Life in Debaltseve: digging for pasta in the debris
You can tell very often the state of a town in times of war as much by the demeanour of the soldiers at the roadblocks as by the sounds of gunfire or explosion.
This morning you could hear the flocks of busy sparrows – not detonations.
And the soldiers at the checkpoints? Relaxation itself: Cossacks in their distinctive black furry hats with red tops, greeting us warmly Kalashnikovs in one hand, cigarettes in the other, and waving us through.
We took the approach road to the main highway from the Russian frontier south-west to Debaltseve, a strategic railway town, and it is a bizarre sight today.
What little traffic flows swings from one side of the dual carriageway to the other past blasted tanks and fighting vehicles and crazily ripped-up sections of crash barriers. On either side the snow-covered fields are pock-marked brown with the splattering impact of days of shelling.
You pass a missile case, complete with fins, lying in the middle of the road and then it’s a straight drive into the first houses of Debaltseve.
In truth, from what we saw of the place, the damage is nothing like as dramatic as the Armageddon that obliterated Donetsk airport. But in town, a terrible and altogether more human story unfolds.
They are pushing old bicycles. They are dragging creaky homemade trolleys. They are carrying plastic sacks. They are, in truth, using anything humanly possible.
All around us the elderly people of this town, who somehow endured the battle in cellars, have come out to grab what they can, while they can.
I don’t know what the word for this is. There may not be a word for it. Pilfering, still less looting, seems too harsh for frightened, shell-shocked, vulnerable, abused people. Nobody can surely blame them for taking what they can from the camps of the Ukrainian army who fled in a bloody and terrifying rout.
Take just one whose name in Russian means “Hope”. In the freezing pitiless winter, at 75, she is bowed by age, on her knees, scrabbling with bare, filthy hands into the dirt to retrieve pasta sprinkled on the ground by the chaotic Ukrainian retreat.
She tells us her husband has died, she has children in Russia, but she is alone and desperate and confused.
There are so many like her and the claim by the rebels that they will organise aid distribution in this blasted landscape cannot become reality too soon.
Around us more Cossack fighters on their APCs and tanks waving their flags and hands, shaking our hands and even hugging us.
“You tell the world” shouts one of them at us joyously, “it was the Cossacks who liberated Debaltseve.”
Another fighter finds a Ukrainian flag, places it on the floor, and casually treads on it for a trophy photograph from his mates. But in truth there is not much venom or hatred in the gesture. Another Cossack shows us a signed flag from a Ukrainian unit which he has carefully folded up for a souvenir.
Not far away the Cossacks too are making good on the old adage: to the victor, the spoils of war.
But the spoils here are truly meagre. There are piles of frozen onion and potato sacks and of course the pitiful grains of pasta for Hope. All the soldiers seem to be taking away are some basic metal framed camp beds – clearly offering more comfort than they have enjoyed in recent days.
As we leave town a column of at least 15 Grad missile launchers thunders past in the peculiar late winter combination of powdered snow and dust.
Further along the road what looks like an aid convoy is slowly trundling towards this frozen, broken town.
Truly the times are now changing at last after the carnage of Debaltseve and life for Hope will surely improve from the underground nightmare of recent days.
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