Ukraine crisis: ‘This is the people’s property now’ - riot police unable to stop pro-Russian activists from storming another symbol of Ukrainian state power
Riot police were powerless to stop the massed ranks of pro-Russian activists from storming another symbol of Ukrainian state power. Kim Sengupta witnesses a dramatic day in Donetsk
The boxes of documents were wrenched out of cupboards and metal cabinets. Some of the contents were taken outside to be burned, some emptied on the sodden floor. Then the men with guns arrived and made a beeline for the files, a treasure trove marked as intelligence and evidence.
By late afternoon the takeover of the prosecutor’s office in Donetsk was complete. ‘Heavies’ in balaclavas and combat kits began easing out the exuberant and mainly young mob who had stormed the building; the leaders began shouting orders for an inventory to be made of what was inside. “Not one more piece of paper or anything from a computer leaves this place. Same with the uniforms, we will be needing them” snapped a man we later learned was called Nicolai, as he looked around with distaste at the broken doors and smashed furniture. “What they don’t understand is that this is the peoples’ property now.”
The takeover of the building was a significant victory for the separatists who had already been holding the regional administration offices for weeks, as well as having effective control of a number of other state institutions. The Peoples’ Republic of Donetsk was quick to seize on the symbolism of this triumph taking place on May Day; a day where a vast crowd had roared out their rejection of Ukraine and loyalty to Russia and the Donbass.
It was difficult to know whether the plan had been to attack the prosecutor’s offices all along. Earlier, the demonstrators had left the city police headquarters in good humour following negotiations which led to the release of some who had been arrested earlier, and the raising of the flags of Donetsk at the entrance; to the chants of “the police are with the people”.
The crowd snaked through the streets of the city to the hymns of the Great Patriotic War. The favourite was “march Russki march”; the colours of Donetsk flew alongside those of the Russian Federation and the Hammer and Sickle of the USSR; among the banners was one Stalin as Rambo; the chants were “Donbass, Crimea, Russia,” “Putin stand by us,” “fascists shall not pass” and one which would have made Nigel Farage wistful: “Re-fe-rendum”.
At the prosecutor’s office, the next port of call, there was a sizeable security presence, the mood quickly turned sour; insults were hurled by the protestors followed by bricks, banners and a supply of Molotov Cocktails which had been rushed in. the response was rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades.
“They fired something from a gun straight into my face”, Viktor Bychkov pointed at his lips split wide open. “One of the policemen leant over another one with a shield and fired it at very close range. I was just trying to speak to them and this is what they do.”
Mr Bychkov had retreated to the edges of the crowd, he soon joined the surge as it burst through the door as the police line retreated. We found him in an office, pounding the telephone and then a fax machine with a metal rod. Others kicked down doors, tore down photographs, swept contents off desktops, pulled down bookcases. They were, they said, looking for policemen who were hiding and caches of weapons.
There were smudges of blood on the walls and the floor, but all the policemen had managed to get away: “We had provided a cordon to make them safe,” said Kyril, a 20 year old masked activist. In fact the defenders of the headquarters had to run through a gauntlet of protestors, some losing their shields and riot sticks.
May Day marching in Donetsk (AP)
The protestors, and members of the public who had followed them in, went up and down the three storey building, taking away what they could, from portable flatscreen televisions to toilet rolls. In the basement kitchen two women, Svetlana and Katarina, gathered coffee, tea, sugar and milk to distribute, they said, to the activists. They were impressed by the management dining room with tables laid out for dinner. Some of the men discovered bottles of Georgian champagne.
A few others were removing items from the office of Vitaly Trafimchuk, the Director of the Department for the Protection of Constitutional Rights, when two men carrying pistols came in. They were clearing the floor . One of them, who gave his name as Nicolai, said: “These guys are angry, they came here to reason with the police, but they got tear-gassed. But we now need to organise this place. This is not the first time this place had been taken over by the self-defence units. Last time our members left after the representatives of the Kiev junta made promises. They didn’t keep the promises and this time we won’t give up so easily.”
Two men had brought up boxes of papers which they laid out on the floor. “There is nothing centralized here, there are documents in every floor” said one man. “But the main place is in the basement, a whole room”, said another. “Has anyone bothered to secure it?” wondered Nicolai.
I asked him if he expected to find his name in the files. “I would not be surprised, they keep files on anyone who disagrees with them. A lot of what they call intelligence is manufactured” he was keen to stress. “The junta in Kiev would not be happy that we have got these now. All the papers need to be analysed, maybe we will find about spies they have put in. But we can’t do that if the papers are burnt or just thrown away.”
Why was he repeatedly asking for the uniforms to be kept safe? “We don’t want to wear them, if that’s what you mean. We also don’t want them getting out of here because the Right Sector [an extreme nationalist group] could get hold of them and use them to murder more of our people. But, mostly, we want the police to come back and do their job, not for those clowns in Kiev, but the Donetsk Republic. When the referendum is held, most people will vote for the Donetsk Republic.”
Earlier in the day a friend of mine, a pro-Ukrainian, had introduced me to a couple at the May Day rally who were fervent advocate of the referendum on secession. “But these are educated reasonable people, not like some of the thugs you can see” she had pointed out, “they are not the type you see in masks around here.” As we went downstairs in the prosecutor’s building, a man in a balaclava greeted us in passing - the male half of the couple. Donetsk, reflected my friend, was certainly changing.
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