KRAMATORSK, UKRAINE — The Ukrainian government says its military forces have made gains in the east of the country over the last few days, but on the ground, armed pro-Russian separatists still appear to control large swaths of the road between Donetsk and Slovyansk. In Kramatorsk, a town near Slovyansk, civilians say they fear both sides in the conflict but are increasingly angered by the government's military operation.
Kramatorsk is a town the government in Kyiv says it now largely controls. Separatists say government forces rolled through here on Sunday on their way to lay siege to Slovyansk, shooting at their checkpoints and clearing some of them.
Government troops did not stay to consolidate their gains, though, and on the ground it’s clear that pro-Russian separatists are firmly back in control of most of this area.
On the 112-kilometer highway between Donetsk and Slovyansk, this reporter saw only two government checkpoints. The rest of the road was dominated by the rebels, many of them heavily armed.
In Kramatorsk's town center, barricades were still up, defended by men with clubs and iron bars who said they are simple, local people trying to defend their land.
"The Ukrainian army has come to Kramatorsk," said Sergey, a pro-Russian separatist. "They want to clear the town, nobody is fighting them, nobody is shooting at them. People are just standing here demanding a referendum, and they want to shoot."
Several people who were too frightened to be filmed, however, quietly accused these men of being local petty criminals, paid by Russia and associates of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Between the opposing sides, civilians walked the quiet streets past burnt-out cars and trams, and lined up to get cash, which is now in short supply.
Pensioner Lyudmila Sytnik said she despises the new government in Kyiv, but also fears the separatists.
“I have to go through so many checkpoints and we are afraid that our car will be taken away by those guys with guns," she said. "They don't just stand there, they also shoot people. They don't have any brain, they don't care who they shoot.”
Down the road on the outskirts of Slovyansk, Ukrainian troops were checking cars for weapons and supplies. But there are widespread reports the town is not actually blockaded, and that rebels who know the country roads can freely come and go.
Kyiv's decision to send troops to this region appears to have undermined its support among many in the local populace. Several civilians, including a 21-year-old nurse, have been killed in the crossfire in recent days.
"All of this bad stuff started when the new Ukrainian government came here; when Yanukovych was in charge people lived calmly. The Maidan uprising started all this,” said Alla, a Kramatorsk resident.
At this checkpoint in Konstantinovka, separatists, who refused to be filmed, stood armed with Kalashnikovs, sniper rifles and machine guns. At one point, a van full of local police drove past, paying no attention to them at all.
Despite the government's efforts, the region seems to be slipping further and further from its grasp.