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The Corridor That Never Was. 5 Stories of Survivors of the Ilovaisk Cauldron
27 August, 2019
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Painting by Pavlo Konovalov. Hromadske

August 2019 marks the fifth anniversary of the Ilovaisk Battle. The military prosecutor's office is still investigating the circumstances in which hundreds of people were killed. Investigating who gave orders to whom, what were the orders, who directed.

Two people in the Ukrainian military leadership are most often blamed for the Ilovaisk tragedy. The first is Viktor Muzhenko, now a former commander of the General Staff of the Armed Forces. The second is Ruslan Khomchak who succeeded him in this position. In 2014 he commanded Sector B (west of Donetsk) and withdrew troops from Ilovaisk.

The interim report of the temporary investigative commission of the Ukrainian Parliament states that Muzhenko spoke about the corridor allowing the trapped Ukrainian soldiers to leave Ilovaisk only with the first deputy head of Russia’s General Staff, which was not enough.

The presidents of two countries met on August 26 in Minsk and tried to agree on a corridor in exchange for captured Russian paratroopers.

The Russians kept changing conditions: first, there was permission to go, then only using a certain route, and later they only allowed withdrawal without weapons and equipment.

READ MORE: Lost in Captivity: Hromadske's Investigation of Ilovaisk Battle

On August 28, Khomchak decided to go out with a fight. Some received this order, some did not, some read on the Internet that Vladimir Putin allowed the corridor.

The columns set off and got under fire.

We have collected five stories of people who survived the Ilovaisk Battle. These stories are more like a movie plot than reality. And these are just five of the thousands of stories that actually happened.

1

Yuriy Sinkovskyy, Deputy Commander of the 40th Battalion Kryvbas

They kept defense in the village of Zelene. They came there on August 8, the task was to hold off for 2-3 days while the assault on Ilovaisk continues. They stayed there for a month. On August 20, they were attacked with tanks.

"I decided to arrange the position just under the wagons, between the rails. There were stones, the guys said, "No-no, we can't dig." But after the shelling started they managed to dig in. We had enough ammunition. Jokingly, I asked the guys to count how many shells were fired our way in a day - it was from 250 to 400. In addition to the shelling, there were assaults.

We were doing a roll call every 15 minutes, everyone knew their firing sector.

Around 5 a.m. on August 10 something came over me. I contact the "Rails" (control point -ed.) - they answer, I speak to "Wagons" - they say 'everything in order'. I told the radio that I would go to the point where I got no response.

I came a bit closer to the village and saw someone sitting at the fence, a "hump" which was not there before. I turn around and ask, "Who are you?"

The first bullet hit me in a bulletproof vest. The second - to the magazine, fastened to the assault rifle. I feel everything as if in a dream, like jolts. The third bullet tickles my cheek.

A few seconds later, he made three shots from the kneeling position. I realized immediately that he was a professional soldier, not some miner. I fell and took only one shot, after which I started to crawl through the bushes.

The guys just fell asleep, they missed it. They were so exhausted,  emotionally too. And they [the militants], like locusts, have come along the fences. They fired at me from 30 meters. It was a very difficult battle.

On August 20, they started the tank assault. We were protected by planted forest, but they blew it all with two or three shells. We were too exposed. Their tank stopped in 700 meters. Then I realized that GRAD launchers (BM-21 multiple-launch rocket system -ed.) are baby talk compared to how a tank fires. You go crazy. You don't even have a few seconds to hear the whistle. It's just a shot and a burst. At once.

I told the sniper: "Stas, we can’t fire at them with a grenade launcher, there is no way to get closer to them. Maybe we can try to hit with a sniper rifle?” In order to do this, it was necessary to enter into an open position - to have a duel with a tank. Stas says, "This is a given death." Pasha the machine gunner says, "I'll go." He had an AK machine gun. I told him, "Pasha, at least do three or four bursts to the cupola."

We knew it wouldn’t be accurate. But he could at least hit somewhere. Pasha had armor-piercing bullets. He started firing. We saw sparks fly away from the tank cupola. He made three or four round bursts before the sniper started firing at him. The first bullet broke his hip joint. He started yelling but did around eight bursts more. The second bullet broke his urinary bladder.

The tank was silent. We noticed they threw a white flag on the tank. The guys wanted to smash them. But it could have been a trap. And there is a tank in the middle of the village. If the ammunition explodes, there will be nothing left of the village. I didn't let them crush the tank. Our task was to stay alive.

Pasha was dragged under the bridge, pierced with anesthesia. There were no medics - [wounds] were taped with rags. We were actually surrounded. He asked, "Am I dying?". I told him, "Everything will be fine."

