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In Photos: On the Frontlines of Ukraine's Failed Ceasefire

VICE News returned to eastern Ukraine to witness and document how little two ceasefire agreements have changed the conflict on the ground and what it means for the people who live there.

by Henry Langston
Jul 28 2015, 1:55pm

Imagen por Henry Langston

It's now been five months since Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russia separatists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) signed a ceasefire in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in February. 

That agreement was the second of its kind following the collapse of another truce that was brokered in September 2014. Hopes that the second ceasefire would bring a complete end to the vicious fighting that raged through much of January and the first half of February were dashed very quickly, however. 

Only a few days after the agreement the DNR, possibly backed by Russian regular forces, took the strategically vital rail hub town of Debaltseve. While this represented a huge violation of the peace agreement, the international community barely reacted, dooming the ceasefire from the start.

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Since the bloody fall of Debaltseve, fighting has essentially continued along the frontline, albeit without the indiscriminate use of heavy artillery - as part of the ceasefire any weapons with a gauge over 100mm must be withdrawn 50 kilometers (31 miles) away from the frontline. This has largely been respected, but according to the OSCE, the international monitoring mission tasked with monitoring the ceasefire, but both sides have used both Grad rocket launchers and howitzers.

Little territory has changed hands in this time, (the exception being the DNR withdrawing from the village of Shyrokyne in June) with both sides seemingly happy to stick to the agreed lines of control and fire artillery at each other for days on end. 

Watch the VICE News documentary, Ukraine's Failed Ceasefire (Part 1) here:

In early June, however, the DNR launched an assault on Ukraine-controlled Marinka, just west of Donetsk, in an apparent attempt to seize the town. The attack failed and the DNR lost dozens of men when the Ukrainians counter-attacked. Since then both sides have blamed each other for the flare in fighting.

The assault on Marinka had many observers fearing all-out war, but a return to pre-ceasefire levels of fighting never materialized. 

However, with the European Union and the US both distracted by financial crisis and the ongoing policy nightmare that is the fight against the so-called Islamic State, this conflict has rumbled on, pushing the casualty figures over 6,500 and a lasting solution seemingly further away than ever. Last month's extension of sanctions against Russia seemingly had no trickle-down effect on the fighting.

VICE News recently spent two weeks with both DNR and Ukrainian forces to see firsthand how it's business as usual on the frontlines of the war in eastern Ukraine. All photos by Henry Langston.

It didn't take long to see how little has changed here. On a visit to some trench positions on the edge of Donetsk with the Vostok battalion, one of the first and largest of the DNR militias, both sides were trading mortar fire. 

Only a few hundred meters from the Vostok positions is the Ukraine-controlled village of Pisky and while talking to some soldiers we saw an explosion rise from the village. 

One of the commanders was quick to blame the explosion on the Ukrainians, however, claiming: "They blow up houses to open territory they want as firing positions, it's boring because they only fire from time to time."

"Nastich," which roughly translates as "scum," a former miner turned Vostok battalion commander stands on a frontline position on the road between Donetsk and Pisky. 

Nastich has been fighting since last summer and was frustrated at the lack of heavy fire: "When the Ukrainians start a full-scale attack, it's much more fun. The adrenaline gets you high, and you become addicted to it like a drug." 

Five minutes later these positions were hit by Ukrainian mortar fire.

"Biker," a soldier from the DNR Oplot battalion, looks towards the Ukraine-controlled town of Marinka from trench positions in a stud farm in the Petrovsky district of Donetsk. 

The Oplot soldiers there complained the Ukrainians were not sticking to the ceasefire: "They use 120mm artillery, they bomb very well. How can we go forward with them? We comply with the agreements, we try to find a way to negotiate and regulate it all." 

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One soldier claimed the Ukrainians were using the ceasefire to acquire more weapons and build new fortifications, but that ultimately it wouldn't make a difference: "They are constantly provoking us but there's just one thing they haven't understood, this is our land and we'll be here until the end. Our children will carry on the fight for our land also."

A Grad missile sticks out of the ground on the Donetsk-Dnepropetrovsk highway outside of Marinka, subject of the DNR's failed assault on June 3. 

As part of the ceasefire both sides are meant to pull heavy artillery  - under 100mm - away from the frontlines, but during this attack Marinka was targeted with 122mm Grad missiles.

"Welcome to hell," reads the graffiti. Fighting has been raging around the Ukrainian controlled village of Pisky for 10 months and throughout two ceasefires. 

Much of the village has been destroyed and very few residents remain. Ukrainian soldiers were very nervous about showing us their positions and claimed that very obvious outgoing fire was in fact incoming.

Yelena stands in the makeshift outdoor kitchen in front of a partially destroyed residential block in Pisky. She spends a few days a week in the village, helping to cook and care for some of the few remaining residents, including a blind man who lives in the block's basement.

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"His wife has asked him to leave, but he doesn't want to. This is his world, his home is here. He is blind and cannot see anything at all," Yelena told VICE News. 

Despite the continuing fighting and the complete lack of services, Yelena's attachment to her home is just too strong for her to abandon the village: "No one can understand how much we just want to be home."

Ukrainian soldiers walk through the ruins of the village of Opytne, only a few miles from Donetsk international airport. Much like in Pisky, the ceasefire has not stopped the fighting here. There were heavy exchanges of artillery and tank fire between the Ukrainian forces in the village and the DNR at the airport the whole day VICE News was there.

One soldier, "Tandem," explained: "The fighting has never died down, there have been cases that when a ceasefire was declared, the DNR's firing has become more intense." 

Both DNR and Ukrainian soldiers always blame each other for provoking the fighting and that they are only responding to the enemy's fire. "We comply with the ceasefire. They don't comply with the ceasefire, when they start to shoot, we shoot back at them," Tandem added.

A few miles east of Opytne lies a series of trenches controlled by the Right Sector, an ultranationalist Ukrainian volunteer group who featured heavily on the barricades during the Euromaidan revolution last year. 

The group recently have clashed with police in the west of Ukraine and have protested in Kiev against the ceasefire. 

Unlike other volunteer battalions such as Kiev 1, Dnipro, and Donbass, the Right Sector have not been absorbed into Ukrainian military structure and so there is little oversight of their conduct on the frontline.

A mine controlled by Right Sector comes under tank fire from DNR positions in the nearby village of Spartak. 

The mine and the trench positions are both guarding the approach to the town of Avdeevka, and one of the Right Sector soldiers, "Dali" explained the importance of the town. 

"In Avdeevka there is a coke plant, it's the biggest in Europe and supplies its coal industry. As they want to build up their economy, Avdeevka is very important to them," Dali said.

Follow Henry Langston on Twitter: @Henry_Langston