Mariupol, Ukraine – The outdoor dance floor of the Old Lighthouse restaurant in Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine was half-packed with parents dancing with their kids and a few bored twenty-somethings smoking hookahs. Pumping out Ukrainian turbo folk and Russian pop standards, the thumping speakers drowned out the sound of artillery, thundering away just a few kilometres down the coast.
Even as pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian army broke a multiparty ceasefire halting more than five months of violence Saturday night with artillery duels that set a gas station ablaze, destroyed a Ukrainian army checkpoint and smashed up other buildings on the edge of this industrial port city on the Sea of Azov, people continued dancing.
But just down the coast, in the village of Shyrokyne, the situation was vastly different, casting into stark relief the sometimes random nature of the violence that is ripping Ukraine apart – and which makes all the more tenuous the fragile peace that started with the truce on Friday afternoon.
“It was like an atom bomb. I only just made it into the cellar when the shell landed,” said Olga Vasilyevska, a pensioner living in a small, well-kept house near the sea in Shyrokyne, between Ukrainian-controlled Mariupol and Novoazovsk, now in the hands of pro-Russian rebels.
The shell killed Ivan Naskol, her 63-year-old neighbour, as he was riding his bicycle back from the sea on Friday afternoon. No one could say if it came from the Ukrainian or the rebel side.
Naskol was killed just hours before the ceasefire was signed. Some dried blood, a shell crater about two meters wide and a meter deep, a wrecked fence peppered by shrapnel and a greasy patch in some ivy where his leg landed is all that is left to suggest what happened here.
“It was all black and scorched on the street. A piece of meat was thrown way up there onto the side of my house. I ran out, but there wasn’t anything left,” said Olga, who believes her neighbor was killed instantly. “It’s so sad. I don’t know how we will continue, but we will continue.”
Olga said she would keep on sleeping in her cellar until at least Monday night, relying on a rumor that fighting would resume then. She had no idea if the current, weakly enforced and frequently broken, ceasefire would continue, but she clearly did not trust it.
And her fears were realised. As some danced, shells fired from rebel positions fell in the villages along the shore. At least one person was killed Saturday night or early Sunday morning.
Truce ‘not fully observed’
Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said the truce was “not being fully observed”, and added that his troops had been shelled in Amvrosiyivka, a town near Donetsk, on Saturday.
Further unconfirmed reports said that a number of fighters from the pro-Ukrainian Aydar Battalion were ambushed and killed after the ceasefire. And in a Tweet, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that a convoy of aid trucks going to Luhansk was forced to turn around because of shelling, but gave no more details.
All sides in this conflict have shown disregard for civilian lives and are blatantly violating their international obligations.
The ceasefire, reached in Minsk late last week, set out a 12 point plan that calls for the possibility of the decentralisation of power, the prospect of special status for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the withdrawal of “illegal military formations” from Ukraine and provisions for an amnesty, among other steps.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin spoke by phone on Saturday. In a statement, Poroshenko stressed the need to “to maximise the involvement” of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in monitoring the truce. Putin said in a statement that an agreement was reached to “continue dialogue”.
The EU imposed more sanctions on Russia today, targeting individuals. But they could be suspended if Russia pulls out troops from eastern Ukraine and observes the truce. Russia has said it will respond with measures of its own. Russia’s foreign ministry said the EU was “practically sending a signal of direct support to the ‘party of war’ in Kiev.”
“Our evidence shows that Russia is fuelling the conflict, both through direct interference and by supporting the separatists in the East. Russia must stop the steady flow of weapons and other support to an insurgent force heavily implicated in gross human rights violations,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, in a statement on Sunday.
But he added that, “all sides in this conflict have shown disregard for civilian lives and are blatantly violating their international obligations.” Around 2,600 people have been killed in the fighting, but many observers fear that number is actually much higher.
‘I don’t think there will be peace’
For Ivan Balokha, the ceasefire did not come soon enough. His wife was killed Friday afternoon just hours before the ceasefire as they ran to their cellar when artillery began hitting their village. He said his wife was just a metre from the door when a shell landed in the entrance. The blast sent shrapnel into his forehead and fractured both his legs.
“End soon? To the contrary – I don’t think there will be peace,” he said weakly, when asked if the ceasefire will bring an end to the violence, while lying in bed at Mariupol’s Emergency Hospital.
|Ukraine truce deal shaken by shelling|
Down the corridor, a fighter from the pro-Kiev Dnipro-1 Battalion was resting and smoking cigarettes near a no smoking sign. “Let me put it simply, we will obey the ceasefire, but if they shoot first, we will reply,” said Igor Kanakov.
He can now just barely stand after having spinal surgery. He was wounded in the recent battle at Ilovaisk that left around a hundred of his comrades dead – a slaughter that sent a shockwave through the country. “The independence we win with this war will be a real independence, not like the one we got when the Soviet Union fell,” he said. “But we can’t have peace without victory.”
On Sunday night intermittent shelling could be heard on the edge of Mariupol, but it was impossible to say which side started and who was shooting whom. “There must be peace. There will be peace, but we don’t know under which government,” said a shopkeeper in Shyrokyne.
In the village of Pikuzy, on the main road from Mariupol to the nearby Russian border, a Ukrainian tank stood in the courtyard of a kindergarten, burnt out after a precise hit. Two tanks stood nearby, abandoned by their crews.
“I would like to think there will be peace, but I doubt it,” said Ivan Pikuz, standing on the main road near the school. “There will be peace in any case, the question is just when.”