Lightning and Thunder: Diary of the Siege of Mariupol

Soldiers of Ukrainian self-defense battalion "Azov" stand guard at a checkpoint in the southern coastal town of Mariupol, September 4, 2014. Nolan Peterson wrote in his diary at the time, "I can hear the thunder and see the flashes of light. The people in war’s path are nothing more to me than twinkling city lights." Vasily Fedosenko/reuters

This article first appeared on The Daily Signal.

Just over two years ago, on September 5, 2014, the Ukraine war's first cease-fire went into effect. For a brief moment, the guns fell silent along the front lines in Ukraine's embattled southeastern Donbas region.

These areas included the outskirts of the southern port city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian and combined Russian-separatist forces were engaged in a tank and heavy artillery battle.

But the cease-fire collapsed the day after its signing, and a second cease-fire, called Minsk II, went into effect in February 2015. It also quickly failed. Today, the war remains locked in a static trench warfare stalemate.

About 10,000 Ukrainians have died because of the conflict, and more than 1 million have been displaced. Heavy weapons banned by the Minsk II cease-fire still are used every day, and soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict still are dying.

As the Daily Signal's foreign correspondent, I was in Mariupol in the days leading up to the first cease-fire in September 2014. Following are some of my journal entries from that time.

Mariupol, Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Despite the fact that the separatists are only 20 to 30 kilometers outside the city, life here seems unaffected. People were at the beach today, enjoying the late summer sun. Children were in school, and rail and aviation routes are still open.

The hotel I'm at, the Poseidon, offers the clearest sign of what may be about to happen. The place is swarming with journalists from around the world—the BBC, CNN, The New York Times. Grizzled veterans of covering wars from Iraq and Afghanistan, to Sudan, Congo and Georgia are swapping stories and sharing info about the situation here.

This is all amid the backdrop of Ukrainian troops digging in on the outskirts of town for what looks to be a tough fight against the pro-Russian separatist army, which may include as many as 5,000 regular Russian troops, according to NATO.

So tonight I'm sitting at a beachside café on the Sea of Azov, listening to awful American cover songs on the radio, planning my escape if things spiral out of control.

It's a quiet, clear night. A steady sea breeze rocks the trees along the coast, and the lights of different towns along the shore twinkle in the clear air, just like the stars in the dark sky above.

It all reminds me of my childhood in Florida, and my memories of when a hurricane was on the horizon. Often the days leading up to a hurricane are beautiful and clear, with a slight, steady breeze—just like tonight in Mariupol.

The weather portends nothing of the tempest just over the horizon. But the calm and the peace seem so finite and precious with the knowledge of what is to come.

As I sip my second beer of the evening (what else is there to do under the circumstances?), I scan the news online for updates.

The ongoing Russian-backed invasion of southeastern Ukraine is just miles from here, although you'd hardly know it. NATO had released a statement earlier, announcing that as many as 5,000 regular Russian soldiers had crossed the border.

The Ukrainian military said Ukrainian positions were under fire from artillery shot from within Russian territory. Another story said Ukrainian fighter jets were bombing separatist positions.

The town of Novoazovsk, only about 20 miles east of Mariupol, is firmly under separatist control, and most news outlets and their analysts anticipate a full-on attack on Mariupol could happen any day.

It's bizarre to scroll through my Facebook feed to see life going on back home, unaffected by all of this. I know, of course, that this isn't America's war. And few people back home have personal connections to this place or the people in it.

But when I see the pretty young woman working the desk of the hotel, or the faces of the young soldiers getting off the train today and being trucked to the trenches on the outskirts of the city, I can't help but think people back home should care more about all of this.

I wrote my parents and my brother, telling them where I was and that I was safe. I reassured them that I had thought this through and had a way out of here if things got bad. White lies, perhaps, but lies all the same.

Still, in some recess of my mind I wondered if my reassurances to them were just a way to cocoon myself from what I would really be facing if things did indeed spiral out of control.

It was easier to email my family to tell them I had some James Bond escape plan than to face the truth. I truly had no idea what I would do if Russian tanks started rolling down the road out my window or if some Chechen mercenary jacked up on vodka, borscht, and anti-American propaganda kicked my door open and asked for my papers.

The scale and intensity of the fighting had gotten much worse in the past few days, but there was also a sharp change in the rhetoric as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin was now calling for the restoration of Novorossiya, the 18th-century Russian empire established under Catherine the Great that stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic, comprising a lot of territory that now belonged to sovereign states without the word Russia currently in their names.

At a minimum, I think, our leaders should understand what may be about to happen here. And they should be willing to do something about it. Or maybe I've just gotten too caught up in all this, caring too much about a conflict that has little to do with my life back home.

