Little attention has been paid to the slaughter that took place across the Siversky Donets River in Luhansk Oblast on May 22, when at least nine people were killed and dozens others wounded. But residents in the cities of Rubizhne and Novodruzhesk who witnessed the carnage will never forget.
At about 3 p.m. that day, Volodymyr Panchenko, a 56-year-old pensioner, and his wife, Nadiya, were eating fish for lunch at their house in Novodruzhesk when fragments of a military shell flew into their kitchen through the wall. They could only look at each other in shock before fleeing, looking behind as their kitchen burned and one of their cows was left wounded.
It was most probably Ukrainian army shelling from the other side of the river, targeting Kremlin-backed insurgents, that accidentally damaged Panchenko’s yard. He thanked the insurgents for helping him put out the fire, not thinking that it was their presence that put him at risk. Yet he doesn’t blame the Ukrainian soldiers either.
All he feels is anger and depression over the violence around him. “What kind of war is this when the Ukrainians are shooting at Ukrainians?!” he said.
The grim events of May 22 looked like one of the first battles of a civil war orchestrated by the Kremlin on sovereign Ukrainian territory.
The battle started at about 4 a.m. when a column of armored vehicles with some 100 Ukrainian soldiers arrived in Rubizhne and tried to cross the Siversky Donets River over a bridge to Novodruzhesk controlled by pro-Russian separatists. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry didn’t give a clear explanation about the purpose of the move. The insurgents believe it was an attempt to get to Luhansk for an attack on a stronghold of armed Russian-backed separatists who call themselves the Army of Southeast. A Kyiv Post source in law enforcement gave the same explanation.
But the army never crossed the bridge as they received unexpectedly strong resistance when a group of pro-Russians started firing at them from a barricade on the other side of the bridge. The insurgents had their supporters in Rubizhne as well.
The first army infantry combat vehicle was hit a land mine placed on the road near the bridge and triggered by an insurgent hiding in a forest nearby. The soldiers, in turn, fire their machine guns and kill a guy called Stas, a leader of local pro-Russian Cossacks.
The fight lasted for nearly four hours and ended with negotiations in Rubizhne, where the city's mayor and local deputies came to persuade the Ukrainian army to leave their city. The talks led to an agreement that the troops will retreat, since the soldiers didn’t want to shoot at the civilians fighting against them.
It was unclear who broke an ceasefire agreement – a provocation on someone’s side or just a misunderstanding, but at about 2 pm. the fight resumed.
By that time, the insurgents received significant reinforcement. “People from Luhansk, Lysychansk, Cossacks from Severodonetsk and men from Antratsyt came to help us,” said Andrey Sharenko, who participated in the fight on the side of separatists.
A 42-year-old miner, Sharenko, used a gun against other people for the first time in his life on that day. This man was peacefully talking near the headquarters of insurgents in Novodruzhesk on May 24, just two days after he started killing Ukrainian soldiers. “What for did they come to us?” he asked.
During this fight, the army started using helicopters that caused considerable losses for the insurgents and left big holes in the train station at Rubizhne, located close to the battlefield. Sharenko said that insurgents fighting from Novodruzhesk numbered about 300 people. There were professional fighters among them and probably some Russian nationals.
The less professional supporters of the pro-Russians were digging trenches or just bringing food for the insurgents, like 42-year-old vendor Lilia, a woman in long summer dress with black-and-orange St. George's ribbon tied to it, who refused to give her last name.
Some residents of Rubizhne toppled trees across the road, trapping the army vehicles. As a result of the fight, the army lost three infantry combat vehicles and one truck to fire. The insurgents managed to capture three armored vehicles and drive them across the bridge to Novodruzhesk and Lysychansk, where they are kept now. A considerable group of insurgents fought against the army on the side of Rubizhne, forcing their retreat.
The number of killed on both sides after this battle that lasted up to 9 p.m. is very controversial.
Vladislav Seleznev, spokesman of anti-terrorist operation, said that two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 7 wounded over the fight, while a number of separatists killed reached 20 people. At the same time, Valery Bolotov, leader of self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic said their losses were seven killed and 17 wounded while on the Ukrainian army side he claimed that 14 were killed.
Sharenko, who participated in a fight, said the total number of insurgents killed was 15. He also claimed that, while retreating, the Ukrainian soldiers were picking up many of their dead, so only a few of them were sent to the morgue in Rubizhne and officially registered.
But whatever the real number of victims, this fight obviously deepened the hate and lack of understanding between pro-Russian insurgents and their supporters in the region and the rest of Ukraine.
Emma Saida, a 72-year-old retired school teacher, whose house in Novodruzhesk was also damaged by the bullets during the fight, said she couldn’t believe that once-peaceful Ukrainians would ever start killing each other.
“I was born in wartime, and will I now have to die during another war?” she said in despair.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.