Mariupol, a Divided City On The Edge of War

Christian Borys for New Pathway from Kyiv.

Strolling confidently around the grounds of this military base in the heart of Mariupol, Natalia Kotskovich, a young commander in Ukraine’s infamous Azov battalion, pauses briefly to give her thoughts on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s announcement of a new ceasefire. “Imagine if I came to your three bedroom house and took over two of the bedrooms. Would you let me do that, or would you fight for them? Those occupied areas are Ukraine, there are Ukrainians living there and we want to fight for them.”

Driving into this Eastern Ukrainian city is like taking a step back through time. It requires passing through a series of block posts, all manned by Ukrainian soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs which gives the feeling of driving into a fortress. Nothing is allowed in or out without proper documentation. Inside the city, Ukrainian soldiers dressed in fatigues walk the streets and swim the beaches alongside citizens who seem to have grown oblivious to their presence. The residents of Mariupol have spent 19 months on the very edge of war, with their ears marred by the sounds of night time shelling. So while many in Europe would gasp at the sight of fully kitted soldiers and army technicals driving the streets, their presence doesn’t raise an eyebrow here.

For Kotskovich and her fellow soldiers in the Azov battalion, there is no more fighting. President Poroshenko has pulled them off the frontlines near Mariupol, and negotiated a new ceasefire with the combined Russian-separatist forces. The newest ceasefire took effect September 1st. At first it seemed that this agreement, like the previous two, wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on.

On the same day the ceasefire was announced, the Ukrainian military suffered its largest casualty total in over a month, with 7 soldiers killed and 13 wounded. Just one day later, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Zakharchenko told Russian media that his forces would not stop until they had taken Mariupol.

However, since then, the frontlines have quieted down substantially as the attempt at a political resolution has ramped up. The Ukrainians passed the first iteration of a bill to decentralize power and potentially grant the occupied territories a ‘special status’ within Ukraine. The vote sparked deadly violence outside Ukraine’s parliament, as members of a far right wing party attacked Ukrainian National Guardsmen, killing three and wounding over a hundred others.

On the other side, Moscow reorganized the leadership of the DPR, instilling Denis Pushilin, a pragmatic deal maker, as speaker of parliament and forcing Zakharchenko to pivot his stance on the Minsk agreement and publicly state that it is the only solution to the war. Regardless, the deputy chief monitor of the OSCE’s special monitoring mission to Ukraine says that it would be naive to presume this is the end of the conflict. In his opinion, “the ceasefire is on very thin ice, each side has their weapons at the front and can engage at any time.”

Close to Mariupol is the the village of Sartana, a small suburb guarded by Ukrainian soldiers which was devastated by separatist shelling in mid August. Although life seemingly goes on as it would in any other village, the many nights of terror here have divided the community. Now, many locals say that while fifty percent of the population is pro Ukrainian, the other fifty percent are true believers in the separatist cause. The latter, influenced by a relentless stream of Russian propaganda, believe that it is not the separatists who launched artillery strikes on the village, but rather the Ukrainian troops themselves. They hold these beliefs in spite of independent OSCE reports which disprove the theories entirely.

Some here say that they cannot foresee an end to the violence, nor can they comprehend how this war started in the first place. One elderly woman who has lived in Sartana her entire life says that her grandkids cannot visit anymore because she fears that they too will be caught in an attack. “I rarely sleep anymore” she says. “I spend my night with my dog at my feet, awaiting the sounds of shelling.” When asked who she supports in this war, she snaps back, “I don’t care about this stupid war, I lived in here my whole life and I worked hard, I don’t need this at my age.”

While some simply want the war to end, others are staunchly pro Russian. A small group of such supporters, all seniors, gather in the centre of Mariupol everyday to voice their support for integration with Russia. To counteract this, groups like Novy Mariupol, a pro Ukrainian activist organization full of twenty and thirty somethings have formed. One of their members, a young Ukrainian woman, says that the city is divided in half, with the younger generation firmly against Russia.

“It’s a city split in two” she says. “I’ve even decided to enroll my child in a different school, because I know that the director of the elementary school closest to my home is strongly pro Russian.” Others in the city echo this sentiment.

Ukrainian military doctors in the local military hospital say that this particular hospital was forced to bring in doctors from Western Ukraine because the civilian doctors who worked there, treating the Ukrainian soldiers, were all pro Russian. “95% of them were for the separatists so the army shipped us here to take over,” says one of the doctors on the tiny team of five.

Konstantin Bazotsky, an adviser to the former governor of Donetsk, billionaire Serhiy Taruta, is originally from Mariupol and recently returned to the area. “Everybody can witness the war here, we see lots of military vehicles and people in the streets. There are lots of wounded people in the hospitals, for example, a couple of days ago Sartana was shelled. Ukraine won’t declare war, but people here in Mariupol live in a state of war.”

To Mr. Bazotsky, the city is split evenly between pro Russians and pro Ukrainians but he says there is another important layer to consider. “They are not pro Russian in that they want Russia to come here. Some people hear that Russia has higher pensions and wages and they remember the good times of their youth. That’s why they think closer integration with Russia would be better, because they remember their young lives in the Soviet Union, and in a way everyone wants to return to the times of their youth.”

He says it’s a mistake to believe that these people are asking for some sort of liberation because in reality, no one wants war. “It’s very wrong to polarize these people because that’s what the enemy wants, that’s what Russia wants. They want us to split and fall apart as a whole.”

Indeed the younger generation of Ukrainians here, and elsewhere across the country, have virtually all adopted a firm pro Ukrainian stance. However, there are dissenting voices, although publicly they are few and far between. One young pro Russian woman says that for her she can’t see Ukraine without Russia. “I don’t see Ukraine in Russia, but I don’t see Ukraine without Russia. We have a common history, culture, religion, ancestry in terms of culture, history and spirit.” She says she can’t pinpoint exactly what causes her to feel this way, and admits that her position has caused tension even within her own family, with her parents questioning her sentiments.

Many with her viewpoint exist in Mariupol and Sartana, says American journalist Ian Bateson. After spending time with in the city, he believes that as much as 75% of population is pro-Russian, but unwilling to speak publicly about it. “Many people in Mariupol are deeply critical of the Kyiv-government, tracing a line of real and imaginary conspiracy-ornamented grievances from the economic collapse of the 90s to present. Those people know their views are out of fashion in Ukraine now, and expecting a Soviet-style crackdown on dissent that has never materialized, will complain loudly in private, but will rarely talk to journalists about it.”

As far as the young pro-Russian woman, she expects the war will last for at least another 3 years. “Where will Ukraine will go from there?” She pauses, “I can’t see anything positive, I can’t see the future. For me these 2 years are like some kind of disease. No life, only expectations that something will be solved. But nothing will.”

While the war dominates the conversations of many in the city, at least one younger man, an employee of the largest employer in Mariupol, the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, says that he and his colleagues do not speak about their ideologies. “We go to work and we don’t even talk about who is pro Russian and who is pro Ukrainian. We just want it to stop so we can live and work normally.”

Although the battle for territory is ongoing, and highly unlikely to end with the September 1st ceasefire, perhaps the most important battle being fought in Mariupol is in the hearts and minds of the population.