BRUSSELS -- After pro-Russian separatists laid siege to the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve this month, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced an "organized" withdrawal of Kyiv’s forces from the strategic rail hub.
But according to one EU lawmaker who witnessed the retreat, it was anything but organized.
"It was very chaotic," said Mark Demesmaeker, a Belgian member of the European Parliament who visited eastern Ukraine from February 16-19. Ukrainian troops "came back in great distress," he added.
"I saw them when they arrived in Artemivsk, and those men were really traumatized, in complete shock. Many of them were not able to speak even," Demesmaeker said in a February 27 interview with RFE/RL.
Demesmaeker is one of the few EU parliamentarians to have visited eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, arriving there a day after a cease-fire formally took effect between the rebels and Ukrainian forces.
While officials say the fighting is subsiding, Demesmaeker said he saw no pause in hostilities during his visit.
"It was obvious when I came there and the cease-fire had been announced, there should have been a cease-fire at that time," he said. "There was not a cease-fire at all."
He added that he observed "constant" shelling and artillery fire from Grad rockets, as well as a "major offensive" that was underway against Ukrainian troops stuck in Debaltseve.
Pro-Russian separatists intensified their fighting against Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve even after European powers, Russia, and Ukraine announced a cease-fire deal on February 12 that was supposed to take effect on February 15.
Russia has been accused by NATO, Ukraine, the United States, and other Western countries of providing weapons and troops to the rebels, charges that Moscow has repeatedly denied.
Demesmaeker said he was "shocked" by the "aggressiveness and harshness of the war" for both military and civilians.
"It was as if the pro-Russian rebels had concentrated all firepower on Debaltseve to take it, and to make as many casualties as they possibly could. And they did. They made a lot of casualties. Probably the numbers are much higher than the official ones," he said.
'The Balance Is Gone'
Demesmaeker said Ukrainian forces suffered casualties even while retreating.
"The rebels would attack the first vehicle in the convoy and also the last one so that the convoy was blocked, and they would attack and kill every vehicle and person in it in between," he said.
The situation was terrible for civilians as well, he said, with "a lot of people" left behind in villages, many of them elderly and lacking medicine, food, electricity, and running water. Roads and houses were also destroyed, he added.
Demesmaeker said he believes the Ukrainian government "is losing support very rapidly with local people [in eastern Ukraine] because there's not enough assistance."
Demesmaeker called the debate over whether Western nations should provide arms to Kyiv a "difficult issue," but said it is clear that the Ukrainians are outgunned.
"The pro-Russian rebels are so well-armed, they have well-trained men fighting for them,” he said. “There is foreign involvement. They have very heavy, good, and modern equipment, and the balance is gone."