Defense line: MariupolCity residents are very skeptical about the ceasefire because opposition breaches it practically every night. People here have long realized that they must be prepared for the worst
“Mom, where is my balaclava?” shouts 17-year-old Ukrainian patriotic guerilla Tai into the next room. He is one of the 20 youths who swore allegiance to the city on September 4, pledging to defend it against the terrorists and the Russian army, forming the bulk of the Mariupol Battalion… He tries on the balaclava to pose for the camera and is embarrassed to discover it is too big. He explains he’s borrowed it from a mate because he hasn’t been issued with his own. Tai is his nickname originating from the Hanaukyo Maid Team’s cast (his favorite anime series as a boy). His cherished dream is a musician’s career, although this year he is enrolling in a Mariupol higher school to major in history and journalism. “I’ve always been fond of history… Some in our battalion want to be artillerymen, others want to be tank crew members, but I want to have a submachine gun. I think I’ll be able to lead others in battle that way…I first simply came here to lend a hand, then I visited security checkpoints, bringing humanitarian aid and medicines, but then I realized I could and should do more. I told mom I was going to join the battalion and I did,” the young man says.
MORE THAN 200 VOLUNTEERS
Mariupol Battalion was formed very recently, with volunteers joining on a daily basis, currently numbering over two hundred. Azov Battalion’s pros teach them basic training. In fact, this is the first Ukrainian patriotic guerrilla battalion formed in Mariupol due to a coordinated effort of residents and municipal authorities, on the initiative of Serhii Taruta, head of the Donetsk Regional State Administration. A session of the Mariupol State Council passed a resolution on a local budget appropriation of one million hryvnias to buy everything the battalion needs.
Says Denys Havrylov, assistant chief of staff for general affairs: “Men are being selected for duty using strict criteria. Some are transferred to Azov [i.e., the Azov Battalion] right away, others – to Mariupol, still others aren’t fit for active duty, but we offer them an alternative: territorial defense of the city; they can sign up through the local recruitment offices to patrol city streets and guard strategically important facilities… Among the tasks assigned the Mariupol Battalion is support of regular troops, considering that these regulars know nothing about the terrain, so Mariupol men can serve as guides and help coordinate and support their efforts. This also means a second defense line, fortifications, and so on.”
Local steelworkers and engineers are building the first line of defense, digging trenches, reinforcing them with concrete. Some battalion men say they had to force them to leave the construction site at gun point, so they could get some sleep.
“WE AREN’T TWIDDLING OUR THUMBS”
“We aren’t twiddling our thumbs,” says Iryna, a volunteer of the Mariupol Public Television Company and New Mariupol Headquarters (she had to leave Crimea for her native Mariupol recently and now she doesn’t want the Crimean scenario to be played out here), adding, “The situation could’ve been [tragically] different, hadn’t we pressured the authorities or staged rallies making them face the reality, that we wouldn’t surrender the city. Crimea never wanted to be back to Russia. Before leaving I wanted to say goodbye to my favorite places there. Let me tell you that in many places Russian flags weren’t unfurled until the very last moment. Over here we’re making every effort to prevent the Russians from picturing themselves as liberators. The entire city is decorated with Ukrainian national symbols; there are posters hanging from balconies, on public transport vehicles, on billboards, reading that Mariupol wants a single, united Ukraine – and this is because we aren’t twiddling our thumbs. New Mariupol is an outpost of the Ukrainian army, including the Azov Battalion. Here we collect food, clothes, medicines, and other necessary supplies. Here women make special ‘hobgoblin’ camouflage clothing for our snipers by unknitting coffee bags collected all over Ukraine and then knitting this camouflage clothing (these women are jokingly referred to as the Hobgoblin Battalion). In fact, five women can make one ‘hobgoblin suit’ during the day. I don’t know what all those ‘upstairs’ in Ukraine are doing, considering that most soldiers sent here don’t even have tactical terrain maps. How can they fight if they don’t know what is where? I know, but I’m a local, and they should know this, too, even better than I do! There is a man here who got hold of the general staff’s maps for mortar crews. Moreover, we visit them once a day, but sometimes we do so several times since the morning, bringing new radios, generators, and so on.”
ODESA BORDER GUARD MEN FIGHT LIKE FEW OTHERS CAN
We saw volunteers busy helping soldiers in position on the morning after the bombing of the Skhidny (Eastern) neighborhood on the outskirts of Mariupol. Although the Azov Battalion and border guard troops had made the Russian aggressor retreat 35 kilometers from the city and the Ukrainian president had proclaimed ceasefire, the Ukrainian positions had been attacked.
“Just look at this photo. If this defense facility was manned, all of them would be dead. I didn’t see this kind of weapons used even at Ilovaisk,” a combat-fatigued Azov Battalion man told us at Checkpoint 14. He wouldn’t let us pass, saying, “I let no one past this checkpoint, even the OSCE men and foreign journalists, so you’re no exception.”
Mariupol Battalion was formed very recently, with volunteers joining on a daily basis, currently numbering over two hundred. Azov Battalion’s pros teach them basic training. In fact, this is the first Ukrainian patriotic guerrilla battalion formed in Mariupol due to a coordinated effort of residents and municipal authorities.
We saw a burned car nearby and a burned Ural truck farther away. We also saw soldiers interrogating captured saboteurs. And then we spotted a man in uniform walking around the checkpoint, embracing a blue-gold flag. His name [we learned] was Oleksandr, he was from Vinnytsia. His daughter was two months old and he hadn’t been able to attend the birthday party. He had been here for four months.
