Sevastopol happy to rejoin Russian 'motherland' after vote

AFP , Sunday 16 Mar 2014

A woman holds the Russian flag as she prepares to cast her ballot during the referendum on the status of Ukraine's Crimea region at a polling station in Sevastopol March 16, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Russian flags were flying high in the historic naval city of Sevastopol Sunday as people looked forward to rejoining what many see as their homeland after a crunch referendum on Crimea's future.

On the main street overlooking the Black Sea, the mood was already celebratory as patriotic Russian military songs such as "This Is My Motherland" and "Russia Rings Its Bells" boomed out of giant loudspeakers on top of houses.

People walked along the front wearing or carrying flags while the red, white and blue Russian standard had also been tied to everything from cars to city buses and ambulances.

Out on the choppy waters, a Russian warship from the Black Sea Fleet anchored nearby provided a visual reminder of the extent of Moscow's power over this city.

"I am happy," said Alexander Sorokin, who was out enjoying the atmosphere.

"Honestly, I'm 60 and I never thought I would live to see this happy day. Sevastopol will again be a Russian town, attached to Russia."

Sevastopol was founded by Catherine the Great of Russia in 1783 and has been home to the Black Sea Fleet -- a strategically crucial naval unit which provides Moscow with access to the Mediterranean within a day's sailing -- for 230 years.

It was one of the Crimean War's main battlegrounds and during World War II, some 250,000 Red Army soldiers were killed as German forces held the city under siege.

It was later recaptured by the Soviets, named a "Hero City" of the Soviet Union and totally rebuilt under Joseph Stalin in grand, neo-classical style.

Sevastopol has a large majority of ethnic Russians among its 350,000 residents who yearn for Crimea to switch from being Ukrainian territory to being part of Russia, as it was until 1954.

On the seafront, a giant stage was already set up for celebrations after the results of the referendum are announced at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) and a local band was performing a soundcheck.

Their rendition of "This Love" by US rock band Maroon 5 drew loud cheers from the crowd.

A stall run by a Russian biker gang was handing out free pancakes and tea to passersby next to the stage under a banner saying: "Where We Are, Russia Is".

Next to a nearby war memorial, a man who has lived in Sevastopol for 50 years but did not want to give his name said that with the referendum, people were being allowed to decide their own destiny.

"Everything which happened before was according to the will of the politicians -- now it has been resolved by the people's will," he said.

Asked what he thought Sevastopol would be like after the referendum, he added: "That depends on us, if we take responsibility for the struggle to improve the economy, the consciousness of people against fascism."

Another local, 48-year-old Lyudmila, put it more succinctly.

"We hope that everything will be good for our children. They will speak the language that they want to speak -- Russian," she said.

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