Waiting for the storm: Ukrainian military prepares to defend Mariupol

Despite the so-called “ceasefire”, fighting in eastern Ukraine continues. Ukrainian army has been strengthening its positions in case of further invasion of Russian military forces.

For example, Mariupol continues preparations for a possible attack both from the land and the sea. Read exclusive EMPR report about life of the city and Ukrainian military in Mariupol.

On 4 April, on the railway platform in Kyiv, I was lucky to meet a Ukrainian officer returning to the sector M from a short vacation. When he learnt I was a journalist, Sergey, to my great surprise, invited me to his compartment, where we had a great pleasure to spend a long trip, discussing various topics. Considering the current situation in the country, as well as my companion’s occupation, we discussed war, politics and the state of the Ukrainian army. Later, while smoking in a train vestibule, Sergey would tell me why although being able to resign, he is returning to the frontline:- I have a wife and two children, a house and a car. But I’m coming back there, knowing I will see all that horror and death of my brothers. And every day I keep telling myself that if we do not crush those skunks out there – tomorrow they will be under the windows of my house.

I did not suspect then, that soon I would hear the same words from another person in a completely different place.

Upon arrival in Mariupol, it seems that the city and its residents openly ignore approaching frontline – parks are filled with people, transport operates smoothly, employees of city utilities plant flowers. Only military trucks with soldiers and cars of volunteer battalions, passing occasionally along the streets, remind about close frontline. This picture sharply contradicts the ATO map – just in twenty kilometers, at the village of Shyrokyne, Ukrainian army repels active attacks of “DPR” militants. The situation changes roughly with the approaching of night – the city becomes empty by 8pm.

I get up early in the morning and head to the city’s port, where, according to the officer I’m acquainted with, Ukrainian army has been actively preparing to defend the coast from possible enemy’s disembarkation. On the shore, my eyes immediately catch a long strip of bunkers and trenches, whose redoubtable look is in sharp contrast with peacefully strolling locals and fishermen, who came to the sea to try their luck. In a couple of meters from the bunkers, near the pavilions, BTR-80 stands. Today, the 79th airborne brigade is working in this square.

– Guys go on watch for two days and work mainly in the morning not to disturb the locals, – a soldier with the call sign Flag tells me. – We eat what we manage to catch in the sea, well, at least there is something to catch. The locals’ attitude is controversial – sometimes people come and say that terrorists will shoot them because of us, that we just make things worse with our presence. But there are those who bring food and warm clothes. In general, it’s nice here, I don’t have many opportunities to go to the sea (laughs). Volunteers don’t come to us – all aid is sent to the frontline now. It’s understandable – guys out there need it more. The main thing is that we’ve got enough equipment to defend ourselves. Armour is fully operational, we’ve got ammunition. And there are points with snipers and a machine gun on the hills around us , plus our guys patrol the sea. Actually, I don’t think Russians will attack from the sea – this shore is inappropriate.

When I asked about the direct support of the military, Flag replied with a smile.
After accomplishing their tasks, in the late afternoon, soldiers gather around the fire to warm up. Several men watch evening news in a tent.
Despite the fact that Mariupol is not a war zone and supply to the locations of servicemen is not blocked, I noticed an absolute lack of any food and supplies, apart from those servicemen buy in the market nearby or catch in the sea. APC driver-mechanic with call sign Klim gives me the only cup of tea for the entire group; the tea consists of boiled water and sugar. Klim tells me that his relatives think he is repairing tractors in Mykolaiv now:

– I think they don’t need to know we are here – it’s easier for me and it’s good for me. My son is fifteen. And I came here because of him in the first place. We better stop these terrorists here for them not to go further.

After Klim’s words I felt an incredible sense of déjà vu. I remembered how Sergey, smoking in the train vestibule, told me the same thing. Obviously, this is a true act of love for your homeland and family. These are two emotions that force a man to leave a familiar rhythm of life, come here, in eastern part of Ukraine, and despite the icy sea wind, lack of proper ammunition and food and regular threats to life, to defend what is dear to his heart.

The names and call signs of fighters mentioned in the publication have been changed by the author for security reasons, as they are still serving on the coast.

Photos and story by Valeriy Nikonov, EMPR
Aleksandra Demskaya also contributed to the publication

This publication is also available in Russian.

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