On a snowy, empty highway, a couple and their son emerge from weeks of hiding, wandering in a hungry daze. A rebel truck, mangled by a land mine, is blocking the road. Half a dozen Ukrainian corpses, several burned, lie in a ditch.
The weeks-long battle for Debaltseve is over and the pro-Russian rebels have won. The Ukrainians made a bloody retreat. What remains -- apart from a smoldering ruin and exhausted survivors -- is a challenge to the U.S. and Europe in their attempt to deter the threat of President Vladimir Putin nibbling off other bits of eastern Ukraine.
Most who remain here are rebel supporters who repeat the Russian narrative.
“Ukrainians call us separatists,” said Natalya, 59, who emerged from a basement in town after the fighting. “But we don’t have a single Russian here. Every fighter in town is one of us.”
Ukrainian forces had gained control of the city in July. In January, the rebels started a counterstrike that continued through the cease-fire that was supposed to come into force on Feb. 15. It triggered one of the deadliest artillery volleys of the war.
Thousands of civilians have left Debaltseve, which used to have 25,000 people. Only a few thousand remain.
The town is a symbol of the patriotic fervor that has stoked the worst crisis between Russia and the U.S. and its allies in a generation. As the conflict moves toward other parts of eastern Ukraine, the survivors here are reeling, their world ripped apart.
The death toll is contested, with the separatists claiming to have killed hundreds if not thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, including fighters outside of the military’s command. The government in Kiev says at least 179 of its soldiers died in the last month of fighting and more than 80 are missing, while 110 are being held near Debaltseve. Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said at least 2,745 troops pulled out.
While explosions and gunfire continued to keep people from entering this strategic railway hub from the west on Thursday, access from the east was open.
The couple and their son, the Kanaevs, who were wandering the highway, had fled Debaltseve a month ago, moving from farmhouse to farmhouse as artillery cracked the skies and leveled buildings. They ran out of food the day before and decided to brave the journey back into town -- now well inside rebel territory -- in search of the humanitarian aid they heard was being handed out.
At a checkpoint where the road crosses the Kharkiv-Rostov highway, a detachment of Cossacks, semi-military communities that once policed the czarist empire’s frontier, combed through captured Ukrainian vehicles in search of anything useful. The Ukrainians left behind a message on one of their armored personnel carriers: “Putin -- Turd!” The body of a Ukrainian fighter lay near another APC, draped in a Ukrainian flag.
“They weren’t retreating easily, they fired at us,” said Dmitry Kuzmin, a Cossack volunteer. “Finally, yesterday, they dropped their stuff and left.”
Ukraine, the U.S., the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization say Russia is backing the separatists with hardware, cash and troops -- accusations the leaders in the Kremlin deny. Russia says Ukraine is waging war on its own citizens and discriminates against Russian speakers, a majority in Donetsk and Luhansk. More than 5,600 people have died in fighting that erupted after Russia seized Crimea last March.
Kuzmin and two of his colleagues said Ukrainian soldiers recovered most of their fallen comrades from downtown, but left behind many corpses, mainly in ditches along the railway where skirmishes were continuing.
“See that corner,” a young Cossack officer said, pointing and laughing. “A Ukrainian tank just resurfaced over there, so a group went to check it out,” he said as a rebel tank passed. The vehicle’s gunner had Asiatic features common in areas of Siberia where many Russian “volunteers” along the frontlines say they’re from.
Not all Ukrainian fighters managed to escape the city, according to rebel officers. Many of them, mainly from volunteer brigades, are holing up in industrial areas, refusing to surrender, they said.
Inside the city limits, a 48-year-old factory worker named Alexei said he’s emotionally and physically exhausted, but lucky to be alive. A shell destroyed his apartment just days after he moved his family to a safer location.
“We are like zombies here,” said Alexei. “We only go on the street for food or to cook potatoes over a fire. ‘‘The rest of the time, we swarm in the basement.’’
A Cossack officer armed with a bazooka, Anatoly, 63, gave what he said was a ‘‘mine-free’’ tour of ravaged residential neighborhoods. The path followed a slow-moving delivery truck laden with bags of rice.
‘‘This was the most advanced republic in the Soviet Union,’’ Anatoly said, sadly. ‘‘What crap have we done here, instead of just living?’’
Near a previously disused factory, the truck stopped and a gate opened for three women dressed in soiled parkas.
The curses against Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for what they said was starting the war in the country’s industrial heartland flowed immediately. The cries stopped when two men arrived and the women focused on their task -- barking orders to move the rice into the makeshift bomb shelter that’s now their home.
In the basement of the factory, a dozen men and women of various ages sat on mattresses. This room doubled as a rest area for rebels, so these civilians had benefits: a small generator that powered two light bulbs and a 400-liter boiler.
Vadim, a Russian fighter at a checkpoint who goes by the name Vietnamese, said that he lives in a town near Cam Ranh, Vietnam, where Russia has sought to revive a Soviet-era military base, and that he couldn’t be more proud of fighting in the rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
‘‘I traveled 16,000 kilometers when the war started,” said Vadim, a sniper dressed in white camouflage. “I was here on April 2.” That was before Ukraine started its military action against the separatists.
Seventy-five kilometers to the southwest, in the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, life is returning to normal. Traffic flows uninterrupted, women jog near the river Kalmius and the rebel government is sponsoring a production of the romantic ballet “Giselle.”
About two or three times an hour, though, heavy artillery is shot northwest from the city. It takes about 10 seconds for the sound of its explosion to be heard downtown.