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Mariupol – My Work Continues

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Mariupol was worth the trip.  Worth the 18 hour train ride.  Worth the trolling many of my blog posts and tweets received.  It made me realise that many can’t handle the truth about the war and what is actually happening in the east of Ukraine.

I left it a little too late to apply for official accreditation to gain access to the ATO zone, although not having this brought it’s own rewards.  It steered me towards other individuals and organisations that I otherwise never would have met. And like the old saying goes ‘Sometimes even the wrong train takes you to the right station’.

It was an incredible experience meeting those on the edge of the conflict.  To talk about how it’s affecting them.  And best of all, being able to document this without any constraints.  The stories of families spilt between the government and non-government held territories were plenty and this is something I’d like to explore further.  That was a huge reason for me coming here.  I simply didn’t know what to believe and only by travelling here could I see for myself and document what life’s like here.

I used to think that to work in areas such this you’d be better working for a large media company or newspaper as I presumed they would carry some weight, open some doors, but I’ve soon come to realise that in places such as this it has the opposite affect.  Nobody here wants to talk to ‘official’ journalists or photographers.  They simply don’t trust them.  The idea that you work for any form of paymaster is a no-go.

There’s no doubt that being freelance gives you true freedom.  Nobody to control where you go, who you speak to, what questions you ask and what you post.  I’ll be back in the east of Ukraine shortly where my work will continue.

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Written by Dean O'Brien

October 3, 2017 at 12:18 pm

Posted in Mariupol, Ukraine

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Mariupol – Final Meeting With Former UA Soldier (Part 3)

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Life here is a struggle for many, and for Sergei it’s no exception.  Since leaving the Ukrainian Army he’s worked at the local metal plant Metinvest. It’s hard work and long hours for very little pay.  Long term, he’s hoping to get a job on a merchant ship which will mean better money, but the downside is that it’ll mean being away from home for up to 6 months at time.

Strolling the streets we discuss the current political climate, Decommunisation, the conflict and everything in-between.  There’s nothing better than being on the ground and speaking to real people who live and breathe these issues.  That was the whole point of me travelling here.

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Sergei’s not anti-Ukrainian but does see his loyalties more with Russia.  Being so close to Russia geographically this comes as no surprise.

I ask about his time in the Ukrainian army and he gladly shares with me a small number of images from his collection and a few stories.

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He looks back fondly at his time in the army but he’s quick to mention that he’s glad that he’s not in there now.  ‘Lots of people lost respect for the government and army when they came here straight from Kiev. Look what happened on May 9th.  We all lived together in peace until they came. They started all this.  Now look’.  Like many, he still has genuine fears about being drafted back into the armed forces.

The battle on May 9th 2014 (Victory Day) left a number of fatalities and casualties.  This date on the calendar will always remain a tricky one for people in Mariupol breeding mixed emotions.  On one hand they’ll be celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany and on the other, they’ll be remembering those who died in 2014 at the hands of Ukrainian government forces.

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Wandering the streets around the centre we grab a marshrutka to head to the outskirts of town.  We visit more Soviet monuments and accidentally come across what appears to be a Soviet museum.  It’s closed unfortunately but it gives me the opportunity to discuss the future of such places with Sergei.  Do they have a place in modern Ukraine or with the decommunisation rules in place, are they going to disappear in an attempt to re-write history?  Sergei said ‘I have a bad feeling about these new rules. The government I think will try to make it look like these things never happened.  But how can they do this?  My Grandfather died fighting in this war so it is only right that we know about this right?’     

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As it’s my last evening in Mariupol Sergei invites me back to his apartment where his wife Yulia is cooking traditional food for us all.  We travel the remainder of the way on foot and en route to the apartment he tells me ‘Everyone who lives on this estate works at the metal plant.  They finish work, then come home and drink.  They they get up and go back to work again.  Then come home and drink again.  It’s a very bad way to live’.  ‘The cheapest things to buy here are alcohol and cigarettes.  What chance have people got?’

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He’s got a point.  Things were tough in Ukraine before the conflict and long before the days of Big Vik.  The new government hasn’t brought about much of a change in my eyes.  It’s similar goods just packaged differently.  Ask anyone on the streets and they tell you the same thing.

As the evening draws to a close, Sergei calls me a taxi and I head back to my hotel.  People advised me not to go to Mariupol but it’s been an eye opening experience.  Great people living in hard times.  I didn’t know who I was going to meet or what I was going to find when I got there.  I just knew that I’d meet somebody.

 

Written by Dean O'Brien

August 8, 2017 at 9:20 pm

Posted in Mariupol, Ukraine

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Mariupol – Meeting With Former UA Soldier (Part 2)

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After my first meeting with Sergei, the following day we agreed to meet again.  And again I sank another few pints whilst I waited, as this was now becoming a regular routine.

We walk around Mariupol and discuss the current situation here.  There’s a lot of paranoia here and that’s probably the reason I took most of shots here with an iPhone.  A large camera draws lots of un-wanted attention from passing Police cars and anyone in uniform.  It also gives them an excuse to stop, question you and demand a bribe which seems to be de rigueur in former Soviet countries.  Old habits die hard.

