We sat there in silence, playing with our food. There wasn’t a word of comfort I could come up with and I didn’t want to disturb Vlad in his thoughts. My girlfriend broke the silence by asking if my feet were cold and I nodded. She knows about what happens, she is there for me when the phantom pains drive me up the wall and she calms me when I endure the explosion over and over again in my nightmares. Her question must have caught Vlad’s attention and interrupted his thoughts because he asked me “what feet, you don’t have feet?”. I told Vlad about what happened with me and we both laughed nervously when he told me that he had always thought that I was born this way. Vlad and I worked together when I was still denying my fate and in that time I never mentioned to him or anyone else what happened or my life before it happened.
The waiter came by and we ordered some local wine. Vlad asked me if I wanted to change the topic but I declined, wanted to hear his story no matter how traumatic it was and is, knowing that Vlad still had to tell us what he knew about his cousin. Vlad agreed but decided to go outside for a smoke first, snoring a pack of cigarettes from his uncle who owns the restaurant. When he returned I told him that I didn’t know he was smoking, when we worked together I have never seen him smoke. Vlad said he didn’t and doesn’t but somehow it seemed like a good idea at that moment. When he coughed, we all laughed the tension away somehow and we knew we were ready to continue.
My cousin was no longer online
I tried to call my cousin, no answer. I called his fiancé, no answer. I called her brother who answered crying hoping that I could tell him where his sister was but I couldn’t. I called other friends of whom I knew they were in the building, no answer from anyone. I called our organizer, no answer and I started to panic again. My brother told me to go online and look at my cousin’s profile, maybe he had written something there or would respond to our messages. And there it was. “Last seen online”, just a few minutes after we had escaped the building. My cousin was no longer online…
When you called me back that night, I had already thought of at least a dozen reasons why my cousin was offline and not answering our calls and messages but that didn’t have to mean he was not alive. Maybe his battery was just depleted. Maybe he had no signal inside the building. Maybe his phone was destroyed but that didn’t have to mean that he was not alive. Maybe, maybe, so many maybes. I learned later that night that I was both wrong and right in my considerations.
A friend of my father called me, he is a reporter with a local newspaper and a volunteer in the Emergency Services. He told me to come over but use the back entrance through the garden. I wanted to ask him so many questions but he hang up immediately. I told my father where I was going and he stopped me, gave me the gun that he was hiding in our basement. “Only use it to defend yourself” as if I would do anything else with it. I rushed through the streets, staying in the shadows as much as possible. I could still hear protesters chanting, groups of them roaming the streets, celebrating and cheering their victory, every now and then a siren.
When I knocked on the door, it was opened and I was quickly pulled inside. I wanted to start asking questions again but he told me to sit down and listen. Hot tea was poured into cups but I never touched, too shocked about what I heard. He told me about what he had seen inside the building. Dead burned people, wounded burned people, shot people. He told me how long it took before they could even get inside the building and try to take care of the people inside. They were blocked from entering the building, they tried to call in police support to protect them but the police did nothing. They had even tried to contact the army, that’s how desperate they were to get in and do their work.
The riot police stayed at a distance
When his team leader tried to move in the first time, he was beaten up by thugs. After a long struggle, a small unit of the riot police showed up and they thought they would create a safe corridor for them but nothing like that happened. The riot police stayed at a distance, looking and doing nothing. Some firefighters arrived and more members of the Emergency Services responded to the alert. Ambulances arrived and doctors from hospitals rushed in. They finally managed to enter the building through a window, the main entrance still blocked by violent crowds. The firefighters started to bring in water hoses through the windows and fight the fire, still raging in the main entrance and staircase but the crowd kept throwing in Molotov cocktails…
They found groups of survivors who had barricaded themselves in the top floors, they found wounded people. Many had burn wounds, a few had bullet wounds, some even both. Many people had problems breathing. And they found many dead people inside, burned to death in and near the staircase, others suffocated in the rooms and floors near the staircase. After a while, the firefighters had extinguished the fire in the main entrance and they tried to bring the wounded people outside first. They were attacked by the crowd, blocking them. Firefighters and Emergency Services normally are highly respected in Ukraine so it shows the insanity of the crowds that night that even this respect was gone as they were attacked for “helping the enemy”. Crowds chanted “let them die, let them die”.
My cousin was among the wounded who was brought outside but they were not able to get him to an ambulance, the violent crowd blocked the way. My father’s friend told me that my cousin was very badly burned and in a critical state. He mobile phone was melted in his burned hand, most of his clothes were burned, he was unconscious and hardly breathing but he was alive. So I was wrong and right in all my maybes of earlier that night. When they found him, my cousin with his other hand kept on holding the hand of his fiancé who had died beside him in the fire. At least they had been together when she died.
Critical wounded and dead only, the rest stays inside
The crowd got so violent that they had to bring the stretchers with my cousin and other victims back inside again. More wounded were brought down but there was no way of bringing them to the ambulances. My father’s friend told me that the entrance hall was flooded with wounded in desperate need of medical treatment. Finally, the riot police moved in and created a corridor. “Critical wounded and dead only, the rest stays inside” was the order from the police…
They rushed the stretchers towards the waiting ambulances, surrounded by angry shouting crowds. A doctor checked the people on the stretchers, I think to decide who to bring to the hospital first because there were simply not enough ambulances available. When the doctor checked on my cousin, he signaled no to my father’s friend to inform him that my cousin was already dead. When he pulled the sheet of the stretcher over my cousin’s face, the crowd cheered… My cousin had died and they were cheering it. Days later a doctor who was there told me that my cousin had a 50/50 chance of surviving if he would have been brought to the hospital immediately but he wasn’t. The crowd that blocked the victims from being brought to the hospital, victims from the building they had set on fire knowing that people were inside, was the same crowd which cheered when the sheet was pulled over my cousin’s face.
Vlad cries bitter angry tears and I cry with him, my girlfriend cries with him. Vlad goes outside for another smoke and although I haven’t smoked cigarettes since I left the army, I decided to join him and much to my surprise my girlfriend joins us as well. She never smoked in her life but now she smokes with us, puffing the smoke without inhaling. I inhale deep, somehow hoping that the smoke will take away the dark thoughts in my mind but it doesn’t. Our tears have dried by now but the anger is even stronger on Vlad’s face. Vlad lights up another one and we both decline at first but then light up as well. We smoke in silence, no words are needed.
I think about that call with Vlad on the night of the Odessa Massacre, his panic and fear. I think about my anger about how it was ignored in the Western media. About my unbelieve when I was told that Ukrainian authorities refused to prosecute those who are responsible for this Massacre, the death of Vlad’s cousin and his fiancé and so many others. I see my best friend’s furious face again in my mind and remember his words, finally understanding what he told me.
They did it before and enjoyed doing it again!