Kim Sengupta Mariupol
Friday 09 May 2014
The dead and injured are carried out of a burning building; more bodies lying in the street; prolonged exchanges of fire as armoured carriers smash through barricades; and, with the violence, anger and calls for revenge.
That was Mariupol after a day of bloody strife which slid Ukraine further towards civil war.
The country’s caretaker government can be accused of trying to blow out flickering hopes of peace by launching a military operation on one of the most revered anniversaries in the Russian-speaking half of the country, the commemoration of victory over Nazi Germany.
The military action is accompanied by stridently aggressive rhetoric from politicians in Kiev who are crowing about the numbers of “terrorists” killed and threatening further lethal punishment.
By the evening there are differing body counts ranging from 20 to five, with around another 25 injured. But the accuracy of statistics has meant little in this confrontation. What matters is the perception. For many in this port on the Azov Sea, today greatly reinforced the view – relentlessly promoted by the separatist leadership – that fascists from the west of the country are coming to attack.
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“This is not about 2014 in Ukraine, this is taking us back to Berlin in 1945, that is what they want to avenge, the defeat of their Nazi masters”, is the view of Captain Zorin Aleksandr Nicolaivitch, who spent 18 years in the navy. He is in his full dress uniform, with two rows of medals, rushing to one of the places of killing from the parade for the Great Patriotic War.
“Look, this is the only weapon that I, or anyone else, has around here,” says the 63-year-old retired officer, lifting up the ceremonial dagger at his belt. “No, only one side came armed, wanting to fight, today. It wasn’t the people of Mariupol.”
Arms, however, appear to have been a key issue. There are two conflicting narratives. The Kiev administration’s version is that a mob had taken over the central police station, with the primary aim of getting hold of its extensive armoury, and then opened fire on government troops, killing some policemen in the process.
Residents, as well as protesters, insist this is a lie. The police, they maintain, had shown great sympathy towards them, and the Ukrainian military, with a band of armed fellow travellers, wanted to take control of the weapons and attacked the station precisely for that reason.
A body lying in front of the station, with firemen trying to control the flames, is that of a policeman: his uniform hat and a mobile telephone have been placed on him. “Let me show you something,” says Viktor Nicolaivich, trying to keep his voice calm as he pulls up the covering blanket. One arm of the officer is encased in plaster. “He couldn’t even pull the trigger to defend himself against the fascist bastards. We know this man, I was with him yesterday, he is one of our local policemen, we would never want to harm people like him.”
Vladimir Putin with Second World War veterans in Sevastopol yesterday (Getty Images)
Vladimir Putin with Second World War veterans in Sevastopol yesterday Vladimir Putin with Second World War veterans in Sevastopol yesterday (Getty Images)
The city’s police commander, Valeryi Androsehuk, is missing. The Ukrainian authorities claim that he has been kidnapped by militants; the protesters maintain that he had either perished in the flames, or been arrested. The chief had refused, they say, to hand over the headquarters to the soldiers.
Across the road lies another corpse, that of one of the “fascists” who had been with the soldiers, say the residents, inevitably labelled a member of the Right Sector, an extremist group who allegedly carry out the government’s dirty work. The man is wearing civilian clothing, a black top and jeans, with an armband in Ukrainian colours. “This man was shooting at the police building, I saw him,” Valentina Semoronova says. “Then he got wounded and fell; the policemen were shooting back. The soldiers did nothing to help him. All they did was take the rifle with them when they left.”
In the course of the next confusing hour the armband disappears, snatched off by a collaborator, according to some. There are mutters that it was a Ukrainian journalist, although we have not seen any present at the scene.
Such charges often lead to an outbreak of hostility towards the media. But here the crowd, though angry, is keen to put over its side. The people stand under raindrops blackened by ash pleading that two things must be made clear to the outside world; they do not have guns and they are Ukrainians, not Russians. They produce their driving licences and passports.
To Arsen Avakov, many of these people are terrorists. Ukraine’s acting Interior Minister has been a voracious user of Facebook to chronicle military operations, some of the accounts wildly inaccurate. He wrote: “A terrorist group of about 60 men armed with automatic weapons attacked the police headquarters.
War veterans at a ceremony marking Victory Day in Donetsk yesterday (Getty Images)
“About 20 terrorists were destroyed and four taken prisoner. To those who come with weapons and who shoot… To them there can be only one answer from the Ukrainian state – annihilation.”
Apart from the two bodies outside the station, I see three others being carried out; it is unclear whether they are dead or have suffered severe injuries from the fire. Colleagues and residents report three others killed.
Mr Avakov also stresses the involvement of several branches of security in the mission, including special forces, National Guard and the army. This is seen as an attempt to assuage criticism in Kiev and western Ukraine of the “anti-terrorist offensive”.
But Mariupol has also become the arena for a number of shadowy bunches of gunmen. Two days ago, a unit in black combat uniform carried out unprovoked assaults on protesters outside another police station. There have been contradictory accounts about who they were from Kiev authorities – National Guard, special forces, Ministry of Interior police. One theory is that they were mercenaries bankrolled by Igor Kolomoisky, an oligarch and Ukrainian nationalist, who had previously offered a bounty for the capture of Russian “agents”.
Elena Rukoshova, a 26-year-old former kindergarten teacher, was beside her friend, Jaroslav, when he was beaten up and arrested in the last incident involving the men in black. She rushed to the police station from the parade this morning to see them and other forces involved in action again.