Donetsk, Ukraine – A local orthodox priest Georgiy Gulyaev said “Donetsk has Died.”
Today is Ukrainian Independence Day. Reports say that there is a great show of military might and patriotism through Maidan square in Kiev. In response, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) has decided to make its own little celebration – a celebration of their Russian heritage and the DNR’s military victories over the Ukraine.
This morning, Lenin Square sounded like a fairground. Russian nationalist music blared from tents decorated in Russian flags and a crowd was gathered around the main attraction; a row of destroyed Ukrainian Army vehicles. From burned out tanks, to a captured Grad, to supply trucks and more. Some had a tattered Ukrainian Flag on them, and the spectators were encouraged to climb on them to take pictures.
Selfies were taken while they sat in the driver’s seat of burned out vehicles. A little girl in a pink frilly dress was placed on top of an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) while her parents stood nearby and took her photograph.
Carried away by their patriotic fervor, people took the flags from the vehicles and began to gleefully stomp and spit on them; young mothers, old (grandmothers), little children and soldiers in uniform all took their turn to wipe their feet on the field of yellow and blue.
There was a soldier who stood on the tank, the entire crowd was his captive audience as he told the story of how the vehicles were taken. He waved the black, blue and red flag of Donetsk in front of him, the vibrant color lightly interrupted by the pattern of roses (Donetsk is called the City of Roses).
The crowd often chanted “Spa-si-ba!”, or “Thank you!”, and clapped with each syllable.The soldier bowed when the applause interrupted him. I understood why the soldier had been chosen to tell the stories – he was handsome, articulate and charismatic! The crowd reached out to him, and he reached back to them. He was the symbol of a patriot.
The costume of choice among the spectators were soldier’s uniforms, often mismatched camouflage and ancient equipment, mixed with a dash of Sons of Anarchy flare; fingerless leather gloves, ribbons, berets and baseball caps. A very young man walked around in a full uniform with an AK-47 dangling from a strap around his neck. He looked like he was 14 years old.
It was around this time that several journalists received text messages from the Press Center asking them if they would be in Lenin Square at 2 PM in the afternoon. “Please confirm your presence…”
As the chosen hour rolled around, the crowd moved away from the vehicles to the nearby boulevard lined by armed soldiers in blue digital uniforms and black shirts, sometimes with the signs of Berkut Brigade; a special motorized police that had supported Yanukovich and violently clashed with the activists in Maidan Square, Kiev when the protests were at their height.
The crowd was pushed back to the edge of the sidewalk to keep the road clear.
Those of us foreigners with press accreditation from the DNR were pushed to the front of the crowd that threw their fists in the air and began to scream “Fascists! Fascists! Fascists!” Signs were held up, and the screaming grew louder as the culminating event of today’s celebration marched slowly through.
It was a Parade of Prisoners; they looked atrophied, exhausted and pale. Their hands were clasped behind their back, heads bowed, eyes downcast. I couldn’t count the number of black eyes I saw among them.
They marched at bayonet point, and the soldiers – their captors – had to fight more with the angry crowd that threw rocks, eggs, bottles and spat on the Ukrainian soldiers on display. They hurled insults and several people attempted to run up and attack the prisoners. The crowd had hate in their eyes as they verbally assaulted the defenseless men.
As docile as the prisoners were, they were still kicked, slapped and prodded with bayonets as they walked. I could not find a reason for their punishment other than a DNR’s soldier’s over-zealousness to please the crowd by inflicting pain.
I looked across the row and saw an English sign held by a matronly looking woman. It hilariously said “US & EU Stop Supporting the Ukrainian Nazi!” And I sadly laughed at the irony.
A street cleaning vehicle followed the Parade in recreation of the World War II parch of German soldiers by Stalin.
As the prisoners were put back in a bus, the crowd continued to scream at them. When they were on their way back to whatever cell they had been pulled from, the same angry crowd screamed praise at the soldiers that had been marching beside them. They kissed them, shook their hand, called them good people and heroes and continued to chant “Spasiba! Spasiba!”
Today, a local priest said “Donetsk has died” after his pleas to not parade the prisoners were ignored. We had just witnessed a war crime; an utter violation of the Geneva Convention. More than that, we witnessed the failure of humanity.
Almost hilariously, when a French Photographer and I left Lenin Square, we stopped in a store to buy bread. A large woman with a number of cute cats underfoot proudly told another store patron that we were Press. She said Poroshenko’s name, then made a slashing motion across her neck. Then she put her hands in front of her as if holding them in prayer then said “Peace! Peace!”
I had to step outside, unable to even feign politeness.