Humanitarian issues and individual fates in Mariupol and the Donbas

by Ralph Bosshard*

“The real world is just grey in grey and not black and white
(i.e., West-East).” (R. B.)

zf. Ralph Bosshard knows the region from his own experience and in connection with his responsibilities at the OSCE, where he worked, among other things, as a special advisor to Switzerland’s permanent representative to this organisation. In the context of his current activities, he also prepares expert reports on the military situation regarding the conflict in Ukraine as well as in the post-Soviet region (cf. his articles in Current Concerns on Kazakhstan and Armenia). Due to the personal relationships that have developed over the years, he also receives direct reports from hot spots in the Ukraine conflict, which he provides here and thus gives the reader a very close impression of the real events.

This is a picture of the house at Ulitsa Georgievskaya 42 in the old city centre of Mariupol, the Tsentralnyi Rayon. It was my wife’s parents’ house and now belongs to our friend Ivan L. Ivan knew that members of the “Azov Regiment” were quartered in the building next to it [lightly framed]. It belongs to the Priazovskyj State Technical University, which was run by Slava B., an acquaintance of mine. Ivan therefore decided to live at a dacha outside Mariupol, but he came back regularly to make sure that “Azov” did not take up residence in his house as well.
  This is what the massively built house from the Tsarist era looks like after a grenade or bomb exploded in the garden behind it. Miraculously, our friends remained unharmed.
  Elsewhere, however, is the grave of Ivan’s mother-in-law, who had been hit by shrapnel during the fighting and had bled to death because there were no more ambulances. It was not possible to bury her in the fighting, so Ivan and a relative wrapped the body in sheets and left it on the kitchen table. In the meantime, a neighbour found her and buried her.
  Another friend of Ivan’s died when he tried to charge his mobile phone in the car. Ivan found him dead in the car. We suppose that he was shot by members of the Ukrainian armed forces who suspected him of trying to flee the city via a humanitarian corridor. Ivan and his friend later drove this car via Crimea to Georgia, where they boarded a plane to Norway, because Ivan has relatives there. As a man of military age, the Ukrainians would not have let Ivan leave the country, and the 3,000 to 5,000 euros bribe money demanded by Ukrainian border officials in such cases are unaffordable for a Ukrainian with a monthly salary of 100 euros.
  Ivan’s son Vjaceslav, on the other hand, was able to travel normally to Norway via Warsaw, accompanied by his godmother.
  Ivan’s wife Oxana is still in Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov with her father because he lost all his documents when his house was shelled. The Russian authorities want to issue him a Russian passport, but this may take some time, as the search for birth certificates has currently low priority.
  Another building used as accommodation for the Ukrainian army was the Spartak Hotel, 220 m as the crow flies from Ivan’s house. It had been one of the best in Mariupol. Ivan believes that it too was inhabited by the “Azov regiment”. But I wonder who was housed here so comfortably so close to the “Azovstal” foundry. Perhaps it was indeed those NATO officers about whom rumours were circulating? They are said to have operated a secret military facility in the tunnels under the factory, possibly a radio reconnaissance facility. I don't believe in a bio-weapons lab for the time being.
  I could already get used to the sight of burnt-out buildings in 2014, because in May 2014 the “Azov Regiment” had locked up those police officers it considered “unpatriotic” in the police building and set it on fire. Fleeing police officers were shot dead.
  The picture shows our former flat at Prospekt Lenina (now Mira) 112 in Mariupol. When the Russians attacked along Prospekt Mira, the Ukrainian government troops took up positions on the upper floors of the apartment buildings because these solid prefabricated buildings offered good protection and a good field of fire. And it was exactly there that the Russians returned fire. Before the fighting broke out, our neighbour Tamara S. had to move in with her daughter in Manhush, west of Mariupol, which was less affected by the fighting. The low-built, old wooden houses on the outskirts of Mariupol and in the smaller villages around the city offer little protection from weapons fire and a poor field of fire. Therefore, many of them were spared from fighting.
  The Mira prospect leads on to Mariupol airport. In autumn 2014, an OSCE staff member in Mariupol expressed suspicions that the Ukrainian domestic intelligence service SBU was running a secret prison at the airport. A Western journalist was arrested by mistake, beaten up and held for a night before the mistake was realised and he was released. He ran straight to the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, which was then housed in the Reikartz Hotel on Prospekt Metalurgiv, right next to the SBU building, to complain. An acquaintance of ours was detained by the SBU for a year because he had made “unpatriotic” remarks. Afterwards he was released under the condition that he would not talk about his detention. The mass grave in Mariupol, which was mentioned a few days ago, is probably next to the airport and was created by the SBU. In the past, I was sometimes surprised that top Western politicians had the bad taste to travel to Mariupol via the airport. We did not hold official meetings at the airport for precisely this reason.
  I know from a school friend of my wife, Larisa M., that employees of the hospital were actually held hostage and as living shields between the 16th and 17th Microrayons when the Russian troops appeared on the outskirts of Mariupol. She managed to escape when chaos broke out after the first shells hit. A doctor who tried to stop Ukrainian soldiers from shooting escaping hostages was himself shot dead.
  The schoolhouse where my wife went to school was very close to the Dramteatr, where the “Azov Regiment” is said to have set up a command post and in the cellar of which residents of the town had sought shelter when the massive building was hit. In the light rectangle: residence of her school friend Masha B. We have no connection with her so far.
  In the Trudovskyi rayon of the city of Donesk lived an uncle of my wife, Nikolai V. In eight years of shelling his flat remained undamaged. A few days ago, his flat also went up in flames, because the Ukrainian government troops are still firing into the town of Donesk every day.
  In recent years, Ukrainian government troops have been largely responsible for the shelling of schools and kindergartens, as an excerpt from the daily reports of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission from 2020 and 2021 shows.
  And the statistics on civilian victims kept by the Office of the UN Human Rights Representative show that since 2018, the majority of civilian victims have been on the side of the LNR and DNR (over 80%). When confronted with accusations of shelling of residential areas, the Ukrainian delegation to the OSCE in Vienna used to explain that the rebel soldiers had been used to shooting at their own population since Chechnya, or that a “third side” was at work.


