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story.lead_photo.caption Students take part in a welcoming ceremony on the first day of school Sept. 1 in Mariupol, Ukraine, where a weird kind of normalcy has taken hold months after the city was on the front lines of war. - Photo by The New York Times / BRENDAN HOFFMAN

MARIUPOL, Ukraine -- Towering cranes of this port reach above the unseasonably warm beachfront near a razor-wire fence that warns "Do Not Enter -- Mines." While his children play a popular Russian card game called Fool on a sand-flecked blanket, Sergei Sovyak reflects on what has become of his battered, seaside city.

"These days, the war is happening on a kind of political chessboard," said Sovyak, a metallurgist. "It has become a conflict in the mind. In reality, in everyday life, there is no war anymore."

There is no doubt that life has changed considerably in this rusting industrial port on the Sea of Azov. Earlier this year, a separatist offensive, backed by Moscow, threatened to overrun the city and create a land bridge to connect Russia with the Crimean Peninsula that nation seized last year.

The city was in a panic. Emergency meetings discussed air raid sirens and evacuation plans. One rocket attack killed 31 people in a crowded Saturday market on the city's northeast side.

But now, with shelling reduced to a distant annoyance for most residents, fewer Russian soldiers in evidence in the separatist-controlled areas and Moscow more intent on Syria than Ukraine, a weird kind of normalcy has overtaken the city.

"Despite the fact the city is pretty much surrounded, life goes on, the city works," said Tatiana Lomakina, vice mayor in charge of refugee matters. "The main plants all function. The seaport is open. Schools are operating. Cultural and social life continues."

"Yes, it is true, one can become used to war," said Sergei Fillipov, vice commander of the volunteer Donbas Battalion, which like other volunteer militias has been removed from front-line duty in recent months, replaced by fresh Ukrainian regulars. "It is how it goes."

Fears that Russian-backed troops would arrive swarming over the eastern horizon have all but vanished. Now, if anything, there is widespread doubt in Mariupol and in Kiev, the capital, that the separatists have anywhere near the numbers needed for such an attack.

"There are many fewer Russian troops in the separatist zone than during the heavy fighting early this year," said Yaroslav Chepurniy, a spokesman for Ukrainian military forces in the conflict area. "And, according to our intelligence, even fewer of them are regular Russian troops. They are mostly mercenaries."

So the war has devolved into a low-level skirmish of nightly shelling on the city's edges, barely affecting daily life. Shops are open and full of goods. Parks and beaches are crowded on warm days. Reservations at the best seaside restaurants can be difficult on the weekend.

"There was a panic a year ago because there was a real threat," said Andrei Fedoy, the secretary of the City Council and a lifelong Mariupol resident. "A lot of people left the city. Now people have calmed down, and a lot of them have come back. People are just tired of being afraid."

Mariupol, founded in 1778 on the site of an old Cossack encampment and settled initially by Greek refugees, grew into an industrial powerhouse during the decades it was part of the Soviet Union, built on steel and metallurgy.

When the separatists seized much of the surrounding Donbass region, including the provincial capital of Donetsk, Mariupol was named the temporary capital. In May 2014, the city was briefly seized by the separatists and then retaken that June.

A fresh assault in August came within 10 miles of the city limits, and another round of fighting in January and February rattled residents' nerves and seemed to presage an attack that never came. Many predicted a new summer offensive.

Instead, despite a brief increase in shelling in August, the conflict held at a low simmer, officials said.

So, hobbled by the stubborn conflict and Ukraine's flailing economy, Mariupol stumbles along on the strength of its industry, its port and its debris-flecked beaches. Its population of a half-million has been bolstered by tens of thousands of the war's refugees.

"It is a natural psychological reaction to block out the war after a while," said Maxim Borodin, 38, who runs a local group advocating anti-corruption and environmental issues. "There are people who say we should shut all the bars and cafes, to force people to focus on the war. But people can't think about war all the time."

Until this summer, so-called volunteer battalions that cooperated with the Ukrainian military took many front-line positions around Mariupol. But then, to the surprise of the battalion leaders and many residents, the volunteer groups like the right-wing Azov Battalion and the religion-inspired St. Mary's Battalion were pulled back and replaced by Ukrainian regulars.

"This is as close as we get now to the front lines," Andrei Zorka, acting spokesman for the Azov volunteers, said sadly from their shabby compound not far from the city center. "We came here to fight, to protect this land. But it is a very strange and scary thing. People seem to have gotten used to hearing the shelling. They don't even pay attention to it anymore."

In the small storefront that acts as Mariupol headquarters for Right Sector -- another right-wing group of volunteers -- Serhiy Chiryn, the regional political officer, picked at a plate of sugar cookies and sipped steaming tea from a dainty, flowered cup. Like many in Mariupol, he tries to read the mind of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I think the conflict will be frozen this winter," Chiryn said. "Ukraine has become just one little card in a new geopolitical game Putin is playing that includes Syria, Iran and China."

Officials and many local residents believe that the region is slowly moving toward a situation similar to Transnistria in Moldova or Ossetia in Georgia, where Russian-leaning enclaves operate independently from the central government.

"It seems to us to be the best decision," said Chepurniy, the military spokesman. "If we are going to liberate the whole area taken by the separatists, we know we will face regular Russian army forces, and we are not ready for them."

Even on the city's outskirts, where the shelling is a more immediate danger, a kind of normalcy prevails.

"You go out now to these areas and you still see people growing potatoes, sending their children to school," Chepurniy said. "There is no panic anymore. There is no chaos."

But there is still a persistent tension.

"For now, life goes on, and there is enough to sell in the shops," said Galina Dodysheva, 52, who runs a small grocery in the suburban village of Talakovka, just a few miles from the separatist front lines. "But we are still nervous. There is shelling almost every day somewhere nearby."

Alexander, a Ukrainian sentry at the checkpoint on the village's eastern edge, who declined to give his last name, wiped the sleep from his eyes after a brief afternoon nap and kicked the mud from his rubber spa sandals.

"It is like they have a schedule," he said. "The shelling begins at 9 p.m. and lasts about an hour."

Some nights there are a handful of shells, other nights a bit more. But he is not worried.

"Here, in fact, we are not at war," he said. "We are just waiting for the politicians to negotiate a solution."

SundayMonday on 10/25/2015

Print Headline: Ukrainian city numbs to sounds of war

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