People will respond different when confronted with traumatic experiences and emotions. Some will be silent for a while, locked inside themselves with their thoughts. Others will scream and shout to express their feelings, anger or frustration. When I am confronted with emotional trauma, two things happen. The first thing that happens is that I become unaware of my surroundings and I stop caring that everything is in the right place. Anyone who knows me, knows that this is very strange behavior for me. The second things that happens is that I start to feel my feet, the feet I don’t have any more for over a decade. This might be difficult to imagine but I literally feel my feet turn cold and I already know that when I will be finally able to sleep, my night will be disrupted by phantom pains and nightmares of the explosion.
The evening of 2 May 2014 started very nice for me and nothing pointed at having my feet turn cold that day. After a good wheel-tennis tournament in which I managed to finish in 3rd place, my friends and I went to our favorite fish-restaurant overlooking the harbor of Amsterdam. When the food was being served, I noticed an incoming call from a friend in Odessa but I decided to call him back after dinner. A decision I still regret! We enjoyed our food and some nice wine and when we left the restaurant I remembered the missed call and tried to call my friend back. Busy signal, it took me some attempts before I could finally reach him.
They are killing us! Our people are burning, they are killing us!
A very hectic conversation, panic and fear in his voice. Bits and pieces of what has happened and what was happening. My feet turned cold while trying to understand what my friend was telling me. A protest and a counter-protest escalated, people locked up in a building, shots fired, fire everywhere, the building set on fire with people inside. Many died, didn’t know how many but must be many. Escaped with his younger brother, beaten by hooligans. Cousin still missing, very worried and afraid.
My friend wanted to go back to search for his missing cousin and I tried to convince him to please stay away. In my utter naivety, I urged him to call the police and let him handle it. My feet reached the freezing point when my friend told me the police was there, watching and doing nothing. He ended the call with the words “I have to go back to find my cousin” and left me in fear about his safety.
I rushed to the metro to get home, all the time checking all news apps for news about Odessa. There was nothing, absolutely nothing! When I finally arrived home, I turned on the TV and flipped through the news channels to see what was going on in the city of Odessa. Not a single word about it. Until I had completed all Western channels and arrived at the first Russian channel on my satellite… A shaking recording from a mobile phone, I couldn’t understand a word the reporter was saying but that wasn’t necessary, the video said more than any words could express…
In need of some words of strength and wisdom, I tried to call my best friend but he didn’t answer my calls. Later I learned that he himself was trying to comfort his girlfriend who was going through the shock and trauma of what was happening. I decided to do something I have done a lot since that horrible night. I called all my friends in Ukraine just to see if they were still alive. Nowadays I call them at least once a week, making up silly excuses to call them but they know by now that I call to see if they are alive. As soon as they answer my call, my fear for that person disappears and my friends are happy about my caring for them. 4 friends will however never answer my calls again, they have fallen in this horrible war. Other friends grieve for the family and friends they have lost and there is no end in sight. But that night all other friends were still OK and in shock about the Massacre of Odessa.
4 friends will never answer my calls again
A couple of days later, I had another shock moment while reading a report about survivors of the Odessa Massacre being held in custody by Ukrainian authorities. I immediately called my friend from Odessa, wanting to tell him to get out of there. He told me that he had already left together with his brother and was on his way to Crimea but they had some challenges getting through undetected on the Ukrainian side. And then he turned silent and I felt my feet turn cold as if already knowing what would come. His cousin had died from his burn wounds. The doctor had told my friend that his cousin would have still been alive if he would have had timely medical treatment but it lasted hours before medical and rescue services were even allowed in the building. When they tried to rush his cousin to the hospital, protesters had blocked and attacked the rescuers while a handful of policemen were standing close by and watched. When they were finally able to leave, his cousin had already died. A reporter had told my friend that the crowd cheered when the rescue worker pulled the blanket over his cousin’s head on the stretcher…
Earlier this year, I was having dinner with my best friend. Relaxing, having fun, talking business, kids, life, future, past. Suddenly he gets up and starts to make calls, write messages, his friendly smile is replaced by a grim look and the friendly voice is now demanding, calm and cold. I know this man for many years and know that something made him very angry. It turns out that he found out through a common friend that Anna Schalimova was banned to enter Ukraine and “locked up” at the airport without any support. Anna, who we both respect for her critical reporting about the situation in Ukraine and especially the aftermath of the Odessa Massacre. More calls were made, Anna seemed to be ok under the circumstances and I thought we would return to our dinner but there was something in his look. As if a different person had returned to the table.
Ice cold wide spread eyes, an even colder voice and a facial expression which can’t even be properly described by grim. It wasn’t just anger, it was fury, pure and burning fury. I know this face, this look, this voice that gives my chills. I know this man from our years in the military services, leading us but since those years I haven’t seen him like this. Now a friendly person for years and suddenly this other side of him returned, my feet freeze instantly and I shiver as I intuitively address him by his rank instead of his name. I asked him what caused his fury and I expected some strong statements but nothing like that happened, nothing of what I was expecting. A private detail I wasn’t aware of explained his concern but not his fury, so I asked again.
