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Published December 03, 2015
When the wind picks up, the rattle of the corrugated iron roof of a destroyed gas station can sound like artillery. Four charred tanks sit stranded nearby, machine oil splattered on the ground, while a pick-up truck lies on its side surrounded by shrapnel.
Debaltseve, the center of one of the fiercest battles of Ukraine's war, lies in ruins three weeks after it was captured by Russia-backed separatists.
The struggle for the strategic rail hub — a sleepy town with a pre-war population of 25,000 people — became one of the darkest pages in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has already killed more than 6,000 people. The town is crucial because it provides a direct link between the two main rebel cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. So vital was the prize that the cease-fire deal brokered by Russia, Ukraine and Western powers did nothing to slow the rebel onslaught.
At least 179 Ukrainian troops were killed in the battle, along with uncounted hundreds of civilians.
Heavy artillery rained down on Debaltseve for one month beginning in mid-January. Those four weeks wreaked such devastation that the whole town has been turned into one heap of rubble. Today it is as unrecognizable as the streets next to the Donetsk airport where fighting raged for nine months. Entire blocks of flats in Debaltseve are deserted, the sun shining through the upper floors as if the roof had been blown away by a tornado.
The only crowded place at Debaltseve on a recent morning was a grocery store where rebels distributed free bread: one loaf per person. Of about 100 people in line, most were old and frail and appeared not to have washed for days. At the railroad station, a few yards away, a Grad rocket was stuck in a refrigerator car. Some power lines were snapped, hanging from the poles like branches of a willow tree.
Across the road, a burly man in a black Cossack hat gave orders to his subordinates as he sat outside an orange tent pitched on the main town square. Rebel emergency workers have been working in these tents since their forces captured the city on Feb. 18, helping local residents with blankets and water and charging mobile phones. Alexander Afendikov, the city's self-appointed mayor, said they are trying to return Debaltseve to normal life as quickly as possible.
"Every house has been if not destroyed, then damaged," Afendikov said. "Ninety-nine percent of the glazing has been shattered."
Afendikov was among the rebels who besieged Debaltseve in February, pounding the town with artillery. Now the rebels are collecting construction materials to rebuild the town from Russian humanitarian convoys and "various private organizations" from Russia and other countries, Afendikov said.
The priority is given to hospitals, schools and big apartment blocks. Private houses — where the majority of Debaltseve residents once lived — are not likely to get much aid any time soon. "I can't send a group of glass workers to a small private house when there's a big apartment block nearby," Afendikov said. "And you can turn on the heating there and move 100-300 people there."
On the edge of town, one of the city's two main hospitals was spared a direct artillery hit but several shells landed nearby, shattering all windows. On a recent afternoon, some of them were boarded up while others were covered by white plastic sheets with the emblem of the UN's refugee agency. Workers were putting up new glazing on the second floor.
The corridors on the ground floor were freezing and deserted. Behind a blanket covering a door flame, a woman dressed in a white uniform and several layers of clothing sat at a desk next to a small coal stove. Marina Trifonova, a senior nurse, is one of the few hospital staffers who did not flee the war and stayed here when the hospital was evacuated in the siege.
"Many have left. Some are returning, some aren't," she said. "I belong here."
The hospital still has no running water or central heating but it reopened a week ago. It now accommodates six patients, most of them elderly people with bronchitis caught while seeking shelter in damp basements from artillery attacks.
Nataliya Maslova, a 62-year-old woman in a bright orange headscarf, had been in the hospital for six days since catching bronchitis in a basement. Her apartment block was hit by a shell, shattering her apartment windows in the middle of winter.
"We've seen a lot of fear," she said. "Everyone was gone. I was the only person left in our stairwell."
Local residents speak about the battle of Debaltseve as if the Ukrainian troops had been invading forces from an alien land. They blame Ukraine for the devastation, even though it was the rebels who carried out the shelling as they encircled the city.
"Why did they come to our land?" Maslova asked lying on a hospital bed. "They destroyed everything."
Maslova recollected the horrors she endured alone in the cold, lonely shelter.
"I don't want to remember," she said, beginning to sob. "I thank God I stayed alive — but what horrors we have seen! So many corpses, dogs were gnawing those corpses. There was so little of it left you couldn't even bury them."
Associated Press reporters who visited Debaltseve after it was captured by the rebels saw uncovered bodies of Ukrainian soldiers lying on the side of the road and in the yards of homes.
"People were buried anywhere possible," Maslova recalled, "in craters, on the streets, in the yards."
A cemetery on the northern fringes of the town does not have many fresh graves. One of those tombs had been turned into a crater by recent shelling. A plain wooden cross lay broken in two, surrounded by the petals of wreaths.
Nadezhda Ignatenko, a 65-year-old who lives on the street leading to the cemetery, explained that the shelling was so intense that locals found it impossible to give their loved ones a proper burial.
"There are no coffins here, nothing," she said. "People would be wrapped in a piece of cloth and buried in the yard — like dogs."
Ignatenko and her neighbors all have stories about deaths and burials during the rebel siege. One woman was killed by shrapnel. Her body lay in the house for days before her sister gave up finding someone to bury her, and deposited her body in a hole dug in the vegetable patch.
Ignatenko put plastic sheets and a piece of discarded corrugated iron in the window frames. But that can hardly retain heat, since there's a gaping hole in the ceiling of what was once her kitchen.
So Ignatenko moved in with her neighbor, Alexei Kravchenko, who is about her age and also single.
They now live in his house, which is less damaged, clearing out the debris day after day and looking forward to summer weather.