Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Despite Quiet, Ukraine's Novoazovsk Still Feels Like A War Zone


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. In Brussels today, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned that the months-long conflict with Russia could broaden.


PETRO POROSHENKO: I think that we are very close to the point of non-return.

RATH: The point of no return, he said, would be a full-scale war with Russia. E.U. ministers were meeting to impose more sanctions on Moscow. We'll hear about what else can be done in a little while. But first to Ukraine, where worried officials in the southeastern part of the country have beefed up their defenses. Rebel forces are slowly moving west following the recent capture of one strategic seaside town. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson went there today to talk to a separatist commander and petrified residents.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: For the first time in days, there is no shelling or gunfire in Novoazovsk, but the seaside resort still feels like a war zone. There are tanks on the roads, where armed separatist in new military-grade camouflage uniforms closely track people's movements. Ukrainian officials say rebel forces captured this town with the help of Russian troops and weapons. They had four Russian armored columns cross into Eastern Ukraine this past week alone. One checkpoint guard in Novoazovsk, who questions the NPR team, has a Russian accent and carries a type of Kalashnikov used by professional soldiers. A tank parked in the distance looks a lot like a T-72, which the Russians use. But the rebel battalion commander here swears the force in Novoazovsk is all Ukrainian.

VAT: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: He only gives his nickname, Vat, which is what you call the father of a son or daughter-in-law in Russian and says he is a reserved lieutenant colonel in the Ukrainian Army. The commander says he was born in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk and lived in the port city of Odessa.

VAT: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Vat says I wish the Russians were helping us militarily, but our weapons and equipment were all taken from Ukrainian soldiers who fled their positions. A local government worker, who agrees to be interviewed but only gives a first name, Irina, because she fears her town's occupiers, says whoever these guys are, they definitely aren't from around here. I asked her do you want Ukraine to liberate you?

IRINA: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Irina looks nervous and fidgets, saying she can't answer that question. She also won't say whether the rebels are harassing her or other Kiev-appointed government workers, as has often happened in other towns the rebels have taken. Irina says all I want is peace and I'm really worried about what's happening here. You have to understand we've never seen war and we want people alive not dead. Irina says despite three days of gunfights and shelling that destroyed the roof of the local hospital, most of the town's 13,000 residents stayed. But nearly half of the 12,000 refugees who came here from other war-torn parts of Ukraine have left.

IRINA: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: For the refugees who remain, mostly because they don't have money to go anywhere else, Irina says she and other government workers handed out humanitarian aid provided by Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov. His trucks of canned goods, bottled water, diapers and other supplies arrived here before the rebels did. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.