We meet in the back of a restaurant. For a moment I feel like in an old spy movie and my friend must have noticed that this makes me nervous, with a smile he tells me not to worry. “We are safe here”, a sentence I have heard a lot during my stay in Crimea but this time it means much more to me. This time it means my friend feels safe here. I can’t put to words how happy I am to finally see my friend in person and in safety, more than a year after the horrible Massacre of Odessa which changed his life permanently. Here he sits, smiling, greeting me, looking at my fancy wheelchair with the skilled eye of a technician. Luck and what I believe to be Divine Intervention in the bravery of some bystanders are the reasons why my friend is still alive and happy to meet me on this summer day.
Brave enough to talk about the events of that day and evening but worried about his family still living in Ukraine, we decide to call my friend Vlad, although we both know this is not his real name. Vlad still has family members in and around Odessa and Vlad knows that Ukrainian authorities have given them a hard time to tell them where he is. Vlad is on a wanted list because he survived the Odessa Massacre, officially only for questioning, but Vlad knows that those who have reported to the Ukrainian authorities for this so called questioning have all been arrested. Ukrainian authorities are even so ruthless that they have arrested family members of some of the organizers “for their own protection” although none of them want to be “protected” by Ukraine.
Vlad agrees to publish his story, wants his story to be told as long as it doesn’t cause any problems for his family and friends. I look at the eyes of this strong man and see genuine fear when he speaks about his family and friends, about his concerns. This is Vlad’s story in his words, approved by Vlad for publication and Vlad approves distributing his words on the internet.
How it all began
We were camping out in front of the Trade Union Building since January, organizing our own Anti-Maidan. We didn’t agree with Kiev, we didn’t agree with the protest against our government and we didn’t want our country to turn away from Russia, the country which most of us see as our homeland. The Euro-Maidan movement had also reached Odessa and there have been clashes between both sides before. Nothing big but there were clashes. Some they started, some we started, some nobody remembers who started it. In short, when we marched, they marched and when they marched, we marched. At first it was Pro-Europe against Pro-Russia, then it became Pro-Kiev against Anti-Kiev.
The whole setting changed when rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk seized buildings and started to organize their revolts after Crimea returned to Russia. The protests became more violent, also by our side to be honest. We tried to seize the townhall but failed, they tried to seize our camp and also failed. Euro-Maidan and Pro-Kiev turned into Anti-Russia and it became dangerous to even wear Russian colors in the streets of Odessa so we had a “standing order” to always move around in groups. Some of us ignored this measure and got beaten up by Pro-Kiev groups and hooligans. This had already started weeks before the massacre.
The Pravy Sektor Connection
On Thursday we got word that the hooligans of Odessa and Kharkiv would organize a march against us and word on the streets was that they would again try to storm our camp and destroy it. The hooligans have strong ties with Pravy Sektor, a very violent and anti-Russian movement with strong bases in the new government. Their presence in the Maidan protests motivated us even more to set up our resistance to everything coming from Kiev. Until today I don’t understand why Kiev didn’t see how dangerous it is to be involved with them. And you can already see the outcome in the news that Pravy Sektor is turning against Kiev, against Ukraine.
You have to understand the difference between common Ukrainians and those thugs. Many Ukrainians who I went to school with want nothing to do with them but they also fear them. They are very violent and you are either with them or they are against you. Now they focus their violence and hatred against Russia and Russians in Ukraine but in the past they have also turned against Romanians, Hungarians, Poles and other ethnic groups in Ukraine. They have very strong sympathies for Nazi Germany and their collaborators in Ukraine and they have always organized violent marches in their support. In Odessa we say that not even the local mafia can protect you when those thugs have decided to attack you…
So we knew they were coming and we knew it was going to be tough and dangerous, violent. Our organizers had a meeting on Thursday and decided that our side would have a counter-demonstration and march to the city center. I know those hooligans as very violent and feared that Pravy Sektor would try to organize an outburst of violence against us so I decided to volunteer with my younger brother to stay behind in the camp. I was hoping my brother would be safer there than in the march.