After that, they began to fire from everything they had. For some 40 minutes. We dug ourselves in under the bridge; the shelter was decent. The shell hit the wagon. The coal flew, with shrapnel going everywhere. Then I got injured in the shoulder - like a mosquito bite. Later, I realized that it was a shrapnel injury. I couldn't breathe, somehow it hit me really hard. Serhiy ran up and said, "it's nothing serious". But I can't breathe. The shrapnel came close to the heart. I learned later that the left lung had folded and internal hemorrhage had occurred.

A few minutes later, our guys broke through. Then both me and Pasha were transferred to the hospital in Starobeshevo. I lost a lot of blood. I remember the nurse holding my head and her tears falling down my face. I still remember the taste of her tears."

Credit: Painting by Pavlo Konovalov. Hromadske

2

Ihor Pavlov, Senior Soldier of the 40th Battalion Kryvbas

On August 24, they were returning from the control points of the battalion in Starobeshevo to a camp outside the village of Kuteynykove in the Donetsk region. They were ambushed, the car was fired at.

"August 24, 2014. We were returning from the battalion control points to the base camp in Starobeshevo. In the village Kuteynykove of Donetsk region we were ambushed. Russians hit us from two BMDs (airborne infantry fighting vehicle - ed.). I learned later that they were Russians.

Everyone who was in the car was either killed or injured. It happened in the evening. I crawled to the forest. There were our wounded brothers as well. My arm was torn off and I got wounded in the head - a finger could enter my head. The hand hung on three veins. I was bandaged and injected with a painkiller. They were about to go, and I knew I couldn't go. And they were all wounded, they couldn’t carry me, I would have been a burden. I said I'd stay.

On the morning of August 25, I managed to walk myself from Kuteynykove to Mnohopillia.

I stayed in the forest at night. There was a fight close to me. Our people passed, and behind them - the Russians. I heard a Russian accent. When the sun went down I got up, gathered all my strength and started walking. It was eight kilometers. A kilometer and a half later I fainted and fell into the grass. I don't know how long I lay there.

It was already morning, the dew helped me come to consciousness. I went on.

I understood there was no point in trying to call anyone, they would not come after me - I was on the rear.

As I went on, I saw a Zhyguli car traveling from Kuteynykove towards Ilovaisk. There were a man and a woman inside. I stopped the car and asked them to bring me toward the Ukrainian checkpoint. They refused. They gave me a bottle of water and drove away. After a while I saw that car again, it came back. The driver stopped and said that I had to walk about a kilometer. I got to our post. I was put in an APC and taken to Volnovakha."

Credit: Painting by Pavlo Konovalov. Hromadske

3

Serhiy Shvachko, chief of communications of the 51st independent mechanized brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Before August 29, the 51st Brigade was based in Mnohopillia. During the withdrawal, the column was fired at, Shvachko was injured. Together with other fighters, he was forced to surrender to Russians. 

“On August 29, a column was formed. Top management decided to leave Ilovaisk. Our units lacked heavy weapons, there were losses of officers. At the beginning of the withdrawal, we were counting heavily on the “Green Corridor”. The media wrote about it, our guys read about it on mobile phones. Management assured us that it was doing everything possible to get us out. As we departed, there was a command from General Khomchak to prepare for combat.

READ MORE: Surviving the Deadly Battle of Ilovaisk

On the radio, I overheard talks with representatives of the Russian Federation. They made up some conditions: they demanded we go this very way, then they wanted us to abandon our equipment. It got to the point that they demanded we go out both without equipment and without weapons. We could not leave the equipment and weapons for our enemies, so we decided to go out in combat. Not every soldier received this command, nor could every soldier be provided with means of communication. The order was transmitted through the available communication means. I heard it and my commander Pyvovarenko heard it. On August 29, our column started heading for the village of Agronomichne.

As we exited Mnohopillia, we got ambushed. The very first car was hit, the second was damaged. Then there was the fight. Cars and minibusses started turning around. I was in an armored vehicle BTR-80 (APC), it has no weapons. Using ditches and wood lines, we managed to drive to Novokaterynivka. Small arms kept firing at us from the right flank the whole way.

And then there was the explosion. The blow came to the front, just where I was. If it had been a mine, the APC would have been destroyed, and I would not be sitting here. If it had been a landmine, I wouldn't have felt it. It was some sort of anti-tank weapon, and it rebounded off the ground. Shrapnel injured my left shin.

The vehicle lost control and stopped in the village. The village was fired at by artillery. After a while, the village administration asked us to either leave the village or surrender to Russians, because they promised to keep firing until they destroyed everything there.

