Mariupol, Ukraine – More than half a dozen armoured personnel carriers, piled high with Ukrainian troops, thundered down the coastal road outside of Mariupol away from the frontline, just half an hour after a ceasefire was agreed between Kiev and pro-Russian rebels.
The retreat was just the latest in a series of military and political manoeuvres that have been playing out over the past few days as Ukraine and Russia have struggled to reach some kind of halt to the fighting.
The shooting in Mariupol stopped at 6pm on Friday evening. But the volunteer soldiers on the roadside seemed doubtful that it marked the end to months of conflict.
“This is not the end. There can be no peace without victory,” said an older member of the Jesus Christ’s One Hundred, a company of volunteers under the pro-Ukrainian Azov battalion, as he watched the government troops pull back after another day of heavy fighting around this strategic port.
Among the fighters, the mood seemed dubious at best of the ceasefire agreement, rather than celebratory.
But during the day, and up until about two hours before the ceasefire started, the sound of heavy artillery rumbled across the city.
At one point the multiple explosions of a rocket strike thumped across the city, silencing everyone on the street.
Signs of war
Indeed, aside from the heavy detonations, the signs of war are visible. The provincial governor’s building remains burnt out after separatist protesters sacked it in early May. Pro-Kiev propaganda is spray-painted all over factory walls.
Life has continued however, even despite the fighting.
Wedding convoys headed by white limos, with brides popping their heads out of sunroofs, share the roads with army trucks. One couple had photographs taken on the beach, with the city’s industrial port and the Sea of Azov as the backdrop.
At the Azov market, volunteers unpacked boxes of flour, cooking oil, buckwheat, canned meat and other staples and repacked them into plastic shopping bags destined for the embattled city of Donetsk.
Slowly a small mountain of humanitarian aid, funded by the Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov’s social fund, grew at one end of the open-air pavilion.
“Mariupol is part of Ukraine and will be part of Ukraine,” said Enver Tskitishvili, the general director of Azovstal, Akhmetov’s giant steel rolling plant here.
“The most important thing is that regular people stop suffering and that the war ends before winter comes.”
As the last of the Ukrainian and volunteer troops rolled away and the sun set over Mariupol’s smokestacks, Oksana Marchenko and her neighbour looked down the road in the direction of the pro-Russian forces.
“If there would be peace, we would want it,” she said, as she watched the last of the soldiers depart down the road towards Mariupol. “We would like there to be peace in Ukraine and in Russia,” she said.
“We will live together like we lived before. We need to move on,” she said, as she stood in her housecoat and slippers after running out of her home to watch the troops pull back. “We need to not only think there will be peace, we need to believe in it.”