Life goes on in Mariupol as Russian-Ukrainian crisis escalates – NV exclusive

13 February, 01:31 PM
Ukraine's industrial city Mariupol on the coast of the Sea of Azov (Photo:Depositphotos)

Ukraine's industrial city Mariupol on the coast of the Sea of Azov (Photo:Depositphotos)

It is only 10 km from the Skhidny residential district on the edge of the city of Mariupol to the conflict zone. Here, it is still possible to hear cannonades from neighboring villages. But people are already used to this, and are reluctant to even believe in a possible new Russian invasion.

Why would Putin attack us? What for? We are here on our own land, in our own country. Why does he need us, poor people?” asks local resident Valentyna Pyzhykova, who is the head of the district committee for self-organization of the population.

She met with NV at a monument to those who died in an attack on Jan. 24, 2015. On that day, Russian proxy forces shelled Skhidny with Grad and Uragan rockets, resulting in 30 fatalities and over 100 injuries.

Video of day

Pyzhykova saw everything with her own eyes, and not a single unbroken window was left in her apartment: All the windows were shattered by a blast wave. The shells hit high-rise buildings, private homes, the market, and fell not far from two schools. When it was all over, people went outside and saw burning cars, shops, damaged buildings, and dead bodies.

“We covered people with sheets and waited for someone to come and pick them up,” recalled Pyzhykova.

Russian missile systems Grad broke the windows in the appartment of Valentyna Pyzhykova. Yet she doesn't see Russia as an enemy (Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV)
Russian missile systems Grad broke the windows in the appartment of Valentyna Pyzhykova. Yet she doesn't see Russia as an enemy / Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV

Although further investigation by the SBU security service, the international open-source investigation outlet Bellingcat, and the OSCE monitoring mission found that the shelling had been carried out by Russian proxy forces and led by the Russian military, some Mariupol residents still believe that it was the Ukrainian army who had carried out the attack. However, Pyzhykova spoke of this with caution.

She also fell into musing when asked if she considers Russia an enemy: “You see, if it all comes down to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin being the enemy, one person can’t be the one. The enemy is the country, the people. To say that they are enemies – we have lived with them all our lives together. Should we call them enemies now? Yes, they are pursuing their policy, let’s say, unfriendly and dishonest. But I would like to trade with them, and not to fight. Let’s leave it.”

Many Mariupol residents are of the same opinion as Pyzhykova. According to a study by the International Republican Institute and the Ratings polling group, conducted in the summer of 2021, 52% of Mariupol city residents assessed their attitude towards Russia as “very warm” and “warm.” Another 25% are neutral toward Ukraine’s eastern neighbor, while 16% are “cold” and “very cold” toward Russia.

The latter group includes Anton Trebukhov, head of the National Corps office in Mariupol. He believes the city has become more pro-Ukrainian than it was, for example, before the war. And he claims that he no longer sees “totally pro-Russian sentiments” here.

In general, news about a possible Russian invasion has not caused a panic among Mariupol residents. People don’t even pay attention to the sounds of artillery salvos in the downtown area, says Trebukhov.

“For us, the years of 2014-2015 was a vaccine against panic,” he explains.

“People have seen a lot and now they perceive all military actions from a slightly different angle.”

Two visions of one tragedy

Pyzhykova admits that she hasn’t unpacked her go-bag for eight years. “It seems to me that after the attack, everyone has such go-bags with documents and passports,” she says.

“If (we have) to run out of the apartment, (we will) at least grab them.”

One of the buildings in Mariupol that still bare a trace of the Russian-led militants' attempt to seize control over the city in 2014 (Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV)
One of the buildings in Mariupol that still bare a trace of the Russian-led militants' attempt to seize control over the city in 2014 / Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV

People haven’t forgotten what happened eight years ago in Mariupol, and the facades of high-rise buildings remind them of those tragic events. They are randomly covered with gray spots – patched holes from shells.

“On that day, something like fireballs began to fall from the sky,” Pyzhykova remembered.

“And then we realized that it was shelling. It lasted no more than a minute. But it brought Skhidny into trouble.”

Trebukhov at that time served in the Azov Regiment. Its soldiers were the first to arrive at the scene of the shelling to help the victims.

At first, members of the Azov Regiment thought that their checkpoint was the target of the attack. This would mean that hostilities had launched and there would be an opportunity for a further liberation of Ukrainian territories, says Trebukhov.

“But when everyone was going to leave on a combat alert, the commander said to take less ammunition, but more medicine and first aid kits,” he says.

Trebukhov recalls that the locals had different attitudes, then, toward the military. There were those were grateful, but there was also the opposite reaction.

“We were taking an old man out of the apartment, and he hit me on the back of my bulletproof vest and asked, ‘Why did we, the Nazis, fire at him?’” says Trebukhov.

 “Russia’s propaganda was planned.”

The investigations and examinations, which proved that it was proxy forces and Russians who were behind the shelling, didn’t convince everyone. Some of them still believe that the shelling was allegedly carried out by the Ukrainian military.

Pyzhykova also spoke of those events with caution.

“No, today I won’t say (who fired). I don’t want to talk about that,” she stated.

“The media covered (the attack), people wrote about it, asked what, who, and how it was fired. But everyone remains of the same mind.”

