"The way of creativity, joy and happiness." The sign outside the Soviet-era children's camp — pockmarked by gunfire and gutted by shelling — stuck out like a bad joke. Beneath it, three volunteers of the Ukrainian Donbass battalion were smoking on a worn sofa amid a jumble of plastic flowers, concrete rubble, ammunition, and dirty dishes, dappled in shade cast by camouflage netting.
The village of Shyrokyne lay in the valley below. The seaside resort has been ruined by months of fierce combat, offering the most blatant evidence that the peace accord signed in Minsk in February is dead in all but name. Both sides had endured repeated bombardments as pro-Kiev forces defended the upper, western flanks of the village, fearing that pro-Russia rebels would use it as a springboard to attack the strategically important port of Mariupol nearby.
In recent weeks, however, the daily mortar blasts and heavy thud of artillery were replaced by an uneasy silence, broken occasionally by the shot of a lone sniper. On July 1, separatist leaders in Donetsk declared the deadly hotspot a demilitarized zone, demanding that troops on both sides withdraw, that gunfire stop, and that observation points for international OSCE monitors be provided.
Rebel forces, by and large, obeyed the order and pulled back to fortified positions away from the center, despite grave misgivings among government troops.
Photo by Jack Crosbie
While the rebels presented their proposed ceasefire as an act of peace and goodwill, pro-Ukrainian fighters — from volunteers in the trenches to commanders back at base — believe it is simply a pretext for a rebel offensive. The pro-Kiev Donbass Battalion — the holdouts of Ukraine's national guard in Shyrokyne — maintained their positions on the edge of town, refusing to give any potential ground.
But on Monday night, the truce finally took full hold as the battalion made an unexpectedly rushed withdrawal and the Ukrainian military locked down the village, taking control beyond its outer perimeter. VICE News journalists were among the last on the frontline there; the atmosphere was charged with distrust, doubt, and defiance.
"If we pull back from Shyrokyne, Mariupol will be next. It's pure blackmail," said "Viking," real name Anatoli Ovdeechook, 52. He was one of the many soldiers to pour scorn on the plan for demilitarization. Sheltering from the oppressive mid-afternoon heat in a cramped bunker, the infantryman told VICE News he would ignore any order to withdraw from his front-line position. "It would only give the rebels more ground," he added. "We've lost too many men for that."
Further into the ravaged village, more Donbass volunteers waited on a hillside, the Azov Sea stretching out below them. Clad in camouflage, they sat cleaning their weapons inside the former children's camp, now abandoned and barricaded with sandbags. Vladlen, 44, a father of two from Donetsk, reasserted his fellow fighters' shared suspicions.
"We are all totally against the demilitarization — this is Ukrainian territory," said the former restaurant manager. "If we leave, the next day this will be DPR [the pro-Russia, self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic]. This isn't the first time they've tried to trick us."
The peacetime use of his outpost did not faze him. "Sure, this used to be a place for children but everything in this war is crazy. Such things are normal now."
Photo by Jack Crosbie
Right Sector, an ultra-nationalist Ukrainian group, is among the fiercest opponents of President Petro Poroshenko. Unlike the Azov and Donbass battalions, the group's military wing has not been absorbed into Ukraine's national guard. Further west, they have been involved in a recent spate of serious incidents, including a gun battle with police in Mukachevo in western Ukraine and anti-government rallies in the capital.
While, ostensibly, Ukraine had removed Right Sector fighters from Shyrokyne, one of their senior officials told VICE News that the militia continues to dispatch snipers, scouts, and guerilla units without insignia into the demilitarized zone, directly contravening orders from top brass in Kiev.
"Our units are not acting officially. They have no badges and operate like guerrillas. They go there without Kiev's backing," said Sergiy Vasilovich, head of Right Sector's political wing in the Donbass region.
'The demilitarization is simply a Russian trick. Nothing good will come from it'
"Russia has still not fulfilled its promises so we will not move. The rebels' so-called demilitarization is simply a trick. They just want Ukraine to lose more territory and more people."
He vowed that Right Sector troops would remain in Shryrokyne and would reject any command to withdraw. "We will stay against the orders of the commanders," he said. "If we give the town back, Mariupol is exposed to invasion. We must keep it in Ukraine."
One of the stranger relationships of the Ukrainian conflict is the alliance between Right Sector and a predominantly Islamic cohort of exiled Chechens. "Muslim," who, after spending two decades fighting the Russians in Chechnya, now commands the Sheikh Mansour battalion, supported the claims that Right Sector's paramilitary units operate illicitly in no-man's land.
"We don't like to interfere with Right Sector and their guerilla fighters," he told VICE News. "We are here to fight only Russia. As far as we are concerned, they can do whatever they like."
Muslim added: "The demilitarization is simply a Russian trick. Nothing good will come from it. They play war like chess.
"Churchill said a deal with Russia is not worth the paper it's written on. We will watch what happens and do what we think is right. We've learned a lot about mountain and urban guerilla warfare over the last 20 years fighting Russia."
Photo by Jack Crosbie
Facts are a rare commodity in this war; the objectives and strategy of both sides tend to be shrouded in hearsay, propaganda, lie, and counter-lie. A local journalist with high-level contacts in the Ukrainian military offered one compelling theory about the demilitarization of Shyrokyne.
He told VICE News that the Azov and Donbass battalions would withdraw only after receiving a written order from the Ministry of Interior. "But these commanders are concerned about such an order because they know a withdrawal could open up the front to attack," he added. "And if they gave a written command, that document would prove they were responsible."
It is unclear if a written command or something less formal led to Monday night's withdrawal. However, Semen Semenchenko, the founder of Donbass battalion, claimed on Monday that his fighters had seen part of a classified order to withdraw their units stationed at Shyrokyne.
Just a few miles from the front, local activists gathered on Monday night to support the returning soldiers and protest against the withdrawal. Life in Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of 500,000, seems to continue as usual and a rebel takeover looks unlikely for now.
Nevertheless, civilians refuse to let their guard down. Lera Garmash, 28, who manages a volunteer center supplying aid to soldiers, spoke to VICE News two days before Donbass battalion pulled out. "Some authorities are suggesting an even wider buffer zone, which could bring the rebels still closer to Mariupol," she said. "I strongly oppose it — the risk of invasion is too high."
In a back room there, women volunteers were hard at work creating a camouflage net from strips of material and painstakingly stitching together a sniper's outfit with strands torn from a hessian sack.
One, Olga, said: "I do not want Mariupol to become like Donetsk. That used to be a civilized city but is now ruled by savages. I am 100 percent Ukrainian but I think and speak the same as a Russian. So why do we fight?
"Shyrokyne must not be demilitarized. The rebels cannot be trusted."
Photo by Jack Crosbie
On the road east to Shyrokyne lies a sprawling, abandoned sports college, now requisitioned as the base for the Azov battalion. The group's 1,600 men — long accused of links to far-right and neo-Nazi groups — have been leading the defense of the coastal village as part of an informal rotation with Donbass.
Andrei Dzyachenko, the battalion's spokesman, insisted they would reluctantly obey the upcoming withdrawal, which was first planned in April but failed to materialize due to distrust on both sides. "The separatists pulled out first because they had suffered many losses and held the low ground. Sooner or later they were going to have to retreat.
"So Moscow made this beautiful move and dubbed it a demilitarization. It is in their interest and Azov strongly opposes it. We do not believe the words of our enemy. However, we will follow the orders from above.
"We have to," he added. "We're not some Colombian paramilitary group."
'This conflict can break a man's mind'
Monday night's lightning withdrawal was kept under wraps until the last minute. Two days before, Jaroslav Cheriznoy, a press officer for the Ukrainian military, told VICE News that there was no plan to pull back before August 3 at the earliest, when OSCE monitors could confirm the demilitarization.
Speaking outside their base at Mariupol airport, he said: "Separatists expect our soldiers to withdraw. It must move step by step. We will only move when OSCE determines that it is safe."
The Ukrainian military is all too aware of its limited control over some volunteer militias. Cheriznoy said: "The Donbass Battalion is a state unit and obliged to follow orders." When asked about the refusal of other units, such as Right Sector, to follow orders, he replied: "We hope they will."
Photo by Jack Crosbie
Back at the front, Viking, a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, kept watch over Shyrokyne. Trees were shredded by shrapnel and soldiers moved without speaking through the network of trenches.
"My son teaches at a university. Let him do that — I'll fight. This conflict can break a man's mind," he said.
"Believe it or not, I find this place tougher than Afghanistan. There we could move forward, take land, make progress. Here it is wait, wait, wait. We've been shelled every day — at least the mujahideen had fewer weapons."
Three days later, his comrades were grudgingly pulled back — deflated, disappointed and weary. The village of Shyrokyne remains devastated, the fate of Mariupol unknown.
Follow Jack Losh on Twitter: @jacklosh