Town of Abandoned Rails and Spilled Blood: Inside Separatist Ilovaisk
6 September, 2017

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

In 2014, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a crushing military defeat at Ilovaisk. Three years later, we returned to see how the town lives now.

It was the bloodiest moment in Ukraine’s long war with Russia-backed insurgents.

Three years ago, Russian and separatist forces surrounded the Ukrainian troops outside the town of Ilovaisk. After an agreement to allow the Ukrainian army to retreat fell through, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers lost their lives attempting escape the “Ilovaisk cauldron.”  

In a sense, the crushing defeat at Ilovaisk proved to be a turning point in the war. Ukrainian forces ceded the town to the separatists of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR). After the battle — widely regarded as a tragedy in Ukraine — the two sides suspended hostilities for the first time. Then, peace negotiations began in Minsk.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

Ilovaisk was the first time that regular units of the Russian armed forces joined the fray, according to the Military Prosecutor’s Office (MPO) of Ukraine. And Ukraine met a brutal defeat, one so great that exact losses have not yet been calculated.

According to the MPO, 366 soldiers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces lost their lives in Ilovaisk. Another 429 were wounded, 300 were taken prisoner, and eight Ukrainians from the battle still remain in captivity to this day. But the Armed Forces’ Public Relations Department advances other figures: 192 soldiers killed, 212 injured, 25 missing, and eight held hostage.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

And that’s without including volunteer battalions’ losses — unidentified soldiers’ bodies were buried in a cemetery in the city of Dnipro. The number of separatist and Russian casualties also remains unclear.

Three years later, Hromadske teamed up with the Latvian news site Spektr to return to Ilovaisk and see what life is like there today.

Ilovaisk 2017

Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is densely populated. Ilovaisk is not. With only 15 thousand residents as of January 2015, the town is so small that it often isn’t even included in statistical data about the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.” Ilovaisk was always closer to a satellite town of neighboring Khartsyzsk, which has roughly 100 thousand residents.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

But Ilovaisk differed from other small towns in a critical way: one of the largest railway hubs in the former Soviet Union was located there. Trains from the European part of the USSR passed through Ilovaisk on their way to the resort towns of Adler, Sochi, Sukhumi, and Batumi. People even called Ilovaisk “The Gateway to the Caucasus.”

All employment in the town was somehow connected to the railroad. And that status of “transport hub” is still important today. The so-called “road of life” from the “republic’s” capital, Donetsk, to Russia passes through Ilovaisk. Russian humanitarian convoys usually take this road.

Locals take pride in the road and its newly laid black asphalt and perfect markings. Nearby stands a sign with the word “Ilovaisk” painted in the colors of the DPR flag. At every turn, trees are bright with yellow fruit.

Along this segment of the road to Russia, residents conduct a lackadaisical trade in fruit. Seated in front of damaged wooden fences, they sell the local produce to the occasional buyer. The prices are “democratic” — after cheerful haggling, a bucket of pears, small peaches, large plums, or apples costs just 100 rubles (around $1.7). A jar of black currants goes for just 25 rubles ($0.40).

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

Not far away is a house “from Russia.” This means that, like many other buildings destroyed in the war, it was constructed with “humanitarian building materials” on Moscow’s dime. These small, comfortable homes, fitted with built-in kitchen furniture and appliances, are already well-known to residents of Debaltseve, the separatist-controlled site of another destructive battle. Usually the reconstruction effort doesn’t reach the fences, which remain pockmarked with bullet-holes. It’s very picturesque.

The builder of this “Russian” house — who spoke on condition of anonymity — said that Moscow allocates the money to bypass the DPR’s budget. A private contractor examines the site, makes estimates, and hires subcontractors for specific projects. This Russian money is used only to pay for construction work. The materials themselves — from glass to slate — arrive in white humanitarian convoys.

“Sometimes the paint is of poor quality,” he says, pointing to a building of the nearby school. There, pink pigment peeled off during winter.

School No.14

In 2014, School No.14 became a symbol of “Ukrainian Ilovaisk” after fighters from Kyiv’s Donbas Battalion holed up there. During the battle, it sustained extensive artillery damage.

Today, the Ukrainian troops are gone and the school has been renovated so extensively that you could almost say it was rebuilt from scratch. Still, traces of war damage remain.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

Principal Olga Kyryiak’s whole life is connected to School No.14. Back in the USSR she spent her childhood here. After graduating, she entered the pedagogical college in 1988. Then, she returned here as an elementary school teacher. After the Battle of Ilovaisk, she took charge of the school.

"Our previous director is now working at School No.1 in Khartsyzsk," explains Kyryiak. "She spent many years here and threw her heart and soul into the school. But it was too difficult for her to stay after what happened. Have you seen how terrible it was here?”

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

We saw the pictures. Kyryiak also saw them — as well as what remained of the school after the battle.

"We left town when the war started because our home was too close to the front line,” Kyryiak says. “Only my grandmother stayed. She still says she wouldn’t have gone anywhere. We got off pretty easy: there were no direct hits. The roof is a bit damaged, and the windows were broken.”

