After the first Russian MLRS rocket strike on 40 Battalion’s main camp – which wrecked two rooms and injured a young soldier – it became very dangerous to sleep upstairs on the second floor. But – exhausted after a 24-hour shift as battalion communications officer – I was too dog-tired to care; so I tried snatching sleep in my 20kg armored vest and Kevlar helmet, and with a Kalashnikov rifle in my hands, simply hoping no rocket or shell would hit me there.

Debaltseve Ukraine army camp
Our camp building before being ruined. My photo.

But we were not left in peace, and from 6–17 February (2015) my desperate attempts to sleep on the second floor were unsuccessful. Every half-hour I was awakened by another bombardment, jumping up to dash downstairs to the crowded first-floor corridor or underground shelter. Often, in the bitter cold, I slept on the mattress of an on-duty comrade.

Debaltseve Ukraine army shelter
The corridor I slept in. My photo.

And yet, by such experiences, I have been taught how to avoid being hit by artillery. Living through such a prolonged bombardment I came to understand and predict the enemy’s tactics, fire plans and routines, as well as the location of his mortars and their intended targets. For example, I learned that it was particularly deadly if we were shelled from a north-easterly direction. But if Russian troops, together with separatist forces, were shelling us from another direction, and if their rockets and mortar shells were exploding more than a kilometre away, I simply “stayed put” on the second floor and waited for the bombardment to finish.

Ukraine army sleeping room Debaltseve
Our sleeping room in Debaltseve. My photo.

The last time I slept on the second floor was during the night of 11/12 February, after the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement was finally signed by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France. The following day was comparatively calm – maybe a dozen bombardments in total, rather than up to a hundred per day, as before. That night the enemy fired at us once only, at 3am, when five dozen MLRS “Grad” rockets exploded outside the base.

Debaltseve fields Ukraine army
Our base at Debaltseve. My pic.

Of course, all of us in 40 Battalion were hoping that the Minsk-2 accord would bring a true ceasefire, and that separatist forces supported by Russian troops would keep their promise to stop firing. We even received an order from High Command to cease preventive fire and shoot only in self defence. However, as an experienced journalist, I analyzed the operative situation and military data, and concluded that it was no longer possible to trust Putin’s Russia: this political regime will attack independent Ukraine again and again. In February I clearly understood that every Ukrainian soldier in Debaltseve should be ready for the worst, including a forced retreat.

Ukrainian soldier grenade launchers Debaltseve
A Ukrainian soldier with grenade launchers in Debaltseve. My photo.

As for me, I realized that the short periods of “ceasefire” after Minsk-2 simply indicated times when the enemy needed to resupply or re-target his artillery and MLRSs. That is why, after the risky night of 11/12 February spent on the second floor, I prepared my last cup of coffee in Debaltseve, packed my gear and documents, and bid a final “farewell” to my potentially lethal living room …

Debaltseve army living room
Our living room in Debaltseve. My photo.

Once again, my instinct for self-preservation did not betray me: that very next night, at 3am, our camp received its worst bombardment – blasted by all kinds of heavy weaponry from three sides. Rockets and shells hit our building multiple times, demolishing many rooms on the second and first floors, including our custom-made, makeshift chapel room.

Debaltseve army living room destroyed
Our living and sleeping rooms destroyed. My photo.

At least three rockets completely demolished my living room, and almost all my possessions were shredded by shell fragments: equipment, clothes, Bible … even the textbooks for a course in intercultural communications at the UC Berkeley were destroyed in the debris (as was my hope of completing this course to obtain an international certificate in marketing). The deafening impacts of this intense bombardment affected my hearing for a few days and left my head throbbing with pain. And yet I was happy: there were no casualties or fatalities among the troops at our camp.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

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