After our group’s midnight arrival at 128 Brigade, I accompanied a young officer, Maxim Tymochko, to the staff office. We expected to see more of our 40 Battalion troops, who had allegedly been hiding in nearby trenches, hopefully awaiting our imminent withdrawal. We explored some shelters and found them packed with soldiers. The guys were arriving at the base every minute and soon every space was taken, so we could not find free seats in the narrow underground corridors.

I saw a wounded soldier. He was crying and babbling crazy stuff non-stop. He kept trying to stand up, in order to “go home”, and his comrades were trying to restrain him. But they could not calm him: seemed like he’d lost his mind.

Road post Cross at Debaltseve Ukraine
At the entrance to Debaltseve city. My photo.

No one among 128 Brigade’s officers was actually happy to see more troops from 40 Battalion, and they could not say where our comrades were hiding. Later, in May, during talks with comrades, I discovered why no transport had returned to pick up us at Debaltseve. Just one guy – Sergeant Hennadiy Medvedev – had tried to rush back for us, but he was badly wounded by mortar shelling at the exit of the base and his mini-van was destroyed. Two other drivers – witnessing Medvedev’s fate – refused in fear to drive back for us. Several hours later Sergeant Medvedev was killed – hit by a mortar inside the ambulance, which, attempting to withdraw under cover of darkness, drove straight into an enemy ambush.

Sergeant Medvedev 40 Battalion Debaltseve
Sergeant Hennadiy Medvedev (right) in Debaltseve. My photo.

Due to the lack of free space underground, I waited for withdrawal up in the trenches, situated between concrete blocks. The enemy continued shelling us – ear-splitting explosions cracking close by – but luckily the shells were falling wide, outside the base.

Suddenly a bright light blazed in the sky. I instinctively turned my head and saw a huge pillar of flame form a mushroom in the firmament, like some video film of a nuclear conflagration. Seconds later the sound waves hit me and I realized that 40 Battalion’s main base had been blown up, as planned.

Half an hour later my commander, Colonel Victor Pocherniaev, appeared, and I grasped that we had all made it to 128 Brigade safely. Colonel Pocherniaev, like the rest of us, was a “guest” here at 128 Brigade; so we were obliged to listen to the brigade staff organize their own withdrawal via trucks, tanks and armoured vehicles.

It was an another rare stroke of luck in my journalist career that I was standing right behind the commander of 128 Brigade at the very moment he gave the final order to withdraw from Debaltseve to the city of Artemivsk. …

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

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