School No.14 school is large and surprisingly beautiful for a town like this. In October 2014, it closed down for renovation. All the teachers and children moved to other schools. Only six people remained: the groundskeeper, four security guards, and Kyryiak.

“We spent a year that way,” Kyryiak says. “The windows were all shattered. We did our best to fill the holes in the walls. We put a wood-burning stove in the cafeteria and spent the winter that way. The school was guarded round-the-clock so that people wouldn’t steal everything here.”

There was much to repair. A “Grad” rocket hit the building, and pieces of the shell remained stuck between the second and third floors. The roof was almost completely destroyed. What remained was reminiscent of a sieve. Near the main entrance and the coatroom, a direct hit left an enormous hole.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

But renovation wasn’t the only change in the school. This year, all the textbooks are Russian. The school equipment — desks, tables for the teachers, chairs, cabinets, whiteboards — is all humanitarian aid. The school received two laptops and two projectors in 2015.

“The new curriculum is DPR, but it’s similar to the Russian one,” Kyryiak says. “We’re clearly in a transitional period.”

Currently, there are more children studying at School No.14 than there were before the war. Back then, there were 183 students. Now there are 188. In 2017, there were 16 graduates.

“We don’t have a ‘Pioneer’ [Soviet-era scouting] organization, but every school has its own children’s organization,” says Kyryiak. “We also have the [DPR’s] ‘Young Republic’ organization in this town. Starting from age fourteen, all the teenagers have to participate in it. And all the teachers and school employees automatically became members of the ‘Donetsk Republic’ civic organization.”

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

We head up to Kyryiak’s office on the second floor. Along the way, we see beautiful canvasses painted by a student’s mother. Ukrainian soldiers used to take photographs in front of them. The paintings got lucky — neither the shelling, nor the elements damaged them. A display featuring the “state symbols” of the DPR stands to their right. Across the room, a special board helps monitor class participation in school activities. Each class has its own name, from “young patriots” to “the new generation.”

Before the war, Ukrainian was the only language of instruction in School No.14. “Now, of course, the school has become Russian, like everywhere else [in the DPR]” says Kyryiak. “There is only one hour of Ukrainian language and literature each week. That’s the situation...There are also lessons in 'civic responsibility, where they study everything about the republic.' And depending on the grade, there are four to five hours of Russian language each week, plus three to four hours of Russian literature.”

As we leave the building, two women are cutting grass that has grown up through cracks in the cement.

"I work as a cleaner at this school. My salary is 3,5 thousand rubles [$57],” says Yulia, one of the workers. “Teachers can even earn 10 thousand [$160]. All work here is largely in the public sector — at school, in the executive committee, in utilities and a little bit on the railway. Our husbands have left the town in search of money."


The streets of Ilovaisk are filled with noise from construction equipment, but the mood in the building materials store is rather pessimistic. It isn’t really even a store, just a small corner. The saleswoman is afraid of cameras and quickly grows annoyed. “Trade isn’t going well, and everything has already been repaired until [the end of] 2017!” she says.

We take a ride across the town and almost immediately encounter a monument to the Russian humanitarian convoys: a white Kamaz truck on a pedestal.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

“I’ve seen a lot of Kamazes. That one was in active use," says our driver. On the side of the monument is a short dedication to the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry. On the front: "From the Zhuravlyov family to the Donbas region." It appears that this family donated the truck to the local authorities, who turned it into a monument.

We stop to fill the gas tank. A95 gasoline costs 44 rubles ($1.70) per liter here, and A92 costs 42 rubles ($1.60). While the tank fills we have a look at the store and car wash. The bored employees tell us a wash costs 270 rubles ($10). That’s quite expensive — in Donetsk, it costs 100-150 rubles ($4-6).

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

“The machine oil I buy in Donetsk for 800 rubles [$30] costs 1200 rubles [$50] here!” our driver complains.

Ilovaisk is a transit town and this has a major effect on the locals’ lives. Food here is cheaper than in Donetsk: pork costs 220 rubles ($8.5), pork lard costs 150 rubles ($5.80), tomatoes start from 23 rubles ($1), cabbages and watermelons go for 12 rubles ($0.50), and other melons cost 50 rubles ($2) per kilogram. But those prices change when the target buyer is a “rich traveller.”

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

Iloviask has a working cinema, advertised on posters throughout the town center. A statue of Lenin still surveys Lenin Square here,  and a colorful sign — I <3 Ilovaisk — stands nearby.

The city’s enormous, stunning railway station is almost reminiscent of an Egyptian pyramid in the desert. It stands as a stark reminder of the Soviet era, when hundreds of passenger trains passed through the town daily. Back then, trade here was brisk. Women sold pies, beer, pears, and peaches at the railway station.

Now there are only three lonely girls in orange vests, like women trimming the grass in the schoolyard. Railroad life continues mostly on the 2nd track, where the commuter train ticket offices are located.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

"We have enough commuter trains,” the cashier says. “Of course it’s not like it used to be. When I started working here, 140 passenger trains were running through our station each day. That’s without the freight trains. Now, besides the commuter trains, only one passenger train leaves at 15:40 for Uspenka. It consists of 3 cars..."

