After finally finishing up the last of our interviews, we headed for the train station (With Joe in tow) to catch our train to Mariupol. Smokey Joe (he loves to smoke) had extended his flight in order to come with us and see if he could get some good photos.
We were lucky to get our own carriage as unsurprisingly there were not a massive amount of people heading towards the conflicted city of Mariupol. We had a reasonably comfortable 20 hour journey in and after a good nights sleep arrived in Mariupol.
We were to be met by Andre, a local man who Olga the 17 year old we had met in Kiev, had kindly arranged for us. He soon found us and we loaded up the car and set off to find a hotel, unfortunately the hotel he found us wasn’t what you would call good, or even average. It had the feeling of a post apocalyptic slum in which people were taking shelter. Our room was OK but the squatter toilets and general filth were not.
After checking in (for the economic sum of 10 pounds a night for all of us) we set off for a village that had been damaged in the previous nights shelling. Andre explained that he worked as a liaison between the government and Russians living in Mariupol. Basically he was charged with improving relations between pro separatists and pro Ukrainians, he did this with billboards and a free newspaper.
Andre had agreed to drive us around for just the cost of fuel, which was a great deal. He drove us up to a checkpoint but the soldiers flat out refused to be interviewed, they had become very wary and hostile since the intensive shelling the previous night. We decided instead to go to a bombed out village on the outskirts of Mariupol. As we made our way down the highway pocked with shell-marks we came across a concrete barrier. These were makeshift anti tank barriers made from tidal blocks that had been plucked from the sea.
As we skirted the edge we spotted what seemed to be a tank on the main road to the right. As we drove over it became apparent that it was a Ukrainian tank that had smashed into one of their own defenses and stranded itself there unable to move. The tank was smashed, both tracks had come off due to the impact and the Ukrainian’s had abandoned it, leaving the heavy-machine gun and turret intact. A dangerous move in a city with so many pro separatists.
We examined the tank with Joe jumping on the turret to get a closer look (Whilst smoking obviously) A German correspondent crew rolled up and rudely walked into John’s shot, much to his annoyance.
The speed at which the tank must have hit the barrier in order to smash it to pieces was significant, it must have not been pleasant for the soldiers inside. (Even though it was claimed in many major papers that the tank had been hit by artillery, completely untrue!)
Following this Andre refused to take us to the village as he had heard there was shelling due any minute, so we went back to our old favorite, Beer Keller had some food then returned to our post apocalyptic hotel for a boiling hot nights sleep.
The following day Andre claimed he was ill so we had nothing to do, a girl Elliott had met had arranged an apartment for us (Thanks again Julie!) but we had to wait until 6 o’clock to move in. So we packed up a taxi and went to our favorite kebab house to spend the day, it was quite productive as we used the internet to do research and Joe started his journalist career by writing an article on the back of an old flyer he’d found on a lamppost. Finally after many coffees and kebabs 6 o’clock arrived and we made our way over, by taxi, to the apartment. (The driver was extremely keen to get there quickly and pushed his car to the limit, this was the first time we had felt unsafe in a car since we have been here).
A man met us at the apartment and showed us up (it was on the top floor, obviously) the apartment was basic and very old fashioned, but a good size and extremely cheap. After spending an hour sorting out the internet we were settled in and found that there was no hot water and a toilet which continually flushed itself but other than this it was a good place (costing only £35 for a week!)
The next day we contacted Valera, the red cross volunteer that we had previously interviewed. He had joined the red cross to help people when the initial rioting had happened in the city 4 months previously. When he joined he trained with 20 other volunteers however when things started getting dicey it was only him and one other volunteer that stayed trying to help injured people in the street. At this point he is now the only remaining Red Cross volunteer in Mariupol, he has nobody to advise him on how he can be effective and only gets a limited amount of bandages sent to him by request from the Red Cross.
Once the recent shelling had occurred he told us how he grabbed his flack jacket and supplies and literally ran by himself straight to the front-line. He described to us later how after making it to the front he realised he was way out of his depth. When he last volunteered he was working with people fighting with machine guns shooting each other in the street, this was his first experience of being shelled and as he quite rightly said ‘There is nobody who can see I am trying to help, it is simply luck if I get hit or not’. Once on the frontline of the shelling the only people he came into contact with were soldiers who told him he was no help to them as they have there own medics and him dying here, unarmed would not benefit anybody.
He stuck around anyway and managed to get back from the frontline 4 days later after sleeping in an ambulance with some other doctors. He had needed to escape by crawling half a mile on his stomach back to safety. His actions seemed a bit foolhardy and we didn’t think the red cross would get involved with helping soldiers, but you had to admire his bravery. He saw many things during the shelling, one of them was a battalion of Ukrainian soldiers running away leaving their weapons to be picked up by locals. Valera stated that these local ‘idiots’ will still be using these weapons long after the war has finished a worrying forsight on the future of Mariupol.
He also claimed that the soldiers fighting at the eastern checkpoint were border guards, when he asked them why they were here they said “This is the border now” another shocking example of how unstable Ukraine’s borders have become. He continued to feed us a lot of interesting information and his position on the situation had started to be more clear. When we had last interviewed him a month or so before he was very careful to keep his opinion neutral as he was there to help civilians and not take sides. However now he did not seem to worry too much about it. He told us in his opinion the Ukrainian army was disorganised and unprofessional which resulted in a much higher level of civilian casualties.
The Russian’s (which is how he described the Separatists) were organised, well trained and better equipped. They would ‘never’ hurt civilians and apparently planned every attack precisely to avoid civilian casualties. It’s important to remember that even though Mariupol was technically controlled by the Ukrainian forces 2/3’s of the people (according to Valera) were still pro Russian. He also stated that the pro Ukrainian rallies that had been so prominent on the news channels throughout the world were a farce and once the media circus had been completed everybody simply left. He believed that the Russians would soon easily take Mariupol using superior force. They would also be aided by the constant information from the locals updating the Separatists on the whereabouts and actions of the Ukrainian soldiers trying their best to keep the city. A somber reminder of the complications involved in the situation and the seemingly impossible task the Ukrainian forces have in keeping this city.
As we walked to find a place to eat, a shell landed close enough to feel the concussion, this was a stark example of how volatile the supposed ceasefire was. We spent some more time talking to Valera and then made our way back on the extremely slow bus to the centre.
As we arrived in town we decided to have a few beers and so spent the evening drinking and visiting places we knew from before. To see how many of the people we had met the last time were around. It turns out, unsurprisingly that about half of the population already bloated with refugees had left the city since the shelling had started. However unlike Donetsk, most of the shops and restaurants were open and running seemingly as normal.
Now we must wait and see what will come of the cease fire, but with less than a week left we need to push to get the last of the footage we need.