Seven trucks full of Ukrainian soldiers left the besieged town of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine hours after the so-called ceasefire began Sunday. Only five made it back safely behind Ukrainian lines.
As they sped north through the no man's land between Debaltseve and the next Ukrainian position, they began taking fire from rebel artillery. A squad commander who goes by the call sign Jackson was in the first truck.
"A shell landed three meters from our vehicle," he told VICE News. "It's a miracle we're alive. The third truck got hit."
The 10-mile stretch of highway between Debaltseve and Luhanske is the only lifeline providing food and ammunition to pro-Kiev forces defending the city. The road is full of mines and flanked by rebel firing positions.
Ukrainian soldiers at the southern edge of Luhanske told VICE News on Sunday that it was suicide to go any further down the road. As they spoke, incoming and outgoing mortar fire boomed just off to the east.
Near-constant rebel shelling had pinned down Jackson's men in the city, but they had run out of ammunition and supplies so they decided to make a run for it, he said. "If we would have stayed there, we would have stayed there for eternity," he said grimly.
Fifteen soldiers from Jackson's unit made it out, including four wounded men. After arriving safely at the hospital in Artemivsk, about 30 miles northwest of Debaltseve, the grimy soldiers handed the injured down from the open-backed truck on stretchers and blankets.
'You should either fight, or you should take them out, but to leave them there as cannon fodder isn't right.'
Jackson's unit first deployed to Debaltseve in August. The city holds a key rail junction that rebels have been desperately trying to capture. By January, the rebels had surrounded the city on three sides and were shelling it mercilessly. On February 8, they drew the noose tight. Medics in Artemivsk said Sunday's convoy was the first to make it out of the city in the past week.
Debaltseve is the main reason why fighting has continued in eastern Ukraine despite the ceasefire, which took effect one minute after midnight on Sunday. In a television address announcing the truce, President Petro Poroshenko said the road to Debaltseve remained open and that the troops there had been resupplied with ammunition. But the story of the convoy's escape on Sunday shows that both those claims are essentially false. The rebels "had lots of equipment," Jackson said. "We stayed to the very end, but it wasn't viable to stay without weapons."
Thousands of Ukrainian troops remain trapped in Debaltseve, which some soldiers have compared to the bloody WWII battle of Stalingrad. Sixty percent of the city has been destroyed, and several buildings burn down each day from shelling, Jackson said. "You just get used to the constant shooting and explosions," he said. "We know what they're shooting at us just by the sound of it." Two of the men delivered to the hospital had bullet wounds, indicating the fighting is moving to close quarters.
A mass text message was sent to cell phones in the area urging the Ukrainian forces to surrender: "Parasha (Poroshenko) betrayed us. He's fucking lying there's no encirclement. We're going to the Donetsk guys. Captivity not death."
Ukrainian soldier on road to Debaltseve shows mass text message telling troops they won— Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn) February 15, 2015
Kiev was likely banking on the ceasefire to provide a respite from shelling that could be used to evacuate or reinforce the troops in Debaltseve. But Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the breakaway Donetsk People's Republic, said his forces would observe the ceasefire everywhere but near Debaltseve and would "stop any attempt to break out of the encirclement."
"There wasn't a word about Debaltseve in the [Minsk] agreement," Zakharchenko argued. "This means that Ukraine has simply betrayed the 5,000 people in this encirclement."
The sad part is he may be right. Poroshenko reportedly refused to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin for a "green corridor" to allow the Ukrainians to leave the city. Of the 16 hours the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia negotiated in Minsk, eight were spent arguing over whether Debaltseve was actually caught in a "kettle," the Russian term for a military encirclement, according to Andrei Kolesnikov, a Kremlin pool journalist who has been allowed extensive access to Putin in the past.
"Vladimir Putin insisted that it was, and that if a ceasefire was agreed, it would be strange if it wouldn't be violated: Those in the kettle will surely try to break out of it, and those who are boiling the kettle will try to gather the steam," Kolesnikov wrote in the newspaper Kommersant.
Despite posturing from many on the Ukrainian side that they won't give up Debaltseve, Jackson said many troops there want out. "We're all trying to leave," he said. "The only other option is death."
But Kiev has no way to rescue the thousands of troops hunkered down in trenches and dugouts around the city, not to mention up to 1,000 civilians who reportedly remain there. Both the highway and the fields north of Debaltseve are mined and under heavy rebel fire, according to a bearded Artemivsk ambulance driver with a braided ponytail who goes by the nom-de-guerre Kapulan.
'We're all trying to leave. The only other option is death.'
Those who try to get through the gauntlet can either follow the burnt-out carcasses of vehicles that already hit mines in the fields, or drive down the highway as fast as possible, hoping to spot the thinly covered mines there, Kapulan said. His volunteer ambulance unit only has four working vehicles after mines destroyed two and shelling took out four.
The situation in Debaltseve is untenable because no one can resupply the fighters, said Alla Neschadym, a medic with the ambulance unit whose son Oleg is still fighting in the city. She blamed Kiev for failing to mount a mass military campaign to reinforce them or to negotiate a surrender or corridor for them to withdraw.
"You should either fight, or you should take them out, but to leave them there as cannon fodder isn't right," Neschadym said.
She called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Red Cross to participate in a humanitarian convoy to evacuate soldiers in the hopes that would prevent the rebels from shelling it, although neither of those groups is likely to take on the physical risk and political ramifications of such an operation. But something needs to be done, Neschadym insisted.
"We need an extraordinary solution," she said, "because there are many people still trapped there."
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn