Crisis in Ukraine

Bitter Survivors and Caravans of Coffins from Ukraine’s “Eastern Boiler”

Ukraine’s government is sending volunteers to the slaughter, while the regular army conserves forces. As the ceasefire fails, patriotic fighters could be in short supply.

Manu Brabo/AP

KIEV, Ukraine -- Mikhail Savulchik dragged on a cigarette as he pointed to the small pieces of shrapnel taken out of his bandaged legs. They rested on his wheelchair. And here – he held it up -- was one more that popped out from under the skin at the back of his head the other day.

Although hundreds of soldiers in volunteer battalions were killed in recent battles, coming back in convoys full of coffins, the 29-year-old Savulchuk managed to survive the violent defeat of Ukrainian forces outside the town of Ilovaisk. Today, he and his buddies – those who are left -- call the contested part of the country near the Russian frontier “The Eastern Boiler.” Savulchik thinks he was lucky to be at the hospital at all and not rotting in a field. He was "born with a caul," he said, referring to an old wives’ tale. Little else could explain why he lived.

On the days and nights of August 21 through 25, over 200 Ukrainian soldiers died in attacks by what they believed were Russian tanks, artillery, mortars and Grad rockets raining death on the Boiler. Pro-Russian forces also seized many of them as prisoners.

Last week, wounded servicemen being treated at the Main Military Clinical Hospital in Kiev blamed the country's commanders for a major betrayal in Ilovaisk. They claim the officers used “ideological” young men – the volunteers in the militia batalliions – as nothing more than cannon fodder. Indeed, some say the commanders wanted to get rid of them. And if the members of the militias were captured, they had little hope of rescue or ransom. "Militants of volunteer battalions suffer much worse treatment on the other side of the line than regular army soldiers,” says Mustafa Nayeem of Hromadske Television. “They have almost no chance to get free.”

The Eastern Boiler survivor, Mikhail Savulchik, rolled the wheels of his chair back and forth nervously as he remembered the tragedies of the last few months.

They were three friends: Mikhail, Valery and Vadim. They met last winter during the revolution in Kiev and for months defended the Maidan square from police. All three were young, fearless, patriotic and deeply devoted to the idea of creating a new, corruption-free, European Ukraine.

By June, the three friends were "as close as brothers," said Savulchik. They served in the volunteer Donbass Battalion, one of three specially organized National Guard battalions. The friends were even given military call names - Elf, Bay and Airplane.

On August 10, one of the three friends, Vadim, was shot in the face by a sniper in the Donetsk region. Mikhail and Valery tried to get his body out of the area controlled by separatists, but finally had to leave him there.

On August 18, the Donbass Battalion leader Semen Semenchenko ordered his militants to free the town of Ilovaisk from separatists by August 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day. "Russians fired at us from early morning,” says Savulchik: “First mortars, then all sorts of artillery. We endured constant fire late into the night. My unit was losing four to five men every day." On September 21, Savulchik was outside the city’s school, putting on his helmet, when shrapnel hit him. "My friends managed to take me out,” but just in time. “After that the road got blocked."

The third friend, Valery, said that Russian paratroopers, tanks and artillery fired at the soldiers as the battalion was trying to escape. "Russians waved white flags at us and offered to let us surrender a few times, but we refused to even talk to them,” Valery told The Daily Beast on Friday. “Later we questioned a few Russian prisoners, they were from Russia, from Pskov regular forces."

As the combat had intensified, said Valery, “We were blocked and attacked from all directions, that was why we called that trap ‘the boiler.’"

In many engagements volunteers asked regular army commanders for support, transport and ammunition, but often in vain. During the recent battles outside Ilovaisk, rebel forces killed more than 200 out of about 600 encircled soldiers from the Donbass, Krivbas, Mirotvorets and Azov battalions, defense ministry adviser Vasily Budik told The Daily Beast earlier this week.

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"At the time, by law, we could not provide these partially trained troops with heavier weapons," said Budik. "I was one of the critics of the volunteer battalions, lobbying to eliminate them, but at the moment they represent a majority of our army."

With a record like this, that may not be the case for long.