Amid the thud of artillery and rattle of gunfire, Vasyl Slipak’s deep, resonant voice in the trenches of eastern Ukraine was a warm reminder of humanity’s less barbaric traits.
The professional baritone had left his native Ukraine in the 1990s to settle in France, where he regularly sang at the Paris Opera. But after war erupted in 2014, he decided to return home and join a volunteer battalion to fight Russian-backed separatists on the country’s eastern front.
Here, Slipak adopted Ukraine’s traditional, Mohawk-style haircut as well as the nom de guerre "Meph" — a nod to Mephistopheles’s aria from "Faust," the opera based on Goethe’s great play. He would occasionally serenade his fellow fighters, too.
But at about 6 a.m. Wednesday, his voice was permanently silenced. As a deadly surge in violence left Ukraine’s fragile cease-fire in tatters, the 41-year-old opera singer was killed by a sniper and became yet another victim of this grinding war of attrition on Europe’s far-eastern fringes.
Slipak’s death near the rebel-held town of Debaltseve came as Russian-backed separatists launched a dawn assault involving artillery, mortars and heavy machine guns, with fire reportedly coordinated by aerial drones. The town had been the target of a devastating Russian-separatist offensive in February 2015 despite the recent signing of a second cease-fire.
On Wednesday, international cease-fire monitors recorded “high levels of armed violence” in the area, including hundreds of explosions throughout the day from weapons supposedly banned under the peace deal agreed to in Minsk last year. Intense fighting flared again Thursday and into the night, involving salvos from multiple-launch rocket systems — most likely grad ["hail"] missiles, whose explosive firepower is matched by an indiscriminate lack of accuracy.
Amid the chaos, there were reports from both sides that Ukraine had seized a forward position near Lohvynove, a village north-west of Debaltseve, but this was later denied by military commanders, who remain eager to promote Kiev’s commitment to the Minsk cease-fire.
After months of steady escalation, the battle marked a worrying development in Ukraine’s restive east: hostilities spreading down the static front, coupled with an increasing reliance on heavy weaponry.
In recent days, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has warned that Kiev will not implement decentralization reforms without a full cease-fire, while Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has ruled out holding local elections in rebel-held territory in response to the risks that ongoing fighting presents. Both actions are key tenets of the Minsk peace deal.
This week, the United Nations said that Ukraine’s death toll had reached nearly 9,500, including as many as 2,000 civilians, and warned of a possible "re-escalation of wide-scale hostilities." And on Friday, the European Union formally extended economic sanctions against Russia for another six months amid mounting pressure to lift these, despite the failing peace deal.
Russian media has since aired an interview with a separatist sniper nicknamed "Sailor" who claimed to have killed Slipak. Dressed in full camouflage, with his face covered, the soldier claimed that, at the time of the attack, he had no idea of the identity of his target. “For sure, I didn't know,” he said. “From that distance you can't see the face.”
His account contradicted Kiev's claims that Slipak was killed in a surprise attack and instead suggested that the separatists were already under a hail of fire from Ukrainian positions. Both sides routinely blame the other for initiating combat.
“My comrades were suppressed by heavy machine-gun fire, they could not lift up their heads,” Sailor continued. "I determined the location of the machine gunner and shot to kill.”
Sailor said that it was only on reading about Slipak's death later that day that he realized he had been the one to kill the opera singer.
The dire conditions of the front line stood in marked contrast to Slipak's former life performing in French opera productions. Born in the beautiful western city of Lviv in 1974, he graduated from the city’s music academy and relocated to Paris, even winning a prize for best male performer for his version of the "Toreador Song" from "Carmen."
When war broke out in Ukraine, he joined Right Sector, a nationalist paramilitary group, on the front line. On Friday, his coffin was carried through Lviv and buried at the city’s Lychakiv cemetery, the final resting place for distinguished local figures.
In an interview with Ukrainian television last year, Slipak voiced his frustration at the West’s increasing apathy toward the Ukrainian conflict — “Mostly they do not understand what is going on in Ukraine” — but spoke highly of his countrymen in the face of continued corruption, oligarchy and vested interests.
“Listen to anyone in the street and he’ll tell you what to do. Our people are wise,” he said. “Ukraine can become a successful country and a major player on the political stage if we start heeding the voices of the people.”