On February 18, despite a two day old ceasefire, Russian-backed separatists overran an approximate force of 8,000 Ukrainian soldiers in the strategically critical town of Debaltseve.
Deblatseve, a crucial railway hub which has allowed Ukraine to ferry its troops to the frontline, was nearly entirely surrounded by separatist troops by the time the Minsk 2 ceasefire came into effect on February 15.
Now that the separatists control the city, the rebels can easily shuttle their forces between the two key cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The status of the town was left vague during peace talks, leading to a continuation of hostilities over the city despite a general hold in fire elsewhere along the Ukrainian front. The encircled Ukrainian soldiers in Debaltseve faced horrific conditions though as separatists, backed by Russian soldiers and equipment, fully encircled the town and ultimately took control.
Below are collected accounts from the Ukrainian soldiers who managed to escape from Debaltseve as to the conditions in the city as the Minsk 2 ceasefire came into effect.
Lt. Yuriy Brekharya told the Wall Street Journal that the soldiers under his command lived “like hobbits” within trenches that were easy prey to artillery fire.
“The question of us being destroyed was only a question of time,” Lt. Brekharya said. “The separatists hit the Ukrainian positions so hard that trenches were shaking and the covering was collapsing.”
Soldier Igor Nekrasovtold The Guardian that fighting in Debaltseve “was a madhouse. It was Chechnya.”
“Starting at night, they would fire at us just to stop us from sleeping,” a Ukrainian soldier told the Associated Press. “They did this all night. Then in the morning, they would attack, wave after wave. They did this constantly for three weeks.”
Ivan, a soldier, told The Los Angeles Times “we gave the ‘seps’ a hell of a beating with this gal [a howitzer from a broken down tank]. But look … our equipment is old. She was made in the 1970s. They had more ammunition and more modern stuff.”
Another soldier, Misha agreed and told The Telegraph that the separatists had the Ukrainian military vastly outgunned. “It’s an artillery fight. First they pound us with the big stuff. Then come the tanks, then come the infantry. They have got these Russian tanks — stronger, more modern than anything we’ve got.”
Combat medic Albert Sardarian detailed the grizzly nature of the combat in Debaltseve to The Guardian. “There was one guy whose hand had been blown off. I could only stop his blood and put him in a comfortable place, hoping that the armoured vehicles following us would pick him up,” he said.
Other soldiers believed that the fight was already lost and they were guaranteed to be killed. “We were praying all the time and already said goodbye to our lives a hundred times,” a soldier told The New York Daily News.
Escaping from Debaltseve
“Many trucks left, and only a few arrived,” a soldier told the Associated Press, alluding to the fact that multiple Ukrainian soldiers were unable to leave the town. “A third of us made it, at most.”
Speaking to the Kyiv Post, Sardarian detailed the extreme difficulties soldiers faced in escaping from Debaltseve once it was clear that the town had been lost.
“Initially we thought they were ours, but suddenly the tanks started shooting at us and the mortars followed them from the side,” Sardarian said in reference to a highway that Ukrainian soldiers used to escape from the city. “A rocket landed on the car that overtook us.”
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