The town of Debaltsevo, located in the Donbass coal mining region, de jure in Ukraine; de facto in the Donetsk Peoples Republic (DPR) was the site of one of the fiercest battles of the Ukrainian Civil War this past year. In February, an untold number of Ukrainian soldiers were trapped in the so-called “Debaltsevo Cauldron”, a strategic encirclement method used by DPR Separatist militias. [yalensis: I will go ahead and call them “Separatists”, because I think that is a fair designation: These are people who decided to “separate” from Ukraine after the coup which drove out their elected President, Viktor Yanukovych.]
The Separatists’ military leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, received his leg wound during the storming of Debaltsevo: He is still on crutches, and might limp for the rest of his life.
Debaltsevo was also the place where both sides of the conflict were required, according to the Minsk Agreement, to withdraw from the front line all weapons less than 100 mm in calibre. The Ukrainian forces pulled back first, taking away their tanks.
Then, this past weekend, Zakharchenko returned to Debaltsevo, but in this case for peaceful purposes: To oversee the switching on of the winter heating system for the town.
The new Mayor of Debaltsevo, a man named Alexei Granovsky, spoke to VZGLIAD about the state of the town, in connection with Zakharchenko’s visit. Zakharchenko had made the following announcement when arriving in town and meeting with the residents of the micro-regions: “This city was at the epicenter of military activities; therefore, up until a certain point, there will be no charges for communal services [yalensis: by communal services, they mean water, electricity, heat, etc.] According to our project plan, the houses which are first in line to be rebuilt, will be restored by 15 December.”
Interview with Alexei Granovsky (Алексей Грановский)
On 7 October, Granovsky was appointed by Zakharchenko to the position of Acting Mayor (pending elections). Granovsky is the former Minister of Energy for DPR, so he is considered well qualified to guide the destroyed town into the winter season.
Vzgliad: What is the heating situation in the town?
AG: We have eight coal furnaces, all of them have been launched, and we have hooked up the houses. We are switching out the radiators in all 152 houses. We have acquired brand new radiators. We have installed them and are now in the process of testing the houses, in other words, we are conducting hydraulic testing. As we let some water through the pipes, we can hear them groaning. Remember, these pipes lay underground for a whole year without water. And some of them suffered from the bombings. We are pouring some water through them, checking for micro-cracks, etc. It’s a slow process, but gradually, each day we are hooking up more homes to the heating grid.
As I mentioned, we have eight coal furnaces. In addition, we also have liquid and electric boilers, a total of 19 altogether. On Thursday we are expecting some fuel for the liquid boilers. The heat has already been switched on in the hospitals and kindergartens.
Vzgliad: How many residents have returned to Debaltsevo?
AG: Before the war we had a population of 24,000. According to latest reports, we have 15,000 now. Entire families are returning, including the young people. There are quite a lot of children. I don’t know the numbers, but you can see them out on the streets.
Vzgliad: Are you controlling prices?
AG: Yes, we have a commission which controls prices. We don’t allow any price speculators as occurred, say, during the Great Patriotic War. We allow people to charge market prices. Overall, the prices have stabilized.
In fact on 7 November we have a big event planned: Right here, in Debaltsevo, we are opening our first supermarket.
Vzgliad: The Kiev government has opened up two supermarkets along the front lines – they say with super-low prices that would attract residents of the DPR and LPR (Luhansk Peoples Republic). Are a lot of people going there to shop?
AG: Yes, they opened two such “logistical” centers – near Artemovsk and Novotroitsk. I can tell you straight out: Nobody is going there (to shop). These centers are purely for show. The prices are not that much lower than ours, and there is no point in going there to shop.
Secondly, one cannot even go there without passing a customs checkpoint. At an SBU (Ukrainian internal police) base, they check your passport. If somebody is on their “wanted” list, they arrest them on the spot. Crudely speaking, this is a trap for DPR residents.
Vzgliad (asks about the destruction of the town during the war):
AG: 80% of the town was destroyed! In practice, not one single building was left intact. There are homes with direct (bomb) hits, with damage, practically all of the windows were broken (in every home). I have been here for nine days. Our town hall administration building was also destroyed – if I am not mistaken, by a direct hit from a tank.
I travelled around to assess the damage; I would say that 70% of the damage is to the roofs and upper floors (of the various buildings). This is from mine-launchers. The locals tell me that Ukrainian soldiers right here, on the roof of this five-storey building, set up mine-launchers and just shot directly into the town.
Vzgliad: Did this happen while street battles were taking place?
AG: No! They (=Ukrainian army) started really shelling the city in earnest after their units had already begun retreating. They understood at this point that they were in a cauldron, that they had lost, that they could not hold the city. So they started destroying it. It’s the tactic of “scorched earth”, perfected by the Hitlerites, back in the day. These Ukrainian soldiers had good teachers!
Vzgliad: Even the pro-Kiev media admit, that the people of Debaltsevo had no special love for the Kievan authorities, even before the war. Hence, even back in those peaceful times, the city had no gas or hot water; and even cold water was turned on for only a few hours a day.
AG: The water situation is indeed complicated here. This is the highest point of the Donetsk Ridge, and water has to pass through pumping stations. There are three reservoirs, into which water flows from the central pipe; and from there, is distributed into the city. If I am not mistaken, we are still using the infrastructure put in place in 1928. This system is in a state of decay, the Ukrainian government never repaired it. Hence, for all 24 years (of Ukrainian independence), Ukraine slowly destroyed this city.
And as for the gas, well, every single person who ever became Mayor here, became Mayor due to one, and one single, slogan: “I will bring you gas.”
Vzgliad: You make the same promise?
AG: I not only promise, I deliver! At the DPR level we have a strategic initiative to gassify all the towns. Around three towns have been done, so far. The gassification of Debaltsevo is in the planning stage. This is going to cost around 95 million rubles. We will need to lay down a magisterial gas pipe, around 6 kilometers long. Hopefully, this time next year, we will have gas. And then, of course, we will have to refurbish all the furnaces and boilers.
Vzgliad: When will the inhabitants get hot water?
AG: Step one is to just get water period, so that it is on all the time. Winter is starting, the water pipes are groaning. (We just need to get through the winter.) In spring we will start the reconstruction (of the water pipe system).
Vzgliad (asks a question about destroyed tanks and military technology allegedly littering the streets):
AG: I don’t see many broken-down tanks in the city proper, and certainly none in the suburbs. DPR tanks no longer roam the streets. The city looks completely peaceful now.
Vzgliad: Is the “dry law” still in effect?
AG: No, the dry law has been repealed. However, alcohol cannot be sold to soldiers.
Vzgliad: What about the de-mining process?
AG: The agricultural plots are being de-mined. The military are keeping to their de-mining plan. The city itself, including the private sector, is fully de-mined. This is a peaceful city now. Destroyed – but peaceful.