Ukraine’s Mariupol – suspicion, mistrust and a fear of what’s to come

By Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Programme at Amnesty International

At first sight it seems as if it’s business as usual in Mariupol in south-eastern Ukraine. This strategic port city just across a thin stretch of water from Crimea has “changed hands” twice in the last two months.

We travelled there to try to document allegations of human rights violations and abuses amid the turbulent background in eastern Ukraine. The sun is shining, the banks and shops are open, and there are people going about their business – but not many. This is the season for holiday-makers. But there are none. At times it is eerily quiet; the first telling sign that all is not well.

The people of Mariupol are still coming to terms with recent history.

Back in May, key administrative buildings in the city were occupied by anti-Kyiv protesters. The police simply vacated their headquarters, in front of a cheering crowd, and left the city at the mercy of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), the pro-Russian paramilitaries. The military personnel stationed at a nearby base also withdrew.

It was only on 13 June that pro-Kyiv armed units entered the city, driving out the separatists, with eight reportedly killed and around 30 arrested.

But Mariupol is relatively lucky. There has been trouble, but significantly less than in many other towns and cities across the region. And things have seemingly calmed down. So much so that it is now increasingly a destination for people escaping the escalating conflict further north. We were told there were only two internally displaced families there two weeks ago. There are now 52 here and many more in satellite towns.

With the announcement of a ceasefire on 23 June we were expecting to hear that the situation was improving. But while the violence may have stopped here for now, there is an overriding atmosphere of tension, suspicion and deeply engrained fear.

We met with Victoria, an accountant by trade, in a café on the edge of the city centre. She comes with company: two men, her bodyguards. They sit awkwardly at tables adjacent to ours watching the doors as we drink our coffees and talk to a background of piped jazz music, with black and white photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot and other A-list Hollywood stars lining the walls. The café is otherwise empty.

Given the seeming calm, it appears odd that Victoria, whose pro-Ukrainian position is well known, should need bodyguards. But there is good reason for her caution. While many of the armed supporters loyal to the DNR have now gone into hiding, they are far from a spent force: she regularly finds bullets dropped as a warning in her post box. But more importantly, she believes that Mariupol may only nominally be under the control of Kyiv. The loyalty of the police and other authorities is under question, and this is to say nothing of those who believe that Ukraine is now run by a “junta” from Kyiv.

In the absence of state protection, Victoria now runs a network of volunteers, a local self-defence group. She believes that they keep the separatists, or “terrorists” as she calls them, from resurfacing. The group came into being in April after clashes between protesters left nine pro-Ukrainian activists in intensive care. Victoria believes it is only through the efforts of her organization, whose members respond promptly to incidents of violence, that the fragile order in the city is preserved.

Just how fragile the order in Mariupol is, and the allegiance of local officials, is hard to say. But the police are rarely seen in the city. People are reluctant to talk – even some of those who’d agreed to meet us. A journalist who had reportedly been targeted and abducted by the DNR during the elections suddenly stopped returning our calls.

We met some recently arrived internally displaced people in Mariupol: destitute, fearful for their future and confused, they left their possessions and their lives back in Slavyansk where some of the worst military fighting has occurred. When we greeted a middle-aged man in a flat hat, his first response was: “I won’t be telling you anything!”

What will happen to Mariupol amid the chaos of conflict and lawlessness in eastern Ukraine is difficult to predict. But there are some very worrying trends.

According to the UN monitors we met, there has been surge of abductions and allegations of torture.

In Mariupol, after pro-Kyiv forces “liberated” buildings held by the pro-Russians, we were told that some 50 people were found in a cellar – abducted, intimidated and tortured. This figure we could not verify, but we had heard of such cases before coming to Mariupol, and have documented others from Donetsk, Luhansk and other places now under control of anti-Kyiv armed groups. The anti-Kyiv side has also alleged that their activists were being abducted, and this we would like to ascertain.

Credible sources close to the heart of Mariupol’s administration expressed grave concerns over the number of different armed factions in the city, be they pro-Russian, pro-Ukrainian or even opportunistic criminals. There are no clear, or extremely confused, command structures in many of the armed groups across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The same appears true of many of the “battalions” made up of volunteers who engage in battles in the east on the pro-Kyiv side.

So who is in control in Mariupol? At the moment the Ukrainian flag is flying high over administrative buildings. But the tables could turn as quickly as a flick of a switch. For the people of Mariupol this leaves an uncertain future steeped in suspicion, mistrust and a very real fear for what’s to come.

Note: This blog originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Read more: 

Ukraine: Rights at risk in Slovyansk (News story, 2 May 2014)Ukraine: Abducted journalists and officials must be released (News story, 24 April 2014)
Made in Russia: Crimea’s grim human rights predicament (Op-ed, 22 March 2014)