Civilians flee as rebels gain ground in Ukraine
Ukraine | Separatist and government troops agree to a brief ceasefire today to let residents evacuate
by Jill Nelson
Posted 2/06/15, 04:33 pm
As fighting intensifies in eastern Ukraine, churches are on the frontlines of a major effort to evacuate stranded civilians. More than 220 people have died since Russian-backed separatists launched a major new offensive three weeks ago, and all eyes are on Debaltseve, the latest town caught in the crossfire between rebels and Ukrainian forces.
On Feb. 3, a team of men from Good News Church in nearby Slovyansk evacuated 135 people from Debaltseve, returning the following day for 40 more and an additional 100 people from Gorlovka, another town under heavy shelling. Sergey Kosyak—the pastor who led the daily “prayer tent” movement in Donetsk until rebels put a price on his head—was part of the evacuation team and described the situation in the besieged town as “critical.” There’s no power, gas or water, and people are hiding for weeks at a time in their basements.
“The situation is rather gruesome,” he wrote in a Facebook post that was translated by an English speaker. “They haven’t been able to bury their dead for the last five days since the cemetery is inaccessible due to heavy shelling in that particular location. I suggested they bury them in their yards but for right now the dead are left in abandoned apartments or garages, since the weather has been cool enough.”
Kosyak’s team brought candles and much-needed medical supplies to residents unable or unwilling to leave, eliciting a warmer welcome than he received during prior visits. According to one Gorlovka native who asked that we not use his name to protect his safety, residents in the east do not have access to the internet and rely on Kremlin TV channels for their news. He said most people who stayed in their homes “believe the Ukrainian army is trying to wipe out both rebels and civilians.”
Separatist forces have gained almost 200 square miles of territory since Russian and Ukrainian officials reached a shaky ceasefire agreement four months ago. Ukrainians fear a Russian-orchestrated plan is underway to create a corridor from the Russian border to Crimea in the south. According to the United Nations, more than 5,300 people have died and more than 900,000 have been displaced since fighting broke out in April.
With the humanitarian crisis growing by the day, both sides agreed to briefly halt the hostilities and support a joint evacuation effort today. Dozens of buses from the Ministry of Public Emergency rolled into Debaltseve, joining what had largely been a church-driven endeavor until now.
As the evacuation unfolded, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande visited both Kiev and Moscow in an attempt to broker a peace agreement between the two sides.
Moscow continues to deny direct involvement in the conflict but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said otherwise during a visit to Kiev this week.
“We cannot close our eyes to the tanks that are crossing the border coming into Ukraine,” he said. “We cannot close our eyes to Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms coming across the border and leading troops into battle.”