Mariupol: This is a city in dazed shock. We drive in gingerly, not sure about who, if anyone, is in control of a sprawling industrial centre that erupted in anger when Ukrainian national military forces turned their guns on the main police station last week.
We walk up Metalurhiv Avenue, named in honour of the local steel workers, to where it intersects with Ilyich Avenue, celebrating the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
Tracked military machines have gouged the bitumen where these two roads intersect. A teenage boy, masked and wielding a police riot shield and a club, sits on an abandoned armoured personnel carrier. There's a tangle of fire hoses and, off to one side, a woman nurses a plastic crate filled with petrol bombs. The intersection is barricaded with an assortment of tyres and upended industrial-size wheelie bins.
"Where is the police chief?" we ask the woman. "He killed himself," she answers vacantly. In the darkened shell of a burnt-out bank, a man scavenging in the debris unearths a silver coin from the ashes. "I'm an archaeologist," he insists, as though scavenging is beneath him.
We fall in with a 67-year-old woman who wields a bunch of red roses. She refuses to identify herself, but she says: "Come, I'm going to the police station."
She is not alone. Dozens arrive, adding to a small mountain of flowers on the steps to what is left of the police station after an assault in which the Kiev government claims to have killed at "least 20 terrorists". But, after a tour of local hospitals, Human Rights Watch researcher Anna Neistat concludes that "at least seven" were killed – only one of whom was of the security forces – and more than 40 injured, six of whom were of the security forces.
Instructions to the city's medics not to release any information incite wild unsubstantiated claims that many more were killed and their bodies spirited away from the town. The woman with the roses is adamant: "They killed 300 as if we were insects; they dropped bombs from aircraft."
A man in the crowd explains to a small audience that hundreds of locals are being "disappeared" – taken to Kiev where they are killed before their bodies are harvested of organs for sale on the European black market. Really?
Pointing to where big chunks of the police station's walls are missing and disembowelled airconditioning units hang precariously, another man demands: "And they want us to believe that Molotov cocktails did that?"
Where do we find whoever is in charge? He directs us to the town's administrative centre, control of which has changed several times during the crisis. Now it is gutted and the rank and file of the separatist movement conduct their business in the forecourt – here a dispensary table, laden with a range of drugs; there the galley tables, stocked with food; and over there the treasury, where locals queue to make cash donations.
Men are sleeping soundly on couches salvaged from the building while five grandmothers perch on steel-framed chairs watching the passing parade – couples posing for family snaps in from the abandoned APC; a crowd of about 100 waiting patiently in what appears to be an orderly run on the institution. They are allowed to enter another bank one at a time.
Can we speak to whoever is in charge? "We're all in charge – this is a collective," a man says as smoke rises from tyres that are still burning on a barricade.
In the street, we spy three policemen and ask who is their new boss.
"We don’t know," one replies sheepishly.
Later, we are informed that indeed there is an acting police chief. Can we talk to him? "No."
His name is Oleg Margon and his men are still in Mariupol, but they are hunkering behind sandbags and bolted doors at a police station in the suburbs.
When two young shopkeepers, Ivan Kurilov and Vitali Lukin, show up there to complain that 21 shops on their street have been looted, they are told through a crack in the door: "Come back later, we're too busy."
Through the same crack, we ask for information on the fate of the former police chief who, reportedly, is dead. "His name was Valeriy Andrushko – we have no information about him," we are told.
A helpful local journalist explains that all phone calls to the police in Mariupol are being re-routed to the police at Donetsk, the regional centre, about 110 kilometres to the north.
There is a small military base in the city but, when we attend there, it has been abandoned and looted.
So who is keeping the peace in Mariupol? We are told that the owner of one of the local steel plants, who happens to be the country's richest man, has ordered his tradesmen and labourers into the streets to quiet things down.
We still could not be sure who was in control. But, driving away, we chanced upon Lieutenant Igor Dumbrovsky, of the Ukrainian National Army, during a tense moment at a checkpoint on the city's northern limit.
As we pulled up, about half a dozen men in the uniform of the special operations wing of the Ukrainian National Guard had their guns drawn, yelling at a truck driver whose slow response to their instruction to alight from his vehicle had aroused their suspicion.
Pulling us into the cover of a clump of roadside trees, Lieutenant Dumbrovsky cradled his weapon as he, refreshingly, gave a candid account of security in Mariupol. It went like this:
Question: Who controls Mariupol?
Till yesterday evening, the police had lost control.
What about the National Guard?
They were there, but they've left the town. They retreated to a military base next to the airport.
The separatists are in control?
Yes. They have declared themselves to be the local government.
But some of the police are still there. We saw them – are they working with the separatists or with the Kiev government?
I don't know. Before the military assault on the police station at Mariupol, the police were here, working this checkpoint with us. But, after the blow-up, they left us. There was anarchy in the city – looting and fighting. I don't know who's in control.
The story Ukraine crisis: A city in shock, but who is in control of Mariupol? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.