We returned to our table to find Vlad’s uncle waiting for us, pretending to be angry about the unfinished plates. Being half Italian, he did an hilarious impersonation of those Mafiosi from the old movies, asking us why we don’t like the food and if we want to ruin the reputation of his restaurants. New plates with delicious food were brought, we ate with the family and enjoyed our dinner, laughed. Life goes on, even though not for all. Afterwards, my girlfriend decided to return to the hotel and I stayed with Vlad to hear the end of his story. We went outside with some drinks and a box of cigars from Vlad’s uncle.
Victims get arrested
After the badly wounded and some of the dead were brought outside, the police entered the building and started to place the survivors under arrest, bringing them out and pushing them into waiting busses, cheered by the crowds. The same police that stepped away when the Pravy Sektor tugs started their assault on the building, the police that at first refused to protect the Medical and Emergency Services, was now arresting the survivors, the victims of this horrible massacre. When the members of the Emergency Services started to understand that the police intended to arrest all the survivors, they quickly gave some of the survivors their uniform jackets, helmets, ID’S, etc. and told them to pretend to be members of the team. They managed to smuggle around 20 survivors out like this. Our group was around 30 people so roughly 50 escaped.
The numbers vary in reports but I estimate that there were between 200 and 250 people inside the building when the assault and inferno started. With 50 people escaped, that leaves 150-200 people who either died or were arrested when they didn’t die. Some say 60 people died inside the building, others say up to 100 people died and as far as I know, another 13 people died in the following days of their injuries. According to the doctor, most of them could have survived if they would have gotten timely medical treatment. Just like my cousin…
Escaping for the second time
The following evening, my father’s friend called again and told my father that the police had started to make arrests of people who had escaped the building and were searching for other survivors. There was apparently a list of people who were wanted for questioning and my brother and I were on that list. We didn’t have to discuss this very long, we decided to leave even before we knew where we would go. My brother and I packet our bags, said goodbye to our father and got in the car. Or first plan was to go to our aunt in the West but we quickly changed our plan when we realized the risks of crossing the border into several countries which we didn’t know and we had no idea what papers we would need and if we would need a visa.
We came up with the plan to go to Crimea, certain that our aunt and her second husband would help us. And we wanted to be with her, help her deal with the loss of her son in the Odessa Massacre so we started checking if it was still possible to cross the border to Crimea. It was, but everyone was checked, cars were searched and that was too risky for us knowing that the police was looking for us. There was the option to take the train and a friend of us wend to Crimea a few weeks before to be with his girlfriend so we called him to ask of this was safe. It wasn’t, he told us that the Ukrainians were frantically searching the trains already when he travelled to Crimea but he gave us a much better idea. We drove straight through the so called ATO zone without any issues, took a border crossing which was abandoned by the Ukrainian border guards and there we were, in Russia.
We called our father to tell him that we managed to reach Russia and he told us that the police had searched our house, looking for us. When my father pretended that we were on vacation with friends in Kiev all the time, my father was brought in for questioning and held there for several hours before he was released again. In the following days, the police repeated this a few times but my father kept saying that we were with friends in Kiev. I was of course worried about my father but he repeated what he had always said in times of trouble, “I survived Stalin and I survived Hitler, I will survive this”. Normally I thought this was very funny but now I didn’t.
Starting a new life in Crimea
Once we were in Russia, the “liberties” of abandoned border controls were immediately over and we had a normal check of papers, questions about destination, etc. “Vacation or longer stay?” and I have to admit I was a bit surprised how normal this question seemed to be for this lady. At that moment I didn’t realize that every day thousands of Ukrainians were escaping the developing aggression and violence and crossing the border with Russia. We replied that we wanted to go to Crimea and stay there and without even asking any further questions we were directed to a nearby office with the advice to take care of all paperwork immediately and not wait for our arrival on Crimea, so we did.
It took us several hours of waiting because many Ukrainians were there, most of them from the Donetsk area but also from other places. Families with children, elderly and several young men, obviously not willing to become a part of the war that was developing. My brother and I had to fill out some forms, questions about our destination, if we would have a place to stay, people to take care of us, financial means, it all seemed rather normal to me. Our forms were briefly checked, stamped several times and we got a list of numbers of offices we could call in case we would need support. We were send out with a warm “good luck” and the instruction to register ourselves in Crimea with the papers we received. That’s it, we were in Russia and we were welcome, all set to continue our journey to Crimea.
I will never forget the moment when I faced my aunt the first time, having to tell her about the last moments that I have spent with her son, about what the friend of my father told me. I left out the part that he was still alive when he was found and could have survived if the violent crowds hadn’t stopped the rescuers. Until today, she thinks that her son died in the building, holding the hand of his fiancé and I want to keep it like that. The poor woman has suffered enough, I don’t want her to suffer more.
My aunt and uncle, her second husband, gave us a place to stay in their house and a job in their restaurant. After a few weeks I found a job in my old profession here, doing the same as I did in Odessa but paid much better. My brother still works in the restaurant, I think my aunt hopes he will take over in a few years as she was originally planning for her own son, my cousin. We have a good life here in Crimea just like anybody else but I wish my father and other family members would be here, I miss them and I worry about them. By now, the police leaves my father in peace and doesn’t harass him anymore so that is at least something positive.
The smiling girls
There was a picture on all social media which showed a group of Ukrainian girls with Ukrainian flags over their shoulders, smiling while filling up bottles with fuel to create Molotov cocktails. The Molotov cocktails which were used to kill our people. I know one of these girls in person for many years. She lives a few blocks away from where we used to live and she knows my cousin and his fiancé very good. They went to school together, same class. They have spent the majority of their youth growing up together, going to school together, I think they even wend to the same piano classes.
I want to know if she can sleep at night, knowing what she has done. I want to know if her smiling while filling up the Molotov cocktails which killed my cousin and his fiancé and so many more still feels good to her now. I want to know if she is still able to smile, knowing what she has done. There are many moments when I just want to call her and ask her these questions. There are days when I want to go back to Odessa and confront her with the pictures of the burned body of my cousin, show her the picture where what is left of his fiancé as her burned body is being torn from the staircase. Tell her that these are the people she went to school with. I haven’t confronted her and I don’t think I will.
Vlad tells me he needs time to think, wants to be alone now and I feel the same. I decided not to take a taxi but find my way back to the hotel through the Crimean streets. Almost abandoned streets, a tourist here and there, a cleaning truck, I enjoyed the solitude with my thoughts until I arrive at the hotel. My arms feel tired and heavy from pushing my wheelchair uphill when I notice that I don’t feel my feet, there is no freezing cold. Afraid of forgetting any details of what Vlad told me, I started to make notes of our talks. When I’m done, I see the sun rising and realize that the sun will always rise. Every day the sun will rise again, no matter what happened the day before. Just not for some of us, never again for the victims of the Odessa Massacre.
I want to thank Vlad for his courage to speak up, share his thoughts and feelings about that horrible evening.