DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine — In the freezing, muddy winter that plagues eastern Ukraine, dozens of buses rolled down a highway Friday, bringing a glimmer of hope to those trapped for weeks in the crossfire of a relentless war.
The government-held town of Debaltseve, a key railway junction, has been the epicenter of recent battles between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops. For two weeks, the town has been pounded by intense shelling that knocked out power, heat and running water in the dead of winter.
Separatist fighters have made advances, taking Vuhlehirsk, a rural settlement 10 kilometres (6 miles) to the west, as they sought to capture Debaltseve, which links by rail their two main strongholds, the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
On Friday, in a move not seen before in this war, the two sides briefly ceased hostilities to jointly evacuate the few residents still remaining. Dozens of buses travelled in convoys to Debaltseve from both rebel and government territory to ferry locals away from danger.
“We agreed with the Ukrainian authorities that this would be done jointly, to give people the right to choose to go to the Ukrainian side or to go to Donetsk,” said Daria Morozova, a separatist official.
Despite earlier claims by Ukraine, the town of Vuhlehirsk appeared Friday to be fully under the control of the separatists. A three-story building on the main square was completely burned out, a gaping hole in its facade. Associated Press journalists saw half a dozen destroyed armoured vehicles in nearby areas, a testimony to the town’s intense battles.
It took a leap of faith and some gritty manual labour Friday to even get the evacuation convoys rolling in the heavy mist that enveloped the area.
Rebel-organized buses had to stop along the road for several minutes after coming across huge concrete blocks placed by Ukrainian forces to halt advancing tanks.
After the obstacles were towed off by a car belonging to monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Ukrainian armoured personnel carrier came from the opposite direction. A soldier quickly dismounted and nervously trained his rifle toward nearby fields.
More Ukrainian military trucks and armoured vehicles were parked on the artillery-riddled outskirts of Debaltseve. A bulldozer bore an inscription “Putin is a piece of crap,” sprayed with white paint.
Several residents didn’t know the evacuation was taking place until the buses arrived. Some said they could not get back home and bring family members to the collection point in time. Many looked exhausted.
Alexander Klimenko, deputy head of the Donetsk regional government loyal to Kyiv, estimated that 3,000 people still remained in Debaltseve out of its previous 25,000 residents.
Eduard Basurin, a rebel spokesman, said some 1,000 civilians were expected to be evacuated Friday but Morozova later told the AP that only about 50 people left on the rebels’ 20-odd buses.
One man, who gave his name only as Sergei, said he couldn’t leave as he had nowhere to resettle with his friendly Labrador, Charlie.
At one municipal building, those intending to remain in Debaltseve despite the evacuation and the imminent possibility of renewed shelling collected plastic bags stuffed with food, including rice, noodles, canned food, oil and other basic goods.
Arguments broke out at the food handout line. One woman complained that the labels showed the canned food had expired several years ago.
Shortly after the bus convoys arrived, the Ukrainian army began firing outgoing artillery from positions near the centre of town. Groups of Ukrainian military, separatists and international observers huddled to one side of the square where the food was being handed out, unfazed by the shelling.
“So when are the Americans going to send us some tanks?” National Guard officer Ilya Kiva asked AP reporters.
To the west, artillery duels between rebels and government forces hit several places in Donetsk, including a cafe.
The evacuation unfolded ahead of talks in Moscow between German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin. A day earlier, Merkel and Hollande had visited Kyiv to discuss ways to achieve peace in the separatist region with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Russia has acknowledged that some of its citizens are fighting among the rebels, but rejects Ukrainian and Western charges that it’s backing the insurgency with troops and weapons. Yet NATO’s top commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, says Russia continues to supply the separatists with heavy state-of-the-art weapons, air defences and fighters.
The fighting has killed more than 5,300 people since April and displaced over 900,000, according to the U.N.
With Merkel’s first trip to Moscow since the conflict broke out, France and Germany were hoping they could come up with a peace deal acceptable both to Ukraine and Russia — but locals in Ukraine were skeptical.
Speaking in Debaltseve, Zorian Shkiryak, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said he had little confidence that a lasting settlement could be reached for eastern Ukraine.
“For that to happen, Putin has to remove his army and soldiers and allow the Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian people to resolve matters on their own territory,” he told the AP. “But I have little hopes in this respect.”
A disenchanted Donetsk retiree also dismissed the new European peace initiative.
“I don’t expect anything. I’m so tired of this. It has been going on for so long,” said Esfira Papunova.