We knew they were coming and we knew it was going to be tough and dangerous
They marched, our people marched. It was loud, very loud. We started to receive messages from our people about fights, of being completely outnumbered by the other side. Large groups of common Ukrainians, hooligans from the Odessa and Kharkiv football clubs and the hated Pravy Sektor thugs with their banners. We got really worried when there were messages coming in about shootings by our side and by theirs. I still don’t know who started it. Some say our side started the shootings, others say it was them. There are even people who say that Ukrainian security forces in civil clothes opened fire from behind the police lines.
I simply just don’t know but I am convinced that this is where the escalation started and it wouldn’t surprise me when this escalation was provoked on purpose. To be honest, this could just as well be done by our side because we also had some very violent people in our ranks, just like the other side. All I know is that people died that day by bullets, people at both sides. It was no longer possible to protest in Ukraine without the risk of dying for what you protested for. People died in Kiev during their protests, people died in Odessa during their protests.
We got the order to start preparing to defend our camp because the Anti-Russia group was coming our way and our people were completely outnumbered, not able to stop them before they would reach our camp like we successfully did in the past. Different numbers came in, some said 2-3.000 protesters would attack us, others said more than 10.000. There was panic in our small group that stayed behind in the camp, not knowing what to expect. Some 200 of our group that participated in the demonstration showed up, running and fleeing for the masses of hooligans and Pravy Sektor. They told us the others were cut off and spread across the city.
Seeking safety inside the building
And then we heard a gunshot! It was in a split second, I don’t even remember if someone made a decision or that it was just an instinctive reaction but we rushed inside the building and started to barricade ourselves inside. We would be safe there, at least that is what we thought. I checked if my brother was inside and was glad to find him chatting with my cousin and his fiancé who came in from the demonstration with the group. I wrote my father not to worry, we were safe.
The group of Anti-Russia protesters and hooligans grew rapidly outside of the building, we were completely surrounded. I thought about the supplies we left behind in our camp but realized that there was no way we could reach that now so we had to sit it out. When I looked through the window again a few minutes later, I saw that our camp was set on fire, we had lost our protest camp we had defended successfully for months. This might sound very silly but I thought about my brand new jacket which I forgot to take with me in our panicked rush inside the building.
We started to barricade the front entry and the windows with whatever we could find, we checked every possible access to the building to make sure they could not get in, even in the basement some fortifications were made. When our organizer was convinced that the building was secured he order everyone to go upstairs, leaving only a few and himself downstairs to keep an eye on the entrance and the ground floor. We were sure that they would try to storm the building and they tried a few times before the fires started.
My brother and I were ordered to observe from the right side of the building on the first floor. Looking outside the window I saw a huge and loud crowd. I was of course not able to count them all but I got the feeling there were thousands outside. Chanting anti-Russian slogans, their favorite song about Mr. Putin and of course jumping and insulting us. I remember that I was hoping for rain, strong rain because a few weeks ago they suddenly forgot about their need to threaten and insult us when it started to rain.
The police disappeared when Pravy Sektor reinforcements arrived
Suddenly something strange happened. A large group with the red black banners of Pravy Sektor showed up and almost immediately all the policemen who observed the situation from a safe distance disappeared. They were there one moment and gone the next moment. I saw it myself, with my own eyes. At the moment that this group of Pravy Sektor thugs arrived, the policemen withdrew from the scene. I don’t know if they got orders to do so or if they were just cowards who didn’t want to confront the thugs. And to tell you the truth, I really don’t care. It is their job to protect everyone and they failed for whatever reason.
I shouted to my brother “this is it” and called our organizer to report what I have seen. He screamed at me that there was fire in the entrance and ordered me to keep everyone away from the staircases and the windows. I rushed into the hallway to bring people to safety and could smell the fire, I could hear people screaming. I found my cousin, who told me to bring people to the office at the back, away from the fire and away from the windows. He told me that they were throwing Molotov cocktails through the windows.