The Russian border runs by Uspenka. From there, commuter trains run to Rostov-on-Don in Russia. There are also trains to the occupied Ukrainian cities of Debaltseve and Yasinuvata. The most expensive ticket costs 30 rubles ($1.2). The least expensive — 12 rubles ($0.50).

An electric locomotive sits on an otherwise empty track. "Who are you? Do you have documents or should I call the military?!" a young man screams from the cabin.

We go to introduce ourselves. He’s a machinist assistant, and turns out to be rather communicative. We talk for a bit, until he receives a command from the dispatcher.

“You’re journalists? Write that I get 3,500 rubles [$60]!” he says. “With such a frightening salary, nothing else can scare me!”

"Last month I got 6,500 [$113], this month I’ll get 8,000 [$140],” the young man’s boss adds when he returns to the train. “But in Ukraine the machinist gets 15,000 grivnya a month” — in other words, 34,000 rubles or $580.

"I also receive 3,500, and I’m happy! Mention that!” adds a girl in an orange vest. “I have my own garden, and there’s enough of everything at the market. We have a great pork fat here. People come from everywhere to buy it!"

We wander the huge, empty train station. Besides us, there are only a few solitary passers-by. We have managed to see virtually the whole town. All that’s left is a recently installed monument to the janitor from the Soviet children’s cartoon “Last Year’s Snow Was Falling.” The new monument was "advertised" to us at the local funeral bureau.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

In front-line cities, instead of the international "Big Mac index," there’s a "coffin index." The cheapest "social" coffin in Donetsk costs 800 rubles ($30). In a local private institution, it’s 1100 rubles ($42).

It costs 1300 rubles [$50] elsewhere. You’ll regret it!” warns the saleswoman, when she realizes that we are not going to buy a beautiful red coffin.

But the statue of the cartoon janitor is, indeed, impressive.


Next, we head to the neighboring village of Hrabske. That’s where separatist and Russian fighters surrounded Ukrainian troops three years ago. But don’t confuse it with Hrabovo, where Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down and crash landed. Each village in this region has its own monuments, history, and tragedies.  

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

Outside Hrabske, we stumble upon picturesque stacks of watermelons. In between the watermelon piles are a farmer and his family. They do a lively trade with the locals, who arrive here by car. The watermelons are well sorted by size — 7, 8, and 9 rubles per kilogram. The farmer’s son weighs the melons, while the farmer, Vitaly Rublevsky, watches him work, smiling. Rublevsky is a sturdy man reminiscent of a hobbit from The Lord of the Rings.

“Next year, there will be wheat in the fields,” he says. “I rent 700 hectares of land here. I have three tractors and a John Deere harvester. People are working. I try not to offend them, because there are few good tractor drivers here. Two of them work here. And I pay them very well — 15 thousand rubles [$250]. I recently gave them five tons of barley for free. It was their one-year anniversary of working here."

Rublevsky turns gloomy. "This tractor and this harvester I bought for a good price from a farmer who lives in Starobeshevo,” he says. “His wife was killed when a shell hit her car! That happened in 2014. And he was living opposite the cemetery ... In short, he said he doesn’t need anything now. He sold the equipment and went somewhere in Russia. He had good equipment."

After the war, Rublevsky says that he is not afraid of anything. No one could have predicted that the conflict would erupt, and he has lived through some truly frightening times.

“In July 2014, I was gathered grain under ‘Grad’ [rocket] shelling,” he smiles. “In the morning the shelling began, and about midday we went out to harvest! I managed to harvest everything from Thursday to Sunday. On August 11, everything began. On August 12, it wasn’t so bad. But by August 13, the land was burning. They were shooting from 10 a.m. ‘til night."

The neighboring field belongs to another farmer. In 2014, his entire wheat crop was destroyed in the shelling.This year, he has already harvested and sold his wheat and sunflower crop to intermediaries in Russia. Now he is selling watermelons. He has everything under control — besides the war and the cost of spare parts. In a few years, he will need to modernize his equipment. Currently, however, he doesn’t know where he’ll get the money.

He doesn’t approve of our visit to his native Hrabske.

"Don’t go farther than the crossing. The buildings over there were totally destroyed by the shelling in 2014,” Rublevsky tells us. “Our saleswoman fled her house in slippers and a bathrobe. And she’s still wearing them, because her house burnt down and took everything with it. Nothing was rebuilt, and no one’s received any compensation. Mention that in your story. Maybe it will help."

It’s a weekday, but there are no people in the streets of Hrabske. We can easily identify which parts of a nearby house were restored — the reconstructed walls are built from whiter bricks. Nearby, the newly renovated school has a wonderful playground, but the doors to the school are closed. No children have studied there yet. The lower branches of the surrounding trees bend with heavy, overripe fruit.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Isak

A small monument stands in the schoolyard: a broken concrete pillar with plastic flowers. The creators of this makeshift memorial attached a list of six surnames and an orange-and-black St. George’s ribbon, a common separatist symbol, to the cement with tape. The date on the paper: August 13, 2014.

/By Oleksandr Isak, Spektr.Press

/Translated by Olga Kuchmagra