The guys, who were bolder and not injured, managed to come out with guns through ravines, rivers, corn and sunflower fields. Those who were injured, who could not walk, who were morally exhausted - were forced to surrender.

I was just taken away in a car trailer.

It was a regular Russian army. This was evident in both the uniform and their combat ration. I also recognized their Petersburg-like accent.

We spent the night there. The next morning, two trucks arrived with our captured and wounded soldiers. We were separated: the wounded were left in that position, those unharmed were put back in trucks and taken to Zakharchenko. And we were taken out and exchanged immediately. From the war zone, I was sent to the Dnipropetrovsk hospital.

Today I understand that there was no other option than the one that happened. Different people perceived it differently. The guys who were walking later had more awareness of where they were going."

Credit: Painting by Pavlo Konovalov. Hromadske

4

Oleh Borysov, contact man of the 93rd independent mechanized brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Borysov was leaving in the second column through the “Green Corridor” on August 29, 2014. As they were going past Mnohopillya, the column came under fire. There were about 400 people in Borysov's column, but only 137 survived.

“On August 28, around 6 or 7 o'clock in the evening, we were told to prepare a column of equipment that survived the shelling. We were meant to leave the entrapment at 4 a.m. on August 29.

We started forming a column around 6 a.m. But as we set off, closer to lunch, we were blasted by tanks and GRADs (truck-mounted 122 mm multiple rocket launcher -ed.). We stopped, dispersed, and took defensive positions. About half an hour later, [Ruslan] Khomchak gave the order: "Get into the vehicles and we start moving out."

Although on the radio I heard that he was given another order: "Wait a couple of minutes and start negotiating." He said: "I do not have a couple of minutes, the column is setting off, we will break through the side."

We passed maybe half a kilometer when they started firing at us again, from point-blank range.

I had the VAZ-53 car loaded with ammunition and people, and an anti-aircraft gun ZU-23-2 in the trailer. We immediately saw that the first column on the road, the armor, went ahead, but we - the second column - remained behind.

There was a minibus, VAZ cars, GAZelle vans, marshrutkas (routed taxicabs -ed.).

We saw that there were already broken cars ahead. We turned left onto a beveled field. Then two or three bursts were fired into our car from machine guns. The driver jumped out and shouted: "We came under fire, get away from the car." We started to fight back. Then something else rather large "flew" right into the car, and I was thrown away by the blast wave.

When I came to my senses, I was lying in the stubble. I looked and saw guys crawling in front. I followed them. Krasnopillya village was ahead. We ran there to the old dilapidated building where only the frame remained. I just ran up to it and a projectile flew over my head into the wall. It was a direct hit, I was sprinkled a little with bricks. Other guys helped to dig me out.

We took up a defensive position. They fired almost until dusk when they ran out of ammunition.

Then they started shouting to us, "Surrender, we guarantee you that you will escape alive. Or else we pass over the exact spot, and you will be shelled with GRADs."

The man in charge of the post decided to negotiate with them. When he returned, he said, "We have two options: either we all fall here or we surrender." We could retaliate either by rifle stock or by fists. Thus we surrendered."

Before I was taken prisoner, I disassembled my phone, pulled out the SIM card and a memory card. I threw them in my sock - the photos and videos I took were on the memory card.

We were allowed to gather the wounded and the dead who were with us in the hamlet or were left lying on the field.

We were assembled, put in a semi-circle, our bulletproof vests were taken away, along with documents, weapons. At 12 o'clock at night, cars came to collect us, and they took us through some fields. They left us in a plowed field, where there were other katsaps (derog. for “Russian” -ed.) already waiting for us. Only the captain remained from those who captured us. He started acquainting himself with us, asking who we were, where we came from. Then he asked to show him the banderivtsi (Stepan Bandera supporters -ed.). We said we would like to meet them ourselves. We are protecting our land, our Fatherland, and why did you come here? "We," he says, "came here as peacekeepers." He spoke of banderivtsi looting, killing, raping, and eating children. They, in turn, allegedly came “to rescue Ukrainian people.”

READ MORE: Town of Abandoned Rails and Spilled Blood: Inside Separatist Ilovaisk

Little by little we got acquainted. I had four people in the ZU (anti-aircraft installation - ed.) Three of them from Poltava, one from Zaporizhzhya. Then my turn came. I said that I was from Poltava region, from Pyriatyn.

- Oh, so we are fellow countrymen, - he says.

- What countrymen are we? You're a katsap, and I'm Ukrainian, I respond.

- Yes, I am from Cherkasy, my parents still live there, he replies.

