by Christopher J. Miller.
A Ukrainian soldier takes position on an armored personnel carrier on Sept. 21 near the town of Debaltseve in Donetsk Oblast. © AFP
DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine – The home of Zhenya Gorbochov at 56 Vorovskova St. was reduced to rubble last week when a rocket crashed into it, igniting a fire that that burned down what it didn’t immediately destroy. Luckily, he, his wife and mother made it to the basement before it hit. They heard the incoming volley of shells and had just enough time to seek shelter underground.
As he showed the Kyiv Post the charred remains of what was once their home on Sept. 22, another volley of rockets boomed overhead.
But Gorbochov didn’t flinch a muscle. Neither did the few other residents strolling past. The acrid smell of gunpowder hung in the still air on the town’s empty streets, and while a few residents darted to basements, some emerged to casually smoke cigarettes, observe the hubbub and chat up soldiers from Dnipropetrovsk’s 25th airborne brigade.
After enduring more than a month of shelling, Debaltseve residents are used to the sound of artillery fire, though most of them have been forced to spend their days and nights eating canned food in dank basements.
“We live like rats,” Gorbochov, a Ukrainian railways employee who hasn’t worked since trains stopped coming to the city months ago, said when describing their new way of life.
Besides, the shells roaring overhead on Monday were outgoing, from a Ukrainian army position in a field on the northern edge of Debaltseve.
Ukrainian officials said on Sept. 22 that the military was pulling back armor and heavy artillery from the front lines in the government’s six-month battle against separatists in eastern Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to form a “mutually” agreed 30-kilometer buffer zone, as outlined by a nine-point peace protocol hammered out in Minsk late into the night on Sept. 19.
But Kyiv’s soldiers here must have missed the memo.
By afternoon, the rumble of rocket fire from their Grad multiple launch missile systems and howitzers reverberated for more than an hour straight throughout this virtual ghost town, which has been without electricity and running water for more than a month, according to residents.
Ukrainian servicemen man positions with APCs and tanks on Sept. 21 near Debaltseve. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Sept. 21 that Ukraine must be ready to defend itself should its peace deal with Russian-backed separatists fall through. The Kyiv Post witnessed Ukrainian troops firing these weapons on Sept. 22, despite a cease-fire agreement with the separatists signed in Minsk last weekend.
Instead of pulling back like Kyiv promised to do so within 24 hours, artillery was seen and heard firing in a westerly direction toward the separatist stronghold of Horlivka, and south to the heart of the inchoate statelet they call “Novorossiya.”
The Kyiv Post observed some artillery being repositioned but not driven back 15 kilometers as outlined in the Minsk protocol. Otherwise, there was no movement of artillery.
To be fair, Kremlin-backed separatist forces have continued firing at Debaltseve even though they, too, signed the peace deal in Minsk over the weekend, and the preliminary deal there on Sept. 5.
According to Gorbochev and several other residents, the city was bombarded late Sunday by rocket fire. He said seven civilians were injured in the assault. The Kyiv Post could not confirm the information. The city’s police department said three residents had died from rocket fire since Sept. 5.
Sasha, a soldier from the 25th airborne brigade, painted a darker picture in describing the horrific scenes he’s witnessed during his time in Debaltseve. Distraught and apparently drunk, he said “many” of his comrades here had been killed in battle and in surrounding towns, their positions hit by rockets and armored vehicles blown up, since they moved into Debaltseve in early July.
“Those bastards,” he said in describing the separatists before choking up and reaching for a beer bottle tucked in his armored vest. Taking a swig, he muttered something inaudible before walking away, his face in his hands.
Sasha, 64, a city hall employee, said rocket attacks from both sides had occurred daily since the initial Sept. 5 cease-fire agreement.
“Cease-fire? What cease-fire?” he asked rhetorically, gesturing to the roars sounding from the Ukrainian line a mere 300 meters away.
The Debaltseve city government building has been vacant for weeks. A sign that reads “city hall is not working” adorns its front doors, which no longer have glass in their frames. Those and most of the building’s windows were blown out last week when a rocket exploded 20 meters away, leveling one building and blowing out one wall of another nearby.
With little savings and at his age, Alexander, echoing what so many locals have said in cities plagued by war in past months, said he had nowhere to flee, so he is staying put in Debaltseve.
“I’m a pensioner with a dog and a cat and a home here. Where can I go?” he said.
The fact that firing hasn’t ceased after a preliminary cease-fire was agreed upon on during previous meeting in Minsk on Sept. 5 isn’t too surprising. Both sides have been caught violating the ceasefire, but have said their forces were merely taking defensive actions, pointing the finger at the other for shooting first.
NATO’s senior military commander, Gen. Philip Breedlove, said on Sunday the two-week-old cease-fire between Ukraine and the separatists exists “in name only.”
But on Sept. 22, there had been no incoming fire, according to Ukrainian army soldiers and local residents the Kyiv Post interviewed, suggesting that the shelling from the Ukrainian position was offensive fire, ostensibly violating the peace pact.
Among other things, the Minsk deal stipulates that Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors will observe the two sides’ compliance with the cease-fire after each has pulled back its artillery the agreed 15 kilometers to create the 30 kilometer buffer zone.
Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesperson for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, whose vehicle was seen leaving Debaltseve on Sept. 22, said his monitors have witnessed shelling there and elsewhere in Donetsk Oblast, despite the cease-fire agreement.
“Our monitors witnessed shelling in Donetsk Oblast yesterday in various places… and actually today in Debaltseve,” he told the Kyiv Post by phone. “There was shelling yesterday and there was shelling today. So we haven’t seen a complete cessation of fire.”
Colonel Andriy Lysenko, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told reporters Monday that a decrease in separatist artillery attacks, and the cessation of firing from Russian territory, had allowed the Ukrainian army to pull back.
Still, two Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the past 24 hours, bringing the number of deaths of Ukrainian troops and civilians killed since the initial Sept. 5 ceasefire took effect to 39.
Rebels have also begun withdrawing their heavy artillery, Lysenko added, but it was “not as massive as we had expected.”
Bociurkiw said the OSCE is hoping for immediate de-escalation. “But we did see with our own eyes shelling today and yesterday,” he added.
Not far from the firing line in Debaltseve, Daniel, 11, and Andriy, 12, 6th grade students at nearby School No. 9, visited the Ukrainian army at a checkpoint on the northern edge of town. Under normal circumstances they would be studying mathematics and science. Instead, they say, they are taught how to duck and cover when they hear incoming fire.
“Our teacher shows us how to run to the bomb shelter when the siren sounds,” Daniel, who is excited to celebrate his 12th birthday on Nov. 14, told the Kyiv Post.
The boom of outgoing rocket fire on Monday didn’t seem to faze him, perhaps because his small village on the northern edge of the town hasn’t been shelled recently, he said.
“It’s quiet here, for now,” he added.
Kyiv Post editor Christopher J. Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @ChristopherJM. Staff Writer Oksana Grytsenko contributed to this report.