On Aug. 29, several dozen men and women wearing gardening gloves took spades out of a car and rushed to the military checkpoint located at the eastern road leading to the city of Mariupol.
This important checkpoint is set on the road that leads from the town of Novoazovsk, which had been taken over by the Russian troops. The National Guard who man it split the volunteers into two groups and showed them the places where they should dig trenches on both sides of the road.
The previous day, some 2,000 people rallied in city center against the Russian invasion, and the most active of them decided to come and help the Ukrainian troops to defend their city from an anticipated invasion by the Russians.
“You can see for yourself that they really want a full-scale war. They don’t even hide it anymore,” said Oleksandr Shalatanov, a 25-year-old civil activist. He added that his friend who lives in Novoazovsk said that the soldiers who entered the city on Aug. 27 were definitely Russian, but had no insignia. The same tactic was used during annexation of Crimea in March, which Russian President Vladimir Putin later admitted. Despite being half-Russian, Shalatanov said he considered the Russian army to be invaders.
“It so happens that just 40 kilometers away from us there is an enemy,” said Svitlana, a factory worker in her 50s, who was afraid to give her last name to the media. She was not afraid to dig the trenches, though, holding on tight to her spade.
A self-made poster reading “Help the army – defend yourself” hung by the checkpoint, which has been closed for civilian cars in the last few days. But when a car with armed men from the Dnipro 1 battalion passed the checkpoint on the way to Novoazovsk, people cheered the fighters heading to the front lines.
These new trenches dug by civilians would probably make little difference for Russian tanks in Novoazovsk, which number between several dozen and over a hundred, according to various estimates.
“We need tanks, heavy artillery to restrain the attack here,” said one of the soldiers at the check point, a young man from Mykolayiv city. He refused to give his name because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
The residents know that their effort would not hold the Russian army, but they still think it's better to make some effort “instead of sitting at home and getting crazy over the news,” said Maria Podybailo, coordinator of Novy Mariupol, a local volunteer group of more than 100 activists who help the Ukrainian forces.
There are bullet-proof vests, helmets, jars of preserved food and medications piled in the office of this organization that was set up in late March. A group of women make masking nets.
There are three mobile groups of volunteers that take food and medication to the Ukrainian checkpoints around Mariupol every day. This group also handles the wounded fighters, finding them doctors and medicines, contacting their relatives and handling their transportation out of the war zone.
But with the Russian threat approaching the city, activists also created a Mariupol battalion of territorial defense. “We did it in case if their (Russian) troops enter here, to train people to carry out sabotages,” said Podybailo, a blond woman wearing camouflage. Her actual job is to teach political science at the local university. She added that there are about 300 fighters at this newly created battalion.
But people of Mariupol are actually split over whether to support or resist the Russian troops. Many have preferred to simply leave the city. There were long lines of people wanting to leave Mariupol at the local bus stop in the morning, the local web-site Novosti Mariupolia reported. The Kyiv Post saw three buses with children heading from the summer camps located in the outskirts of Mariupol on the way to Novoazovsk.
But the pro-Ukrainian activists realize that they are a minority in Mariupol, where fierce fights between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian battalions lead to several deaths in April. The fighters of Dnipro 1 and Azov local battalions told the Kyiv Post in private conversations that they often been insulted or threatened by the locals. Because of this internal controversy in the city, the fighters of the Mariupol battalion are being trained in small groups separately from each other to avoid leaks of information.
But seeing the scope of atrocities committed by the militants and Russian forces mane people more positive about the Ukrainian authorities. Some even volunteered for the battalions.
Durniev says the battalions have a lot of potential in this hybrid war. “You see people that are poorly armed to stop the tanks, but they are able to carry on a partisan war here,” he said.
Editor’s Note: This article is produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by NIRAS and BBC Media Action, as well as Ukraine Media Project, managed by Internews and funded by the U.S.Agency for International Development. Kyiv Post+ is a special project covering Russia’s war against Ukraine and the aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution. Content is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post.