Ukraine's volunteer fighters who survived the massacre at Ilovaisk describe a harrowing escape -- with no help from the army that claimed to have their backs.
- By Alec LuhnAlec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, Politico, Slate, The Nation, the Independent, Vice News, and other publications.
DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine — It was a textbook ambush, fighters say, on volunteer militias who’d been practically abandoned by the Ukrainian army that was supposed to support them.
The late August massacre of volunteer troops leaving the strategic town of Ilovaisk through what they’d been promised was a "humanitarian corridor" was one of the bloodiest single episodes so far in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, leaving at least 100 dead. The conflict has now killed at least 2,600 people.
But in the days since, in interviews, volunteer fighters who escaped the bloodbath also described the battle as a turning point — one that revealed the lack of communication and trust between the three dozen volunteer battalions that have sprung up to assist Ukraine’s run-down military and the army leadership, which has been beset by complaints that it has treated the volunteers as cannon fodder.
Defense ministry officials told parliament in the aftermath that the catastrophe was due to the "leaking of information" — Ukraine’s military and security structures are allegedly rife with Russian informants — and the "independence of the volunteer battalions and lack of exact coordination between them and the military," the Ukrainian newspaper Capital, reported.
"The army didn’t come to help us — we were in the corridor for two days and they didn’t come to help us, and that’s the worst part," said a fighter from western Ukraine who goes by Frannik. He joined the battalion after taking part in the protests on Kiev’s Independence Square this winter. Frannik bandaged his own neck after shrapnel from a mortar shell hit him outside Ilovaisk, temporarily paralyzing the left side of his body. "All the battalions brought to Ilovaisk think the government betrayed us to destroy the volunteer battalions. The government fears us and wants to control us."
The defeat at Ilovaisk and a series of similar losses across eastern Ukraine in recent weeks are part of what pressured Ukraine to head to the bargaining table for a cease-fire and peace plan negotiated on Friday.
Fighters from Donbass said they first entered Ilovaisk on Aug. 18. The town, located outside Donetsk on a rail line leading to the Russian border, was seen as vital in the Ukrainian army’s efforts to separate the two pro-Russian strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Battalion fighters soon captured a school building where they slept in the hallways and classrooms between vicious bouts of close-quarters urban combat, they said. The railroad tracks, which split the town in two, became the front line between the Kiev’s forces and pro-Russians. There was no electricity, and the fighters drew water from nearby wells. Mark Paslawsky, the only known American to fight in the eastern Ukraine conflict, was killed in the early stages of the battle.
But the battalions’ advance into Ilovaisk became a death trap. And on Aug. 23, Ukrainian Flag Day, the trap was sprung.
Separatist forces started to shell the school in the afternoon with mortars, howitzers, and Grad launchers, an inaccurate but devastating weapon that can fire more than three dozen incendiary rockets at a time, Frannik said. "The circle started to close," said Frannik. By Ukrainian Independence Day, on Aug. 24, the shelling was coming from three sides. A defense ministry official has said the Russian attack started then, and pro-Kiev analysts first began reporting attacks by Russian tanks in the area that same day. Volunteer battalion members said that they captured Russian soldiers in the area.
The volunteer militias were poorly-equipped. Donbass Battalion fighter Igor Kanakov, a former army medic, described using tampons to stanch wounds, and trying to make 40 vials of anti-shock medication last among almost 300 soldiers.
They had hardly any armor — only half-a-dozen infantry fighting vehicles, according to fighters. The battalions had been pursuing of a strategy of working in concert with the Ukrainian army: The army provided the artillery, while the battalions provided the raw manpower. But by Aug. 25, fighters say the military was pulling back its own Grad and Uragan rocket launchers.
"We asked for help in Ilovaisk, for the army to come and reinforce us," said a female fighter who goes by the nom de guerre Masyanya (the name of a Russian cartoon character). Masyanya was being treated in Dnipopetrovsk regional hospital for a concussion and a ruptured eardrum, after a tank shell landed three meters from her during the battle. She still can’t hear out of her right ear. "They didn’t come and we were surrounded."
By then, the battle was already lost. Volunteer units asked permission to withdraw, but the Ukrainian army command wouldn’t give the order, said a Donbass commander who goes by the nickname Bulrush. "By Aug. 27, we had almost no mortar or artillery support" due to a lack of ammunition, Bulrush said.
