Ukrainian town draws inspiration from anarchist hero

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Despite massive bombardment and with Russian troops just a stone's throw away, morale remains high in a Ukrainian town that draws inspiration from the memory of a local anarchist hero.

In the southern town of Gulyaipole, replete with red and yellow tulips and an old-fashioned charm, the thunder of bombs exploding nearby is a constant reminder of the proximity of the fighting.

Most of its 16,000 inhabitants have fled, only to be replaced by those displaced from Russian advances in the eastern Donbas region, part of which has been controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

The streets are deserted, cars a rare sight.

Many picturesque homes with neat gardens no longer have a roof or have suffered other structural damage from the bombardment.

Tatiana Samolenka, 63, had just put her chickens back in their cage when she heard a whistling sound.

"I knew it was heading for us. I thought my house would be my grave," she told AFP. Her husband, who was just across the street, watched as the bomb crashed into a field just beyond their fence.

A crater several metres wide and deep shows just how close they came.

"An identical bomb fell a bit further away later that day but didn't explode. We moved it with difficulty. It weighed 300 kilogrammes (660 pounds)," said the town's mayor Serguey Yarmak.

- The Makhno 'legend' -

Several weeks ago, he said the town was hit by a phosphorus bomb.

"It was broad daylight but it was like a firework," Yarmak said. A large blackened area is still visible although the newly-sprouted grass makes it difficult to imagine the scope of the fire, he said.

More recently, Russian soldiers pushed into the town before being repelled by Ukrainian forces.

"Gulyaipole has held out and will always do so," insists Yarmak, saying the town draws inspiration from its most famous son, Nestor Makhno, a charismatic anarchist who led a peasant guerrilla war against the German and Austrian troops occupying Ukraine after October 1917.

His followers also fought the anti-Bolshevik "White Army" that was active in southern Russia.

A "legend" known for his support of Ukrainian independence as well as for his improbable costumes and his "papakhe" Cossack sheepskin hat, Makhno set up self-governing communes with Gulyaipole as the centre of his social experiments, earning it the moniker "the anarchists' capital".

But the Red Army, once an ally, would eventually turned against Makhno, blacklisting him and his Makhnovshchina forces, and driving him into exile. He died in Paris in 1934.

The Russians "have always sought to betray us," said Yarmak.

A century later, the mayor insists Russia's current attempt to invade Ukraine is destined to fail "because we are independent and free".

- 'We are hardcore!' -

Gulyaipole boasts a statue and a museum in honour of Makhno, even holding a festival in his honour that draws tourists to the town every year.

Even in war, his legend still inspires the townsfolk.

Local defence groups have started calling themselves "Makhno's bow", the mayor explains, proudly showing video footage on his phone.

"A few days ago, our lads shot down two helicopters," he added in a claim AFP was unable to verify.

And stubbornness seems to be a trait among the civilians left in the town.

Since early March, Svitlana Sokol, a 54-year-old Ukrainian language teacher, has been living in the basement of her building since Russian shells destroyed part of the neighbouring block and damaged the local church.

Along with about 20 neighbours, she has organised an underground community, most of them women, in which everyone helps each other.

And as the weather has improved, they've started going outside to enjoy the sun, despite the ongoing explosions and the fact that the front line is just several hundred metres away.

"We know exactly if the bombardment is coming from our side or the other," she smiles, just before quickly diving back into the basement after identifying the sound of an incoming Grad fired from a truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher -- weaponry used to deadly effect across Ukraine since the war began.

But she's not impressed.

"We are stubborn and pig-headed and we will stick it out to the end," she said resolutely, pointing to Makhno and the "spirit of the Cossacks".

Another middle-aged woman cackles: "We are hardcore!"

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