I would feel much more regret for the far too many victims already claimed by the current conflict if I had ever felt a moment of regret in the West for the 14,000 people who lost their lives in 2014-2022 because the governments in Washington and Kiev thought the Minsk agreements were a bad deal.
  I would feel even more sorry for the refugees from Vinnitsa, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lvov, Zhitomir and other towns, who have suffered little harm so far, if I felt regret for what was done in their name for eight years in Donesk, Lugansk, Pervomaisk, Gorlovka/Horlivka and Stakhanov/Kadiivka.
  However, I do not share the gloating of some Donesk residents about the destruction in Kiev, Chernigov and elsewhere. 
  Was Mariupol “bombed” by the Russians? No, many buildings were destroyed in the course of fighting, the behaviour of both sides corresponds to military logic.
  Did the Ukrainian fighters use civilians as human shields? Yes, at least in individual cases.
  Were the Ukrainian fighters hiding among the civilian population? Yes, and NATO apparently went along with it. Did the Ukrainian authorities violate human rights? Yes, massively and repeatedly.
  Are the allied troops of the LNR, DNR and the Russian Federation free of human rights violations and war crimes? Certainly not, but if I accuse them of such, I don’t have to cite evidence in the Western media: They believe me even without evidence.
  Who is rebuilding Mariupol? The DNR allegedly wants to have 3,000 Ukrainian fighters in custody and already declared once that the members of the Ukrainian volunteer formations would not be treated as prisoners of war. I think a trial and a sentence of 20 to 25 years in a labour camp is quite possible.
  How does the economy continue? After 2014, the number of Russian customers in the port of Mariupol decreased. Previously, many Russian ships were repaired or serviced in Mariupol. That can now start again. The metal combines, on the other hand, are probably so destroyed that they will have to be rebuilt from scratch. Their owners, above all Rinat Akhmetov, are probably not in a position to do this on their own.  •

* Ralph Bosshard studied General History, Eastern European History and Military History, completed the Military Command School of the ETH Zurich and the General Staff Training of the Swiss Army. This was followed by language training in Russian at the Moscow State University and training at the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Army. He is familiar with the situation in Eastern Europe from his six years at the OSCE, where he was, among other things, Special Advisor to the Swiss Permanent Representative.

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