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Woe of the War: Fighting in Shirokino

Petr Shelomovsky photographed a frenzied battle between “Azov” battalion fighters and the rebels in Shirokino settlement - the once peaceful seaside resort.


After the storm of Debaltsevo in February this year, the small village of Shirokino on the Azov sea coast remains the hottest spot in the Donbass area. Bird In Flight features a reportage by Russian photographer Petr Shelomovskiy, who covered the fighting between “Azov” battalion volunteers and separatists, the work of OSCE observers and the local population that lost everything to this war.

***

Deputy chief of the OSCE special monitoring mission in the Ukraine Alexander Hug is walking along the runway of the Mariupol airport. For a year or so the airport has housed headquarters of the anti-terror mission. In mid-March the mayor of Mariupol, Yuri Hotlubei, suggested restoring regular railway and air connection with Mariupol, but as long as the second largest city of Donbass remains pre-frontline that is hardly a feasible scheme. In May 2014 Mariupol was held by separatists for some time, and on May 9 there were severe clashes in downtown – a police station was burned down. Ukrainian flags were flown over Mariupol on the evening of June 13th, and for nearly a year the city has lived on rumours of an impending storm announced by the authorities of the self-proclaimed DPR.

As he walks on the runway, Hug is rolling a red suitcase behind him. Today he is wearing a strict dark blue suit and a tie. That’s very unusual — last year journalists normally saw Hug in a bulletproof vest and a helmet with a OSCE logo. He looked that way throughout last week. For eight days Hug and his team have been trying to stop the shooting in Shirokino, a small village on the way from Mariupol to Novoazovsk, occupied by separatists in August last year. During the February storm of Debaltsevo here in Shirokino, on the southern extreme of the frontline, fighters of the Ukrainian volunteer battalion “Azov” went onto an offensive, so for three months this quiet seaside resort has been a place of severe military action. We ask Hug to stand by a military helicopter that is about to take off for Dnepropetrovsk. We ask him for a short interview. He — as always — is very concentrated, diplomatic in his speech and reserved. He reminds us of the fact that so many people who have spent too much time at a war tend to forget — that beside military victories and tactic success there are also peaceful civilians to consider. They need a chance to go back to normal life, to their homes, but instead they are stranded in their hostage status by those who want the war to go on.

The picturesque Shirokino is jammed between the Azov sea and the war. The sea is slowly washing out the coast, while the war, it seems, has already destroyed everything there was to destroy.

Alexander Hug never mentions the fact that in Shirokino the OSCE observers have become a live shield between the two warring sides. But we know for sure — that’s exactly how it was — for we have seen it with our own eyes. The picturesque Shirokino is jammed between the Azov sea and the war. The sea is slowly washing out the coast, while the war, it seems, has already destroyed everything there was to destroy, even though some 40 peaceful civilians by some kind of a miracle have survived and are still living here. The Ukrainian military hold position on the hills to the west of Shirokino, while the separatists are in the village itself. Both keep firing.

Ukrainian servicemen are driving an MT-LB multi-purpose tracked vehicle with a zenith cannon mounted on it. In line with the Minsk agreements all artillery systems with a calibre over 100 mm must be withdrawn from frontline.

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Shirokino civilian Alexander next to his destroyed house. Shortly after a mine hit it. For two months his wife Tatiana and himself have been living in the house basement. In spite of the vehement military action, around 30-40 people, including underage children, still live in Shirokino, OSCE estimates.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_02.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

A volunteer known by the nickname of Filya from Sakhanka village outside of Shirokino demonstrates a chevron of the Russian military forces. This chevron cannot be taken as a proof of the presence of Russian regular army in Donbass — that presence though is proved by other facts.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_03.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

During their visits to Shirokino OSCE observers talk to the locals in the western part of the settlement. The remaining civilians have to drink rain water — there is no gas nor electricity either. Most of the houses are damaged by constant shelling.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_04.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

“Azov” volunteers’ battalion is making an observation of the adversary’s position in Shirokino through an optical sight. The warring sides are so close to one another that they are able to see and sometimes even hear one another. It results in constant firefighting with use of not just small arms but heavy weapons as well.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_05.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

