of serious human rights abuses around the world where it has deployed its troops and proxies. Moscow has been accused of bombing civilians in Syria, and many Chechen families have still not heard of family members who disappeared under Russian arrest during the two wars in the North Caucasus. Moscow’s proxy paramilitary force, Wagner, has also been accused of abuses in Syria and the Central African Republic.

The US mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said on Thursday it had information indicating that Russian forces were creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps after a military occupation. .

“Given what we have seen in past Russian operations, we expect the Russian Federation to try to coerce the population into cooperation through intimidation, abuse and repression, including targeted killings, kidnappings, detentions and physical abuse,” the mission said. .

In 2014, Sloviansk fell under the sway of pro-Russian forces and a former Russian security service officer called Igor Girkin, who led the motley army of Russian nationalists and others from Ukraine and Russia. Their actions led to nearly half the city fleeing, and Mr. Girkin used Stalin-era laws and punishments to enforce loyalty among those who remained, detaining hundreds.

Ruins of the hospital in Sloviansk, which was seized by pro-Russian militants in 2014.


Photo:

Manu Brabo for the Wall Street Journal

One of the first atrocities committed by the separatists was the torture and murder of pro-Ukrainian activist Volodymyr Rybak, who publicly tried to bring down the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. His body was later found on a riverbed, naked, with his stomach severed.

Ukraine’s security services later leaked an audio tape of Mr Girkin and the activist-appointed mayor, a former soap merchant named Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, in which they discussed Mr Rybak’s murder and how to handle the aftermath .

Mr. Girkin did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Ponomaryov could not be reached for comment.

On Sunday, June 8, 2014, armed men waited outside the Protestant Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord on the southern border of the city. As the congregation walked out of the church, the men arrested two deacons and two of the pastor’s sons, Albert and Ruvim Pavenko. As the four men were loaded onto a truck, the remaining members of the church held hands and prayed for the four, said a family friend who was at the church during the abduction and said investigated events for the family.

The four men were tortured that day and into the night by separatists in one of the secret prisons the group had set up in the city, the man said based on his conversations with Ukrainian police, eyewitnesses to the events and people linked to the separatists. In the early morning of the next day, they were driven out of the prison, put in a car and told they were free to go.

As they drove away, the Russian-backed militants fired into the car, which burst into flames, killing one of them instantly and sending the other three out of the burning automobile.

Men carry the coffin of pro-Ukrainian activist Volodymyr Rybak, who attempted to pull down the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, in Donetsk region, Ukraine, in 2014.


Photo:

ANATOLIY STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images

The graves of four Ukrainian church members killed in Sloviansk.


Photo:

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

As they tried to crawl away from the burning automobile, the militants shot them one by one.

“They were shot in the head,” said one of the men who was at the church the day they were taken and who had been investigating the killings after the separatists were chased out of town by Ukrainian forces the following month. “Ruvim was shot several times in the face, there was nothing left.”

“Why they had to be so cruel, I’ll never know,” said the man, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals if Moscow-backed troops returned. “I’ll probably be shot if they come back.”

Within days, the men’s burnt remains were thrown into a shallow grave in an abandoned cemetery near the church where they were removed and found only a month later. Their bodies still showed signs of torture, the man said.

He added that he had to remove pieces of their bodies to carry out DNA tests to make sure it was really them. To this day, one of the deacon’s mothers still refuses to believe that her son died at the hands of the separatists.

“When you’re faced with such inhumanity, sometimes you choose not to believe it.”

In the days leading up to Russia’s invasion last week, the Kremlin moved to recognize its small proxy states on eastern Ukrainian territory and sent more Russian troops to the regions, stepping up the fighting on the front line about 80 km from Sloviansk.

The city has not seen the violence that has been inflicted on Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, but the looming threat of a takeover by militant forces has brought back bitter memories for those who suffered under their rule. At the time, the separatists used the pro-Russian sentiment of much of the population to divide the city.

Teenagers in Sloviansk recorded a dance in February to post on social media in support of Ukrainian troops.


Photo:

Manu Brabo for the Wall Street Journal

Mr. Yukov said he sees these divisions returning.

“People are already looking at each other to see which side they are on,” said Mr Yukov, who was briefly detained in 2014, sentenced to death by Mr Girkin and only let go after an activist s is pronounced in his favour.

After the city was taken over by Ukrainian forces in July 2014, Kyiv tried to make it a symbol of national unity. Money from kyiv poured in, as did aid from Europe and Asia, to rebuild the city’s infrastructure, destroyed by months of bombardment.

Today, banners float above the city’s roads reading “Sloviansk is Ukraine”, in the Ukrainian language, although most still speak primarily Russian here.

Sloviansk Mayor Vadym Lyakh, who in 2014 was a member of the ruling Party of Regions, a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party, said some people still had sympathies for Russia in the city. He himself has been photographed near separatist leaders at public events, but said separatist rule was not bringing any good.

Those who cooperated with them, he said, were forced to do so out of necessity.

“We were all hostages to the situation and everyone did what they could to survive the situation,” he said.

On Friday, during a Russian bombardment, a fire broke out at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and raised concerns of a possible environmental disaster. Ukraine’s president called for a direct meeting with Vladimir Putin, who said the operation was going according to plan. Photo: Energoatom/Reuters

Write to Thomas Grove at thomas.grove@wsj.com

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Michael A. Bynum