Port city readies for Russians
Ukrainian military spokesman in Kyiv showed reporters leaflets he said were being handed out in Novoazovsk offering money for information on Ukrainian troop movements and instructing locals on how to prepare for the arrival of “peacekeeping troops of the Russian Federation.” There was no confirmation of who had printed up the leaflets.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the army was ready to defend Mariupol, having organized round-the-clock patrols and reinforced entrances to the city. Hundreds of Ukrainian army troops were at posts around the city, according to Mariupol’s mayor, Yuriy Khotlubey.
Mariupol’s residents were preparing in their own way. Many had stocked up on bread and other provisions. There were long lines of cars exiting the city through checkpoints. Supplies of some medicines ran low. More than 800 basements and shelters had been designated for use in case of shelling, the mayor said.
The city gave free train tickets to refugees from other parts of the war-torn country so they could flee yet again — to safer areas.
On Saturday, protesters held hands and chanted “Putin’s head!” at a checkpoint on the eastern edge of Mariupol.
Other citizens chose to preserve their routines. Residents strolled in parks with their dogs and children on a cool end- of-summer day. Outdoor concerts, picnics and two weddings — the mayor noted — went on as scheduled. Occasional convoys of cars careened down the streets, their occupants honking and waving blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags. But the threat just up the road loomed large. “We are living in this town as peaceful citizens, but we know the tanks are coming,” said Vladimir Marchenko, a sailor. “We don’t want to become part of another country.”
The residents, a mix of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Greeks, have already endured considerable turmoil this year. After the country descended into civil conflict following mass protests against the country’s pro-Russian president earlier this year, pro-Russian separatists established a strong presence in the city. They wielded enormous influence in the city from April 13 to May 9, a tenure capped by a firefight that killed nine at the police headquarters.
NATO officials and Ukraine’s government say Russia has been sending military equipment and hundreds of soldiers into Ukraine to help the separatists. Russian officials have denied the charge — saying some Russians volunteered to assist the rebels, and some wandered into Ukraine by mistake.
Some residents of Mariupol say they would welcome Russian soldiers if their tanks rolled into Mariupol.
“If the Russians would come here there would be no war. No one would be killed. It would be like Crimea,” said Natalia Obolonskaya, a nurse. “I would feel better with the Russian army than the Ukrainians.”
Others who remembered life before Ukraine became independent in 1991, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, feel differently.
Ludmila Elagina, a retired engineer, volunteered to help dig trenches in the city this week because she fears the return of a repressive regime. She still weeps when she recalls losing her grandparents, who were farmers relocated to Siberia during Russia’s process of collectivization of agriculture.
“When we lived under the U.S.S.R. we felt we were being controlled,” she said. “We were told what to wear. We were told what to say. Independence was like a second life, the birth of something new. My wings spread and I started to remember poems I recited to my mother as a child. Now, I have poems of terror.”
The pressures of living in a politically divided city have taken their toll, and the anxiety has worsened in the last week, according to Ulyana Tokareva, the director of the city’s social services centre.
“Their two main questions are, ‘What is happening and what do I do next?’ People are panicking right now,” she said.
“The panic is happening because people don’t know who to trust.”
At a modest brick building on Saturday, groups of families who had fled the fighting in the rebelcontrolled cities of Donetsk and Luhansk arrived, toting their possessions, to pick up free train tickets out of the city.
Ludmila Kosych, 55, who ran a small food store, fled with her family from the Donetsk region on Aug. 20 after they witnessed continued horror: missile fire, dead children, an average of 10 funerals a day.
They thought they had reached a safe place in Mariupol. Now she said she was wrong.
“Imagine if a bomb is flying over there,” she said, gesturing to a nearby column of trees. “It explodes and by any piece of it you could be killed. You don’t know where it’s coming from, the Ukrainians or the rebels. It’s human, animal fear.”
— Washington Post