Escape from Debaltseve: Civilians flee besieged Ukraine town

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Media captionJames Reynolds reports from Debaltseve, "a town almost too dangerous to live in"

The road to Debaltseve was almost empty. The Ukrainian army ordered us to drive down it as quickly as we could. Rebels have nearly encircled the town. This single road was the only way in.

The centre of town was almost deserted. In the main square, one man knelt outside a music academy to feed pigeons.

A family took shelter in the building's basement. An older man, Alexander, lay under a grey blanket. He was too weak to be moved.

Across the square, Alla was among a small group of people getting ready to leave town. Her 80-year-old father, Nikolai, stood close to her.

"The past two weeks have been awful, terrifying," she said. "There is bombing day and night. We want to leave so that our children can have a life."

A few minutes drive away, Ukrainian soldiers held their positions against rebels on the horizon.

On the distant hillside, we saw puffs of smoke from outgoing Ukrainian artillery fire.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Ukrainian troops are helping to evacuate civilians from Debaltseve
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Families have had to leave behind their homes as rebels surround the town

Yevhen Velgush, 52, gave up his job as a doctor on a cruise ship to serve as an army surgeon.

He wandered around the military encampment in sunglasses in a boisterous mood.

"This is my home, right?" he announced. "Everybody comes to my home, right, they are guests. They [are] welcome always.

"But if someone come in my house and start dictating [to] me... what am I gonna do? I'm gonna take the gun and I'll shoot them."

We watched columns of tanks and armoured personnel carriers head down the road. Soldiers cheered as they went by.

But their government may be less optimistic.

In order to hold its ground here and elsewhere, Ukraine says that it has to get better weapons from the West. It cannot beat Russia on its own.