Eyewitness to War: Escaping the Meat Grinder—My Encounters with Refugees from Soledar in Eastern Ukraine

Sunday, 19 February 2023 — CovertAction Magazine

By Arnaud Develay

War refugees from Soledar in eastern Ukraine. [Source: Photo courtesy of Arnaud Develay]

As is usually the norm in this conflict zone, we had not received prior notice as to the day’s schedule.

Our vehicle worked its way to a district outside Donetsk called Shakhtersk, which bore the stigmata of nine years of shelling. The grim landscape of desolation stretched for miles on end until suddenly our convoy arrived at a nondescript location where a small crowd had gathered obviously in anticipation of our arrival.

We were greeted by a burly man whose washed blue eyes pierced through you like lasers. He presented himself as Alexander Shatov, the mayor of Shakhtersk.

He explained that, in the wake of the liberation of the town of Soledar, dozens of civilians keep arriving every week looking to escape what has repeatedly been described as a human meat grinder.

The author shakes hands with Alexander Shatov (left), the mayor of Shakhtersk. [Source: Photo courtesy of Arnaud Develay]

We made our way inside the building where we were greeted by a small group of civilians obviously traumatized by what they had just gone through. Haggard eyes characterized most of these men and women as, for most of them, the immediacy of danger had subsided but remained ever present.

Elderly babushka listened intently with hopeful—some would say grateful—eyes despite most of the assembly wearing Covid-19 hygienic masks.

[Source: Photo courtesy of Arnaud Develay]

In a corner of the quickly arranged room a mound of emergency supplies was being tended to as staff kept coming in and out with what seemed like an endless flow of emergency packages and rations.

Shatov proceeded to explain to the refugees that they “had nothing to fear…You will be provided with everything you need until we get you relocated to suitable housing.”

Some in the crowd did seem worried about the fate of some of the people whom they had not seen since arriving.

“What happened to X, Y and Z?” they kept asking. Others expressed anguish at their mobiles having been taken away from them upon evacuation. Shatov explained that this was protocol and that they would get their phones back as soon as “processing was complete.”

The war rages and it is not out of the ordinary to understand that security is of the utmost concern for enemy infiltrators who could very well masquerade as civilian refugees in order to convey sensitive information to “the other side.”

Nothing could then be more damaging for the Russian military than being confronted with optics bearing on their inability to protect civilians. In this war, where media are front and center in vying for the proverbial “hearts and minds,” Russia has adopted, since the beginning of the Special Military Operation, a decidedly opposite approach than the U.S. with respect to humanitarian considerations.

Rather than the “shock and awe” of grim memories used against Iraq and other “third rate” military powers, the Russian Federation has always adopted a rather cautious strategy akin to “clear and build” as witnessed in Mariupol and an increasing number of locations throughout the “de-Nazified and demilitarized” areas of the Donbas.

One of the refugees overcame his reticence to talk to us, as everybody else appeared unwilling to get on record even with their faces blurred.

The man’s gaunt appearance did not diminish his steely resolve to share with us a glimpse of the horror he had managed to escape.

[Source: Photo courtesy of Arnaud Develay]

He confided that Ukrainian nationalists’ presence was rampant in the city. In addition, and despite the overall complexion of the fight there bearing a decisive Russian advantage, these “search and destroy” parties were feverishly searching for trophies (Russian soldiers).

He explained that he had ventured out of the basement where he and his family were holed up in order to see how he could help out neighbors amid the ruins.

He happened to stumble onto a Russian serviceman who had suffered a bullet wound and who was quickly turning pale due to the loss of blood.

He recounted how he stepped into the open to drag the soldier back into his basement where he and his kin arranged for a quickly improvised tourniquet. He told how he was not very optimistic about the soldier’s prospects for survival, as the basement did not provide a sterile environment and, most significantly, the extermination squads were being heard banging on nearby doors, threatening anyone caught sheltering the enemy with the most severe punishment.

In what must have seemed like an eternity, the man and his family attempted to stay as quiet as possible “as we expected them to burst through the doors at any moment,” until eventually the rescue party came under the shape of the Wagner group.

“The Musicians” had finished playing their partition in Soledar.

About the Author

Arnaud Develay is an international lawyer and participated in the defense of former President Saddam Hussein along with Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

In the wake of the Caesar Act, he documented the illegal sanction regime imposed on Syria while living in Damascus.

Arnaud is now based in Moscow and can be reached at international.lawyer75@yahoo.com.

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