Residents sit outside an apartment complex damaged by shelling in the town of Gulyaipole – Copyright AFP Roslan RAHMAN
Despite heavy shelling and steps away from Russian troops, morale remains high in a Ukrainian town that draws inspiration from the memory of a local anarchist hero.
In the southern city of Gulyaipole, filled with red and yellow tulips and old-world charm, the thunder of bombs exploding nearby is a constant reminder of the closeness of fighting.
Most of its 16,000 residents have fled, to be replaced by those displaced by Russian advances in the eastern Donbass region, part of which has been controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The streets are deserted, the cars rare.
Many quaint houses with manicured gardens are missing roofs or have suffered other structural damage from bombardment.
Tatiana Samolenka, 63, had just put her chickens back in their cage when she heard a whistle.
“I knew it was heading our way. I thought my house would be my grave,” she told AFP. Her husband, who was just across the street, saw the bomb crash into a field just beyond of their closure.
A crater several meters wide and deep shows how close they got.
“An identical bomb fell a little later in the day but did not explode. We moved it with difficulty. It weighed 300 kilograms (660 pounds),” city mayor Sergey Yarmak said.
– The ‘legend’ Makhno –
Several weeks ago he said the city had been hit by a phosphorus bomb.
“It was broad daylight but it was like fireworks,” Yarmak said. A large blackened area is still visible although the newly grown grass makes it difficult to imagine the scale of the fire, he said.
More recently, Russian soldiers entered the town only to be pushed back by Ukrainian forces.
“Gulyaipole has held and always will,” insists Yarmak, saying the city draws inspiration from its most famous son, Nestor Makhno, a charismatic anarchist who led peasant guerrilla warfare against German and Austrian troops occupying Ukraine after October 1917.
His followers also fought against the anti-Bolshevik “White Army” which was active in southern Russia.
A “legend” known for his support for Ukrainian independence as well as his improbable costumes and “papakhe” sheepskin Cossack hat, Makhno created self-governing communes with Gulyaipole as the center of his social experiments, earning him the nickname of “the capital of the anarchists”.
But the once-allied Red Army would eventually turn against Makhno, enrolling him and his Makhnovshchin forces, and driving him into exile. He died in Paris in 1934.
The Russians “always sought to betray us,” Yarmak said.
A century later, the mayor insists that Russia’s current attempt to invade Ukraine is doomed “because we are independent and free”.
– ‘We are fans!’ –
Gulyaipole has a statue and a museum honoring Makhno, even holding a festival in his honor that attracts tourists to the city every year.
Even in times of war, his legend still inspires townspeople.
Local advocacy groups have started calling themselves “the Makhno arc,” the mayor says, proudly showing video footage on his phone.
“A few days ago, our guys shot down two helicopters,” he added in a statement that AFP could not verify.
And stubbornness seems to be a trait among the civilians who remained in the city.
Since early March, Svitlana Sokol, a 54-year-old Ukrainian language teacher, has been living in the basement of her building since Russian shells destroyed part of the nearby block and damaged the local church.
With about twenty neighbors, she has organized an underground community, mostly made up of women, in which everyone helps each other.
And as the weather improved, they started going out to enjoy the sunshine, despite ongoing explosions and the fact that the front line is only a few hundred meters away.
“We know exactly if the bombardment is coming from our side or the other,” she smiles, just before quickly diving back into the basement after identifying the sound of an incoming Grad fired from a multiple rocket launcher. truck-mounted – weapons used for killing effect throughout Ukraine since the start of the war.
But she is not impressed.
“We are stubborn and stubborn and we will hold out until the end,” she said determinedly, pointing to Makhno and “the spirit of the Cossacks.”
Another middle-aged woman sneers, “We’re hardcore!”