They did it before, they enjoyed doing it again
His eyes burning straight through mine, he showed me a picture on his phone. A black and white picture of a burning building and with his icy voice he explains what this picture is. 1942, Eastern Ukraine, people of a village forced into a building by UPA forces after which those butchers set the building on fire. Everyone inside burned to death, including members of his family. “They did it before, they enjoyed doing it again”. He left after those words, with all his fury. That night I wasn’t able to sleep at all. Worried about my best friend leaving in this state of mind, shocked about what he told me.
The following day I called everyone in Ukraine I know, long talks just to be sure that they were ok, that they were being careful. Grieving together for the friends we have lost. Once again going through every thought about the Odessa Massacre. And finally, an online message from Anna that she arrived safe back in Germany! I wrote friends the good news, opened up a bottle of wine and celebrated the “happy ending” of Anna’s adventure in the country she was born in. At that moment I realized that this horrifying war had impacted me so much that I had already started to fear for the lives and safety of people I don’t even know personally, like Anna who I respect but have never met in my life. And there is Trevor, who has family in Donbass, I worry with him about them and feel better when my online friend writes me they are ok. There is Gleb, good old Gleb, who I jokingly call my partner in crime but I feel his worries about his family in Mariupol where he has enjoyed his youth. There are days where I could scream in anger at Graham for taking so much risks and thank him at the same time for doing his dangerous job to let the world know what is really happening. Although I realize Val has a very busy schedule with lots of traveling, I still get mad at her when she doesn’t give a sign of life for a days, overplaying my worries for her safety.
None of this really existed for me before the Odessa Massacre
I have to admit that until this horrible Massacre I wasn’t taking the revolution in Ukraine very serious. Just another revolt where the parties opposing each other would form the next coalition like they have done so many times before. Just reshuffling the cards and power, that’s all or at least that was how I registered the events in Kiev until 2 May 2014. Not anymore after seeing the images of Odessa on Russian TV, not anymore after talking to my friend who barely escaped a curtain death with his brother. Not after seeing how the Western media ignored this massacre but kept reporting on the “democratic process” in Ukraine and the “Russian aggression”. That night was my wakeup call, the rude and traumatic smack in my face I needed before I finally realized what the threat against the population of Donbass really means.
And after the Odessa Massacre, the violence against the population of Donbass escalated, erupted throughout the region. As if Ukrainian authorities tested the responses of their partners that night. As if this night had shown Kiev that it is ok as long as the violence is directed against anything and everything Russian. Since that horrible evening, I worry every day and night about the many friends in Ukraine. Some have left the region and found a safe place in Russia, other have moved to western parts of the country or Europe, and too many are still in the middle of the war. Either not able or not willing to leave the place where most of them were born like the generations before them.
And 4 of the people who have been a part of my life in one way or the other have fallen victims of this war, lives which will never return to us, never will they be part of my life again. A close friend of my family, her family friends of my family, has lost her mother, her sister and her brother in this war. The house she grew up in is completely destroyed, the orphanage that her father and my father once proudly helped build and supported for many years is turned into nothing but rubble and a huge crater. At first the playground was destroyed by grenades and a few weeks later an unguided missile hit the building, leaving nothing behind of what so many had worked for to give orphans a safe home.
Demonic escalation of violence in the war against Donbass
The bizarre escalation of violence reached another dark demonic level with the downing of Flight MH17, making even more innocent victims in this war. With friends and former colleagues on various investigation and recovery missions, others securing their safety in the warzone of Ukraine, I found myself worried for them every second until they returned. My fear of further escalation and abusing their presence for political goals became so strong that I never felt truly assured when they departed from Ukraine. I could only relax and breath normal again when they landed safely on the airbase in The Netherlands, fearing that their plane could be attacked during their flight back.
When I was finally able to lay down and try to get some sleep, all this wend through my mind again and again. I decided that I wanted to write about the Odessa Massacre and what my friend told me, honor Anna for her work and bravery with my humble words and somehow express my respect for her few colleagues amongst the reporters who do report about what happens without following the “blame Russia” narrative in all they say and write. Eventually I did some time later (The Odessa Massacre – How History repeated itself!) when I was finally able to put my thoughts and the emotional experiences in words.
Threat no more, it is real and I finally understood
Now you might understand a little bit better why I care and write about the Odessa Massacre and investigate the events of that horrible evening and the aftermath. Because this horrible evening finally opened my eyes for what is happening in Ukraine, this evening where my friend barely escaped with his brother and his cousin unfortunately didn’t. This evening in Odessa followed by that afternoon in Lugansk where an airstrike killed the mother of my former exchange student made me realize that the fear ethnic Russian citizens of Ukraine feel is not just empty words based on propaganda, their fear is real and based on a real and serious threat coming from the country which name is in their passport and on their certificate of birth…