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War in Peace: Divided East Ukraine Braces As Ceasefire Crumbles

Neighbors in the country's turbulent east eye each other with suspicion as fear of further clashes mounts.
Photo by Frederick Paxton

As the ceasefire between pro-Russian forces and the Ukrainian government already appears to be crumbling in Donetsk and Mariupol, neighbors in the country's divided east eye each other with suspicion as fear of further clashes mounts.

Late last night a heavy bombardment of artillery fire on a Ukrainian position on the eastern outskirts of Mariupol apparently shattered a fragile peace pact signed in Minsk less than 48 hours after the ink had dried.


An "immediate bilateral ceasefire" was just one of 12 points agreed upon Friday at a meeting in the capital of Belarus, where representatives from Ukraine, Russia, and the rebel forces gathered under the guidance of The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Other points of the accord pertained to distribution of humanitarian aid to the areas affected by the conflict, and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from within firing range of major cities.

Watch all of VICE News' dispatches, Russian Roulette here.

But at roughly 11pm Saturday, the entire agreement was cast in doubt as the night sky lit up for more than an hour as mortars and rockets hit a fuel station next to a Ukrainian checkpoint just a kilometer or so away from residential apartments. According to city administrators, one woman was killed and three people were injured in the fighting.

By Sunday morning, both sides were blaming each other for breaking the peace. "We came under a heavy, unprovoked assault by Russian forces," one fighter from the pro-Kiev Dnipro Battalion told VICE News. "They used the ceasefire to launch an attack. It's Russia — what do you expect?"

Photo by Frederick Paxton

On the other side of the front line in Novoazovsk, a rebel stronghold in the southeast near Mariupol, militia fighters similarly denied initiating the exchange. "We were responding to enemy fire on our positions," one fighter told VICE News.

Violations of the truce were also evident in Donetsk, where exchanges of artillery and gunfire from both sides were audible in the area surrounding the city's airport, which has been the scene of sporadic but fierce fighting between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces for more than three months.


Prior to the Minsk deal, pro-Russian forces operating in Ukraine's east had made substantial advances, erasing a summer's worth of gains by government-backed forces in a matter of days. And, with a major question mark now hanging over even a temporary ceasefire, many fear that the fighting will spread further as the rebels seek to expand their territory.

"This is just the beginning," a 32-year-old fighter in a Cossack unit of the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) army told VICE News at a rebel-controlled border crossing into Russia. "We will take back Sloviansk and march into Mariupol. All the territory from Kharkiv to Kherson is historically Novorossiya's [Russian Empire] territory — and Zaporozhye, that's ours too."

"In the darkness people approach the checkpoint and fire a few shots and then run away. It's a form of resistance. There is a terrorist underground."

Since government forces retook Sloviansk at the beginning of July, the city that was once the heartland of the rebel uprising is now a carnival of blue and yellow with the colors of Ukrainian flag painted and hung in every available space. Even the city's Lenin statue wears patriotic neckerchief.

Maxim, a 25-year-old volunteer fighter in Sich, a pro-Kiev Cossack battalion, told VICE news that "provocations" are a regular occurrence at the positions of government-backed forces around the city.

Photo by Harriet Salem

"In the darkness people approach the checkpoint and fire a few shots and then run away," Maxim said. "It's a form of resistance. There is a terrorist underground."


Neighbors are eying one another with suspicion. Thousands of people who fled the city following the arrival of the DNR forces have now tentatively returned.

"Of course we fear a return to the fighting, that [the DNR] will come back," 50-year-old Ludmila, a pharmacist with a sideline in floristry artwork who fled during the rebel occupation to nearby Dnepropetrovsk, told VICE News. "I keep a bag packed by the door in case I have to leave again."

Others who supported the rebel forces have decamped now that the Ukrainians are back in control. "People who backed the DNR have gone, many are staying Russia or are hiding, they're afraid of being punished," Ludmila added.

Photo by Frederick Paxton

Tensions in the town run deep. In the city administration building, locals have been provided with a comments and suggestions box by the new authorities, but they mainly appear to use it for snitching.

Ivan, a 23-year-old a local police officer guarding the box told VICE News that between 80 and 85 percent of the letters are directed to the SBU [Ukrainian Security Services]. "People are informing on their neighbors for supporting the separatists," Ivan said. "Often it's just people just trying resolve domestic disputes," he added.

Some want to stay out of the local feuding. As her 2-year-old daughter watched Soviet-era cartoons on the television, 28-year-old Victoria told VICE News that she was outside smoking a cigarette with her husband three weeks ago when a police officer and three men in plain clothes approached their apartment block and asked them to name people that had supported the rebels.


"They came here to our territory, killed our women, our children this cannot just be undone when the clock strikes five."

"They asked us if we knew people that had been taking food to the militia," Victoria said. "We told them that we had been away. I did know about three people, but I didn't say anything, I don't want any problems."

Photo by Harriet Salem

Few people on the ground had faith in a ceasefire document signed by officials hundreds of miles away from the frontline. For locals, the breakdown in the agreement is hardly surprising.

Standing amid the ruins of Savur-Mohyla, a hilltop World War II monument at the epicenter of rebel territory, militia fighters practiced shooting at a target board. "They came here to our territory, killed our women, our children this cannot just be undone when the clock strikes five," a 34-year-old miner-turned-rebel gunman Yvengeny told VICE News.

Fierce fighting on the ridge, which overlooks a strategically important supply road between the rebel strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk, has mostly reduced the once-proud Soviet-era monument to rubble, littering the path with spent cartridges and dotting the landscape dotted with vast craters and unexploded ordinance.

Below, a shrapnel-scarred plaque to those killed fighting between 1941 and 1945 echoes his words: "Nothing is forgotten, nobody is forgotten."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem