Aleksandr was expecting the ceasefire to be broken; the only surprise when he set off for the frontline was that it came earlier than expected. There were explosions all around as he stepped out of his armoured car in a checkpoint under attack, flying shrapnel cutting into him within minutes.
The Ukrainian soldier was the first casualty when a truce which was supposed to pave the way to peace in Ukraine’s savage civil war appeared to be on the verge of collapse just two days after being signed. A 33-year old woman, travelling with her family, was reported to have died later when their car was hit by shell fire.
The fighting around Mariupol started just before 11pm on Saturday and continued for more than five hours, rising in intensity with rolling artillery rounds. At one point there were rumours that Russian tanks had entered the city, spreading panic.
There were further, more limited, exchanges on Sunday morning and also barrages in Donetsk, the capital of the separatists’ People’s Republic, centred around the airport which is still being held by Kiev’s forces. The growing fear was that the conflict will resume, adding to the deadly toll of 2,800 so far.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
Barack Obama had led the sceptical reaction by Western leaders to the signing of the truce in the Belarus capital, Minsk, on Friday. A senior aide to the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, claimed that five Nato countries had agreed to provide arms and military advisers to his country during the Alliance’s summit in Wales. Yuriy Lutsenko said that the offer had come from the United States, France, Italy, Poland and Norway. Nato had stated that although it will not provide security assistance to Ukraine, individual member states were free to do so.
On the ground, there was confusion. “It was very difficult to know even when this ceasefire had started; we heard different versions,” said Aleksandr, who had left his job as a construction worker to join an infantry unit in his home town of Nikolayev three months earlier.
“There were lots of rumours that the DPR ( Donetsk People’s Republic) and the Russians would attack at midnight-– a ceasefire ambush – so we were preparing for something to happen; it just happened an hour earlier,” said the soldier, lying on a hospital bed, with injuries to his left thigh.
“I was sent to the eastern blockpost [checkpoint] because it was felt that the enemy could try to break through there. It was very heavy incoming fire. I am not even sure what injured me. They were using lots of different weapons.”
A government armoured car was still smouldering beside the checkpoint yesterday morning. The atmosphere was highly tense and full of expectation of further violence. Two Ukrainian tanks moved on the road beyond, retreating rather than moving forward into the territory where the rebel forces had advanced overnight. Passing them on the way were damaged tanks and armoured personnel carriers on transporters: graphic evidence of the damage inflicted by the rebels in recent weeks after, Kiev and its Western allies charge, direct intervention by Russia’s armed forces.
For the residents, the overwhelming desire is for peace, but there is also resignation that the truce would inevitably break down. Galina Mikhailova sat in an underground shelter at with her family in the village of Shyroknye, listening to artillery rounds dismantling their home. “I was born in 1936 and I have not forgotten the terrible things that happened during the war. I wish I was not alive to see what is going on now,” she said. “We all want peace now, most people think it will not take place. All we can do is pray and hope more families are not damaged.”
Peace did not come soon enough for Ivan Baloha’s family in the next-door village of Lebedinskeye. At 8am on Thursday he was making his way to their shelter with his wife Nataliya when artillery rounds landed, leaving him severely wounded. “I was conscious, I was lying on the ground seeing it all; I saw my wife die in front of me. I could not move, I could not do anything to save her. . .” His voice faded away.
Because of the fighting it took the emergency services an hour to reach Mr Baloha, a 34-year old farm worker, and take him to hospital in Mariupol. The shells which had hit his home, he thought, had come from the direction of the government forces.
Mr Baloha needs to have specialist surgery to save his legs, but the nearest place that is available is Kiev and, at present, the authorities say they lack the means of moving him there. “My life is finished. My wife has been taken from me, my home has been destroyed: I don’t know whether I’ll be able to work again. I never took this ceasefire seriously, but I never thought this would happen to me,” he shook his head.
The upsurge of violence on Saturday night came soon after Petro Poroshenko had a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin followed by the Ukrainian President’s office saying that both leaders agreed that the ceasefire was being “fulfilled as a whole” and further steps will be taken to prevent it unravelling.
The Twitter account of the rebels declared early on Sunday that they were “taking Mariupol”. But Andrei Purgin, one of the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, maintained later: “Despite the provocations of the Ukrainian forces, the militias will keep firmly to the Minsk agreement. The militias are not resorting, and will not resort, to arms.”Reuse content