Ukraine crisis: The ugly side of Russia’s ‘liberation’ of its neighbour

A victim of a stun grenade attack in Mariupol tells Kim Sengupta that the current tensions could set Ukrainian against Ukrainian for years

Sergei Shevchenko had rushed in to help an injured man when a stun grenade exploded, spraying him with shards of metal. He was saved by other protesters who pulled him out amid the gunfire, smoke and flying Molotov Cocktails, sending him to hospital in a taxi.

The grenades were thrown, insisted the 40-year-old carpenter, lying in a bed, his chest covered in bandages, by members of the security forces. Three people were reported to have been killed and 13 others were injured during the night of violence.

The casualty figures could not be verified. The local emergency hospital recorded one death and Mr Shevchenko himself saw a dead body. But what unfolded at Mariupol, on the coast of the Azov Sea, illustrated the bitterness and distrust which would make the process of repairing a fractured society so difficult.

Militant pro-Russians, who already occupy the city administration building, marched on the base of the National Guards on Wednesday evening. “They came here just after eight o’clock, shouting that we must surrender our weapons, allow our men to join the people. I don’t know what made them representatives of the people,” said Major Oleksandr Kolesnichenko, deputy commander of the base.

“We said our duties will not allow us to do that. So they used trucks to break down the gate, they threw Molotov Cocktails and then they started shooting. We fired warning shots after they came into the compound: I don’t know if anyone was killed or injured on the other side, we didn’t have any casualties. These are the facts, I don’t want to talk about politics.”

But Major Kolesnichenko’s job is now inextricably bound up with realpolitik of who gets to control and influence the east of the country. One of those who took part in the demonstration, 34-year-old Nicolai Aloykhin, stressed: “This is a simple matter of democracy, we want a referendum on whether Ukraine should have a federal system. The illegal regime in Kiev is using the military to suppress public opinion. The commander of this base is also trying to suppress public opinion by firing at peaceful, unarmed demonstrators.”

A pro-Russia protester inside Mariupol City Hall A pro-Russia protester inside Mariupol City Hall (EPA)
In a separatist video, a man in balaclava maintained: “We were asking the commander to come out and negotiate, none of us wanted bloodshed, their answer was to shoot at us.” Another man was filmed with a megaphone calling on troops to walk out. “We don’t want you, our friends, our comrades, our neighbours, to suffer,” he said.

Mr Shevchenko recalled, however, that the troops “were shooting into the ground” rather than at people. He also said some of them were carrying Molotov Cocktails, and some people may have come later with guns, but they were likely to be provocateurs from the ultra-nationalist Right Sector group.

Evidence that the violence was not one-sided lay all around the base. A police vehicle had smashed windows and slashed tyres; two trucks straddling the gate had bullet holes on the windscreen, the guardhouse walls had been charred by flames. Mr Shevchenko, who had travelled from Donetsk for the demonstration stressed: “All we wanted was that the military should lock away all their weapons into a secure place and they should allow the men from Mariupol serving there to come out. We don’t think it’s right, natural, for them to be in a position where they may have to shoot at people from the city, who may even be members of their family.”

Major Kolesnichenko’s view was different. “What we managed to do was save around 100 conscripts, who are only doing their service, from getting injured or killed,” he said. “Some of these young men are from this area, but these people in masks cannot decide who should serve where.”

The injured Sergei Shevchenko The injured Sergei Shevchenko (AP)
Armed police guarded Mr Shevchenko’s room at the hospital. “ They have not interviewed me yet, but they have told me that I have not been arrested,” he said.

Conspiracy theories abounded. The electricity had been cut off just before the gate was stormed, “strangers” had been seen in the area, a Ukrainian military helicopter had been flying low during the afternoon. “Anyone who lives around here can tell you that provocateurs had been at work. There have been people who look different, dress in a different way,” confided Victoria Rudmirova, 53. “We think they are from western half [an anti-Russian region] and they have been causing a lot of trouble. These are people we can allow into our city again.”

“Putin won’t abandon us, the Russians are our insurance,” commented her friend, Valentina Victorova.

Supporters of a united Ukraine had been keeping a low profile as the pro-Russian protests gained ground. A rally was held at Donetsk tonight, the first in weeks. But few were likely to attend a similar gathering in Mariupol. “This place has become dangerous, you have to be very careful about expressing your views, the other side is very aggressive,” said Arsenyi Menerenko, a 23-year-old student. “Some Ukrainians are also angry. I think it will be very hard to have dialogue. Too much trust has been lost.”

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