Walking the streets, I never ask people now if I can take their picture anymore as you’ll only ever get one of two answers.  ‘Nyet’ or ‘Give me money’.  Things seem extra tense here though and even taking pictures with your phone causes people to slow down and watch what you’re doing.  We keep walking.

An abandoned building stands back from the main road displaying a huge banner ‘Mariupol is Ukraine’.  It seems a little overkill.  Sergei explained that since the referendum held here in May 2014 a huge emphasis has been placed on stressing to people that ‘Mariupol is Ukraine!’, although he adds ‘not everyone here agrees to this’.

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The image below shows how a kiosk has covered up the Russian word ‘пресса’ and replaced it with the Ukrainian word ‘преса’.  This doesn’t please everybody, but it is becoming more common in Ukraine now and shows that there are deliberate attempts to start phasing out use of the Russian language.

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As for the people here in Mariupol, I noticed that although many appear to be patriotic on the outside, they aren’t actually prepared to take up arms to participate and fight with the UA forces. You can only draw your own conclusions from that.

 

 

Written by Dean O'Brien

August 2, 2017 at 9:57 am

Posted in Mariupol, Ukraine, Uncategorized

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Mariupol – Soviet Monuments & Decommunisation

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The Decommunisation process in Ukraine is a tough one.  I personally love Soviet history and all it left behind.  So do many others.  For them it takes them back to a time before the oligarchs and greed that came with independence.  Not to mention the poverty, corruption, alcoholism, sex tourism and everything else.

Whilst wandering around taking some images I chat to a babushka sitting on a bench who asks what I’m doing.  We exchange small talk and I ask her how she feels about the decommunisation process.  She says ‘They took Lenin.  They are trying to get rid of our history.  Our past.  We fought against the nazi’s in the war and now they are coming again from Kiev’.  It showed me that some people in people in Mariupol see the Ukrainian army coming there as an invasion and make a comparison between that and World War II.

I recall seeing memorials to Soviet soldiers in villages that still look spotless and have fresh flowers laid at their feet.  This isn’t about politics.  It’s about remembering those who fought and died.  Showing some respect to those who gave their lives.  They left their villages, cities and towns never to return.

A tank sits high on a plinth on a typical Soviet apartment block estate in Mariupol.  People pass the time smoking, chatting and drinking.  A typical summer evening and you’d never guess that the conflict was so close.

 

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Out of all the monuments, I’d say that the ‘MiG on a stick’ is a personal favourite of mine.  Always has been.  These fantastic machines mounted up high create such a powerful presence.  These aren’t only found in parks.  You’ll find them in the remotest of places, like just at the roadside in the middle of nowhere.

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As is the norm, Lenin was torn down in the middle of the night by ‘persons unknown’ and has been ‘replaced’.  The remaining area around the monument is neglected and overgrown.

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Soviet mosaics still remain on the side of buildings.  They crumble away with little or no chance of ever being restored.  Each tells a unique story.  They portray sport, leisure, science, space, history and so much more… These are beautiful works of art and it’s a shame to see them in this state.

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IMG_5859Only time will tell how far the decommunisation process will actually go.  The tanks on plinths, MiG’s on sticks and similar monuments seem safe for now at least.  But only time will tell if these start to disappear also.

Written by Dean O'Brien

July 25, 2017 at 11:14 am

Mariupol – Part 1

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I’d never been to Mariupol before but I understood the strategic importance of it to both sides in this conflict.  At present, Mariupol is under the control of government (Kiev) forces.  It was under control of non-government (pro-Russian) forces briefly in 2014 but was captured back shortly afterwards.

Initially I did ask a Ukrainian friend in Kiev to accompany me to Mariupol be he declined fearing that he would be drafted into the army.  Like many of the youth here, he told me ‘I don’t want to fight in this war’.  So I headed down to Mariupol on my own.

Once there, wandering around Mariupol was strange.  A local told me that all the empty buildings in the area ‘had been overtaken by the military’.  Although a heavy military presence was fairly obvious, there were still signs of anti-Ukrainian feeling within the population.

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In the evening most bars were closed by 10pm and night clubs were virtually non-existent with people telling me that they only open at weekends.  In all honestly, hardly surprising with it being so close to the contact line.

I did manage to meet up with a couple of people here who offered to assist me in what I was looking for.   One of those people was Annie.  She works with various NGO’s in Mariupol including the Red Cross and regularly makes trips over the contact line.  She told me first hand how this war is affecting people on both sides.

She explained how Mariupol has seen a huge influx of refugees, or to use the official term, ‘IDP’s’ (internally displaced people).  These people receive little or nothing at all from the Ukrainian government, having to rely on NGO’s and charities to help them.

Annie then arranged for me to interview two NGO’s who currently help those directly affected by the conflict.

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Another meeting I had was with A Pro-UA lawyer Yehor.  He seemed like a nice intelligent guy, and I liked his stance on anti-corruption, but his empathy towards those suffering from the conflict left a lot to be desired and it really took the edge off the meeting for me.

I managed to post a couple of tweets throughout my meeting with him though.

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There was no getting away form the conflict here as the streets were full of adverts for the UA Army and National Guard.  And whilst in Mariupol, I managed to meet with a former Ukrainian soldier who held pro-Russian views.  I’ll be running a separate blog post on that soon.

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Written by Dean O'Brien

July 16, 2017 at 7:18 pm

Posted in Mariupol

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