On Aug. 29, Vladimir Putin called on rebels to open a humanitarian corridor for trapped Ukrainian fighters to leave Ilovaisk alive. Dnipro Battalion commander Yury Bereza, who suffered shrapnel wounds in Ilovaisk and spent three days walking through the fields to escape, said he negotiated with Russian commanders to let them out in exchange for releasing Russian prisoners. But the corridor would turn out to be another trap.
Lyudmila Kalinina, one of the Donbass Battalion’s five women volunteers, was one of the fighters to who made it out. Speaking from her hospital bed, where she was being treated for shrapnel wounds, she said she was driving a truck full of soldiers out of Ilovaisk when her convoy suddenly came under artillery fire. The volunteers ran for cover but orders came in over the radio demanding they return to their vehicles. After a lull, the convoy began moving again, only to come under even heavier shelling. Kalinina said she saw a fiery streak fly into the vehicle in front of her before it exploded. The fighters ditched vehicles in the corn field and ran into a village. As machine-gun and sniper fire tore into them, they took shelter in local houses and started to shoot back.
The volunteers were out collecting their dead and injured when shrapnel struck Kalinina in her forehead. "I heard a tank shot, and I don’t remember anything after that" until waking up that night in the basement of one of the homes, she said.
Other fighters managed to make it out on foot, such as Lyokha, another Donbass Battalion volunteer. Over the course of three days and four nights, he and seven other men made their way from village to village trying to reach territory still controlled by Ukraine, moving mainly at night to avoid detection. They removed their Donbass patches and even pretended to be pro-Russian rebels when a local man caught them drinking from his well. The only food they had were some Soviet meals-ready-to-eat they stole from a rebel checkpoint and watermelons from a field they found.
In total, Lyokha, a 20-year military veteran, traveled 60 miles on foot to the village of Vasilyevka, mainly through corn and sunflower fields. "Since then, I hate sunflowers," he said.
The hospital where Kalinina and other volunteers were recovering is located next to the city morgue, and wounded fighters from the Dnipro Battalion, another volunteer militia, hobbled over on crutches on Sept. 4 to attend the funeral of their comrade Sergei Tafiichuk, who was killed in Ilovaisk. Russian Orthodox priests swung incense and chanted prayers as his mother cried "son, my little son" and stroked the velvety cover of the coffin, which was kept closed.
"The separatists flanked us, and he went to protect his group, but then a grenade exploded next to him," battalion commander Bereza said. Over the past week, medical vans from Mariupol have continued to gather stragglers from the massacre, picking up small groups of fighters coming out of the forests and fields south of Ilovaisk. Throughout the day of the funeral, wounded fighters continued to arrive in Dnipropetrovsk from Ilovaisk.
The massacre has galvanized the battalion commanders and their many civilian supporters, who have long been calling for more weapons and armor for the volunteer units. Battalions like Dnipro are reportedly financed largely by donations from businessmen, including the local oligarch governor, Igor Kolomoisky. This week, Bereza and other commanders met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, after which Donbass commander Semyon Semenchenko announced on his popular Facebook page that his battalion has begun receiving heavy weapons supplied by the government. (An interior ministry official said this week on the channel TSN that volunteer battalions had received automatic grenade launchers as well as heavy mortars and machine guns, and they would likely be given non-functional Soviet-era fighting infantry vehicles to fix up.) Ukraine’s parliament has established a commission to study the Ilovaisk massacre, while the prosecutor general’s office in Kiev is looking into filing criminal charges in connection the volunteers’ deaths.
The battalions enjoy popular support. During the battle, protests outside the presidential administration and the general staff offices in Kiev drew hundreds of angry citizens calling for reinforcements be sent to Ilovaisk, a demand Poroshenko promised to fulfill. Fighters in battalions like Donbass and the far-right unit Azov have promised that when the war is over they will hold another round of protests like the ones that forced President Viktor Yanukovych from power last winter. Ukraine’s new government, they say, is full of officials who are either incompetent or on Moscow’s payroll.
"We will close the border and then go to Kiev to change the regime," said Frannik, of the Donbass Battalion. "People died on Maidan, and no one answered for it. Now people are dying [in Ilovaisk] and nobody is answering for this. And we want to change this."