They wanted to take us to the Chechens right away, but he forbade it. About 80 people were captured. About 400 people departed in our column, 137 of them survived. They took the gravely injured people, saying that they would be taken to hospital for treatment. And we were placed in a plowed field, where we sat there for three days.

Then they brought us to the village center, seated us by the river, and said: “Sit quietly, the Red Cross is coming for you. It was two years ago on the Internet that I learned that it was not the Red Cross but the Poltava medical collecting company that evacuated the dead men. They either negotiated themselves or the katsaps offered to pick us up. Because they had nothing to eat themselves. They gave us one ration for 12 people.

Then this "Red Cross" arrived: three KAMAZ trucks. The wounded were put in ambulances. On the way, we stopped and collected corpses from fields, wood lines, and roadsides."

Credit: Painting by Pavlo Konovalov. Hromadske

5

Volodymyr Kryvulskyi, mortarman of the 93rd independent mechanized brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

The column went out on August 29, and it was broken up. As they were walking near the village of Chervonosilske, Kryvulskyi helped drag a wounded man into a passing car. After the car door closed, Kryvulskyi was left alone in the firing range.

"I knew we wouldn't be able to escape unscathed. I thought there would be a few bombs and that would be it. But I didn't except such cruelty. We were the last ones to leave the truck, two or three more infantry fighting vehicles (BMPs) followed us. As we were leaving, they were already firing. Then we unexpectedly stopped. Later, I realized that the driver - may he rest in peace - had been killed. We drove into a field of sunflowers. Everything was like in a fog, and when I could see again, I understood where the shots were coming from and started firing back.

Everyone from our vehicle was killed except me. I crawled away from it because we were instructed that it was necessary as it could explode at any moment due to ammunition being there.

I saw two guys dragging a wounded man. The bigger one of the two was in front. I started helping them, then the bigger one abandoned the wounded and crawled ahead.

Then suddenly a car appeared out of nowhere. I’ve seen it before, I even drove it, I think it was in Hrabske. I opened the rear door and saw another injured soldier. He was not badly injured. I started to drag the one we were pulling to the rear seat as well. I didn't know those guys, I just acted instinctively.

Then another one also jumps into the back seat, and one more into the passenger seat, while I had barely pushed the wounded man into the back seat. I grabbed for the rear hatch, the car started accelerating. There was no way I could run after it. Initially, I tried to, but then just let it go. The car drove off, and I was left alone in the field.

For half an hour I just lay there. I had no idea where to shoot. As rocket launchers fired, and cars exploded. Then I started walking. For quite a long time. On twenty occasions I, probably, almost walked into Moskals (“Muscovites” -ed.). As I was walking, I saw someone. I took off my yellow-blue bandage and shouted "Guys, I'm friendly." And then I realized that it was not our people. So I hid. By some miracle, they did not notice me. I got to a wooded area and slept there. Then I reached a village.

I knocked on some door and they let me in. They just asked not to tell anyone, as they were afraid that someone would find out. I will not even talk about them now. It was Kuteynykove village. I was fed, washed, and even got a chance to shave. I was rescued by separatists. They kept saying, "And you call us 'separs' (separatists)".

They came up with a legend for me so that if I were stopped later, I would know what to say. They gave me money and food to take with me. The woman said: "No idea how long you’ll be on the road, I will pray for you."

Credit: Painting by Pavlo Konovalov. Hromadske

I reached the bus stop. A car drove past, but then returned.

- Where are you going?

- To Starobeshevo.

- Alright, get in.

The driver was probably afraid of going alone: it’s not as scary with two people. We were trying to get out of the village. We went almost over corpses, corpses of our lads. It was horrible. A moskal stopped us and said - turn around, you will not be able to go over the corpses there. I was riding with a separ in the car, he was cursing ukrops (“Ukrainians”), but was I to do? I just nodded along. I had no choice.

We were stopped at roadblocks. They asked, "Old man, did you fight?" I responded with, "Guys, I’m way too old for this." I was 47 years old. But I resembled either a hobo or a drunkard. I was so tired and exhausted. This probably saved me.

When this man dropped me off, I took the bus. There were also checks on the bus, just before Donetsk. I was taken out of the bus. I was afraid of them going through my stuff. I hid my military ID in the bag. As they were checking my documents, they said: "Oh wow, we have Dnipropetrovsk visiting us here." I thought, "That’s the end, Volodymyr." But they spoke among themselves, then returned my passport and let me go.

I got out, and went to the military unit, where they said, "Damn, we’ve already sent a death notice to your family." But I made it. I guess I have great guardian angels."