Ukraine crisis: Amidst masked men and paramilitary violence, Ukraine is a country on the jagged edge of anarchy
The men, most with their faces hidden by balaclavas, many carrying baseball bats, some wearing sidearms, swarmed around the black Jeep Patriot. They dragged out the four occupants - in black combat uniforms - snatching their guns, magazines of ammunition, and radio transmitters from their olive rucksacks. Body armour was stripped from the captives, who were forced to kneel on the pavement. The number plates of the car were torn off and it was driven away with screeching tyres.
No one was quite sure just what had taken place at Artema Street in the centre of Donetsk on Tuesday morning. The SUV had been parked outside a branch of the UkrBusinessBank. The staff thought the occupants may have been a "maskashow", armed masked gunmen sent by commercial rivals to disrupt trading, not an infrequent occurrence in the commerce of this wild east.
It emerged that the bank is owned by the dentist son of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s overthrown president. Serhiy Oksenuik, the deputy chairman, insisted he had no idea what the armed men were after, or if it had anything to do with the financial affairs of Oleksandr Yanukovych, who is reputed to have personal assets of $500 million.
Members of the "self-defence force" arrived; they were unaware, they professed, of the identity of those who had made off with the weapons and the vehicle. “It’s a mystery,” said Aleksandr. He was a berkut, the riot police disbanded by the Kiev administration after a hundred protesters were shot dead in the Maidan, now one of the mainstays of the militia of the People’s Republic of Donetsk.
Six members of the city’s police force watched what had been happening from across the road. They eventually came over and took away the men in black, one of whom told me that they were a special forces unit from the Ministry of Interior.
“We have not been arrested, we have not been detained, as far as I can tell.” They were from Zaporoshiya, 250 miles away, on an operation, he ventured. Was it to do with Yanukovych? “I can’t say anything.”
A pro-Russian protester inside a Donetsk government building (Reuters)
The police said later they were unaware of an authorized raid involving the former president’s family. Meanwhile, four Kalashnikovs, four pistols and two combat shotguns had disappeared to be added to the already bulging illicit arsenal in the streets. “It’s a problem,” acknowledged Aleksandr.
Eastern Ukraine is on the jagged edge of anarchy. Not all the violence has been planned and executed by the separatists, there have been killings, often by men in black appearing out of black four-wheel drives, according to witnesses. The separatist leadership has repeatedly accused the Right Sector, an extreme nationalist group, of carrying out the attacks on behalf of the Kiev administration. The Ministry of Interior's special units also wear similar combat kits, and the Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has been a fervent advocate of the "anti-terrorist mission" – although many of his accounts of what had been taking place, on his Facebook page, had been widely off the mark.
However, personal and commercial scores are also being settled – and there are plenty of people who would want to do so with the Yanukovychs. There has also been a sharp rise criminal acts, particularly with the use of firearms. Half an hour later, we saw two youths on a nearby side road examining a pistol, it looked very much like one of those taken away from the Ministry of Interior unit.
After a belated show of force, attacks on checkpoints around Slovyansk – where a lot of pro-Moscow strength is concentrated – and setting up of checkpoints around the city the government forces seem hesitant about what to do, despite daily claims from Kiev that the anti-terrorist mission is going full throttle. An attack on Kramatorsk airport, where most of the troops are based, had led to many of the senior staff being evacuated, either to Odessa, or all the way back to Kiev.
After brief apprehension of a government counterattack, the militants have resumed their piecemeal takeover of the Donbass. They occupied state buildings at Konstantinovka on Monday and three more in the space of four hours at Luhansk, where they had been holding the intelligence headquarters for weeks, yesterday. Two more buildings were occupied this morning at Horlivka, the place from where a local politician, Vladimir Rybak, was abducted, tortured and murdered.
There were bitter complaints from Kiev that the police had done nothing to counter the attacks. The country’s interim president Oleksandr Turchynov stated: “The vast majority of law enforcement officials in the east are not fulfilling their obligation to protect our citizens.” This is not the first time he and his ministers had made that charge; citizens, meanwhile, continue to be unprotected.
Yevgeny Shibalov has his head swathed in bandages, injuries sustained by being hit with bricks at close range when separatists ambushed a march in support of Ukrainian unity on Monday evening. Most of the riot police contingent had stood by as youths and men emerged from the shadows wielding metal rods and chains, with a ready supply of missiles, including fireworks, beating up terrified demonstrators who had tried to take refuge in shop fronts and doorways.
“I saw one of our guys fall, I went to help him, got hit by a brick and fell myself; when I got up, I was hit again with a brick”, the 32-year-old activist recalled. “I went to a doorway to take shelter; then, luckily, some of the paramedics found me and I was taken to hospital.”
Pro-Ukrainians have largely been keeping off the streets, but a rally around 10 days ago ended peacefully with a large police presence. Mr Shibalov, who had been part of the protest movement in the east for the last five months, said: “I don’t know what happened this time, there seemed to be no coordination between different types of police. Some did try to help, there were two policemen at the hospital with injuries, but most of them stood watching, others just disappeared.
“It’s definitely much more dangerous now being a pro-Ukrainian, pro-democracy activist, not just at marches. There have been threats, attacks; a lot of my friends have either left this area or sent their families away. The pro-Moscow people have this referendum coming up [on secession] soon, they have threatened they will really deal with us after that.”
Pro-Ukrainian activists draw a giant map of Ukraine with marked territory which can be lost in result of separatist's activity, in front of Parliament building in Kiev (EPA)
The view from the separatist activists who have claimed the streets is very different on what happened at the demonstration.
“It was provocation for the Ukrainians to hold this march at this time. They are being directed by the junta in Kiev, these are tests to see how quickly they can organize themselves for an uprising”, was the view of Sergei, a 50-year-old former train guard, whose physique had earned him the nickname "the hammer" from his comrades.
“As for the trouble, I think you’ll find that started when a policeman threw a stun grenade at our side. Most of the police are on the side of the people, but some are spies of the junta. Before that ultras [football supporters] had started attacking our side. We arrested some and handed them over to the police.
“We want a referendum. I personally don’t want to join Russia, but the Kiev junta may force us to do that by sending their troops and their terrorists”.
The centre of Donetsk is a relatively small place: outside the administrative building under separatist control, I ran into a young man, one of the few with their faces uncovered, who was gathered around the SUV. “What exactly happened there?” I asked. The young man shrugged: “You can’t tell who is who now with everyone wearing masks, carrying guns. They could be anyone, dangerous people, you see how fast they moved with all that stuff?”
Where did his own allegiance lie? “I am just an ordinary citizen of Donetsk Republic, helping out,” he smirked, twirling his baseball bat.
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