Written by Ryan Miller, 24 JUN 2019
The show must go on. This is the case for millions of Ukrainians clinging onto any sense of normalcy that they can find. The war began in 2014 in eastern Ukraine as a result of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The area around the city of Mariupol witnesses some of the most intense fighting in the current war, which has claimed nearly 13,000 lives. People here still raise kids, go to work, date, everything you would normally do. This may be an outlandish idea to westerners, but life seems to just kind of go on. In fact, as I write this I am sitting on a hostel porch looking at rundown Soviet buildings. Rain hits the tin roof above my head. I can hear artillery in the near distance, approximately 2 miles away. No sirens. No lights. No neighbors coming to warn us of the danger. It’s 2 a.m. and the city sleeps.
Conflict map of Ukraine (left) and zoomed-in conflict map of Mariupol (right).
“We work, live, eat, sleep; I have a girlfriend. No matter what is going on, life continues.” This is what Sergey, a man who was born and raised in Mariupol told us about living here. He works at Azov Steel, and has a girlfriend whom we’ve met as well. We continued talking about the battles that took place in his city which is home to more than 446,000 people. He said “We constantly heard shelling; how could we not be afraid?” referring to the bombardment of artillery and rockets that destroyed a good part of the city. Sergey’s house was actually hit by a mortar round in January 2015 that fortunately didn’t explode. This was several years ago now, but to him it seems like yesterday.
You might ask yourself why so many people stay in this city if it experienced a barrage of explosives and combat continues right outside of its borders today. The official answer is that most Ukrainians actually don’t have the means for this. But it appears another reason could be that the majority of people here feel extremely strong ties to their homes. Sergey lived and worked as a waiter in a bar in Moscow in 2015, but came back home to Mariupol. “In Moscow I was alone. In Mariupol I have my friends, my girlfriend, and my family. It was hard to be alone.” His friend, named Aleksey, tried to come to US. He said “I wanted to go to America on the Green Card Lottery, but I did not win.” The Green Card Lottery refers to 50,000 Permanent Resident Visas that the US gives away at random every year. Aleksey now works in Poland as a welder most of the time, but he comes back home to visit every chance he gets.
We met Sergey and Aleksey on Saturday, June 22ndon a boardwalk leading to a beach in Mariupol. They called their friends, Max and Jane, Sergey’s girlfriend, to “come meet the journalists from Texas.” We just hung out at the beach and drank beers together for the rest of the afternoon. The following morning, we went to Veselka park. Children played independently of their parents. An old man mowed the grass around a flowerbed that is beautifully spread out. People ate at an Italian fusion restaurant named Parmesan. It was a beautiful park, and a beautiful day to be there. These are just two examples of the sense of actual normalcy you can get in this city. At our hostel were staying people on business trips, people vacationing here, even people here for a rave. The craziest part is that all of the places mentioned here are less than 3 miles away from the frontlines.
Max (left), Jane, Sergey, Ryan, Aleksey, Adrean at the beach in Mariupol.
The concept of living life normally while there is a war happening right outside of your city’s borders is completely foreign to us westerners. But here, it’s just the reality of life. 2 million have been displaced. More than 3 times that number have remained living around the frontlines than have left: 6,305,000 (approximately). The vast majority of people here appear to just want their regular lives back, and they do their best to recreate that. Sometimes you have to ask yourself, “What would I do?”
Citations and more info:
Census data: “Population of Ukraine.” State Statistics Services of Ukraine, 01 APR 2019.http://database.ukrcensus.gov.ua/PXWEB2007/eng/news/op_popul_e.aspd
Displacement data: “Ukraine Refugee Crisis.” USA for UNHCR the UN Refugee Agency.https://www.unrefugees.org/emergencies/ukraine/
Death toll data: “Donbas War Death Toll Rises to Nearly 13,000.” Unian Information Agency, 22 JAN 2019.https://www.unian.info/war/10416549-donbas-war-death-toll-rises-up-to-nearly-13-000-un.html
Green Card Lottery information: “Green Card Through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program.” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, updated 11 JAN 2018.https://www.uscis.gov/greencard/diversity-visa