Alexandra Wigreiser: How peace is slowly returning to the devastated Donbass city of Mariupol

25 May, 2022 19:40

Alexandra Wigreiser: How peace is slowly returning to the devastated Donbass city of Mariupol

The term ‘a return to peace’ may be a cliché, but it’s the simplest way of putting things.

Back in April, when it became quieter in Mariupol, the first sign of something approaching normality was the emergence of traders and money changers. Humanitarian aid had already come in, and people were selling unnecessary things to cover their essentials.

Soon, the market opened, and products began to be imported. At the end of that month, lilacs bloomed. A week later, young men had broken off all the branches within reach, for bouquets.

Their smiling girlfriends accepted the flowers and took their beaus by the arm. Every day, there were more and more couples like this strolling between ruined buildings amidst the sound of explosions.

When water became more available, the girls washed and let down their hair, which they had previously hidden under shawls and hats. Their clothes became cleaner, and then more stylish.

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In April, everyone walking through the streets of Mariupol was busy with something – pulling a cart loaded with five-liter water bottles, or hurrying to get in line wearing a backpack to fill with humanitarian aid.

Passersby in those days were always preoccupied and focused. Then there were more people just out for a stroll, and then, by World War Two Victory Day (May 9), children poured out into the streets – they ran around chattering, waved to military vehicles, and screamed joyfully when they received a honk in response.

They approached the local fighters, not with requests, but just to chat. When the sidewalks had been partially cleared, the children rolled out bicycles and scooters. There was still rumbling in the distance – artillery and aviation were working on Azovstal, the last Ukrainian hold-out, and fighting was still taking place in the vicinity of the plant.

The dust from battles and fires settled – grayish black and oily. It seemed like it permeated everything everywhere – it stuck to the skin and clothes, which then really smelled of soot. In the first days of May, this feeling disappeared. 

Until very recently, when darkness covered the city at sunset, the sky above seemed to be the brightest in the world – deeper than those hanging over the southern seas of hot countries from children’s books. “You can even see the Milky Way,” a deputy commander told me, pointing up. And it really was visible. And then the stars came out, like twinkling lights in a chandelier. One of the fighters joked about “the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” I laughed.

When the electricity was turned on in some houses a little more than a week ago, this sky was immediately lost behind the light of the windows. The stars gave way to man-made lights, each of which illuminated human life beneath. No one observed the military blackout, and I wanted to peer into the windows to see how people moved about, had dinner, talked, and quarreled.

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But even arguing is a sign of change here. The nurses at a hospital I visited tell me that when there was active combat, everyone stuck together, tried not to bother their neighbors or the doctors, spoke quietly, and rarely complained about anything. I found only echoes of this: With each passing day, people behaved more and more ‘like people’ – they were angry, capricious, demanding, quarrelsome, and irritated.

Conversations became more and more commonplace – surgeons sewing up a patient discussed the schedule of a recently launched bus service, and nurses in the smoking room gossiped about milk prices. Even a patient wounded by shrapnel (he had gone into a school basement that the neo-Nazi Azov battalion had been ousted from in search of firewood and had run into a tripwire) was angrier about the painful injections he had to endure than the people who had set the booby trap.

Four days ago, the last Ukrainians who were holed up in Azovstal laid down their weapons and surrendered. The city became quiet. And through this silence, ordinary city life emerged – today I heard music for the first time in Mariupol. A familiar platoon commander drove by – from the open (and partially missing) windows of his car, the Russian rock band Chizh & Co sang: I want so much to live, guys, but no strength to get out.” From a civilian Renault, just as beat up, another Russian rock band promised better times are coming.” 

Passersby were chatting, an elderly man was loudly scolding a dachshund that had climbed into a garbage heap. In the flats of a nearly intact high-rise, they rattled dishes, answered phone calls, and laughed. Behind a window frame with shards of glass sticking out, someone was unsteadily playing ‘Fragrant White Acacia Clusters’ on the piano. An acacia blossomed in the distance. Next to it, there were two crosses made from a picket fence marking two shallow graves, from which wafted the pungent smell of corpses.