SLOVIANSK — Pavel is picking up shards of glass in front of his house in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. The windows are broken. There are bullet holes in the heavy metal door. He and his wife Natalia no longer dare spend the night here. Most of their eight children, 10 grandchildren and other relatives who lived in neighboring houses in this Roma community are gone.

Last Friday after dark, a dozen men came to their houses. Some of them were wearing camouflage uniforms, others civilian clothing and masks, recalls Pavel, who fears giving us his last name.

The men were armed, and fired their guns in the air, at the windows and door, and broke open the shutters. They shouted: "Give us your money, all the gold and drugs!" Pavel says. To leave no doubt they meant business, they shot the family dog.

Chaos reigns inside Natalia and Pavel’s home. In the bedroom, dresser drawers are upturned on the bed. The masked men had searched all the closets, looking for money. In the living room bed linens and crockery are strewn all over the place — these are the things Natalia sells at her market stand. The armed men took several boxes of the merchandise with them. Six other houses were also shot up and plundered, Pavel says.

"We’re frightened," says a daughter. "They threatened us, called us apes and brutes." 

(On Thursday, news agencies reported shooting at roadblocks in Sloviansk, which has become a flashpoint in the showdown between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces.)

Over the weekend, most of the Roma from the neighboring houses went to stay with relatives in the area. But 29-year-old Roman Tcherepovski stayed here with his blind mother. Then on Tuesday evening there was another attack. Once again, there were men in camouflage uniforms. They broke open the door, fired their guns at the windows, and demanded money. Tcherepovski hid, but watched as they tried to shoot open the door of a neighboring house. By the fence lies a shell from a Makarov pistol.

For years, the Ukrainian police have been armed with Makarov pistols. But now it doesn’t make any sense to call the Sloviansk police. The city’s police station and the headquarters of the secret service are being occupied by supporters of the "Autonomous Republic of Donetsk" movement. They’re demanding a split from Ukraine and have taken over the city.  

Mixed bag

Many of these men wear camouflage uniforms and carry machine guns and Makarov pistols that they took from the stocks of Ukrainian security forces. Some of the masked men in Sloviansk seem very professional, while others look as if they haven’t got a clue how to work the weapons they’re carrying. That frightens city residents even more.

The separatists claim they are fighting against the "fascists in Kiev." What they mean by that is mostly the nationalist Svoboda party and the Right Sector movement, but sometimes it includes the whole new government. What they don’t mention is that there are plenty of xenophobic people in their own ranks. Ruslan Mikeda, a man with a full beard guarding the occupied secret service headquarters, thinks it’s okay that Roma houses in Sloviansk are attacked.

"Residents come to us and complain about the gypsies," he says. "The gypsies are criminals and they deal in drugs." The police were routinely paid off by them, he adds. But now the militia has taken over the role of the police. "And our guys are serious — we want to clear the city of gypsies."

Mikeda, a former construction worker, says he isn’t sure what made him join the separatists. During the winter, he spent a couple of days on Maidan Square and signed up with the Right Sector for the day. "I hoped they’d give me weapons, but that didn’t work out," he says. "I wanted to go to war." Then he decided that Maidan power was in the hands of "the Jews," and looked for other simpler ways of getting his hands on some weapons. He shows his Facebook page, which is filled with calls for war and anarchy, and laced with anti-Semitism.