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'The Nightmare of Debaltseve Will Be with Them for Life': Rebel Flag Raised as Ukrainian Soldiers Withdraw

Ukraine's president tried to cast Wednesday’s retreat in a positive light, calling it “orderly,” “pre-planned,” and reporting only six casualties. Yet reports from the ground tell a very different story.
Photo par Vadim Ghirda/AP

Beleaguered Ukrainian soldiers continued to trickle out of Debaltseve on Thursday morning, more than 24 hours after a hasty overnight retreat from the transport hub that was overrun by pro-Russia rebel forces after weeks of fierce fighting. This withdrawal and continuing clashes in the surrounding areas cast further doubt that a days-old ceasefire agreed by European, Russian, and Ukrainian leaders can bring an end to a conflict that has killed more than 5,400 people.


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has tried to cast Wednesday's retreat in a positive light, calling it "orderly," "pre-planned," and reporting only six casualties. Yet reports from the ground tell a different story.

In Artemivsk, the closest government-held town to Debaltseve, soldiers spoke on Wednesday afternoon of chaos, confusion, and panic as their convoy spent hours attempting to escape across the fields and coming under machine gun fire and shelling attacks. Thousands of fighters eventually emerged from the battleground in military vehicles, private transport, school buses, and even on foot. Some soldiers said that hundreds more had been killed and the most seriously wounded were simply left behind because there was no way to carry them to safety.

Andriy, a medic at the trauma unit of the town's hospital who did not want to give his second name, told VICE News that they were treating scores of injured. "These soldiers' wounds will heal but the nightmare of Debaltseve will be with them for life," he said. "We're getting no support from the state. The hospital is totally dependent on supplies brought by volunteers, it's been like this for weeks. This is the hero's welcome our government gives the men defending our land."

At a press conference held in Kiev on Thursday, Ukrainian military spokesperson Andriy Lysenko said that Debaltseve, where separatist forces yesterday raised the flag of Novorossiya, "looked like the surface of the moon." He also claimed that separatist forces had fired equivalent to "584 kilos of death and metal" for each Ukrainian soldier stationed in the strategically-important pocket. "We cannot say that it [Debaltseve] is a town anymore. It is a destroyed territory," Lysenko added.


The loss of the transport hub is another severe blow to the Kiev authorities, who have been criticized for their poor handling of the so-called "anti-terror operation" in the country's east after Ukraine's military suffered two crushing defeats in Ilovaisk and Donetsk airport. Semyon Semenchenko, a Ukrainian MP and a battalion commander who fought in Iloviask, launched a biting criticism of the operation in Debaltseve. "We had enough forces and means. The problem is the command and coordination," he wrote on his Facebook page. "They are as bad as can be."

On Thursday morning, an emergency phone call between French, German, Ukraine, and Russian leaders ended with a pledge to make a new push to ensure the second Minsk peace accord would from now on be implemented "strictly and in its entirety." The night before, Poroshenko won approval from Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council to call for UN-mandated peacekeepers to come and monitor the conflict's frontline.

The decision has not yet been approved by the parliament but Poroshenko said after the meeting that, "the best format would be a police mission from the European Union." On his website, Poroshenko also urged German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande "not to pretend what was happening in Debaltseve was in line with the Minsk agreement."

Yet, despite the diplomatic reassurances, clashes on the ground have continued unabated in several flashpoints along the frontline. On Thursday, Ukrainian military officials in Kiev reported attacks on government positions in several locations including Pesky, Avdiivka, and Shyrokyne. Shyrokyne lies just 15 miles east of Mariupol, a strategically important port city with a population of near half a million which many fear may be the separatist forces next target. Lysenko said that Ukrainian soldiers stationed in Shyrokyne was attacked by "land and boat" with "shells and automatic guns."

Meanwhile, the wider standoff between Russia and the West has continued after Britain reported that it had scrambled Typhoon fighter jets to see off two long-range Bear bombers from near the coast of Cornwall late on Wednesday. UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, who also warned that Russia may attempt to stage undercover attacks to destabilize Baltic countries, said that the incident wast the first of its kind since the height of the Cold War. "That just shows you, you need to respond, each time he [Vladimir Putin] does something like that, you need to be ready to respond," Fallon added.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem