In Eastern Ukraine, Desperation And Destruction In A Contested City

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine -- A line of furious, bedraggled women, holding tight to their wind-whipped clothes, waited for a chance to fill their plastic jugs from a water truck.

Lyuba Sklyarova lays on a mattress on the floor beneath layers of soiled blankets.

Outside city hall, old men and women grabbed desperately at loaves of bread dropped off by Ukrainian troops.

A few more gathered inside to recharge their radios and other electronic gear at the community generator.

“We live like this every day,” said Valentina Belokon, who is staying with a relative after shelling destroyed her apartment and killed her mother last month.

“Any moment may be our last breath.”

There had been no electricity, tap water or heat in Debaltseve for 10 days.

On Saturday, the temperature slipped below freezing and fell even further on Sunday.

A two-day window during which the Ukrainian military and rebels agreed to stop the fighting to allow residents to flee snapped shut on Saturday afternoon.

During that period, shelling by both sides had tapered off but never really ended.

“Cease-fire? The cease-fire does not exist,” said Capt. Yuriy Karvatsky, an anesthesiologist with the First Medical Troop of the Ukrainian National Guard.

“The fighting has gone on.”

The day before, he said, during the supposed truce, 60 shelling casualties were brought into his hospital in Artemivsk, 30 miles north of Debaltseve, where all of the battle’s civilian and military casualties are treated.

And now, Ukrainian military officials said over the weekend, they had detected a sizable buildup of pro-Russian rebel forces on the outskirts of Debaltseve, as well as near the southern port of Mariupol — indicating, they said, that fresh offensives may be planned to seize them both.

For seven months, this crucial rail junction 45 miles northeast of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk has been battered by shelling from rebel forces that face it on the east, south and west, and have come within a very few miles of surrounding it on the north. 

This tongue of Ukraine-controlled territory has become the main focus of combat in eastern Ukraine, as rebels hope to press their advantage after seizing the Donetsk airport late last month by taking Debaltseve and capturing the thousands of Ukrainian troops believed to be dug in near here.

A Ukrainian commander stationed just north of the city, who would identify himself only by his nickname, Gros, said he believed that about 3,000 civilians, most of them elderly, had decided to remain in Debaltseve from a prewar population of 26,000.

Now, he added, they would have to ride out the storm.

The sound of sporadic shelling could be heard Saturday and Sunday in Debaltseve, most of it outgoing but some hitting what seemed to be the city’s outskirts.

The center of the city is thoroughly battered; storefronts bashed in, glass and debris everywhere, floors collapsed.

The streets are rutted from shelling, and hundreds of the surrounding houses and apartment blocks are either obliterated or pocked with holes from shells.

Timber pokes from holes on countless roofs.

Yet still, here and there, residents walk their dogs on otherwise deserted streets, crunching along the ice-choked pavement and pausing to assess the damage to a neighbor’s home whenever the dog finds something interesting to sniff.

During a brief lull in the shelling, several residents waited patiently in line at a shop on the city’s west side, the only one open for miles around.

The display cases held several types of sausage, cheese, smoked fish and shelf after shelf of bottled beer.

An argument broke out among three men and a woman sitting at a wooden table near the front window, surrounded by more than a dozen empty beer bottles.

“I am a Ukrainian patriot,” one man yelled, wobbling a bit and knocking over two bottles.

“Patriot!” the woman said, scoffing.

“He is the only one left in this whole town who supports Ukraine. He is a fool.”

Irina Kostina, 67, watched impassively from a few feet away, a plastic shopping bag clutched tightly at her side.

“I was going to leave Debaltseve to escape the fighting, but then I got sick, and now I think it is too late,” she said.

Her main concerns, she said, were the shelling and the looting, which had broken out in recent days throughout the city.

“This is why people here are so nervous and irritated,” she said.

In a tottering house a few blocks away, Lyuba Sklyarova lay on a mattress on the floor beneath layers of soiled blankets.

She is unable to walk, she says, and her husband has gone to find water.

There is no heat and her breath is sharp and white.

“We were hit with shelling on Jan. 20,” she said.

“My husband’s leg was hurt, and I was startled and spilled a whole pot of boiling borscht on myself. I have not been able to walk since.”

An ambulance came and wrapped up her burns, she said, but they had no medicine to give her and have not returned.

“Even if I could walk, someone must stay at home because of the looting,” she said, looking around sadly at her meager possessions — a cabinet full of worn shoes, a pile of plastic bowls, filthy pots stacked in a blackened sink.

“I know, it seems like we have nothing, “ she said.

“But believe me, they will even take this.”

In Slovyansk, 55 miles to the northwest, the evacuees from Debaltseve have been taken to the main train station, where an improvised refugee station has been opened.

Slovyansk is one of the first cities where fighting erupted last spring between rebels and the Ukrainian military, and it was for a time controlled by the rebels.

A green military tent has been set up beside the station.

Inside, it is bracingly warm from the constant churn of stoves putting out hot meals of macaroni, pickle and cabbage.

The evacuees, their few possessions stacked beside them, sit forlornly at tables and chew.

Volunteers said 485 meals were served on Friday.

A team of psychologists is also on hand, they said.

The trickle out of Debaltseve became a flood on Friday, when 456 new people arrived.

By Saturday evening, an additional 300 or so had turned up.

A short walk away, 13 second-class carriages sit on Platform 3.

Here, evacuees can wait until their onward trains depart, and those who have no plan can wait here until they form one.

In one car, 45 evacuees were waiting through the gloomy evening, peering from darkened sleeping compartments on fold-down beds. 

“People are very depressed and pathetic and sad,” said Nikolay Miroshnickenko, 55, the porter in charge of the carriage.

“They are drinking too much. There are conflicts. We have had to call the police.”

Natalya Kurta, 55, snuggled in one compartment beside her snoozing dog, Gera, a mix of Chihuahua and she didn’t know what else.

“I am very lonely and this dog is my only companion,” she said.

Her story is typical.

She and most of the remaining residents of the 15 apartments that share a stairwell in her apartment block had fled that morning after weeks of being determined to ride out the fighting.

“We believed that the fighting was finishing up,” she said.

“But then, my apartment was shaking from the shelling overnight, and we realized we could not stay any longer.”

One elderly woman was too frail to move, so another man agreed to stay behind to watch out for her and to guard their apartments from looters.

Everyone else fled.

A voice erupted from the end of the dark carriage.

Is the woman still here who needed transport to the hospital?


Is there a family with children here?

A couple in Slovyansk has offered to take you in.

Silence again.

Ms. Kurta laughed softly.

“We are lucky to have landed in Slovyansk,” she said.

“The people here have come through the same kind of difficult times, so they understand.”

Source: The New York Times