But the most lasting, important impression of today is that there are a lot of good people here who want nothing more than to just go about their lives in peace. They don't have the option, like I do, to just pack up and leave. This is their home and where they will likely stay no matter the outcome of the next few days. And they go to sleep tonight not knowing what tomorrow will bring.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I'm on the terrace of the Georgian restaurant, where I had dinner the night before with my friends Leonid and Nataly. I'm alone tonight, writing with one hand wrapped around my beer, which I sip often. I'm going through the beer quickly and have quite a few as the night goes on.

Out in the distance, toward the black void in the direction of Donetsk, there is a storm. It had arrived. I can hear the thunder and see the flashes of light. Yet, unlike the squalls of my youth in Florida, these phenomena are not an accident of nature, but the clash of soldiers and their weapons.

The mood here tonight sharply contrasts with the night before. There are no families celebrating, no lovers on dates, no children running around their parents' table misbehaving.

The restaurant and terrace are mostly empty, save for some old men sitting outside with me, watching the occasional flashes of light in the cloudless night sky.

They are transfixed by what they see, sipping their vodka or beer as the rumble of the far-off artillery and rockets wash over us like a wave calmly spilling itself on a beach. The servers look worried. In between coming over to check on me, they sit together at a table inside, talking with serious looks on their faces.

This can't be real. How could it be? I'm watching, out there in the distance, the proof of a battle. Yet here I am, casually sipping a beer, feeling the light night breeze lap at my neck.

A spectator to men and lives being destroyed while distance safely cocoons me. Detached. Observing. Understanding what those bursts of light and rumbles mean, but not feeling it.

I feel like the world is closing in on my thoughts, blocking out everything except for the faraway storm. Down and to the right of my field of view, the lights of Mariupol's streets twinkle in the night.

I think of all the people in those homes. What are they thinking? What do parents tell their children in such a moment? How desperate must they feel?

From here, the war is just lightning and thunder. The people in its inevitable path are nothing more to me than twinkling city lights. I'm on this perch, above it all, watching from afar as if I'm on Mount Olympus, a silent observer untouched by what's going on below.

I think about those back home who have no idea what's happening here. Hell, most of the world probably doesn't. But here, tonight, this is all the world for me. I'm above it, yes. But like a plane that must eventually return to land, I know that my disconnected elevation is temporary.

I call my fixer, Vasiliy, and tell him I'm ready to be picked up. Minutes later he arrives. He has the radio turned off when I get in the car.

"Back to the hotel," I say.


We take off down the dark, sparsely lit streets. There is hardly another car on the road. No one is out walking tonight, and I only spot stray dogs as we zip along, descending back to town.

With the radio off and in the darkness, I am attuned to the hum of the wheels, the minute creaks of the suspension and the sound of Vasiliy pressing the pedals. Noticing details that might be lost in the day and light. My mind made alert to subtle, audible clues by the night and my knowledge of what is lurking in it.

"It seems tomorrow could be bad," Vasiliy says, breaking the silence.

"Yes, it looks that way."

He pulls out a pack of cigarettes.

"You want one?"

"No, thanks."

"Do you mind?"

"Not at all. Go for it."

He rolls down his window a few inches, and I feel the cool night air stream inside. He lights a cigarette. Between drags he holds it in the fingers of his right hand, which work the gearshift while his left is wrapped around the wheel. Every so often he flicks his ashes out the cracked window.

"Do you have a way out?" he asks.

"No. Not really. I suppose I'll find a way west along the coast if things fall apart."

"Call me if you need. I'll drive you."

"OK. I will."

"If the Russians come, they may ask questions about your passport."

"I plan on leaving before it comes to that."

"Yes, but when it happens, it will happen quickly. You should be ready to go."

"I understand."

"Good. I'll have my phone with me all day. Call me any time."

"Thanks. I'll remember."

Back at the hotel I undress and get in bed. I feel comfortable and clean in the light coolness of the sheets. My head is spinning from the beer and with questions and imagined scenarios. I wonder if I will look out the window of my room in the morning and see tanks rolling down the street along the beach.

If the separatists do break through the Ukrainian lines, would they come this far? Would they clear out the hotel? What would happen to my friends, Leonid and Nataly, and their daughter Veronica? Had they found a way out?

How would the separatists treat foreign journalists? Would it be safer to hole up in this hotel or try to flee west down the coast? If the city fell, how would I get back to Kiev?

I think about [the captured American war correspondent beheaded by ISIS terrorists] James Foley for a moment. No way it could get that bad, I convince myself. But a chill goes down my spine.

As I wait for sleep to take me, I truly have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The sounds of war began yesterday afternoon as a whisper.

After days of waiting for the separatist attack to begin on Mariupol, it was easy to believe the staccato baritone thuds were imagined. But one by one people began to exchange awkward glances with one another, as if silently asking for confirmation of what they were hearing.

