Terrified Debaltsevo residents leave shelters after Kiev troops’ pullout

As Kiev and anti-government forces in eastern Ukraine prepare for heavy artillery withdrawal and prisoner exchanges, the residents of Debaltsevo, the hotspot of the recent fighting, have plucked up courage to walk the streets of their town again.

READ MORE:Kiev says troops withdrawn from Debaltsevo, rebels claim military ‘surrender en masse’

After the Ukrainian military withdrew their forces “en mass” from war-torn Debaltsevo on Wednesday, the locals, terrified by weeks of shelling, began to crawl out of their bomb shelters, scavenging for what thousands of Kiev troops left behind – personal belongings, food or warm clothes.

Residents weren’t prepared to talk to journalists for a while, but when they did it was with long pent-up bitterness.

“We would like to thank Ukraine that it made us homeless, destroyed our homes,” local women tell RT at the abandoned Ukrainian army’s military camp. “We’ve been living in basements since the summer.”

A hospital in Debaltsevo, that served as a barracks for the Ukrainian troops and was also damaged in the street battles, became a shelter for many civilians, who had no desire to leave Donbass in search for a safer life.

“How can a person, who worked all her life, end up in a basement like a rat? I don’t understand how I could be here,” says a woman, who had been surviving in the hospital’s basement.

On Saturday, Kiev and anti-government forces in eastern Ukraine are planning to exchange prisoners in a continuing effort to implement the peace deal.

Over a month, the clashes around Debaltsevo claimed the lives of at least 179 Ukrainian soldiers, Yuriy Biryukov, presidential adviser and assistant to the defense minister, said on Friday. Hostages were made of 110 soldiers and 81 are missing, he wrote on his Facebook page. According to self-defense forces estimates, the Ukrainian soldiers’ death toll is nearly 3,000 people.

Debaltsevo is a strategic railway hub, connecting the breakaway regions of Lugansk and Donetsk. It remained a battlefield where around 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers were surrounded by Donetsk People’s Republic forces, as the ceasefire failed to put an end to the ongoing violence.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany agreed the peace deal in Minsk on February 12. To de-escalate the lingering conflict, that has taken at least 5,600 lives, according to the latest UN estimates, it introduced measures such as the ceasefire that started a week ago, a pullout of heavy weapons, and comprehensive constitutional reform by the end of the year.