 On both sides of the barricades

The Euromaidan split the opinions of Mariupol residents down the middle. Both the supporters of the Euromaidan (the protests against the former government) and fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych held rallies in the city. In the spring of 2014, the city saw rallies by supporters of holding a referendum to join Russia. At the same time, those who advocated for united Ukraine also held rallies.

In April, the administrative buildings in Mariupol were seized by Russian proxy forces and remained occupied for over a month. It lasted until June 13 – the day when the Ukrainian military and security agencies liberated the city.

All these events put Mariupol residents on different sides of the barricades, even within families. That’s what happened to volunteer Alina Horhul’s family.

Horhul reflects on the events of eight years ago, standing on the former Lenin Square – now Freedom Square. There are 24 lanterns in the form of “doves of peace” along its perimeter.

Volunteer Alina Gorgul took part in the Euromaidan revolution and has pro-Ukrainian views. While her parents have another political position. (Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV)
Volunteer Alina Gorgul took part in the Euromaidan revolution and has pro-Ukrainian views. While her parents have another political position. / Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV

 “Nobody’s opinion has changed,” the volunteer believes.

“Those who were for Russia, they are still for Russia. Those who were for Ukraine, they are still for Ukraine.”

The views have changed only among those who had the position like “it’s neither my headache nor my problem!” Horhul believes.

According to her, some of these people “came over to the side of Ukraine since they understood what would happen here if there was no Ukrainian military and what could happen to their home.”

However, her parents have other views: “Back in 2014, we decided that this topic is taboo and we remain a family.”

Horhul took part in the Euromaidan, and later volunteered to help the military. She believes that she ended up on opposite sides of the barricades with her parents because of Russian propaganda. However, her relatives are confident that this is due to the fact that their daughter had been living in (the capital city of) Kyiv.

“Perhaps if I lived in Mariupol, then indeed (it would affect me),” says the volunteer.

“Although that’s unlikely. I had one of the first Ukrainian-speaking classes in Mariupol. There were none before.”

Around their own

A branch of pro-Ukrainian activists in Mariupol began to form with the beginning of the Euromaidan, and later the war in the Donbas. Dmytro Chychera from Mariupol, who together with like-minded people in 2014 began to help the army and internally displaced persons, is among those who participated in this movement.

Today, Chychera has collected over 50 chevrons from Ukrainian military units in his office. These are volunteers that he has helped since the beginning of the war.

“Some people have made camouflage nets, some have brought money, some food, someone brought combat boots, and some provided military uniforms,” says Chychera.

“And they knew it would go where it needed to.”

Among other things, Mariupol activists also bought thermal imagers, binoculars, and cars for the military. This is how the volunteer center had been formed, which later grew into the educational space called “Khalabuda.”

In 2016, Chychera decided not only to volunteer, but also to spend funds to train locals in IT, creativity, and support business.

Dmytro Chychera started helping Ukrainian army back in 2014 (Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV)
Dmytro Chychera started helping Ukrainian army back in 2014 / Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV

Ex-Azov member Trebukhov notes that Mariupol has changed a lot since the beginning of the war. To confirm this, he recalled how the police harassed him in 2014 for shouting “Slava Ukraini!” (“Glory to Ukraine!”)

However, this is now how the police officers present during the roll call, he emphasized, adding that a Ukrainian patriotic song titled “Our father is Bandera, Ukraine is our mother!” was heard in the regional police department to honor the birthday of Stepan Bandera, a controversial Ukrainian nationalist figure.

Vaccinated against panic

Mariupol residents are more calm about the latest news that Russia is pulling in troops to the Ukrainian borders than, for example, Kyiv residents. Ksenia Sukhova, secretary of the Mariupol City Council, told NV that people feel safe because several Ukrainian military units are currently deployed in Mariupol and nearby: two bases of the Azov Regiment, border guards, and marines. In addition, smart cameras monitor civil order, and the urban matrix itself has changed over the past six years.

“By our example, we demonstrate (the occupied territories) that there is no need for war here, that we do not want to fight with anyone, but want to live a peaceful life only under the Ukrainian flag,” says Sukhova.

“And only in Ukraine we can develop the way Mariupol is developing.”

The local authorities are also convinced that there are fewer people with pro-Russian sentiments now.

“Mariupol is a Ukrainian city with Ukrainian views,” Sukhova says.

In addition, opinion polls show that Mariupol residents are set to reconcile with their eastern neighbor only because of trade relations, the City Council believes. However, this is due to the “financial status” and “fatigue from war.”

Yekateryna Sukhomlynova, a member of the Power of People faction in the City Council, which unites volunteers and pro-Ukrainian activists, tells NV how the local authorities are preparing for a possible invasion.

“Yes, they have plans with internal affairs agencies and the military on how kindergartens and schoolchildren will be evacuated,” she says.

However, she believes that this is not enough. After all, not all bomb shelters have been renovated, and people are still not entirely aware of where to run. In addition, it’s also necessary to organize first aid courses for the civilian population.

“Everyone knows that we live closer (to the contact line), and the threat for us is also quite great,” says Sukhomlynova.

“But no panic. If you don’t want war – get ready for it.”

 At the same time, volunteer Chychera is confident that Mariupol has been “scared enough,” and the residents themselves have shown that they can defend their city, which now remains “the last outpost.”

 “No one will go farther from us, that’s for sure,” Chychera insisted.

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