KRAMATORSK, Ukraine: The smouldering wreckage of rebel checkpoints, locals in makeshift balaclavas brandishing sawn-off shotguns and besieged cities on edge. This is the journey toward eastern Ukraine’s separatist-held bastion of Slavyansk.
Outside the town of Kostyantynivka, some 50 kilometers north of the regional capital Donetsk, smoke spews from the charred and deserted remains of a rebel barricade where a day earlier militants in ski-masks clutched pistols as they searched passing vehicles.
Plastic cups of instant coffee lie strewn under a makeshift shelter – testament to the pro-Russians’ scrambled getaway when Ukrainian troops reportedly moved in to clear it overnight.
Now there is no sign of anyone.
In the town itself, people are bracing for a further army assault. Men in roughly cut balaclavas wave shotguns at passing cars to get them to stop and then direct them up a sidestreet to bypass makeshift barricades built of logs and tires.
“Last night, paratroopers came in and cleared out our checkpoints around town,” says one rebel, peering over a wall of sandbags surrounding the town’s seized town council building.
“Now we’re waiting.”
Farther along, a half-destroyed gasoline tanker – its back end blown off – is parked across the road with a pro-Russian flag flying from it. A few kilometers past it, another scorched checkpoint.
It is a quiet, sunny Sunday in the provincial town of Kramatorsk – around 10 kilometers from Slavyansk – but people are still reeling from a fierce firefight Saturday when the Ukrainian army attacked a nearby rebel post, killing at least one person.
People snap pictures on their phones of the burned out shells of two trolleybuses and four minivans that block a main street running through the town.
They were torched by separatists trying to block access to the city hall they still control.
“People are scared. Scared that their children could get hurt, scared that their relatives could get hurt,” says Artyom Gaspogryan, a pro-Russian supporter outside the occupied building.
“The people in the town of Kramatorsk are very scared. No one thought that there could be military operations in Kramatorsk.”
Despite claims from Ukraine’s security service that it had ousted the rebels, the town remains – for now – in the hands of the separatists.
A handful of young men in camouflage with sniper rifles and kalashnikovs lounge against the barricade around the local administration smoking cigarettes and chatting to passers-by.
“There are no soldiers here. It is just our young guys standing here and defending us,” Gaspogryan says.
Sitting in the shade nearby, Nadezhda Dolgushina – an engineer at the town’s mammoth machinery factory – breaks into tears.
“This was such a peaceful and orderly city. We used to have flowers and concerts on this square and now we have all this,” she says. “People are staying in their homes taking pills – old people, children.”
“We feel like they are not even treating us like people – that they just want to wipe us out,” she said of Kievs drive to wrest the town from separatist hands.
Between Kramatorsk and Slavyansk, the army has positioned six armored vehicles at a checkpoint, cutting the towns off from each other. The noose is tightening.