Medical personnel from the OSCE group in Shirokino are giving medical assistance to “Zvezda” Russian TV channel journalist Andrey Lunev who got injured as he stepped on a land mine in front of one of the houses.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_06.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

OSCE representatives are talking to a local woman. Many inhabitants of Shirokino come back to their village when they hear of the OSCE observers’ arrival. Shooting usually stops during such visits.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_07.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

Alexander Hug is discussing with generals from the Russian-Ukrainian centre for control and ceasefire coordination a possibility of creating a demilitarised zone in Shirokino. From the OSCE viewpoint withdrawal of conflicting parties from the fire line that goes right through the village is the only way of stopping violence in Shirokino. In order to show that a ceasefire is possible, Alexander decides to spend a night in Shirokino.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_08.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

In spite of a ceasefire and presence of OSCE observers in Shirokino, on the next day a diversionary group of “Azov” battalion went into the village and hoisted flags of the Ukraine and Georgia on one of the houses. Both sides actively use diversionary and recognisance groups that conduct military action on the adversary’s territory.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_09.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

“Azov” battalion fighter is firing his Kalashnikov. “Azov” diversionary group was spotted in Shirokino. Geogry Gianelidze, the group leader, was badly wounded in the fighting that followed. Attempts on the Ukrainian side to take the wounded away resulted in more fighting that turned the coastal village into a battlefield.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_10.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

“Azov” fighters are hiding behind a trench breastwork. From small arms fighting the conflicting sides went on to use mortars of different calibers, launchers and other heavy weapons.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_11.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

“Azov” battalion fighter is running between trenches during a firing attack. It is less than a kilometre to the adversary’s position, the enemy snipers’ bullets hit the edge of a breastwork and whizz above fighters’ heads.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_12.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

“Azov” battalion fighter smokes in a dugout as he is waiting for the mortars to fire. The dugout roofs are made of slabs — metal blocks measuring 20 centimetres in thickness. In the time of peace the slabs are used as billets in metallurgical industry.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_13.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

“Azov” battalion position in the centre of Shirokino. Profitable location on the hilltop allows Ukrainian soldiers to get a good view of the separatists’ position.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_14.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_15.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

Shirokino is enveloped in thick smoke. In order to let an armed vehicle to evacuate a wounded soldier, “Azov” fighters made a smoke curtain.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_16.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

“Azov” fighters loading their guns. An active fighting phase lasts for 10-15 minutes. As soon as fighters fill the machine gun with cartridges, the fighting resumes.

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{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_18.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_19.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_20.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

Fighter of “Azov” battalion is firing his gun. After six hours of fighting it becomes clear that the wounded solder cannot be saved.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_21.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

Fighter of Ukrainian armed forces is guarding the meeting point of OSCE observers and Ukrainian officers. “Azov” battalion asked the observers to help them evacuate the body of their fallen friend.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_22.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

OSCE officials give over the body of an “Azov” battalion fighter killed on the previous day to the Ukrainian side. Communication between the headquarters and volunteer battalions is hindered, that’s why the officers still don’t know the exact reason for the recent fighting in Shirokino.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_23.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

Empty streets. Apricot trees are in bloom in the front yards of war-dishevelled houses. Torn wires, crooked lamp-posts, burned military machinery, wooden cartridge crates. Broken glass and slate fragments crack under one’s feet. From what used to the the road here and there mine “tails” are protruding. People have left their houses, and their hungry abandoned dogs follow you about and imploringly look into your eyes. But the emptiness around is misleading. What used to be a house became a firing point. As you are walking in the street you can always sense that someone is watching you, you look around and you notice silhouettes moving among the ruins. Before the war Shirokino had 1500 inhabitants, and twice as many in summertime — because of the holiday-makers. Now few dozens are waiting for the firing to stop in their house basements. So who remains? Old folks for whom to leave means to give up everything — to start life anew, and they are not ready for it. They don’t want to be a burden for anyone and they are not asking for any help. This is the third month of severe fighting in Shirokino, during all that time they have been sleeping in basements, drinking rainwater and burning candles in the evening (there’s no electricity, gas or water in the village — nor has been for a very long time). They remain to watch the shells destroy everything that was part of their life and wait for all that to be over.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/shelomovsky_242.jpg”, “alt”: “Shirokino”}

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