Ukraine crisis: Stories from a broken truce - ‘I saw my wife die in front of me. I couldn’t do anything to save her’

After only two days, and amid denials by separatists, the fragile ceasefire in Ukraine has been broken

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.

 

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.”

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