The agreement struck in Minsk for a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine did little to stop the fierce fighting in Debaltseve.
Situated on a railway connecting the main rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, the town was the hub of weeks of gunfire and shelling between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces.
It was captured by the separatists towards the end of February.
“We survived,” said local woman Nadezhda Ignatenko. “It is impossible to express what we have experienced. In the beginning, when I could still hide in the basement, I would sit there and shake with fear. And shells would keep flying.”
Debaltseve now lies in ruins, with many homes destroyed. Hundreds queue up daily at a surviving grocery store, which hands out one loaf of bread per person.
One local hospital has reopened, but has had no water or central heating for a week. Patients there are mostly elderly people, who are said to have caught bronchitis as a result of sheltering in the cold and damp.
Countless civilians didn’t survive the raging battles.
Nataliya Maslova witnessed the devastation from day to day.
“There were so many bodies,” she recounted. “Dogs were eating them. Hands, legs, heads… Because it was impossible to carry them away.”
Debaltseve had a pre-war population of around 25-thousand. The latest reports suggest that figure has plummeted to between five and eight thousand.
The fight for Debaltseve represents one of the darkest chapters in a war that has killed more than six-thousand people.
While things seem calmer for now, one rebel fighter, known only as ‘Cherniy’ (‘Black’) implies it may not stay that way for long.
“It’s already the third ceasefire for me,” he said. “And all of them finish in the same way: building up the positions and accumulating forces.”
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