At that moment I heard several gunshots from outside the building and two explosions inside the building. There was enormous heat coming from the stairway. I fell down, tried to get up and go to the stairway to help but my cousin screamed to do as he told me. I ran to the opposite side of the hallway, shouting at everyone to follow me and when I turned around, flames were blazing from the staircase and into the floor.
I was glad to find my brother where I left him with some 10 people hiding with him. I brought another 20 and I started to realize that we were locked in. Fire in the staircase and floor, there was nowhere we could go and suddenly I became very afraid they would storm the building or set more fires or both. It took a while before I was able to think logic again and even longer before I could move. Maybe it has been only seconds but it felt as if I was paralyzed for at least several minutes.
Rescued by ordinary Ukrainians!
When I collected my thoughts again, I peeked through the window and saw a ladder. I shouted to my brother “they are coming through the window” and opened the window to try to push the ladder away. I was in total and complete panic! But when I looked again, I saw people waving at me, shouting at me to come down and run. “Get out, get out” they shouted. They were Ukrainians, some had their flag over their shoulder like they had the whole day. I didn’t trust them, thought it was a trap. I closed the window again.
Much to my surprise, a big guy climbed the ladder, banged on the window and shouted “GET OUT!”. He was calling my name and the name of my brother, pounding on the window frame. My brother said “that is our neighbor” and at that moment I realized that in my panic I didn’t even recognize our very own neighbor. From there on, it wend very fast. We opened the window and started to help the people get out and down the ladder. There was a group of Ukrainian protesters who made something of a corridor towards the grounds of the next building so our people could escape. They were being attacked by other protesters but were able to keep their line of defense. They defended us! Ukrainian protesters defended us and helped us escape. I want everyone to know that without their courageous help we would have not been able to escape the inferno in the building and the attackers in front of the building. They are heroes, true heroes!
When my brother descended from the ladder, our neighbor gave him his Ukrainian flag, my brother told me later that he told him to wear it until he was far enough away and my brother did. When I was halfway down, someone tried to push over the ladder and my neighbor punched him out with one hand, holding the ladder with his other. My neighbor smiled at me when I jumped down the last part, I will never forget what he and his brave friends did for us that night. They saved our lives! The world must know that! Ordinary Ukrainians, our brothers, saved us. Not even the violence by Pravy Sektor can make them abandon us, we are brothers even when we disagree about the country we are born in. We are brothers and no Nazi pig can change that, no matter what they do, no matter what they try!
The escape from the inferno
After my escape from the grounds I started running, trying to catch up with my brother but he is much faster than I am. He always was, ever since he was a kid. Normally I was proud of him but now I cursed him for being so fast. Finally I found him, hiding behind a car. I was glad to see him alive and safe but a few seconds later I realized that our cousin wasn’t with us. I wanted to go back but my brother convinced me to go home first and make some calls to see where he and our other friends were.
On our way home we had to hide several times to avoid groups of protesters and hooligans celebrating their victory, chanting violently about killing Russians. I had to pull my brother back when a group was cheering the smell of burned Russian meat and this is when I started to realize what was happening. Their celebration of burning Russians made me aware that some of us must have died in the fire, at that moment still not realizing how many.
We rushed home as fast as we could, greeted by a cannonade of anger of my father who had seen the events on TV and cursed me for not answering my phone, for being there in the first place, for everything that happened and then kissing me for being safe and alive. My father placed us in front of the TV and forced us to watch. I couldn’t believe my eyes, didn’t want to look, didn’t want to see what we had just escaped. After a while my father asked us if we had been there so I told him everything, about the day, about the fire, about our neighbor, about our cousin. My father wanted to know where our cousin was and I had to tell him in all honesty that I didn’t know.
Vlad falls silent, staring at his food, playing with his fork. I am looking for words and at the same time I don’t want to say anything. My feet at freezing point, I already feel the phantom pains developing.