Graham Stack in Debaltseve -
Debaltseve is still counting its dead following the eastern Ukrainian town’s capture by Russian-backed rebels on February 18 after weeks of heavy shelling. Life has started to return to normal, but the townspeople are still traumatised – and counter-intuitively blame Ukrainian forces that had been defending the town for the intensive shelling.
30-year-old manager Sergei Rudenko watches beside rows of new crosses at Debaltseve cemetery as a coffin is lowered into a grave. Rudenko and his friend are the only people attending the burial. “She was the mother of a friend, I didn't actually know her,” he tells bne IntelliNews. He says the friend had contacted him from Russia and asked him to attend the burial of her mother, killed during the shelling of the city.
“I promised to check shewas buried properly in a marked grave,” Sergei says as the purple-clothed casket is lowered into the thick clay soil. Gravediggers fill in the grave and place a cross with nameplate over it. According to the date on the cross, the woman died on February 21, after the end of the shelling. “This is the date the body was recovered,” Sergei explains.
Bodies still being counted
At the city cemetery, municipal undertakers say they have buried around 80, which roughly matches the estimated number of fresh graves. But the number is not final, as a long trench excavated in the graveyard for further burials indicates.
The head of the Debaltseve municipal morgue, who says he preferred not to be named, tells bne Intellinews that new corpses are still being delivered to the morgue, nearly a month after the pro-Russian rebels captured the town, as many as four a day. During the shelling, with the former morgue staff having already fled the town, the deceased were hastily buried in shallow graves, he explains, which are only now being exhumed for official registration and burial, according to information becoming available.
Vadim Shevchenko, newly appointed as head of the city police by the rebel authorities of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, tells bne IntelliNews that the municipal morgue had registered 105 corpses of civilians since resuming work on February 23. “The number includes not only those killed as a direct result of shelling, but those who died during the shelling, often people such as pensioners with frail health for whom the shock was too much,” he says.
Some corpses of those who died in Debaltseve were taken to other towns for processing, before the Debaltseve morgue resumed work. Corpses were also taken to Enakievo, Torez and Stepnoe, the self-styled 'mayor' of Debaltseve, Aleksandr Afendikov, said in a press interview at the end of February, acknowledging that “very many” civilians had been killed by shelling in the town, without naming a figure. He added that 2,500 out of an original population of around 25,000 had stayed in the town throughout the shelling, and around 5,000 had returned since the shelling ended.
30 corpses of civilians who had died in the village of Vuglegirsk close to Debaltseve – marked by widespread destruction as a result of heavy fighting – were registered by the morgue at the municipal hospital at nearby Enakievo, according to the head of the morgue, who preferred not to be named.
US Permanent Representative to the UN Samantha Power on March 6 said that around the bodies of 500 civilians had been “found in in the cellars of houses in Debaltseve”. And the UN in a March 2 report said it estimates that over 200 civilian casualties as a result of the fighting at Debaltseve and at Donetsk Airport in January and February. Neither the Red Cross nor the OSCE has figures for the civilian dead in Debaltseve.
Locals blame Ukrainian forces
The weeks of shelling of Debaltseve finally prompted the Ukrainian forces holding the town to pull out in a chaotic nightime retreat in the early hours of February 18. Most buildings in the town show some signs of damage, although two of its most prominent constructions – the railway station itself, and the Russian Orthodox church named after Aleksandr Nevsky – seemed to have escaped the shelling quite lightly. Ukraine's defence ministry said on March 3 that the rebels had already succeeded in restoring some train connections.
Kyiv and the West have blamed Russia and the rebels for the shelling, and even Russia has largely not disputed that the rebels attacked the town. Rebel leaders had themselves declared that they intended to take the town, and excluded the Debaltseve 'pocket' from a ceasefire agreed in Minsk on February 11. Oleksandr Zakharchenko, head of the Donetsk People's Republic, acknowledged on February 14, hours before the ceasefire was due to take effect, that his forces would adhere to the ceasefire "throughout DPR territory except internal areas –Debaltseve," and that "the Minsk agreements don't say a word about Debaltseve”.
