Deblatseve and its outskirts were filled with scenes of jubilation following the rout of the Ukrainian Army by separatist forces last week. A young soldier cycled through rubble-strewn streets on a child’s bike, a rocket launcher slung from his shoulder, amid laughs and cheers as he swerved in and out of crowds of pro-Russian fighters. It seemed that everyone was revelling in their recent victory.
During my last visit, just three days prior, the village was a no-man’s land, sandwiched between separatist and Ukrainian positions amidst a fierce gun battle. But Thursday marked the final withdrawal of Ukrainian soldiers from Debaltseve and the surrounding villages. Separatist forces declared victory after weeks of artillery bombardment and close quarters fighting.
Since fighting escalated in January, separatist forces have been trying to encircle the town and were finally successful during the second week of February. Yet the conflict between the two sides escalated, forcing the 7,000 Ukrainian soldiers stationed inside to pull back.
“Destruction neared absolute, with entire buildings levelled and countless more damaged.“
The Ukrainian troops retreated on Wednesday, February 19 due to a concentrated push by separatist commanders. Although President Poroshenko claimed the withdrawal was “organized and planned”—soldiers abandoned positions along with vehicles, equipment and personal belongings—the rebels interpreted it as a rout and were elated. Crowds of separatist fighters, piled into armoured vehicles, laughed and cheered as they threw up victory signs.
Destruction neared absolute, with entire buildings leveled and countless more damaged. Frozen corpses dotted the outskirts, along with abandoned military vehicles and dozens of wrecked tanks, howitzers, and remnants of cars.
I will never forget the horrifying moment when I stumbled upon a recently abandoned Pravvy Sektor base outside Chernukhino. A half dozen corpses, including Pravvy Sektor fighters and men in plain civilian clothes, laid limp on the ground. One frozen corpse had blackened, swollen eyes with lips that had been sliced off; another had an electric cable wrapped around one wrist and had been set afire. Conflicting theories circulated about the victims and perpetrators, but their true fate remains unclear.
Embedding With Separatist Fighters
Having heard about ferocious battle in Debaltseve, I was apprehensive about visiting. We were among the first to do so, with a high-ranking Kazaki fighter named Ivanich. Rumors circulated that up to 20 percent of the town was still home to pockets of Ukrainian troops, so we expected to come under fire at any moment during the drive in. Spotting a lone civilian who had emerged from his basement, Ivanich asked if the area was “ours” or “theirs”.
While there, I embedded with the separatist Kazaki National Guard. I stayed in the media center, along with two other western journalists, and slept on the floor in a small room for three weeks, as we awaited the fall of Debaltseve. Set up in a former SBU (Ukrainian Security Service) building after separatists stormed the building during the wave of anti-Ukrainian, the media center had no running water and was, simply put, remarkably filthy.
The separatists themselves have strong values and reasons for staying in this fight. Viewed as “terrorists” in Ukraine and “separatists” or “rebels” internationally, they are known by many as “Opalchenie”—fighters protecting their homelands from Kiev forces’ military intervention to ultimately restore the region to central control. I met one Russian military soldier who had joined the separatists. When asked why he had crossed the border to fight, his answer was simply: “because Poroshenko kills Russian people.”
Background on the conflict:
- Deblatseve was initially captured by LNR forces in mid-April 2014
- Deblatseve was recaptured by the Ukrainian Army in July 2014
- Minsk agreements were signed on February 15th 2015
- An estimated 7,000 Ukrainian Army troops were trapped in the city of Deblatseve as the Ghost Battalion and other LNR forces seem poised to take the city
- This morning Deblatseve was captured again by forces loyal to the separatists
The writer is embedded with Kazaki National Guard, part of the Lugansk People’s Republic Army. He has been writing for OpedSpace as part of a “Ukraine at War” series. More of his work can be found here.
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