Mariinka: Ukrainian town with divided loyalties

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Media captionSarah Rainsford reports on the "nervous neutrality" in the small town of Mariinka in eastern Ukraine

It is almost a week since a checkpoint appeared on the edge of Mariinka. There are now concrete blocks on either side of the main road piled high with sandbags and manned by armed police officers alongside traffic police.

Their orders are to prevent weapons from entering the town.

As armed gangs have stormed official buildings across eastern Ukraine, tearing down the national flag and demanding anything from more autonomy to union with Russia, the people of Mariinka have watched, often nervously.

Some support the takeovers; many say they simply want the situation resolved one way or the other as quickly and as peacefully as possible.

Painted lampposts

For the moment Mariinka, near Donetsk, is officially neutral. The flagpole on top of the city council building is bare.

Local officials - who do not want to be quoted directly - describe how masked men came to visit one evening, carrying the Russian flag.

After some discussion, they were allowed to raise the tricolour above the building but now it has gone.

"It was taken down the next day," Elena Nikolaevna remembers, at a nearby cafe.

"The local authorities were probably too worried to leave it up, because in Kiev they call us separatists here," she says.

Instead, all around the small town centre someone has painted yellow and blue stripes on dozens of lampposts - the colours of the national flag - in an apparent show of loyalty to Kiev.

It suggests that opinion in Mariinka is divided.

"We want to be friends with Russia and with Europe, and for Ukraine to stay whole," pensioner Grigory confirms.

He has a small badge of Ukraine's national flag pinned to his overcoat. With no gunmen here, people are not afraid to speak freely.

"We need to hear each others' demands and find a compromise. But the only solution is with a united Ukraine," Grigory argues.

But even among those opposed to dividing Ukraine, there is frustration with the authorities in Kiev.

Image caption Although the checkpoints are there, Mariinka has escaped much of the violence that has plagued larger towns and cities in eastern Ukraine
Image caption People hear speeches from supporters of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in Mariinka

Many in Mariinka talk of their decision - later revoked - to abolish a law giving official status to other languages, including Russian.

They remember how the government switched off Russian TV channels here for a time, and they are angry at being labelled terrorists and separatists.

"They just don't want to hear our opinions. They think what they want goes, and that's that," Elena Nikolaevna complains of Kiev.

"It started a long time ago, in 2004, with the Orange Revolution."

So Elena wants eastern Ukraine to join Russia, and when a crowd starts to gather beneath a giant statue of Lenin she wanders over.

At its height, about 150 people turn out to hear speeches from supporters of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.

The group has travelled from nearby towns to seek backing for the 11 May referendum that is intended to decide the status of this region - although officials in Mariinka say they do not intend to offer schools or other buildings for use as polling stations.

Image caption Around Mariinka's centre, yellow and blue stripes are painted on lampposts to show loyalty to Kiev

One by one, the speakers' scornful comments about an "illegitimate" government in Kiev are met with applause and the occasional chant.

There are no armed men; the mood is calm. Local police keep a low profile on the edges.

When buildings have been stormed in other towns, the police have melted away - raising questions about their loyalties.

Politicians here point out that there are only a handful of officers in any case and they are unarmed, making resistance futile.

'Historic moment'

An off-duty policeman - who does not want to be named - confirms that morale is very low; he says most police had to turn in their guns when unrest broke out in the region, supposedly to prevent weapons falling into the wrong hands.

Many are now considering leaving the force.

Image caption Most people in Mariinka appear to want the tension to be resolved one way or the other

"We're only paid 1,800 hryvnia ($160) a month," the young officer adds. "Why would you risk your life for that?"

In the square, the activists explain their plan. First a vote for an independent republic then let the people decide their next step.

"This is a historic moment; we are determining our own future," one shouts from the stage.

"The best way to prevent a war is to split. Let them go their way and we'll go ours," believes Fyodor Yermashov, who's waving the only Russian flag in the crowd.

"There's no alternative. If you put a cat and a dog in the same cage and keep rattling it, what good can come of it? It's better to separate them and then both will be fine," he argues.

For now, the shops are open - streets are busy - and on the surface at least it seems that life goes on as normal. But people are tense.

The outbreak of violence - and serious bloodshed - is the biggest fear here.

"This can't be solved peacefully," frets Alexander, from the small, neighbouring town of Krasnogorovka. He says that he wants Ukraine to remain united.

"There will be war. I think that's our mentality," he says.

Another pessimist, Evgeny, pauses with his young daughter perched on his bicycle handlebars. "Everyone's worried, we don't know what will happen next," he says.

One set of friends has already left for western Ukraine to escape the turmoil.

"They're afraid," Evgeny says. "I thought about leaving too, but we have nowhere to go."

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