Artillery and rocket fire can be heard almost constantly in the village Talakovka, about 10 kilometers from the strategic port city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian army has dug in here, fearing a possible last-minute assault by pro-Russian separatists ahead of a planned ceasefire late Saturday. Armored vehicles with cannons mounted on top fired from a front line position with tanks standing nearby.
The unit commander, who only identified himself as “Pavel,” said he did not believe the ceasefire would hold.
“We know about this so-called ceasefire. We have had agreements before. The separatists have broken them frequently. But we will stick to the agreements and stop the violence coming from their side,” he said as artillery barrages could be heard firing off in the distance.
Over his walkie-talkie a voice could be heard saying: “Our artillery is in action.”
Pavel says pro-Russian separatists have tried several times to overrun his positions, but were repelled each time.
Ukrainian government officials including the prime minister have expressed doubts that the Minsk truce will succeed, and those doubts are also on display in Mariupol.
We witnessed columns of tanks and armored vehicles making their way to the front line. But the Ukrainian military also has another problem — a lack of modern equipment. One soldier appeared to need medical attention after a tank’s radiator seemed to blow up close to his head, leaving the vehicle and its crew engulfed in a cloud of white smoke.
The constant shelling is taking its toll on the civilian population in the areas around Mariupol. In the village of Sartana, 58-year-old Anna Blagovjestova said she was in her house when a rocket hit the neighbor’s backyard, spraying shrapnel onto the building. The man living next door was killed.
Police officers were busy trying to dig the remnants of the rocket out of a hole the projectile had pierced in the ground when our crew arrived at the scene.
“I have two grandchildren here,” she said, shaking. “They are one and three years old. Of course we are very scared.”
Blagovjestova blamed Ukrainian forces for firing the rocket, saying she was all but certain that it came from the area where the army is stationed.
“We don’t need the Ukrainian army here,” she said “We don’t need army. Everyone who came here with weapons started wars. Please make them go away from here.”
But for now it appears as though both sides are digging in, with very little trust that this time a ceasefire might lead to a lasting peace.