A feeling of anxiety has emerged in peaceful Mariupol in the recent days. After the Ukrainian army was ‘squeezed out’ of Novoazovsk by alleged Russian troops under the banners of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, and DNR mercenaries advanced to the south after the battle near Ilovaisk, the locals are afraid that combat may touch on their port city as well.
Every day, Mariupol citizens – teachers, workers, economists, businessmen, – go to the outskirts of Mariupol and help the military build defense fortifications. Volunteers and businessmen which until recently clothed and fed the army and the National Guard battalions, are now looking for defense funds.
Mariupol is the only large city in Donetsk oblast which went untouched by the war, if we do not take into account the events on May 9, and which managed to become the capital of the region within several months and take on the part of the main rear position. Today, it is threatened by the ‘DNR army’ and the Russian military ‘aid’ from the eastern and northern sides.
The oblast administration, headed by Sergey Taruta, is trying to placate the locals and claiming that there will be no invasion, and so far there are no reasons to panic, however combat is slowly approaching the port city. We visited placed near Mariupol which are already under DNR control.
The city itself is not very well protected: the taxi driver managed to exit using the highway, bypassing the Ukrainian roadblocks. Theoretically, an entire column of mercenaries under the guise of civilians can take this road and conduct intelligence work or cause a provocation without any resistance.
Several twisters of ash-grey smoke rise to the skies within fifty kilometers of Mariupol, in the village of Granitna. A local explains: combat is underway there, this smoke cannot be mistaken for anything else…
To the east of Mariupol, the front line has already approached the town of Telmanovo. The Ukrainian flag stood above the administration building only two days ago.
It is still there, however, a DNR roadblock is standing nearby. However, this roadblock has no identification signs. In reality, there are no DNR flags, ‘Novorossiya’ flags on the road to Starobeshevo, where combat with the besieged Ukrainian army took place in Ilovaisk. Only a couple of burnt Ukrainian BTR’s on the highway and the asphalt, torn apart by caterpillars, remind us of the fact that this is the end of peaceful territory.
At the entrance to Starobeshevo on the edges of the road, trenches litter the soil: DNR snipers are sitting here. They are commanded by 34-year-old Andrey Maliutin with the call sign Matvey. His documents, confirmed by Igor Strelkov, say that he is a sniper. He himself says that he used to be a cargo loader in Debaltsevo.
Proudly demonstrating a fresh, shiny Russia medal ‘For military achievements’ on his chest, he leads us further into the city to show the trophy tanks and the locations where battle occurred.
“I want to finally swim in salty water… Right in the tank,” he laughs, hinting at the fact that he intends to get to Mariupol in the nearest future. To the question how soon exactly, he says no later than in a week.
A tan Ossetian with golden teeth with the call sign Medved (‘Bear’) is on Matvey’s team. Sitting on the edge of a camouflage-painted bus, he is gnawing on a piece of sausage and stale-looking flatbread. Medved fought in Tskhinvale in 2008 and in the second Chechen War. It looks like he knows no other activity but war. “One of my best fighters,” Matvey says, nodding towards Medved. The latter either scowls or laughs in response.
Ukrainian soldiers exited the Ilovaisk cauldron through Starobeshevo. A tank regiment came here on August 30, Matvey says, opened fire at a shop where the mercenaries had taken shelter.
Matvey leads us to the Starobesheve MIA headquarters, where the mercenaries are based now, and tells us he would show us the hostages. Three men are led out into the courtyard under a convoy.
One of them, Artem, is very nervous. It is apparent by how he is nervously looking around and stuttering a little. A simple soldiers, a tank mechanic, he was captured recently. He served in the 93rd army brigade and was commanded to go to the east at a certain moment. When he ended up in the cauldron near Ilovaisk, he got orders to retreat to Starobeshevo following the promised ‘humanitarian corridor,’ like the rest of the servicemen. The corridor that turned into a meat grinder for Ukrainian soldiers.
The second, Olexiy Kyrylenko from Kharkiv, was taken hostage by Matvey today. He is not a solider: back in the winter and spring he was part of the ‘people’s regiment’ that protected Euromaidan meetings, and then volunteered to be part of the intelligence service within the ATO headquarters. His department suffered defeat on Saur-Mohyla.
He decided to walk to his people on foot, near Volnovakha. He walked for six or nine days (he cannot remember the details because of contusion), hiding in the woods. Olexiy says he ate raw corn, apples and sunflowers. He was taken hostage at the roadblock in Starobeshevo.
Olexiy looks worn out yet determined.
“The retreat was unexpected, and I hope that it is not defeat yet. I am sure that Ukraine will return here,” says he, despite the fact that DNR people with guns are guarding him. “I am protecting my country here, and I know this is no civil war, but intervention under the guise of civil war.”
“There is such a big amount of high-technology weaponry here which requires serious coordination that I am sure we are fighting against regular Russian troops. Look inside any tank, they have Russian unit numbers written on the inside.”
The third prisoner, Anatoly Babchenko, is a former bell ringer in an Orthodox Church who is part of the Kirovohrad battalion. As opposed to Kyrylenko, he thinks that a civil war is underway in the east of Ukraine, in which “brothers kill each other.” Nonetheless, he also says that the people who captured him near Saur-Mohyla were Russians.
“Possibly, according to the laws of the current time my battalion will say I died in a drunken fight, this is how they do it now,” Anatoly assumes. “Thanks to the politicians who are lying to the people.”
To the question as to what will happen to the prisoners, commander of the mercenaries Matvey says that they will be possibly sent to “restore Donetsk.” This is what the National Guard soldiers and fighters captured after the defeat near Ilovaisk are being told now.
It is difficult to say how many Ukrainian servicemen ended up with the DNR fighters and how many were wounded after the tragic defeat in the ‘cauldron.’ There are about 500 wounded only. And some, like Kyrylenko, are still trying to get out of the enemy territory and reach their own people independently.
…Meanwhile Mariupol, which is within several dozen kilometers from the location of these dramatic events, lives in anxious expectation. But, despite the DNR’ers loud claims that the mercenaries are just about to enter the port city from Starobeshevo and Volnovakha, the locals are confident and calm. They learned to defend themselves throughout these months of conflict.
Translated by Mariya Shcherbinina