Eight days later, confusion remains about the slaughter that took place near the Seversky Donets River in Luhansk Oblast during a firefight that took place over a 17-hour period on May 22.
At least nine people were killed, both from the side of the Ukrainian army and the Kremlin-backed separatists. Others say the total was much higher – 29 killed altogether. Dozens of others were wounded.
The fighting, which began at 4 a.m. and didn’t end until 9 p.m., exposed the shortcomings of the Ukrainian army and why its anti-terrorist operation against insurgents in eastern Ukraine has been ineffective since it started in mid-April. “Our commanders sent us to carnage,” a captured Ukrainian army soldier purportedly said on a YouTube video.
Residents in the cities of Rubizhne and Novodruzhesk who witnessed the carnage say they will never forget that day.
At about 3 p.m., Volodymyr Panchenko, a 56-year-old pensioner, and his wife, Nadiya, were eating fried fish for lunch at their house in Novodruzhesk when fragments of a military shell blasted through their kitchen wall. They could only react 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 missed it mark and damaged Panchenko’s house and yard. He thanked the insurgents for helping him put out the fire, not thinking that it was their presence that put him at risk.
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 in Ukraine.
When Ukrainian soldiers tried to cross the Seversky Donets river from Rubizhne to Novodruzhesk in Luhansk Oblast, they were fired on by Kremlin-backed insurgents waiting to ambush them. The fighting lasted nearly all day and claimed at least nine lives.
Failed river crossing
The battle started at 4 a.m., when a column of armored vehicles with some 100 Ukrainian soldiers arrived in Rubizhne and tried to cross the Seversky Donets River over a bridge to Novodruzhesk controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry didn’t give a clear explanation about the purpose of the move. Some of the insurgents and also army sources say it was an attempt to get more territory under control of the Ukrainian government and secure the presidential election on May 25.
But the army never crossed the bridge.
The soldiers encountered 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 by a land mine placed on the road near the bridge and triggered by an insurgent hiding in a forest nearby. The soldiers, in turn, fired their machine guns and killed a guy called Stas, a leader of the local Russian-backed Cossacks.
The fight lasted for nearly four hours and ended with negotiations in Rubizhne, where the city council’s officials, local deputies, police and prosecution chiefs 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.
Fight resumes after lull
Barricades on May 22 block the bridge over the Seversky Donets River which connects Rubizhne and Novodruzhkivsk in Luhansk Oblast.
But when the soldiers started their move at about 2 p.m., someone began firing from the forest at both Ukrainian troops and separatists, so the fighting resumed.
By that time, the insurgents had 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.
Sharenko, a 42-year-old miner, 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 killing Ukrainian soldiers. “Why did they come to us?” he asked.
During the fight, the army started using helicopters that caused considerable losses for the insurgents and left big holes in the train station at Rubizhne, near the battlefield. Sharenko said that insurgents fighting from Novodruzhesk numbered about 300. There were professional fighters among them and probably some Russian nationals.
The less professional supporters of the separatists were digging trenches or just bringing food for the insurgents, like 42-year-old vendor Lilia, a woman in a 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.
Number of killed varies
The number of killed on both sides after this battle that lasted up to 9 p.m. is very controversial.
When seeing four totally burned vehicles, it’s hard to believe the official version by Vladislav Seleznev, the spokesman of the Ukrainian government’s anti-terrorist operation, who said that only two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 7 wounded over the fight.
But the Kyiv Post source in the army, who demanded anonymity because he is not authorized to make public statements, explained the low losses by the fact that soldiers abandoned their vehicles after they saw they had entered a trap.
Being mostly reservists, these people had a very low motivation to fight or keep their vehicles, some of which were burned by Ukraine’s artillery to prevent them from getting into the hands of separatists.
The source added that the Ukrainian army had information that it could be a trap in Novodruzhesk, but the commanders didn’t believe this and sent the troops to cross the bridge.
Valery Bolotov, leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, said his side’s losses included seven killed and 17 wounded.
Bolotov claimed that the Ukrainian army lost 14 men.
But Sharenko, who participated in the fight, said the total number of insurgents killed was 15.
He claimed that not all of the killed Ukrainian soldiers were officially registered. Sharenko also said that one soldier was captured by separatists and sent to the separatist stronghold in the seized Luhansk Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) regional headquarters.
‘Our commanders sent us to carnage’
There is a video on YouTube showing a man with bruises, a Ukrainian soldier captured in Rubizhne during the army retreat. “We were assured at our base that everything was quiet there. Nobody was expecting such resistance,” this man told to the camera. “Our commanders sent us to carnage.”
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 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 www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action. The content is independent of these organizations and is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post