MARIUPOL — It is virtually impossible to hide from war once it has begun. It spreads through a city like a dark plume of smoke, which inevitably will envelope all in its dirty residue. It will force you to choose which side you are on, to make a decision of whether to stay or to leave.
Time will pass, and the war may retreat, lurking in the background, a constant white noise at the back of your mind. You will get used to it.
This may be an accurate description of the recent past and present in eastern Ukraine where war has now raged for more than three years. More than 10,000 people have died, and two million people have fled from the conflict. But many others have stayed in the Donbass region on both sides of the front. And it is among these people that we find some locals trying to re-learn how to discern faces behind the unsettled dust.
We are in Mariupol, in Eastern Ukraine, a harbor town filled with Ukrainian soldiers. It is an outpost. The frontline is only 20 kilometers away. Shortly after the outbreak of the war in spring of 2014, Mariupol was, for a brief period of time, part of the so-called “People’s Republic of Donetsk.” But in June of the same year, the Ukrainian Army managed to reconquer the city.
It is no longer dangerous to openly declare your Ukrainian identity, quite the opposite in fact.
Mariupol currently has 450,000 inhabitants of which every fifth is a refugee from other parts of the Donbass region. The people in Mariupol are largely still torn between the two sides. You will hear people saying “Don’t worry, he/she is pro-Ukrainian” when they give you the name of a new contact.
This is very different than in Kiev, where pro-Ukrainian sentiment dominates. Here, you cannot be sure of people’s opinions despite the fact that Ukrainian flags fly all around Mariupol, and people dress in traditional Ukrainian knitted blouses on holidays.
It is no longer dangerous to openly declare your Ukrainian identity, quite the opposite in fact. A large banner hanging from the burned out city hall reads “Mariupol is part of Ukraine.”
So where are all the people who supported the pro-Russian demonstrations that clogged the streets in 2014? Where are those people of Mariupol, who voted in the so-called referendum in May 2014 for the separation of Mariupol from Ukraine? They are still here. They are everywhere. In your family, at your workplace, on the bus, in hospitals and schools.
Today, some of them regret that they supported the uprising that Russia instigated. They have the benefit of three years’ hindsight. Many of them now openly admit that they saw truckloads of people being carted into Mariupol from other regions to swell the ranks of the demonstrators. The Russian propagandist television called these people “pro-Russian activists from Mariupol.”
But many of them are also disappointed that the often wished for “Russian world” did not come to pass. They might not admit to that in public, but they still talk about it when sitting at the kitchen table with friends and relatives.
Mariupol's Old Fire Tower, theater and skyline — Photo: Illuminatedbay
Vlad, a young civil and social activist from Mariupol, explains how he managed to communicate with his parents, who are pro-Russian. “Eventually, we simply understood that we will not be able to change each others' minds. We have accepted each other.” The topics that sparked arguments in 2014 are now being deliberately avoided.
You will encounter numerous stories of such tactical silence in the Donbass.
According to the most recent study of the Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), social exchanges between people in the Donbass region are still quite acute. Only three to four percent of the 2,400 people interviewed on both sides of the frontline say that they have no contact with people on the other side. Many of them cross the front lines on a daily basis in order to shop, to go to work or to visit relatives.
Strategic silence has also been helpful to Anja, a good acquaintance of mine. Anja’s mother lives in Donetsk, the capital of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” which has become a stronghold of pro-Russian and Russian people. Anja lives in Kiev and works for an international organization.
She is not able to visit her mother anymore because the separatists placed her on a “black list” due to her pro-Ukrainian sentiment. She meets her mother at a dacha, situated in a village controlled by Ukraine, along the frontlines. Her mother is pro-Russian. “The avoidance of political issues has become the condition on which our relationship is based,” says Anja.
Through the war, people have learned to value what they have.
When visiting Anja in Kiev two years ago, her mother could only stand to be there for a day. The daughter's support of the Ukrainian Army was too much for her. And so her mother left her a note, requesting that Anja please not contact her again. Anja respected her mother’s wishes for a few months. But eventually the two started speaking again.
“We have never explicitly agreed on what topics we may or may not speak. But we don’t have any other choice but to remain silent on certain topics,” says Anja. But this, she says, is now much easier than it used to be because the war taught them that there are good and bad people on both sides.
Uliana Tokarieva of the foundation “Developing Mariupol” is also a member of the supervisory board of the “Women’s Council of the Donetsk Region.” She highlights the key role that women play in the process of verbal truces. “It's mostly women who network within and between families in Ukrainian culture,” she said. “They organize weddings and funerals and preserve family history and keep up contacts between family members, even when they are of a totally different political opinion than the rest of the family.”
Tokarieva tells me of women in Mariupol, who take food and medication to the other side of the frontline although they are often derided for their pro-Ukrainian sentiments when they get there.
“Through the war, people have learned to value what they have," she says. "Many relationships have failed, but you try to salvage what can be salvaged. Even if you cannot talk about everything any longer.”
Inevitably, it is family that is both the source of some of the worst conflicts and the means to resolve others. There are shocking stories of brothers fighting each other on opposite sides of the front lines, and tales of family members orchestrating cease fire efforts in war-torn towns. No one can predict when the people of the Donbass will again live a lasting peace. But as long as they are able to view the people across enemy lines as humans instead of faceless enemies, the thin thread of reconciliation will remain.