Debaltseve Diary 1: First Shelling

Ukraine Debaltseve shelling ruins 40 battalion

Attached to the 40th Infantry Battalion of the Ukrainian Army in the so-called ‘fire pocket’ at Debaltseve city (in the eastern Donetsk region), I started a diary about all that happened day by day. Now I am beginning to share these notes with you. They will help you imagine what we faced in this war.

Debaltseve shelling

The enemy started shelling our main base at 6.30pm on Wednesday, 28 January 2015. At that very moment I was preparing dinner in our two-room apartment on the second floor of the building that served as our base – a former children’s summer camp. I heated up the iron stove – firewood cheerfully crackling inside – and our rice pudding was almost ready in the saucepan. I wasn’t alone – Major Olexander Vakulenko, our deputy commander, was nearby in an adjacent room. (On 15 February he would be killed by a Russian diversion squad on the first day of the declared “ceasefire” as specified in the Minsk agreements.) Later, I realized that this first shelling was the beginning of a prolonged and deadly campaign against Ukrainian positions around Debaltseve, which led to our withdrawal on 18 February. The first series of bombardments lasted for six days in a row, till the morning of 2 February.

We had already become accustomed to the sound of distant, sporadic shelling. But on the evening of 28 January mortar shells and self-propelled rockets, launched from Russian MLRSs (‘Grads’), began falling on our base so frequently that, as it seemed to me, they were exploding several times per second.

Major Vakulenko and I immediately fell to the floor. Being without body armour and Kevlar helmet, I quickly scrambled behind the iron stove for protection. During several minutes of loud, intensive shelling, I realized with alarm that the explosions were fast approaching. The last explosion was the loudest. For the first time in my life I heard multiple parts of a fragmented rocket hit the metal roof of our building right above my head.

As soon as the first wave of shelling ceased, Major Vakulenko ordered us out of the apartment and into an underground shelter nearby. Luckily I was already wearing a winter coat, hat and boots. Thus I hurriedly grabbed my Kevlar helmet and, fighting fear, ran out onto the balcony and downstairs to the underground shelter. In fact, it wasn’t a really a proper shelter — just a tiny room used by the on-duty communication officer.

Unsurprisingly, this room was already full of officers and NCOs. The shelling had caught everyone unawares, so they scuttled to find cover close by. I saw how the battalion commander tried to manage this terrible situation, speaking by radio and ordering the troops to hide. The guys in the room were standing or sitting anywhere they could find a space, nervously awaiting the end of the ordeal.

Meanwhile I had left my armoured vest up on the second floor, under my bed: that’s why, being naively brave, I used a pause in the shelling to quit the shelter and run upstairs to grab it. This attack was the first in my life, so I didn’t fully understand the danger I faced. I relied mostly on the advice of older and, as I thought, more experienced officers. But, as I later found out, this was a “baptism of fire” for some of them too.

And so I dashed upstairs, back to my room, and quickly snatched my armoured vest and Kalashnikov, plus a rucksack containing my laptop, DSLR camera, and some other small things. But as I made for the door I suddenly remembered that I should lock the apartment – my old habit of keeping everything secure “kicking in”. And so I started looking for the lock on tables and shelves in the corridor, but couldn’t find it in the usual locations. Thus I was delaying my exit to safety. As the seconds sped by I became increasingly uneasy, trying to find that stupid lock! But this brief delay saved my life …

Debaltseve shelling

I remember that, being full of fear, I decided to run for the exit door. At that very moment a deafening explosion to the right forced me to fall back into the corridor and hug the concrete wall, pulling my bag and Kalashnikov behind. Several thunderous explosions followed, shaking the building like an earthquake. And then … silence. I darted downstairs – successfully making it back to the shelter.

In the darkness of a winter evening I couldn’t see the consequences of this concentrated shelling. But the following morning I clearly realized how much I had risked. The previous evening our base had been shelled simultaneously by Russian MLRSs ‘Grads’ and powerful 120mm calibre mortars. A big crater, caused by a mortar shell, was in the backyard near the building, a mere 70–80 metres from my room. The walls of the base were punctured with holes and multiple pieces of shrapnel covered the ground and our balcony too. It was our incredible good fortune that the battalion suffered no losses or casualties.

The location of the shell hole in the backyard led me to conclude that I had miraculously survived with God’s help, because at the moment of the explosion I was standing indoors behind a thick concrete wall. But if I hadn’t delayed exiting the apartment, I would have run right into the blast-area of death.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)


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