SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — For the first time in three months, Alla Grebenkova says she can go out on the streets of this city in eastern Ukraine without fear of being recognized as Ukrainian.
"I lived in hell. It was complete chaos and lawlessness," the 68-year-old teacher said of life in Slovyansk after it came under the control of pro-Russia separatists in April. "I was afraid to admit that I am Ukrainian. Finally, this absurdity has ended."
The rebels fled Slovyansk, a city of 100,000 that had been their stronghold, over the weekend as Ukrainian troops mounted an offensive. They left behind a city heavily damaged by fighting and riven by vehemently differing views.
The government soldiers may have won the battle for the physical city but not yet for its people's hearts and minds.
Many residents in Slovyansk feel Russian by all measures except their passports. The city, 150 kilometers (90 miles), from the border with Russia, had once been part of the Russian Empire and Russian is its dominant mother tongue. Resentment is high toward the Ukrainian authorities who came into power in Kiev after Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych fled in February after months of mass protests.
Like Grebenkova, Dmitry Novikov is relieved that the fighting in Slovyansk is over — yet for him, it's not liberation but failure and disappointment. The separatists and their sympathizers were eager for Russian military intervention and had begged Russian President Vladimir Putin to annex the region like he did the mostly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula in March.
"Russia sold us out," the 56-year-old Novikov said. "We lost because Putin decided not to help us. We feel ourselves deceived and tossed aside."
"We will never be reconciled with the fascists in Kiev," he added, using the common phrase pro-Russia residents here apply to the central government in Kiev.
Those easterners claim the Kiev government aims to suppress their use of the Russian language and wipe out their ethnic identity. In the early days of the new government, lawmakers did vote to repeal a law allowing Russian to be a "regional language." The move was quashed by the acting president but the damage was done: Russian-speakers lost faith in Kiev.
Grebenkova says the insurgents were just as much to blame for the ethnic animosity. Her sister, Olga, was held for more than a month by the separatists just for using the Ukrainian language, she said.
"This is our Ukrainian land and it will remain Ukrainian," she declared.
There are severe physical scars to heal in Slovyansk as well as psychological ones from the fierce battles that led to the city being recaptured. Although most of the city's buildings are still standing, many suffered damage.
"My house is no more. I live on the street," said 54-year-old Nataliya Manzello. "The Ukrainian authorities must be held accountable for all the damage. They razed the city to the ground."
Grebenkova said an artillery shell blasted away part of her apartment and she was forced to take shelter in a basement with friends.
On Monday, the city had no electricity, water or gas. Its hospital was operating on electricity supplied by portable generators, but chief surgeon Arkady Glushchenko said gasoline for those critical machines was in danger of running out soon.
Not a single store was open and the only source of food was the humanitarian aid being brought in by soldiers. It was a makeshift solution, but for many it was a step toward normal life.
"My daughter ate her fill for the first time in months and slept in her bed rather than the basement," said Olga Hitrik, 35.
She spoke as she held the hand of her 10-year-old daughter, who was clutching a five-liter bottle of water.
"For me this is happiness, " Hitrik said. "I want to forget everything like a nightmare. Now I know that my daughter will live in Ukraine."