The Savur-Mogyla memorial in east Ukraine commemorating thousands of Russian and German soldiers who perished in World War II stood for decades as testament to the strategic hill’s bloodstained history.
Seventy years later, fighting between pro-Moscow rebels and Kiev’s army has made the site in the hotspot Donetsk region 9km from the Russian border into a potent symbol once again.
The 300m high hill has changed hands between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army several times as each has clawed back territory from the other, before being taken by the rebels late last month.
“History repeats itself,” said Oleksandr, a 32-year-old Ukrainian separatist who came to pay respects at the site with friends, some in camouflage and some in civilian clothing, though many still carrying their AK-47s.
Now the imposing 30m obelisk at the top of the hill, along with the cast iron Soviet soldier raising his rifle triumphantly over his head, has been reduced to a stump.
Faces of the metal Soviet soldiers on pillars around it are now missing eyes, and show damage on their chests and arms, while nearby fields are still littered with debris and trees torn down by the vicious fighting in July and last month.
The memorial, built in the 1960s, depicts episodes from a series of long and bloody battles for the height in August 1943, in which Russian troops beat off soldiers from Nazi Germany. For pro-Russian rebels the historic parallels at the site build on the widespread notion that their insurgency is directed against “fascist” invaders from Kiev.
Separatists have begun burying their own dead at the site, where shells of various calibers litter the ground, along with remains of anti-aircraft guns, now scrap metal.
“There are eight crosses, but we actually don’t know for sure how many people are there,” said a young rebel, his neck and face covered with scars, who was attending a religious service held by two priests over several fresh graves. “They were cut into pieces. We don’t know how many of ours died for this hill, this sacred hill.”
Dates on the wooden crosses that mark the graves read July 28 and Aug. 7.
Remnants of firing positions can still be seen behind some walls surrounding the monument, while others have been obliterated.
“For six weeks it was hell here,” said the young man, who gave only his nom de guerre, “Thirteenth.”
“Twice the Ukrainians claimed to have retaken the hill, but it was not true — five of our heroes were here, hidden in the ground,” he said.
One photograph on the Internet dated Aug. 9 shows nine Ukrainian paratroopers at the foot of the obelisk — damaged, but standing.
Where they once stood there is now graffiti — one piece in Russian dated July 8, another in Ukrainian dated Aug. 11.
Near the memorial wall commemorating 2,000 names of some of the soldiers killed during World War II stand three Soviet tanks painted turquoise.
“To Kiev,” a recent graffiti sign says on one of them, a direct reference to the words scrawled on the same tanks in 1945: “To Berlin.”
“Our heroes have died here,” Oleksandr said. “For us, Savur-Mogyla was always a symbol of death and the heroism of our grandfathers. Their victory over the German army, but for Ukrainians, these Nazis and sons of Nazis, it was the opposite. That’s why they went out of their way to destroy it.”
“We will rebuild it,” his younger friend Oleg said. “We’ll complete it with a wing for our heroes from this summer. It’s the same fight. They have died in the same place as their grandfathers, for the same cause.”
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