Photo by Harriet Salem
The smell of burnt flesh and engine fuel hangs in the air on the road to Ilovaysk, eastern Ukraine. A charred torso of a corpse, hand outstretched, lies next to a black mess of metal that once was an armored personnel carrier. Ammunition, exploded in the heat of the blaze, is scattered across the floor. Above the wreckage another bloated body hangs limply on an electricity wire, legs and arms dangling, the force of the shell that hit the vehicle has blasted him tens of feet into the air.
Close to the carnage, 42-year-old Yelena stands distraught amid the ruins of her destroyed house with her mother. In the early hours of Sunday morning, mortar fire started raining down from both sides, she told VICE News. Terrified, the family hid together in the corners of the bedroom and living room. One shell then came crashing through the roof and flying shrapnel lodged in the lung of her 19-year-old son and close to the heart of her husband. Both are still in hospital.In the end though it is a dusty broken television set bought on credit — a simple mundane reminder of life before war that came smashing through the ceiling — which brings on the choking sobs. "I bought it for the children's birthdays, it took a year to pay for," she says flatly as her bemused, wide-eyed 11-year-old son looks on.
In the village of Novokaterinivka, rebels with dirt-smeared faces are high on the adrenaline of victory. "I don't know how many we killed, hundreds at least," boasts Andrey, taking a grenade from his pocket and waving it wildly in the air. "The Ukrainians wouldn't surrender, they tried to leave with guns and military equipment, would you let people guns roam around your country?"On top of the hill, snipers let off a couple of single shots. "We're cleaning up," another fighter clutching a bag of melons and energy drinks told VICE News. "Some of the Ukrainians are hiding in small groups in the fields over there."
Novokaterinivka is just the first stop in a grim procession of twisted metal and abandoned military vehicles stretched along 20 miles of winding country road to Ilovaysk.Further down the route an unexploded rocket is lodged in the ground next to a field of withered sunflowers. Next, a couple of hastily dug graves are marked only by a cross made from sticks. More vehicles are scattered across the fields. I count at least 68 along the road: tanks, armored personnel carriers, grad rocket launch systems, Kamaz trucks, cars, minibuses, and a medical van.
Above some vehicles the white flag of surrender, marked with a red cross, still hangs limply. Others are propped up on bricks, their wheels looted either by locals or the victorious rebels.This destroyed convoy tells the grim story of an army ambushed while beating a hasty retreat.For nearly three weeks pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces battled for control of Ilovaysk, a small town 28 miles southeast of the rebel stronghold in Donetsk, with neither side being able to take the upper hand.Holed up in a school and fire station, volunteers from the pro-Kiev patriotic battalions Donbas, Dnipro 1, and Kherson exchanged a hail of artillery, mortars, and grenades with pro-Russia forces across the town, trapping terrified residents in their basements."It went on day and night, it was relentless," said 26-year-old Olena, who worked in a store before the war. On August 7, Olena, her fiancé, and two neighbors hid in a tiny nearby cellar where they stayed for three days, before grabbing their documents during a brief pause in shelling and making a run for the basement of the city's cultural center.
They remained there, with another 270 of the town's residents, for nearly three weeks. All four are now living in an outhouse building, with no electricity or running water, and their houses have been totally destroyed in the fighting.
It seems that both sides relied on a steady trickle of reinforcements to keep the fight alive. "We had a supply route to the north of the city that we called the 'road of life,'" explained Mikhail Tolstykh, the 33-year-old rebel commander of the 2nd Battalion of the Army of the Donetsk People's Republic, who claims he was holding the town with just 100 men.Then on August 28, after 20 days of stalemate, the pro-Russian forces suddenly launched a decisive counter-offensive, hemming in Ukraine's beleaguered fighters. "We came from the north, west, and east," Commander Tolstykh, a former rope factory worker who goes by the nom-de-guerre Givi, told VICE News, pointing to a map pinned up in his office at the rebel-commandeered town police station.On social media sites, the Ukrainian commanders screamed of an attack by Russian soldiers and for Kiev to send more support. It didn't come. Instead they were promised that a humanitarian corridor had been negotiated for them to retreat down on the south side of the city. But it turned out to be a road of death of remarkably accurate strikes on panicked convoy.How many were killed in the attack is unknown, but so far the bodies of 87 Ukrainian fighters have reportedly been returned to Zaporizhia, a city still in Ukrainian control. Video footage released by the rebels on YouTube shows a few dozen more have been taken captive, but the number of destroyed military vehicles suggests that many more bodies, likely hundreds, must be somewhere.
The fall of Ilovaysk is just one in a wave of likely decisive victories won by pro-Russia forces fighting in Ukraine's east as evidence mounts of a significant number of Russian troops on the ground bolstering the efforts of local rebel fighters.Following a heady summer of Ukrainian advances, in the last 10 days the pro-Russia forces, who were previously on the back foot, suddenly seem to have the upper hand. They are engaging a new front in Ukraine's southeast, have secured a vital border crossing and stretch of coastline near Novoazovsk, taken back the airport in Luhansk, and nearly pushed the Ukrainian forces away from Donetsk.Speaking to VICE News, Commander Givi admitted receiving Moscow-sent humanitarian support for their fighters including food, medicine, and clothes but insisted that there are no soldiers on the Russian pay roll among their rank-and-file.Yet Givi expressed a remarkably assured confidence that the tide has turned in their favor. "We have won the battle, but not yet the war. Now we are preparing for the decisive battle of Mariupol. I am not a fortune teller, but I predict that within a week it will be ours," Givi told VICE News with a smile. After that he said his men will take back Sloviansk — a former rebel stronghold now under Ukrainian control. "That's every commanders dream."Watch all of VICE News' dispatches, Russian Roulette here.Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem