The warning from the balaclava-clad soldier brought the magnitude of the previous night's chaos into sharp focus. "You don't want to go any further — trust me," he said, standing guard at a military checkpoint on the road to the disaster zone in eastern Ukraine's government-held Luhansk region. "It's still too dangerous. Last night was a mess."
Beyond the rural crossroads, a vast plume of brown smoke rose above the horizon in the vague shape of a mushroom cloud. Less than 24 hours earlier, in the valley below, the small town of Svatovo was a scene of devastation.
Shortly before 8pm on Thursday evening, a fire tore through a massive ammunition depot, housing more than 3,000 tons of heavy weaponry, from mortar rounds and 122-millimeter artillery shells to Grad and Uragan rocket systems. Huge blasts rocked the town well into the night, while amateur footage posted online showed a relentless series of fireballs erupting from the sprawling arsenal into a pitch-black sky.
Emergency crews, bolstered by dozens of colossal, military-grade fire engines, headed to the scene to extinguish the blaze, only to be thwarted by the fire's intensity and danger posed by exploding munitions. A deadly rain of shells and shrapnel bombarded the town's 8,000 inhabitants for hours. Downed mobile communications and power outages were reported amid the turmoil.
Svatovo was placed on lockdown as emergency services launched evacuations and local police stepped up patrols to maintain order and prevent looting. The following day, two people were confirmed dead, eight more wounded, and no arrests had been made.
Amateur footage of the weapons depot exploding in Svatovo.
Fears of a possible sabotage attack were fuelled as the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) opened a terrorist investigation into the incident, claiming that an assailant had fired a flare into the facility. Ukraine's Minister of Defense Stepan Poltorak weighed in, blaming the incident on "enemy action" aimed at "destabilizing the situation in the region." Some locals questioned why authorities were so quick to push the terror attack theory.
"Maybe it was an attack or maybe it was just a negligent worker," one local taxi driver said. "Either way, a 'terrorist investigation' is a pretty good way of passing the buck."
VICE News was among the first into the disaster zone. Soldiers, firemen, police and paramedics – all members of the emergency response task force – seemed to outnumber civilians at least three to one in the town center.
'Shells were flying in all directions. They only needed a little heat and once one bomb was sparked, it set off a chain reaction.'
Scores of military personnel loitered on a backstreet after top brass had them bussed in earlier that day. More than a dozen fire engines were crammed together on another backstreet. There, Alexander Chali, a spokesman for the local fire and rescue service, relayed the sense of urgency and helplessness that had faced emergency crews when first alerted the night before.
"It was just an ordinary day and then the call came in," he said. "We moved quickly and when we arrived, we soon realized the enormity of the situation. Shells were flying in all directions. They only needed a little heat and once one bomb was sparked, it set off a chain reaction."
Fire engines and firemen outside their HQ in Svatovo, the day after the ammo dump blaze. (Photo by Jack Losh)
Firefighters focused on containing the blaze while a squad was dispatched to collect the plethora of unexploded ordnance scattered throughout the town and surrounding area. "It was a very dangerous situation for our men," Chali said.
Behind him, a group of weary firemen sat hunched over steaming mugs of coffee in the cold afternoon. They had just finished their gruelling shift in the epicentre and sat in silence.
The scale of destruction only became apparent on the road out of town, heading southeast toward the rebel-held city of Luhansk.
The long, flat highway bordered the smoldering wreckage of the military complex, described by locals as an abandoned milk-production plant commandeered by the Ukrainian army at the outbreak of war last year. Wreckage from the chaos was scattered every few meters — an empty shell casing here, a live mortar round there. Warped metal littered the tarmac amid the shredded foliage of nearby trees. The clutter of shrapnel and munitions had rendered the main road a perilous slalom course, forcing cars to zigzag around the weaponry.
'Everything around us was burning. The sky seemed to be raining fire.'
Manning a checkpoint just a few hundred meters from the annihilated facility, a bearded and unsmiling soldier from Ukraine's Sich Battalion described the night before. "Fire just filled the sky," said the infantryman, who gave his name as Otto. "Thousands of rockets and shells were firing into the air and falling down around us."
His checkpoint lies around 60 miles north of the front line in Ukraine's far-eastern fringes, a region already traumatized by more than 18 months of unrest and war. Surely the experience had been terrifying? "Not at all," he replied with cold disdain. "I've been fighting now for a year and a half. I'm used to it."
While a military cordon kept the entire complex off limits, a small residential street less than 300 meters from ground zero was still accessible. There, a retired couple were still recovering from the previous night's terror.
Andre, a local man, holds some shrapnel that fell close to his house just a few hundred meters from the epicenter of the disaster. (Photo by Jack Losh)
"I felt as if I was in Hell," said Vera Perichachka, a 60-year-old grandmother of five, who had spent most of the night sheltering in the basement. Her husband Ivan, 65, had kept watch outside to ensure that their cottage would not be set ablaze as he dodged the hail of shrapnel and explosives. "The ground wouldn't stop shaking, the shockwaves destroyed all the windows," Vera said. "One particularly powerful shockwave even managed to destroy our basement door."
Earlier that evening, she and her husband had run over to her daughter's house more than a kilometer away to check she and her baby were okay. "We'd tried calling but the phone signal was knocked out," Vera said. "Everything around us was burning. The sky seemed to be raining fire."
'Fire just filled the sky. Thousands of rockets and shells were firing into the air and falling down around us.'
Explosions continued through the night. "It was just bang, bang, bang, bang, bang," said Vera. "Like a machine gun but louder. It built to a crescendo at around 1am and then finally began to slow down. Now I just feel wiped out. I've taken all the pills I can find and I still feel stressed."
In the aftermath, locals have questioned the authorities' decision to station a major ammunition depot so close to residential properties. "Whoever did that was stupid," said Ivan. "It was a bad, bad idea. There are too many homes nearby and now look what's happened."
Leaning against his garden gate, the retired engineer looked surprisingly relaxed, despite his hours unshielded in the eye of the storm. "I didn't feel great when I was out in the garden but I kept my hopes up," he said nonchalantly. "I had to stay optimistic."
Official footage of the clean-up operation in Svatovo.
Sporadic explosions continued into the afternoon as remaining stockpiles went up in flames. "Sometimes a shell explodes but it is not firing outside the cordon," assured Ruslan Kachuk, a spokesman for the military in Luhansk region, during a phone interview with VICE News. One of the previous night's fatalities included a shop worker, struck by a fragment from an exploding shell, according to the region's deputy governor, Yury Klimenko. In total, around 35 multi-story buildings were damaged, as well as local schools and government offices.
As the sun set on Svatovo and the temperature sank below freezing, Vera and Ivan's neighbour Andre showed up. A sanguine bear of a man in his 40s, he seemed to have spent most of the day counterbalancing the previous night's horror with a warming vodka session.
"Shrapnel was just flying through the air," he grinned. "I bought this house six months ago… Now look at it. My roof's damaged and all the windows are blown out. But what can you do?"
He handed over a large, jagged chunk of shrapnel that had hurtled onto his yard just hours earlier. "Here you are – present from Svatovo."
Follow Jack Losh on Twitter: @jacklosh
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