Camouflage and candles: Easter comes to Ukraine's rebel east
Resurrection and rebellion -- in Ukraine's separatist east this weekend, those two themes collided as pro-Kremlin militants briefly subjugated their political passions to religious ones in a celebration of Easter.
The sight of a pro-Russian rebel, attired in combat camouflage, stepping out of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit in the flashpoint town of Slavyansk late Saturday captured the incongruity in symbolic fashion.
What would Jesus say?
If that was a question on any of the congregation's minds, it was not going find an answer from the priest's lips.
Father Roman, leading the prayers, avoided any mention at all of the bellicose turmoil that has gripped Slavyansk over the past week, dividing its population of 130,000.
Instead, his only possible phrase that could have bearing on it was a declaration as oblique and non-partisan as it was incontrovertible: "The worst of all situations is to live in sin."
A cross held in his hand, the priest concentrated more on freely sprinkling holy water on the dozens of faithful who had lined up: women wearing modest scarves and carrying baskets of cakes and eggs, retirees, handicapped people.
On the far side of the vast square on which the brightly-lit church stood, pro-Kremlin militants in uniforms stripped of insignia, some carrying Kalashnikov rifles, chatted in front of the sandbagged barricade set up at the entrance to the town hall.
On top of the municipal building fluttered their own symbol: a Russian flag, rivalling in its own way the religious cross on the building opposite.
At street level, two teenagers photographed themselves before the scene.
- 'We should just shell them' -
Under the Easter lull, though, tensions remained palpable.
"We have entered into a more radical phase," warned Anatoly Khmelevoiy, the local Communist Party leader.
"We are demanding that a federation be created, otherwise it will finish up like Crimea," which was annexed last month by Russia, he said.
Vladimir, a 43-year-old man near a barricade preventing anybody approaching the occupied police station, said: "For the moment, it's all quiet. But they (Ukrainian soldiers) could attack us. We won't let down our guard."
Just then, four cars bristling with Russian pennants drove by in a nearby street, honking loudly. The militants at an improvised roadblock greet them enthusiastically.
But while the pro-Russian separatists are loud and very visible, they are not representative of the entire region.
Others express their attachment to a single, united Ukraine that is not dominated by its old Soviet master.
"The Ukrainian army will come to liberate us," said Dima, a 29-year-old software worker born in a town 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of the main regional hub of Donetsk.
When would the army come? "The earlier the better," replied his girlfriend. "We're afraid."
Volodya, a factory worker who, like many residents, refuses to give his last name, is more strident.
"We should just shell them, that's all!" he exclaims, pointing to a group of masked "self-defence" militants.
"We're a plaything of the Russians right now. But Ukraine is one and is indivisible," he said.
At that, Volodya piped down, saying he did not want to say more because of fear of "reprisals".
A woman in her 60s selling home-made bottles of oil, Tamara, tried to stay away from the political agitation going on around her.
"Of course I'm worried about all that. It hurts me that people are dying. All I want is for us to be able to live together."
She added that she did not understand what the deal reached in Geneva between Ukraine, Russia and the West -- which called for "illegal armed groups" like those in Slavyansk to disarm -- meant.
For her, the impact of the crisis on her daily life was the priority.
"Everything is becoming more and more expensive, everything is getting worse and worse," she complained.
But, turning back to the Easter festivities, a half smile crept back on to her face.
"Easter. It's Easter, and we're all taking part," she said.
© 2014 AFP