Even studiously neutral reports from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe recorded its observers directly witnessing on February 18 outgoing shell fire from DPR multiple-launch rocket systems such as Grad or Urugan in Yasynuvata, at a time when Debaltseve was the most likely target within range.
But town residents questioned by bne IntelliNews counter-intuitively blame the shelling and destruction of the town on the very Ukrainian forces that were ostensibly protecting the town – some perhaps out of confusion, others perhaps out of fear.
According to Rudenko, the Ukrainian forces were responsible for shelling the town. “I saw with my own eyes how Ukrainian troops fired mortars which exploded within the town,” he says. “And we saw in January and February when there was shelling every day how Ukrainian TV crews would be on the scene of any shell impact within minutes.”
“Everyone knows this in the town,” he adds. “Ask anyone you want they will say the same.”
Rudenko's claim surprisingly turns out to be true. Railway accountant Ludmilla, who declines to give her last name, gives bne IntelliNews a 10-minute tirade on the death and destruction visited on the town by what she alleges was Ukrainian shelling. According to Ludmilla, the Ukrainian nationalist Pravy Sektor organisation was based a number of camps on the outskirts of Debaltseve and responsible for most of the shelling inwards – and also for mowing down Ukrainian forces when they finally fled Debaltseve on February 18. Like Sergei, Ludmilla claims that, “we were here and saw it with out own eyes,” while also acknowledging she spent most of the bombardment in a bomb shelter.
Taxi driver Roman Maksimov, 31, who stayed in the cellar of a housing block during the shelling, tells bne IntelliNews a similar story: “Of course it was the Ukrainians that bombed here. Why would the militia bomb here when they were planning to retake the town because of its strategic importance? They sent special forces units in to take the station and other locations.”
“The Ukrainians wanted to make sure that not a stone was left unturned before they pulled out. And when they pulled out, we saw how their tanks fired on houses directly,” he adds.
Confusion among civilians on the ground often arises during intense exchanges of artillery fire between defenders and attackers, with these people taking incoming fire to be the impacts of outgoing fire.
Ivan Maksimov, a former rebel who remained in Debaltseve during the shelling, admits to bne IntelliNews that it was the rebels' shelling that had left the town in ruins. “It's obvious: our guys [in the DPR] had encircled Debaltseve and were trying to knock out the Ukrainians from the town – war is war,” he says. “But everyone is very frightened and will tell you the Ukrainians shelled the town.”
A hotel receptionist a Enakievo backs up Maksimov's explanation. “We had around 150 displaced persons here from Debaltseve, and I heard how they talked amongst themselves about the shelling, saying that the rebels should have shown restraint – and how they changed what they said as soon as anyone from outside asked them. Of course it was the rebels that were responsible, but these people are traumatised,” she says.
Serhiy Garmash, pro-Kyiv editor of the Donetsk region independent news resource ostro.org, says that there are a range of reasons for the people's siding with the rebels. Some, he says, are afraid of speaking out against the separatists, while others are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome – the condition of supporting one's own kidnappers. “Others are pro-Russian separatists and refuse to acknowledge any mistake in their views, and perhaps some really did suffer at the hands of the Ukrainian army,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, the story that the Ukrainian forces themselves caused the destruction in Debaltseve and nearby Vuhlehirsk has featured heavily on state-owned Russian TV and local rebel-controlled TV.
The fact that townsfolk – even after heavy shelling by the rebels themselves – appear to remain loyal to the rebel cause may come as an unpleasant surprise to the Ukrainian authorities in Kyiv, who are engaged in a battle for hearts and minds in East Ukraine.
Ukrainian government media pursued a similar strategy of spin in the summer of 2014, when Ukrainian forces were on the offensive around Luhansk and Donetsk, and shelling caused scores of civilian casualties in Luhansk, as bne IntelliNews reported. Ukraine government-backed media claimed the rebels were themselves firing on the towns that they held, allegedly for propaganda purposes. But in contrast to Debaltseve, few in Luhansk at the time believed in this version of events.
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