Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ukraine Town Eases Back Into Life After Deadly Week Of Fighting

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine -- While the Ukrainian government accused Russia of sending more tanks and troops into the country despite a cease-fire agreement, the few residents who remained in the fiercely contested town of Debaltseve emerged from basements and other refuges on Friday to a Dickensian scene of destruction and gloom.


Residents of the war-torn town of Debaltseve gathered on Friday for a food giveaway outside a damaged supermarket.

Only about 1,000 of the town’s prewar population of 27,000 remained, most of them elderly people too infirm or too stubborn to leave.

Out for the first time after a week of shelling and street fighting, they moved about in groups, with blackened faces and gritty clothes, busily scavenging for food in the ruins.

“The last week was just horrible,” said Vasily G. Yegelsky, 77, a retiree who was limping along in the morning sunshine, grasping an empty nylon bag, headed to the outskirts of town.

Out there, where Ukrainian soldiers were dug in for months before retreating in haste on Wednesday before an assault by Russian-backed separatists, Yegelsky and others wandered through abandoned trenches, looking for something to eat.

Bloody shreds of mattress hung from tree limbs, and stray dogs skulked nearby.

But also strewn about were canned foods and much prized bags of macaroni.

As they picked through the detritus of war, they talked darkly of bodies lying uncollected in the streets through the fighting, of the sick and wounded stranded in basements.

As yet there is no reliable estimate of the civilian casualties; European monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will not arrive here until Saturday.

But judging by the scenes of destruction, it is likely to add significantly to a wartime toll that the United Nations estimates at more than 5,600 soldiers and civilians since combat began in April. 

Debaltseve, a railroad junction claimed by both sides in the war in eastern Ukraine, was under Ukrainian control when Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Fran├žois Hollande of France brokered a cease-fire between Ukraine and the rebels last week in Minsk, Belarus.

On Friday, at a news conference in Paris, the beleaguered leaders insisted that the terms of the cease-fire be honored.

“The cease-fire has been violated several times,” Mr. Hollande said.

“It must now be fully respected along the entire front line.”

But according to Ukraine, it is serving purely as diplomatic cover while the rebels, and Russia, pursue their war aims.

“In recent days, despite the Minsk agreement, military equipment and ammunition have been sighted crossing from Russia into Ukraine,” said the Ukrainian military’s spokesman, Colonel Andriy Lysenko.

He added that more than 20 Russian tanks, 10 missile systems and busloads of troops had crossed the frontier.

The troops and equipment were headed for the town of Novoazovsk, about 25 miles north of the port city of Mariupol, the last major city in southeastern Ukraine not in rebel hands and the greatest impediment to establishing a land bridge from Russia to the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia last March.

The new troop buildup was raising alarms in Washington on Friday, where the State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said it was “undermining international diplomacy,” and that a failure to carry out the cease-fire would lead to further sanctions against Russia.

“We remain focused on supporting the implementation of these agreements, but we are watching closely,” Ms. Psaki said.

In Kiev, President Petro O. Poroshenko, speaking on the first anniversary of the revolution on Independence Square in the capital, promised that the sacrifices of Ukrainians then and since would not be in vain.

“We will carry out reforms, we will reinforce the army and defend our state, however difficult, whatever challenges come our way, I will do everything so the great sacrifices of our people of this year, God forbid, will not be in vain,” he said.

Mr. Poroshenko also said that a top aide to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Vladislav Y. Surkov, was responsible for arranging for snipers to shoot protesters on the square last year, reviving a simmering debate about who was to blame.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling the allegation “complete nonsense.”

In Moscow, Putin gave a bellicose speech boasting about the strength of the Russian military and vowing that the country would never bend to foreign pressure.

Rebel officials blamed Ukraine for cease-fire violations, saying shelling in Donetsk had killed a woman.

The jousting of international diplomacy seemed far removed from the sorry reality of Debaltseve.

Seemingly every other house lacked a roof or windows, power lines looped in the streets, huge, yawning craters opened in the sidewalk, unexploded rockets jutted out of the ground in places like fence posts. 

From time to time, a dull thud echoed through the buildings as sapper teams set off mines in controlled detonations.

Rebels clearly control the town, but the fighting was not quite over.

On Friday, they were fanning out in small squads, searching in backyards, basements and root cellars for Ukrainian stragglers, and every half-hour or so a rattle of automatic fire rang out, suggesting they had found some.

Battle hardened, the elderly picking through the trenches were too busy to pay much attention to the occasional shooting.

“All my life went by, I lived and I lived, and then it came to this,” said one old woman, who had crawled into a collapsed Ukrainian bunker, braving whatever horrors might be found there in quest of food.

Thankfully, it held only abandoned clothes and a larder.

“Here I am now. I don’t have a kopeck, and I don’t have a house.”  Yegelsky showed up with his nylon bag.

“The two sides should have agreed,” he said.

“And we civilians should not have suffered.”

“Our opinion is that nobody thought of us,” he continued.

“I think both sides just wanted to wipe Debaltseve off the face of the earth.”

There were not any bodies lying in the streets.

Residents said they had buried some in backyards and in parks over the weekend, while the rebel authorities collected others when they arrived Tuesday and Wednesday.

Rebel soldiers were understandably upbeat about their victory, saying the Ukrainians appeared to be running low on ammunition by the end of the battle.

“We would go out on reconnaissance to give them a little nightmare, and fired 50 grenades, and they shot back with only four,” Valery Y. Shtoba, a soldier and a former miner, said in an interview beside a charred, mangled Ukrainian tracked armored personnel carrier in Vulehirsk, a town near Debaltseve.

“This is a small victory for us. The big victory will come when we drink beer in Lviv,” a vehemently anti-Russian city in western Ukraine, on the Polish border.

By Friday afternoon in Debaltseve, a separatist aid convoy had pulled into town and was distributing bread and bacon to a waiting crowd. 

Source: The New York Times

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