“I was driving that Ural truck when they hit the back of the truck. It’s burned but I’m alive, although it was a close one. I guess my daughter will be proud of me when I live to see her. My mother bought my flak jacket, and my wife and I bought the pants and boots. That’s how we’re fighting,” Oleksandr told us.
In Mykolaiv, two regular soldiers, aged 18-20, were receiving medicines delivered by volunteers from Odesa. Both had their guns bound with blue-yellow ribbons.
Vika, a volunteer from Odesa, told us that she had been frequently visiting the place, always asking what was the men needed, then bringing the message to Odesa where they’d collect the supplies and have them delivered. On that particular occasion they brought medicines and letters for the soldiers. They left quickly because they had to deliver another shipment of humanitarian aid.
Humanitarian aid was also provided by the residents of Berdiansk. Iryna and Oleksandr Velychko turned their holiday home into one for the patriotic soldiers and were collecting medicines and food for them.
Says Iryna: “You can see the kind of business we’re running, with zero profit, but the situation is different and we just can’t stand aside and look on. Our country is in a state of war, so we’re all of us trying to help. In fact, a woman who reserved a room [before all this started] is now making beds for soldiers and helping us prepare other rooms. She is a resettler from the Donbas and her son is paying token money for her room.”
“But for the people, our army would’ve been dead by now. Just look what we got to fight with: submachine guns,” we were told by Odesa border guard men who looked dead tired. We knew that for the Azov Battalion they were a living legend. “You should see how these border guard men fight! They burned a Russian tank using their bare hands. They fight like few other can,” an Azov man, alias Odysseus, had told us.
What we saw, however, was combat-fatigued taciturn men busy cutting sausage and bread.
“Are you from Odesa? What brought you here?” we asked. Some of them laughed: “We’re border guards, that’s why we’re here, but officially we’re in Berdiansk, there’s also a border to guard there.”
Other men quickly joined us. Everyone was curious to see a couple of journalists and hear their questions. And each man tried to display his good humor, although now and then we could hear what they were actually worried about.
“Previously no one’d take a man in army uniform seriously, all’d be poking fun at him. Now the situation has changed. All we got is submachine guns fighting a powerfully equipped enemy. The Russians are jamming our communications, so we can’t figure out what’s going on and we get no instructions. Mobile phones are our only communication means. [Military] radios? What’re you talking about?” said a border guard man with the alias Medvid (Bear) and smiled as he kept cutting sausage: “We got to the Russian regulars closer than Azov, yet the battalion got the credit because we’re supposed to be deployed in Berdiansk.”
They told us the biggest problem was not that they had to fight the enemy barehandedly, but that there were leaks and no one was doing anything about that. “The leaks are local; some of the locals are doing this,” an Azov man told us at Checkpoint YuT.
As we were talking to soldiers, we saw quite a few bystanders taking pictures of us and then threatening to place them on websites. Also, according to Iryna, those who previously campaigned for peace, no matter under what regime, have since joined the Ukrainian side, although there are still many people in the city who are supporting the self-styled DNR.
A local resident named Viktor, for example, feels sure that the army has breached the ceasefire; that he realized this when stepping out on the street at night to see what was happening, and when soldier sent him home. Viktor is a worker at the Ilyich Plant and says he didn’t like Yanukovych, that he doesn’t like the local authorities, but that the Maidan was the wrong decision. Viktor complains that everything in the city has been bought by the local authorities, so he is waiting for someone to punish them, although he doesn’t want to join the self-defense ranks.
Vadym Kotsarenko, a practicing immunologist, says: “You can’t figure out who was the first to open fire staying at home. It’s just echo. Let the experts figure this out; there are charts of movements and so on. All I can say that there were shots fired from the other side even before they breached the ceasefire.”
Vadym is gathering shell fragments near what is left of a first aid station: “I’ll go to our school and show the pupils what kind of present Putin has prepared for them. The kids must know how dangerous it is.” He adds that the municipal authorities haven’t arranged for first-aid and basic safety techniques classes in school.
Denys Havrylov, Mariupol Defense, insists that such classes will be organized, that this is just a matter of time – as is the monitoring of bomb shelters. Vadym Kotsarenko doesn’t want to wait. He insists that not all of the shelters are functional, with some being flooded, others locked and without keys, still others without electricity, and that some shelters have been privatized. And this considering that there are signs pointing to the shelters all over the city. Vadym’s daughter is enrolled in an old grade school that may have a basement, but he isn’t sure about its condition.
At the moment, the city appears to be living a relatively quiet life, so the residents can learn about the defense line getting closer or moving away only by watching military traffic and/or by watching news bulletins. [Public] transport is functioning, with people standing in line to buy tickets for bus rides to Donetsk. Many have made such trips to collect their belongings.
Under the circumstances, Mariupol looks more secure as a center of defense. What will happen tomorrow depends only on the residents, on their own “line of defense.”
P.S.: Azov Battalion was first distrusted by the city residents. People were scared by the presence of a “neo-Nazi” battalion so vividly portrayed by the Russian media. Today this battalion is held in respect after enforcing law and order and lowering the crime rate. “We’re here as jacks of all trades, including the militia,” say Azov men.
See reports on the Azov Battalion and “Foreign Legion” in The Day’s subsequent issues.