While the United States and Russia trade tough words and launch war games as Ukraine simmers, one of the cities at the center of the crisis was beset by an eerie calm Friday.
NBC News correspondent Jim Maceda, producer Ghazi Balkiz, and cameraman Steve O'Neil drove into Slaviansk and were met by a city of juxtaposition, with armed pro-Russian separatists stationed just across the street from a scene of daily routine.
"The city was very calm," said Balkiz via telephone after leaving the city. "On one side of the street there were military vehicles, men in camouflage, and on the other side there were kids playing on swings and slides in a park alongside mothers pushing their strollers.
Sergei Grits / AP
A woman with children passes by barricades in front of city hall set up by pro-Russian activists in the central square in Slaviansk, eastern Ukraine, on April 23.
"I saw one woman taking a photo with someone who could have been her boyfriend or husband next to a tree with blossoming flowers. If you weren't looking in the right direction you wouldn't know anything unusual was happening."
"He just pointed to the bat, swung it, and then pointed to someone's head. He smiled as if to say he used it to crush skulls."
Slaviansk is one of nine towns and cities across the Donetsk region seized by pro-Russian separatists opposed to the Western-backed Kiev regime. They have demanded a referendum to join Russia, echoing the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that took a similar path and annexed by Moscow in March.
With a toothless Geneva peace deal failing to dislodge the armed groups, Ukraine this week launched what it called an "anti-terrorism" operation to re-take control of the region. On Thursday the government said five separatists were killed when its armed forces rolled into the Slaviansk area, although the troops appear to have since withdrawn to a position further outside the city.
Maceda, Balkiz, and O'Neil drove to Slaviansk from the city of Donetsk on Friday. They had just conducted a telephone interview when they were approached by a man in civilian clothing. He distracted them while three others approached from behind and demanded to see their papers.
Armed with a baseball bat, a police baton and wearing flak jackets, the separatists escorted them to the mayor's office, an occupied building two minutes away guarded by 30 men and secured with sandbags.
"I asked one of the men who had a baseball bat, 'Do you play baseball?' Balkiz said. "The man replied, 'Yes, at night.' But when I asked where his ball was he just pointed to the bat, swung it, and then pointed to someone's head. He smiled as if to say he used it to crush skulls."
GENYA SAVILOV / AFP - Getty Images
A woman talks to a man in military fatigues guarding a barricade outside the regional administration building in Slaviansk on April 21.
The militiamen at the mayor's office were more organized. All the separatists were dressed in camouflage with their faces covered and armed with pistols and knives.
One man who appeared to be higher in rank said there was something wrong with the NBC crew's papers and told them they would be taken to the security service building.
"If you have nothing to hide, if your documents are OK, then you have nothing to be scared of"
Balkiz said this structure was more heavily fortified with sandbags and barricades, "guarded by armed men dressed in military and civilian clothes." He added: "As we walked to the actual building on the side street, I saw many more men with guns and Molotov cocktails."
They were held for 25 minutes before being told their documents were deemed acceptable. Others were not so lucky: The crew saw a man blindfolded with electric tape over his eyes and hands tied behind his back.
"A pro-Russian militia member told us they suspected he was a far-right Ukraine activist and that was why he was detained. He said there were more of them inside the building," Balkiz said.
This fate befell American journalist Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter for Vice News who was captured by separatists in Slaviansk on Monday. He was taken from his car and beaten at a checkpoint and only released on Thursday.
But there were more contradictions to be found in the behavior of the militants. While inspecting the crew's papers, the men were "very polite, very friendly." Balkiz said.
"I put this to them [that they were remarkably polite] and one of them replied, 'If you have nothing to hide, if your documents are OK, then you have nothing to be scared of.'"
Despite the pleasantries, they were advised to leave the city in what they perceived to be a veiled threat.
The exact number of separatists was hard to judge because Balkiz only saw those stationed along one route from the outskirts of the city to the center before they team was forced to leave.
As well as the 30 separatists near the security services building, he saw five more outside the mayor's office and more inside. He also saw five checkpoints, each manned by several men.
Whatever the total number of separatists camped in the city, comments by their self-appointed mayor Wednesday that they are prepared to "make Stalingrad out of this town" suggest they intend to be there for the long haul.
First published April 25 2014, 8:27 AM