“I was in Debaltseve for five months,” he said, as two other grimy faces appeared beside him in the open hatch, blinking out at the bright world from the armoured gloom of their tank-like beast.
In actual fact, Ivan informed passersby, the vehicle was a self-propelled howitzer, which his unit had christened Ira, the name painted in wobbly white letters on her camouflage flanks.
“We did some damage,” he said ruefully, and the faces beside him nodded in agreement, “and with better equipment we would have done even more.”
“But the separatists have newer weapons and more of them, and loads of ammunition,” added one of Ivan’s comrades, who would not give his name.
His reluctance reflected the sudden and confusing nature of their retreat from Debaltseve, where Russia and the separatist rebels it supports said thousands of Ukrainian troops had long been surrounded.
Some of Kiev’s soldiers said the same thing yesterday, but their leaders insist they were not encircled, and that what looked like a somewhat chaotic retreat was a carefully planned and conducted military operation.
“We got an order to pull out,” nodded Ivan.
“What? What bloody order was that?” laughed one of his comrades from the army’s 128th mechanised brigade, wiping his oily hands and shaking his head in apparent disgust at the top brass’s handling of Debaltseve.
As soldiers tied a rope between Ivan’s vehicle and one behind that had broken down, civilian engineers worked alongside to repair an electricity pole flattened a couple of hours earlier by another piece of armour retreating through the town of Artemivsk.
Weary, hungry and injured soldiers started appearing in Artemivsk Wednesday morning, some in tanks, armoured personnel carriers, jeeps and cars, others having walked some 45km from the blasted ruins of Debaltseve.
“Some had to find a way across the fields to escape. There are dead and injured there,” said one of a separate group of soldiers from Ivan’s brigade, which is based about 1,500km from Debaltseve, near Ukraine’s border with Poland, Slovakia and Romania.
“Some lads came under fire as they were leaving. We were surrounded,” he said, refusing questions and requests for his name.
“It was just horrific there.”
Tired men in camouflage appeared in ever-greater numbers in the streets of Artemivsk, and armoured vehicles jerked and rumbled through the traffic, while the cold blue sky over Debaltseve continued to shake with the thud and roar of missiles.
Ukrainian artillery units sought to provide cover for comrades trying to escape a town that has already entered the annals of bloody Ukrainian military failure, along with Donetsk airport, Ilovaisk and Savur-Mogila.
Like Debaltseve, an important road and rail junction, they were strategic points that Ukraine’s forces ultimately lost at considerable human cost, to separatists armed and assisted by Russia.
“As of now, 167 wounded have been moved to Artemivsk from Debaltseve. Many dead were not taken out. The total number is not known,” battalion commander and parliamentary deputy Semyon Semyonchenko announced in the afternoon.
He said Ukraine’s lost battles were “not evidence of Russia’s military superiority, but evidence of the mass heroism of Ukraine’s people’s army, and of the gross incompetence, if I am not to say more, of the army’s highest leaders”.
Semyonchenko, a commander of the Donbas volunteer battalion, said he would go to see Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the prominent Right Sector nationalist group, who is recovering from injuries suffered in rebel shelling near Donetsk airport.
“We have things to discuss,” Semyonchenko said.
“We’re not scared for ourselves – we’re scared for the future of Ukraine.”
Standing on a road in Artemivsk, Kalashnikovs propped against lampposts, a group of army conscripts from the city of Chernihiv did not credit their political or military chiefs for getting them out of Debaltseve.
“Our battalion commander kept us alive,” said a diminutive man in his 50s with eyes twinkling over grubby cheeks, who gave his nickname as “Father”.
The soldiers sent up a tired cheer, and one blurted out:
“We were surrounded, for ages, fighting Russians close up, 100 metres away.”
Asked if Kiev had told him to retreat, the commander waved away the question, and in a hoarse whisper told his men not to say any more.
He had lost his voice giving orders in Debaltseve, it seemed, and his men would always thank him for it.
Source: The Irish Times