Stray dogs and cats grew agitated. And after a few moments there was no mistaking the sound. It was real; the waiting was over. It was the sound of battle.

Today the concussions of artillery and rocket fire rattled windows in Mariupol.

It seemed for a while that all was lost, and the pro-Russian separatists were poised to break through the Ukrainian lines and overrun the city. People were packing as much as they could into their cars and fleeing. Restaurants were shut down. The streets grew empty.

And then, as if ripped straight from the pages of All Quiet on the Western Front, the sounds of war went silent. A cease-fire had been signed.

Passing drivers honked their horns. People cheered in celebration and strangers hugged each other. Restaurants and hotel lobbies swelled with wedding ceremonies that had been put off by the war. It was like New Year's times a million.

In Minsk, Belarus—more than 700 miles north of Mariupol—Ukrainian and Russian politicians reached a deal to stop the fighting. And then, in an instant, armies of young men stopped shooting at each other.

The absurdity of war.

Tonight I'm back in that same seaside bar from a few nights ago. It's another beautiful night with an easy breeze. The same awful techno covers of American songs are on the radio. It's as if the last few days are imagined.

But I can't stop thinking about what tonight could have been like.

It all started yesterday at 4 p.m. when pro-Russian separatists, supported by regular Russian soldiers and wielding heavy artillery, Grad rockets, and tanks, launched their attack on Ukrainian troops entrenched on the outskirts of Mariupol.

The separatists attacked from their stronghold in Novoazovsk. Ukrainian units responded by deploying heavy artillery to the area and launching airstrikes.

Despite stiff resistance from the Ukrainian side, by lunchtime today it looked like the city was going to fall.

The streets grew quiet as people retreated indoors. The sounds of explosions and gunfire grew louder, and plumes of smoke from the fighting were visible from the seaside. The question on most everyone's mind was, Should I stay or flee?

Some with children decided it wasn't worth it to stay.

I called my friend Nataly, who has a 3-year-old daughter, to ask if she was OK. She told me she was going to her husband's grandparents' house west of the city on the coast.

"It's not so good right now," she told me. "The sounds of explosions are getting louder, and it's scaring me."

She was worried about her husband, Leonid, who had to stay in Mariupol to close down his business.

The young couple wanted to avoid becoming refugees, so Leonid was doing what he could to shift his business from Mariupol to Kiev. But he thought he would have more time before the fighting started, and so he made the impossible decision to send his wife and daughter away without him.

He chose to stay in Mariupol alone, knowing what was probably about to happen here, rather than flee without a way to provide for his family.

The harsh realities of war.

Tonight Mariupol breathes a skeptical sigh of relief, but I think back to the feeling of a hurricane on the horizon a few nights ago. I wonder: "Has the stormed passed, or is this only the eye? Is the worst still to come?"

I have been in war zones before. As an Air Force pilot, I deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and I have covered the Afghanistan war as a journalist. I am familiar with the sound of things blowing up and the image of soldiers moving toward the fight.

But up until now the human experience of war for me has been one of soldiers who have trained for combat and go into it willingly. Yesterday and today I experienced war in a completely new and alien way.

I saw the worry on the faces of a young couple as they decided to part ways amid the threat of invasion. I'll never forget that. It adds another layer to the absurd tragedy of war that I had never felt before.

To watch the streets empty, to see the look of apprehension on the faces of people you pass. To look into the eyes of a stranger at a beachside restaurant and shake our heads in mutual disbelief as the sounds of an artillery barrage tear through the late summer breeze.

"Is this really happening?" our eyes say to each other.

And the style of combat in this war is something with which I am totally unfamiliar.

Tank battles, heavy artillery, long distance rocket attacks—this kind of combat is terrifying.

But the terror is short-lived, and the cease-fire appears to be holding. Life goes on.

Yet, out there beyond the city streets, far away from the cheesy music in the bars and the embraces of newlyweds, the scars of the last two days of battle are still smoldering. After the fighting ended today, I went out to the battlefields to see what war really is.

The bodies of soldiers dotted the fields like the plaster molds of bodies at Pompeii, frozen in the moment and the motion of their deaths.

These were men who did not die well. Not by the mercy of a gunshot to the head or the heart. Some had their bodies ripped apart by the concussion of artillery blasts. Some were missing limbs. Some with their insides spilled in the earth around them. Others burned to death, trapped inside the steel coffins their tanks became.

Quite a few died in the way they desperately clung to life—halfway out of their ruined vehicles or on the ground in fetal positions. All of their lives ended today. The convenient forgetting about why they died begins tonight.

And still, as Mariupol celebrates, as I write these words, many more scared and tired young men wait in trenches and in tanks poised to once again release the dogs of war.

Nolan Peterson, a former special operations pilot and a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, is The Daily Signal's foreign correspondent based in Ukraine.