The city is now back in the hands of Ukrainian forces and has been used as a staging ground for the military’s “anti-terrorist operations.”
Squeezed between radios, bulletproof vests, ballistic helmets, camouflaged backpacks, night-vision goggles and cartons of cigarettes stacked from floor to ceiling, we make our way to a checkpoint on the edge of town, where we are to meet Tatyana Rychkova, a 35-year-old former baker turned volunteer who for the past several months has run supplies to Ukrainian soldiers fighting pitched battles on the front lines of Kiev’s war against the separatists.
Every soldier knows “Tanya” Rychkova it seems and she has been featured in some of the country’s biggest news magazines, fast becoming something of a celebrity.
When I meet her on Tuesday, she is dressed in camouflage fatigues and tan combat boots.
She wears sparkly star-shaped rhinestone earrings, dark violet-colored lipstick and her nails are painted a shade of military green.
Her nail art, though, may be the most impressive of all: on her right thumb, a parachute and the words “25th Brigade” have been painted in white; on her left thumb, the airborne unit’s motto — “Nobody but us" — is spelled out.
She has just stepped out of the truck that has served as her home since June, when she sold her bakery and summer cottage in neighboring Dnipropetrovsk to become a supply-runner for Ukraine’s fledgling armed forces.
Since then, she has lived a life on the road, traversing the war zone.
“I’ve been shot at, and had all the windows in my truck shot out,” she tells me.
She decided to volunteer after she visited the Airborne Brigade camp where her husband, Vadim Rychkov, worked as head of the unit’s communications.
“I saw the squalor they were living in and decided something needed to be done,” she says.
Even after her husband was killed in action here in August, Rychkova didn’t leave the front.
If anything, his death only invigorated her.
In the 23 years since Ukraine declared independence, the country’s defense budget dwindled.
With each successive administration, the military was stripped further of funds and material.
Armor and artillery was sold off or fell into disrepair.
“There was no reason to think that we would need to have a strong army,” Oleksiy Melnyk, co-director for foreign relations and international security programs at the Kiev-based Razumkov center told me recently.
After all, there was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which the United States, Great Britain and Russia were to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in exchange for its surrender of its nuclear arsenal, then one of the world’s largest.
So when Kiev launched its counter-insurgency operation in mid-April to root out separatists in eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, it found itself woefully unprepared.
Besides the poor condition of its armor, the army numbered only about 6,000 troops — and they lacked the training and even basic equipment needed to fight the pro-Russian rebels, who Moscow covertly supplied with advanced weapons systems.
Following his election in May, President Petro Poroshenko announced a partial mobilization, which helped with the personnel issue.
But the soldiers still needed equipment.
In the months since then, volunteers have stepped up to fill that void.
Citizen organizations such as Wings of Phoenix and Army SOS, among others, actively fundraise to equip the country’s solders.
Mikhail, a soldier I spoke with at the army’s camp in Debaltseve, the flashpoint town of some 25,000 people near Donetsk that separatist forces have nearly surrounded, said that when he enlisted in June, he was only given one uniform, one pair of underwear, two pairs of socks and a used pair of boots — one size too big.
“They told us this is supposed to last us two years,” he said.
Today Rychkova is delivering medical supplies, such as antibiotics, and power generators, tools, batteries, clothes and more, along with the supplies from Dmitry’s and Andriy’s truck.
What she’s packed is all being driven to the army’s camp here in Debaltseve in a white and silver Mercedes cargo truck riddled by bullets – reminders of past harrowing deliveries.
After a precarious 20 mile drive south through the war-torn east, past the charred remains of a separatist armored vehicle and over a steel grate used to prop up a partially destroyed bridge, we arrive at the army base, where scores of men from the Dnipropetrovsk 25th are camped.
They give “Tanya” a hero’s welcome, cheering her.
She jumps into the arms of one soldier who plants a fat kiss on her cheek before another wraps her up in a bear hug.
The reunion lasts for more than ten minutes as a crowd gathers around.
Inside the camp, soldiers mill around, cook meat over open flames, stack crates of artillery shells in bunkers and wander through a maze of trenches as rockets fire all around.
Everyone here seems to know “Tanya.”
She is the soldier’s lifeline, but also their friend, sister, platonic girlfriend and mother.
“We get 99 percent of our supplies from volunteers,” one fighter said, adding that if it weren’t for Rychkova and others like her, they’d be “fucked.”