Sun, sea and shelling: con­flict scares beach-go­ers in Ukraine

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY YU­LIA SILINA

The sun is shin­ing and the waves of the Sea of Azov look warm and invit­ing. But its sandy beaches are empty — not sur­pris­ingly since they run right through the Ukraine con­flict’s front line.

The shal­low sea bor­dered by Rus­sia and Ukraine was once a cheap and cheer­ful bucket-andspade des­ti­na­tion for those not both­ered by ba­sic fa­cil­i­ties and heavy in­dus­try right on the shore­line.

But the armed con­flict that broke out in April 2014 has put paid to the area’s ap­peal as a hol­i­day get­away, wors­en­ing eco­nomic hard­ships for its in­hab­i­tants.

With some half mil­lion res­i­dents, the sea­side city of Mar­i­upol is the largest town in eastern Ukraine still un­der Kiev’s con­trol.

A hand­ful of beaches in the city and in vil­lages to its south­west are still the­o­ret­i­cally open to visi­tors, but are seen as prac­ti­cally on the front line.

Yury, the man­ager of the Gold Fish Ho­tel in the vil­lage of Melekine, sat in one of the bed­rooms wait­ing for guests that never came.

Only one ho­tel named Svit­lana is full, but its guests are Ukrainian troops, and its beach has signs warn­ing of mines.

For those liv­ing in sep­a­ratist ter­ri­tory, go­ing to the Kiev­con­trolled beaches now in­volves lengthy cross­ings through army check­points. For some, it is not worth the has­sle.

Dis­as­ter Des­ti­na­tion

“It was nearby and it was cheap so we took the kids there ev­ery year,” said a 50-year-old house­wife named Vera, who lives near the sep­a­ratist hub of Donetsk and used to take her grand­chil­dren to stay at a guest­house on the coast.

“Now I don’t want to take chil­dren through the lines at check­points only for them to hear ex­plo­sions ... or tread on a trip­wire on the beach.”

Those who do ven­ture onto the beaches are ef­fec­tively en­ter­ing a mil­i­tary zone.

They are warned not to swim up to Ukraine’s off­shore mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions put in place to pro­tect it from air­borne at­tack­ers. Some of the de­fenses are mined.

“Hol­i­day­mak­ers have to fol­low the rules: don’t take photos, don’t come close, don’t swim over to the de­fenses, don’t pro­voke the sol­diers,” said Yaroslav Chep­urnoy, spokesman for the anti-ter­ror­ist op­er­a­tion in the area.

The Ukrainian mil­i­tary also warn that the pro-Rus­sian rebels are send­ing ex­plo­sive de­vices float­ing down from the coast­line they con­trol east of Mar­i­upol.

A fish­er­man has been killed, while another ex­plo­sion blew up a mo­tor­boat, killing both on board, Chep­urnoy said.

Just 20 kilo­me­ters (12 miles) to the east of Mar­i­upol, the vil­lage of Shy­rokyne has seen some of the con­flict’s fiercest fight­ing. Not a sin­gle build­ing there is un­dam­aged by the bar­rage of shelling, in­clud­ing its guest houses and ho­tels.

To the east, Rus­sian sep­a­ratist forces are sta­tioned in sev­eral for­mer re­sorts.

Ukrainian troops joked that the area’s only hope is to re­launch as a zone for ex­treme tourism.

“I don’t know what kind of mother would dare to bring her child here, where there’s con­stant shelling,” said the deputy com­man­der of the Don­bass bat­tal­ion, nick­named “Grey-Haired.” Be­hind him, smoke from shelling rose from Shy­rokine.

“Peo­ple could only come here for ex­treme thrills.”

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