Ukraine fighters, surrounded at wrecked airport, refuse to give up
Date October 29, 2014 - 12:55PM
The wrecked remains of Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport.
Donetsk: Only three floors remain in the blackened skeleton of the seven-storey, glass-walled airport terminal, opened with a burst of national pride two years ago for the Euro 2012 soccer championship.
Ukrainian commandos control two of them: the ground and second floors.
The pro-Russia separatists they're fighting have infiltrated the third floor despite entrances barricaded with debris and booby traps. The separatists have also found a way into the basement, with its system of narrow passageways leading beyond the airport grounds.
A Pro-Russian separatist at the Donetsk's international airport.
A Pro-Russian separatist at the Donetsk's international airport. Photo: AFP
They are enemies sharing the same building, playing a claustrophobic game of cat and mouse in shadowy rooms and burnt-out boarding jetways.
Just after midnight on a recent night, a separatist fighter suddenly appeared on a balcony of the third floor and shot a Mukha grenade down at the one-time departure lounge where the Ukrainian troops were trying to sleep on cold concrete floors. The grenade hit a wall and exploded. Shrapnel and debris flew everywhere. Without thinking, a commando nicknamed Batman threw a hand grenade toward the balcony. But it exploded short of its target and sent more shrapnel showering over his comrades.
The shouting had barely subsided when a commander announced that government Grad missiles were on the way to hit enemy positions surrounding the terminal.
Pro-Russian rebels fire artillery toward Ukrainian positions at the airport.
Pro-Russian rebels fire artillery toward Ukrainian positions at the airport. Photo: AP
"You know how they do it!" the commander shouted. "They'll certainly miss. So run for cover."
A few seconds later, the building shook from the explosion right outside, and for a moment it seemed that the structure would finally collapse. But it withstood the blast, and no one was hurt in any of the attacks.
After five months of fighting, the battle between government forces and pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine has reached what may be its last stand in this shattered commercial airport that once held families waiting for holiday flights.
A pro-Russian rebel near the airport in Donetsk.
A pro-Russian rebel near the airport in Donetsk. Photo: Reuters
It has little strategic value, but it has become a symbol of the struggle over Ukraine's future.
"Today for us the future of our country depends on whether we will be able to hold on to this airport or not," said Alexei Varitsky, 20, a former construction worker who recently joined the Ukrainian militia that's helping to defend the airport. "That is why I am here."
The name once shone in white above the gleaming new terminal: Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport, named after the 20th century composer who was born in the region.
The airport has little strategic value, but it has become a symbol of the struggle for the country's future.
The airport has little strategic value, but it has become a symbol of the struggle for the country's future. Photo: AFP
On the airport's English-language website, a bulletin reads: "Notice for passengers: Donetsk airport has been temporarily suspended. An up-to-date information regarding the status of flights is available on the official website Online Timetable." Would-be passengers clicking on "All Flights Today" are met with a blank space.
The airport's runway is littered with the carcasses of tanks and armoured personnel carriers. In the new terminal, every pane of glass has shattered; every door, wall and ceiling has been pierced with bullets and shrapnel.
The separatist forces surrounding the airport shell it with mortar and artillery fire day and night; at least once a day, infantry forces move in for an attack. The defenders said that in the previous two weeks, 12 soldiers were killed and scores were wounded at the airport.
The destroyed control tower at the airport.
The destroyed control tower at the airport. Photo: AFP
Some government forces say they're digging in to prevent Russians from using the runways to land transport planes loaded with armaments. Some say they need to defend the airport as a sign of resolve against Russian aggression.
"I volunteered to come here because if I hadn't, some soldier might not have been replaced and that would have prolonged his misery or could have even killed him," said Sergei Halan, 20, a journalism student from Cherkasy. "I just did it to save a comrade I may not know, as he will do for someone else, or even for me."
Halan's estranged father is a colonel in the Russian army. When they last spoke on the phone, Halan said, his father asked him, "'Don't you know you will be killing your brothers?' To which I said, 'I didn't invite these brothers to come to my homeland with arms.' "
They are hunters and prey at the same time.
Because of their perseverance and ability to survive despite being surrounded, the government forces' enemies call them cyborgs.
Some of the terminal's defenders call themselves terminators.
"The whole scene very much reminds me of a computer shooting game, with the exception that you don't kill goblins so easily and that you don't have an extra life or two," said Varitsky.
In April, when the army told him it didn't have time to train him, Varitsky joined the nationalist Right Sector organisation. He went through a rushed training session, was issued a Kalashnikov and a week ago arrived at the airport with a ragtag group of 15 Right Sector men who are supporting an army unit consisting mostly of airborne troops who volunteered for the high-risk mission.
Every newcomer is told that the airport is not a besieged fortress — not because it is not besieged, but because it is not a fortress, "as holes in the walls account for more space than the rest of the structure," said Major Valery Rud.
"There is not a single place where bullets or shrapnel cannot reach you at any given time of the day. The terminals we are holding on to are weaker than the Three Little Pigs' houses, and it is a miracle that they are still standing."
During the day, generators feed small laptops and charge telephones. At night, radios and flashlights are switched off, and it's forbidden to use even cigarette lighters lest it draw sniper fire.