DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine – During the freezing and muddy winter in eastern Ukraine, dozens of buses rolled down a highway on Friday, bringing a ray of hope to those trapped for weeks in the crossfire of a relentless war.
The government-owned town of Debaltseve, a key railway junction, has been the epicenter of recent battles between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops. For two weeks, the city was shelled by intense bombardments which cut off electricity, heating and running water in the middle of winter.
Separatist fighters made progress, taking Vuhlehirsk, a rural settlement 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the west, as they sought to capture Debaltseve, which connects their two main strongholds, the eastern towns of Donetsk and Luhansk.
On Friday, in a move never seen before in this war, the two sides briefly ceased hostilities to jointly evacuate the few remaining residents. Dozens of buses traveled in convoy to Debaltseve from rebel and government territory to keep residents out of danger.
“We agreed with the Ukrainian authorities that this would be done jointly, to give people the right to choose to go to the Ukrainian side or to go to Donetsk,” said Daria Morozova, a separatist official.
Despite Ukraine’s previous claims, the city of Vuhlehirsk appeared on Friday to be entirely under the control of the separatists. A three-story building in the main square was burnt to the ground, a gaping hole in its facade. Associated Press reporters saw half a dozen destroyed armored vehicles in nearby areas, testimony to the city’s intense battles.
It took a leap of faith and hard manual work on Friday to even roll the evacuation convoys through the thick haze that enveloped the region.
Buses organized by the rebels had to stop alongside the road for several minutes after encountering huge concrete blocks placed by Ukrainian forces to stop the advancing tanks.
After the obstacles were towed by a car belonging to controllers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Ukrainian armored personnel carrier came in the opposite direction. A soldier quickly dismounted and nervously aimed his rifle at the neighboring fields.
Other Ukrainian army trucks and armored vehicles were parked on the artillery-riddled outskirts of Debaltseve. One bulldozer had a âPutin is a shitâ inscription sprayed with white paint.
Several residents were unaware that the evacuation was taking place until the buses arrived. Some said they could not return home and get their family members to the collection point on time. Many seemed exhausted.
Alexander Klimenko, deputy head of the Donetsk regional government loyal to Kiev, estimated that there were still 3,000 people left in Debaltseve out of its previous 25,000 residents.
Eduard Basurin, a rebel spokesman, said 1,000 civilians were due to be evacuated on Friday, but Morozova later told the PA that only 50 people remained on the rebel’s 20 or so buses.
A man, who gave his name only as Sergei, said he couldn’t leave because he had nowhere to relocate with his friendly Labrador, Charlie.
In a municipal building, those who intended to stay in Debaltseve despite the evacuation and the imminent possibility of further bombing collected plastic bags filled with food, including rice, noodles, canned food, oil. and other commodities.
Arguments broke out at the food distribution line. A woman complained that the labels said canned foods were out of date several years ago.
Shortly after the arrival of the bus convoys, the Ukrainian army began firing artillery fire from positions near the city center. Groups of Ukrainian servicemen, separatists and international observers gathered on one side of the plaza where food was being distributed, unfazed by the shelling.
“So when are the Americans going to send us tanks?” National Guard officer Ilya Kiva asked the PA reporters.
In the west, artillery duels between rebels and government forces hit several places in Donetsk, including a cafe.
The evacuation took place before talks in Moscow between German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The day before, Merkel and Hollande had traveled to Kiev to discuss ways to achieve peace in the separatist region with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Russia has acknowledged that some of its citizens are fighting among the rebels, but rejects Ukrainian and Western accusations that it is supporting the insurgency with troops and weapons. Still, NATO Commander-in-Chief, US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said Russia continues to provide the separatists with heavy weapons, air defenses and state-of-the-art fighters.
Fighting has claimed more than 5,300 lives since April and displaced more than 900,000 people, UN says
With Merkel’s first trip to Moscow since the conflict began, France and Germany hoped they could reach a peace deal acceptable to both Ukraine and Russia, but the people of Ukraine were skeptical.
Speaking to Debaltseve, Zorian Shkiryak, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said he was unconvinced that a lasting settlement could be found for eastern Ukraine.
“For this to happen, Putin must withdraw his army and soldiers and allow the Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian people to solve the problems on their own territory,” he told the PA. “But I have little hope in this regard.”
A disillusioned pensioner from Donetsk also rejected the new European peace initiative.
âI’m not expecting anything. I am so tired of this. It has been going on for so long, âsaid Esfira Papunova.