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Russian-backed rebels are back on the offensive in Ukraine

Russian-backed rebels are back on the offensive in Ukraine

A new cease-fire agreement was implemented in Ukraine Monday, aiming to stem the escalating clashes between Ukrainian fighters and Russian-backed separatists on the ground. Despite hopes that this planned effort would calm recent tensions, there were a reported 200 cease-fire violations on Tuesday night alone. 

A previous cease-fire in the country, brought into force in 2015, has been tested repeatedly since Jan. 29, when hostilities flared up after Russian-backed separatists of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) allegedly attacked Ukrainian positions with heavy weapons.

These weapons – grad rockets, tanks and 120mm mortar rounds – are banned under the Minsk II cease-fire agreement, which is now widely considered redundant on the ground in the city of Avdiivka. 

Last week, Putin signed a decree recognizing passports issued by separatist authorities in the region. This decision, taken for supposedly “humanitarian grounds,” effectively means that Russia has withdrawn from the Minsk agreement.

Within the first three days of the assault, six Ukrainian soldiers and 25 DNR militants were killed according to Ukraine military intelligence. By Feb. 1, Ukrainian tanks were seen on the streets in the residential areas of Avdiivka and grads were hitting people’s houses.

Sporadic bouts of intense fighting are a regular occurrence in the war in east Ukraine. The separatists often try to make small incursions into the so-called “grey zone” between the battle lines, as do the Ukrainians, who’ve been engaged in a slow but creeping advance over the last few months.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who monitors the situation in the region, reports that there has been a significant increase in cease-fire violations this year.

VICE NEWS visited Avdiivka earlier this month, and found a city struggling with renewed violence and power cuts. For the soldiers of the 72nd Mechanised Brigade who’ve been fighting in the city, it really doesn’t matter who started it this time around.

“During the first three days of fighting, six people died right in front of my eyes,” said Andry Verhoglyad, a 21-year-old soldier wearing mud spattered white winter fatigues. “I knew three of these people really well.”

Verhoglyad had just come in from the front with the rest of the soldiers, where he’d seen the three of his friends killed a week before. “The situation is quieter now. Yesterday we had a tank rolling straight at us. [It] fired ten times and then disappeared. I honestly don’t know what to expect from these separatists, but I know that this is our soil and we’re prepared to fight for it.”

Vice News witnessed six exhausted Ukrainian soldiers returning from the frontline in Avdiivka, trudging down a path strewn with debris. They’d been fighting with Russian-backed separatists throughout the night, in freezing temperatures. This was the tail end of a brutal week of fighting that saw nearly 40 people killed on both sides of the frontline — some of the highest combat deaths in nearly two years in east Ukraine.

As well as the battle on the front, civilians have been getting hit in the residential center of Avdiivka. Close to 180 homes have been damaged by shelling in the past two weeks, and several civilians on the Ukrainian-held side of the frontline have been killed since the fighting escalated.

“[A shell] fell into the kitchen, then the explosion took out all the windows. My dad was sleeping over here and the shrapnel hit his leg,” local Avdiivka resident Olga Kostina told VICE News. She stood outside her house as neighbours repaired the roof. The shrapnel had injured her father who was in hospital, but narrowly missed her 10-year-old daughter who was also inside. “My little girl was asleep in the bedroom. We were lucky with the way it happened.”

Days of heavy shelling also knocked out Avdiivka’s electricity lines, which shut down the coke plant that powers the region. This left thousands of residents without heat and electricity for nearly a week. Emergency aid areas were set up, as hundreds of residents sought food and warmth in the freezing temperatures.

The residents at one aid area VICE News visited were desperate, living like refugees in their own city. The situation in Avdiivka was such that some residents were volunteering to be evacuated after the government issued an order to do so.

“Once [the government] issued an evacuation order, we decided to leave immediately,” said Valari Khudarenko who was just about to board a bus outside the aid area. He had two children, one of them cradled in his arms. “My eldest daughter is scared of the noise [of the shelling]. She’s even scared of the rain and thunder now. I want my kids to be comfortable. I don’t want them to see all this.”

Like Khudarenko and his family, thousands of Avdiivka’s residents have left the city since the war kicked off in 2014. Many of those won’t be coming home for a long time. As the recent flare up has shown, fighting in Avdiivka ebbs and flows, but it never quite stops.

Cover: ASSOCIATED PRESS

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