On Friday night it was Odessa’s turn for tragedy. The southern Ukrainian city had been relatively peaceful up until now, and tensions between Russians and Ukrainians had been low. That peace may have been shattered forever after clashes between pro-Russians and pro-government protesters ended with a building full of pro-Russians going up in flames. While there were deaths on both sides, the majority were pro-Russians who were either burnt or died jumping from the building. So what led to such a disaster? Where were the police? And what does this mean for the near-future?
The events in Odessa started with a pro-government protest being attacked by pro-Russian protesters. According to journalists at the scene the main action on both sides eventually became a relatively small hard core of protesters, and both sides were armed with stones, bats, riot shields and Molotov cocktails. While the clashes went on for hours, things suddenly took a different turn when the pro-Russians were pushed back into their protest camp outside the Trade Unions building, and then further back into the building, where they were cornered by the pro-government people.
What happened next is unclear. Journalists describe Molotov cocktails flying back and forth, and there were shots fired from the roof of the building. There were deaths outside the building from gunshot wounds, and police found numerous bullet casings at the scene. But when the building went up in flames, the situation turned to chaos. People trapped on upper floors jumped to avoid the flames, while others managed to escape on ropes thrown by people below. In a sign of the hectic nature of mobs, some pro-Russians who managed to flee the building were severely beaten, while others had their wounds treated. The night ended with over 40 people dead, caught in the burning building or shot outside of it.
This is the worst incident in the country since 80 people were shot by police snipers in Kyiv in February, and the first time deaths have been mainly pro-Russian. Ukraine is in shock at such horrific violence, but while the general feeling is of mourning, the country remains divided. On the pro-government side the sympathy was tempered by anger towards the armed separatist movement, and the fact that some of the pro-Russian protesters were Russian citizens. The Russian media on the other hand scream “Odessa slaughter: How vicious mob burnt pro-Russian protesters alive”.
One thing that can be agreed on by all sides is that this horrific event shows how utterly unprepared the Ukrainian police are to deal with these events. Throughout the whole evening riot police stood by and watched while the mobs clashed and people burned. On the other side of the country in Donetsk, police have repeatedly only half-heartedly tried to protect pro-Ukrainian protesters, and people have died as a result. Vice News saw one Ukrainian journalist pushed into a car and kidnapped by armed separatists, while police watched from across the street. Mostly they are preoccupied with keeping a low profile, afraid of being cornered like the police in numerous cities throughout Donetsk Oblast.
The problem is with the whole institution – the Ukrainian police force is extremely corrupt and trusted by no one. They are known for police brutality, and especially the taking of bribes. Over 49% of Ukrainians have had to bribe a police officer. When I lived in Donetsk with my family we dreaded being stopped by the traffic police, as they would also try to extort bribes before allowing us to drive further. This corruption, partially driven by low pay, means they are incredibly demoralised and not willing to fight for their government or people (with the noble exception of two policemen in Horlivka). The only truly effective police were the well-paid Berkut, who were disbanded after the revolution for brutality, torture and murder of unarmed protesters.
The fires of Friday night will leave another deep scar in Ukraine. It is another sign of how parts of the country have sunk in to chaos in recent weeks, after the brief peace following the fall of Yanukovich. Ideally such a horror would shock Ukrainians into supporting peace and the elections to come on the 25th of May. But with Russia still supporting the separatists in the East (who are now shooting down helicopters with missiles), and the government determined to press on with reclaiming Donetsk, that seems unlikely. Yesterday the violence in the East rolled on, with two Ukrainian soldiers and numerous separatists killed in Slavyansk. This struggling country has many dark days ahead.
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