AVDIYIVKA, Ukraine — It’s been exactly three years since Ukrainian troops retook the frontline city of Avdiyivka from Russian-backed militants in late July 2014.
Since then, Avdiyivka, a city 700 kilometers southeast of Kyiv but just 13 kilometers away from the separatists’ main stronghold, the city of Donetsk, has seen some of the worst battles of the deadly war that saw over 10,000 people killed.
The city suffered heavy destruction from the relentless artillery shelling by Russian-backed forces and was repeatedly put on the brink of humanitarian disaster.
Before the war, 35,000 people lived in Avdiyivka. Today, the remaining 16,000 residents are often left without fresh water, heating and electricity supplies, particularly in the deep of frosty winters.
Liberating the city
Avdiyivka was among the first cities to be captured by Russian-backed separatists in April 2014, triggering the war in Donbas.
It was liberated months later, during a successful offensive operation of Ukrainian army that made the militants retreat into the eastern-most part of Donetsk Oblast.
A Ukrainian motorized infantry combat team supported by three tanks of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade entered the city on July 28, 2014, and attacked the militants’ checkpoints in the residential quarters.
After a day of fierce clashes with the militants, Ukrainian forces consolidated at the city’s southern outskirts – and resumed the offensive on July 29. Together with the volunteer fighters from the Right Sector nationalist organization, the 93rd Brigade assault team drove the separatists out of the city within a day.
Thus, Avdiyivka was liberated by 56 infantrymen and an armored platoon, with no casualties from the Ukrainian side.
Battle goes on
Although the strategically important city was retaken, the combined Russian-separatist forces did not cease attempts to fight it back, and the years-long battle started in late September 2014.
Today, Ukrainian forces continue defending Avdiyivka, and the death toll among combatants and civilians grows every month.
On July 30, the city residents held a brief rally in celebration of the third anniversary of liberation, during which some of the Ukrainian fighters who participated in the battle, including the Right Sector volunteers, were decorated with medals for the defense of Avdiyivka.
Also, the Avdiyivka wartime mayor Leonid Malykhin decorated the servicemen of Ukraine’s Armed Forces 72nd Mechanized Brigade, who are holding the city’s defense lines these days.
Since taking charge of Avdiyivka in October 2016, the 72nd Brigade, nicknamed “Black Brigade” for its boldness in combat, has lost 48 of its servicemen, the unit’s commander Andriy Sokolov told the Kyiv Post on July 30. Ten of them were killed in action amid the upsurge of fighting for the city in the late January and early February.
The black obelisk
To commemorate all those who had sacrificed their lives in the battle of Avdiyivka, the brigade’s commander and the unit’s highest officers came to the action zone south of the city soon after the rally in the city’s center.
There, in the thin forest close to the enemy lines, a lonesome funeral cross and a black headstone stand several hundred meters away from a Ukrainian fortified strongpoint known as the “Royal Hunt.” Six months ago, on Feb. 1, 2016, the brigade’s 9th company commander First Lieutenant Leonid Dergach, was killed in action at that spot.
Even while alive, Dergach became the brigade’s shiner and the local celebrity. He was not a career officer, trained to lead soldiers into action, but a lecturer at the Chernivtsi University and a successful law firm owner. Dergach left his success and prosperous life behind and got drafted into the military amid Russia’s war in Ukraine in 2015.
Even in the army, he did not forget about his passion towards the science, assuming a nom de guerre Academician. Dergach quickly gained respect among his fellow soldiers and was eventually appointed the 9th company commander.
“I watched him commanding troops in battle, arranging the defense lines for many times,” Colonel Sokolov remembers as he stands at the black headstone bearing Dergach’s name. “And I was simply delighted. I mean, he had never served in the army before the war, a man of peace, a university lecturer. The way he mastered the art of war was simply astonishing.”
During the heaviest hours of fighting for the city in February, Sokolov ordered the Academician’s 9th company to repel the militants’ attacks upon the Royal Hunt strongpoint.
“On Feb. 1, I assigned him a tank in support,” Sokolov continues. “Someone in the company had to go out of the trenches to meet the vehicle under heavy shelling with the Grad missiles. He opted not to take the risk of sending his soldiers to their doom, and went out for the sortie by himself. And was killed.”
Even six months later, Colonel Sokolov cannot conceal the pain in his voice when telling the story of Dergach.
The Academician’s death was so shocking for the whole brigade that some of his army friends left the defense lines of Avdiyivka and rushed to Kyiv by speed train just for an hour – to pay respect to Dergach at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square.
“To my great sorrow, we’re losing the best people at this damned war. Black headstones like this one are scattered all throughout the Donbas. When the war ends, I wish to have enough health and strength to visit them all,” Sokolov says – and orders his officers to salute with their rifles in the sky.