Separatist fighters continue preparing their positions in the war against Kyiv forces. Though this part of Ukraine has been relatively quiet since the ceasefire, tensions remain high, reports Kitty Logan from Debaltseve.
The rebel soldiers hack away at the soft mud on the hilltop with picks and shovels, slowly digging a long, narrow trench. The nearest Ukrainian government position is only a couple of kilometers away and there is the sound of sporadic shelling in the distance. This open ground feels horribly exposed.
"We're digging trenches and dugouts, because troops have to hide somewhere from mortar strikes." says Michail, a rebel commander, who doesn't want to give us his last name. "We're doing reconnaissance, trying to find out what our enemy is preparing for us. We're getting ready."
The troops say they come under frequent attack from Ukrainian forces, despite the ceasefire. Michail shows me a large crater in the back yard of the small house he and his soldiers occupy. He says a shell struck just yesterday. The freshly disturbed earth appears to back his claim. "They're shelling in a chaotic way, trying to find a target. It isn't clear now which positions they're shelling. We're trying not to return fire, or respond to their provocation."
The Ukrainian government has in turn blamed rebels for firing on its troops in previous days. It is not possible to determine who is attacking who at this front-line position in the open fields. But an exchange of small arms fire is audible in the vicinity. The rebel soldiers here are establishing a small base in anticipation of further fighting.
Michail openly admits he is from Russia, but says he is in eastern Ukraine as a volunteer. "I have experience," he told DW. "I came to help because they didn't have enough professionals." The troops are camped out in a cluster of homes built around a nearby farmhouse, several kilometers north of Debaltseve. Just over two weeks ago, rebel forces drove Ukrainian troops out of this area. The road leading out of the town is strewn with the carnage of conflict, burned out tanks, homes in ruins and charred vehicles. Many believe that the rebels will eventually advance further north, to regain territory which the Ukrainians took back from them last summer.
These front-line troops claim to have no heavy weapons, apart from an armored personnel carrier parked in the street. The rebel leader, Alexander Zacharchenko, said on Saturday that the last of the heavy weapons had been withdrawn, in terms with the Minsk agreement.
But the OSCE, which is monitoring the withdrawal process, disputes this. "Both sides have not provided the special monitoring mission with sufficient information in order to properly document what they have in terms of weaponry," OSCE Spokesman Michael Bociukiw told DW. "We're still waiting on more information from both sides on the corridors they plan to use to withdraw their heavy weaponry. And then thirdly we need to know as much as we can about their collection or end points."
But the rebel leadership says it is cooperating with the process. It shows a truck packed with mortars to a group of OSCE monitors. "OSCE is going to follow the weapons to the location that was indicated in the schedule," the separatist Deputy Minister of Defense Eduard Basurin told DW. "That will convince them that the previously withdrawn weapons are still there. They can count them, and they can photograph them to avoid more statements that someone is obstructing their access."
Poroshenko confirms drawdown
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says both sides have pulled back a large amount of heavy weapons. "Ukraine has withdrawn the lion's share of its rocket and heavy-artillery systems. The Russian-backed fighters have also withdrawn a significant amount," he said in a TV interview on Tuesday.
Rebels showed OSCE observers nine mortars being unloaded into a half empty warehouse near the eastern town of Tores on Saturday and claimed these were the last of the heavy weapons to be withdrawn. But aside from the mortars, only four pieces of self-propelled artillery were stored there. There was no indication where other heavy weapons might be.
The soldiers at the front-line position near Debaltseve claim that government forces continue to use tanks and mortars. "Yalta," the 7th company leader with the Donetsk People's Republic army (not his real name) was also skeptical about the ceasefire. "How is the ceasefire obeyed? Just yesterday, I had four wounded and one dead," he told DW. "What does that tell you? So, it's not observed. They [Ukrainian forces] shell us almost all the time. Mortars are flying, they are shelling us and they also have tanks. From time to time we're returning fire. I think this truce won't last for long. They're using this time to regroup and reinforce."
For now, the countryside where the troops are stationed is relatively quiet. In general, the fighting between the two sides is nothing like the intensity of what it was just a few weeks ago. But it has not stopped entirely. Certainly, the front-line separatist soldiers do not believe the conflict is over and are preparing for more combat.