SVITLODARSK, Ukraine — As the world celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25, Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed separatists were exchanging the dead bodies of their comrades — two for two.
These were some of the fighters killed as result of a week-long escalation on the frontline around Svitlodarsk in Donetsk Oblast, called by Ukrainian military authorities the “Svitlodarsk curve” because of the contact line’s shape.
Six Ukrainian soldiers were killed and dozens wounded in fights which started late on Dec. 18, according to a battalion commander from 54th brigade using the nom-de-guerre Kupol. His unit is fighting in the area.
The Ukrainian military claims that it managed to advance around 1.5 kilometers into separatist-held territory, in spite of the separatists first launching this week’s offensive. Ukrainian soldiers gained new positions near the village of Luhanske, the government claims.
“We think the separatists started it all by planning to capture Svitlodarsk with its powerplant,” said Andriy Ishchyk, press officer of 54th brigade.
The Dec. 24 cease-fire didn’t last for long. As of Dec. 25, the shelling continued.
Svitlodarsk, a city of some 12,000 people located about 740 kilometers southeast of Kyiv, was shelled late on Dec. 23. Some 15 mines fell next to apartment blocks, smashing many residents’ windows while also destroying several kiosks at the local market.
So on the morning of Dec. 24 some Svitlodarsk residents were carrying home Christmas trees, while others were sweeping glass away from bombed out windows and cupboards.
Olena Bohoyevska, 35, said she spent the night in a bomb shelter, where she opened a bottle of sparkling wine she was saving for New Year’s Eve to cope with the stress. She had to hide there from shells with her little son Iliya.
One shell fell in less than two meters from her house and smashed the windows in Bohoyevska’s living room. Shards of glass were scattered very close to her child. “He started crying but thank god he calmed down quickly. I had to remove dust and dirt from his eyes,” the woman said.
After returning from the bomb shelter, the family had to cover the windows with plastic film. Next to the window, gas workers were fixing a gas pipe, also damaged by a shell.
The residents were divided on whose side shelled their city. “If you keep on telling me it wasn’t the Ukrainian military, there will be a quarrel,” one drunk man told another while standing by a small shop.
“We’ve just gotten ready for the winter and here we go. Now we urgently need to replace the window glass to keep the hospital warm,” said Hennady Huzhviy, head physician of the Svitlodarsk hospital. This hospital treats residents of all the local villages located along the Svitlodarsk curve.
The villages of Lunhanske and Myronivske were also damaged by shelling over the last week. Huzhviy said it was pure luck that there were no civilian casualties during the shelling.
In Novoluhanske, a town of around 4,000 residents located a few kilometers from Svitlodarsk, Ukrainian troops managed to advance some 3 kilometers on Dec. 23.
The soldiers of the Donbas volunteer battalion, which was formed in spring 2014 but later became regular troops of the Ukrainian army, unexpectedly drove into the town disguised on civilian grain trucks. The soldiers then established three checkpoints around the city.
Within a few hours, the new checkpoints were shelled by mortars from separatist territory, causing minor injuries to three soldiers while killing about 40 pigs at a local pig farm.
The battalion’s commander Vyacheslav Vlasenko with nom-de-guerre Filin (eagle-owl) said he decided to take over the town in order to “straighten the frontline, to raise the morale of the soldiers, (with the new military gain) and to stop local smuggling.”
Novoluhanske, which is located just eight kilometers from the separatist stronghold of Horlivka, has become a local center of the unauthorized movement of goods, mostly food products, to and from the separatist area. “Now the food trucks will have to look for other ways to get to the separatist side,” Vlasenko said.
The soldiers of Donbas battalion settled in a dormitory in the town center and the Ukrainian flag was hoisted over the local City Hall. But many in Novoluhanske still have anti-Ukrainian mood, since a big part of its male population serve as soldiers in the separatist-controlled Horlivka, said a Donbas battalion official with the nom-de-guerre Batya.
He added that his unit is going to check the local residents after the security services give him more data. “Then we will patrol the town, we’ll do the work of the police here,” he said.
Residents were circumspect in saying whether they liked having the Ukrainian army in Novoluhanske.
“We just want peace. But we are sorry about our children. My children live in Russia and in Donetsk and they are afraid to visit me here and I’m afraid to go to see them,” said Galina Kovaleva, a woman in her 80s.
After checking on whether the Kyiv Post journalists came from the Ukraine-controlled territory, she added: “Here, we’ve always been in Ukraine.”
In spite of the distant sounds of shelling heard off and on throughout Dec. 25, children were happily sliding down snow hills and waving to the soldiers. That evening, the local community center held a competition of the nicest handmade Christmas tree toy.
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