Odessa, city of grandeur, still reeling from the horror that befell it
Anti-Kiev groups accuse government of cover up over the inferno that claimed dozens of lives
Ukrainian businessman, politician and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko (left) meets supporters during his election campaign in Odessa on Wednesday. Photograph: Reuters/Mykola Lazarenko/Pool
“We never believed this could happen in Odessa,” said Marina Vladimirovna, gripping her interlocutor’s arms for emphasis.
“Odessa is a special kind of city. Here we like to promenade, to drink, to dance, to love and to make money. But this . . .”
Words failed her and she waved a hand towards the building as she turned away.
A clammy breeze barely stirred the flowers in its shattered windows, their petals grey with ash. Inside, policemen climbed the blackened stairs, past rows of coloured jars that held candles for victims of the trade union house fire.
Yesterday marked three weeks since supporters and opponents of Ukraine’s revolution and new government fought running battles through this Black Sea port, hurling bricks and shooting rubber bullets and live rounds at each other.
Heavily outnumbered, about 200 anti-Kiev activists took refuge inside the five-storey trade union building, which overlooked their small protest camp.
From there, some fired shots and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the furious pro-government mob that massed below. People had been killed and badly hurt in the street fighting, and more were now being injured outside the building.
Some of those present recorded the siege on their telephones, and footage shows a vicious and chaotic scene in which the police were disorganised, overwhelmed and largely useless.
At one point, a policeman is shown discussing with leaders of the pro- and anti-Kiev protesters how to form a safety cordon around the building and evacuate those inside.
Then something out of shot stops their conversation, and a moment later they and the people around them are running towards the trade union house.
Flames are licking hungrily around the first floor windows, and thick black smoke billows through the building. Shouts of anger have become screams of panic and soon people are falling from windows and jumping to escape the inferno; prone on the concrete, some move a little. Most do not.
Bloodiest day A few horrific hours left 46 dead, more than 200 injured, and a city that boasts of its tolerance – as well as its beauty and love of life – in a state of shock as it struggled to explain its bloodiest day in decades.
It was also Ukraine’s deadliest episode since the February shootings in Kiev that preceded Viktor Yanukovich’s fall from power, and it made Odessa a new flashpoint in a crisis that has thrown the country into turmoil and set Russia and the West at odds.
Odessa is a city of faded grandeur and freewheeling commerce, as famous for its hedonism and sense of humour as the crime and corruption that have long flourished in Ukraine’s biggest port.
But it was marginal to the country’s political upheaval until May 2nd, when the anti-government “march against fascism” confronted local football fans and supporters of the visiting Kharkiv team rallying together for “Ukrainian unity”.
“It was a suicidal decision, and I don’t know why they did it,” said Sergei Dibrov, a prominent Odessa publicist who is part of an independent investigation into the fire.
“I can only think they misjudged the mood of the city. Maybe they thought that when Odessa saw 200 of them against 2,000 pro-Ukrainian protesters, that 5,000 people would come and back them up. In fact, only about 50 people came out.”
Dibrov believes anti-government activists were “ready to fight” that day, having prepared petrol bombs and a first-aid area in the building.
Mattresses still line a corridor next to a table of disinfectant and bandages, between scorched walls now scrawled with messages hailing the dead as eternal heroes and vowing revenge against the Kiev “junta” and its “fascist” supporters.
Dibrov says both sides wielded firearms, but the anti-Kiev group was overwhelmed by the size of the pro-Ukrainian mob and its sheer fury after several of its number were killed in the first street clashes.
He and his fellow independent investigators – who include specialists in toxicology and ballistics – are not yet sure how the fire started, but say it is possible someone inside the building mishandled a lighted petrol bomb.
That is the government’s claim, but Dibrov has no faith in their investigation.
“That’s why we have to do it ourselves. The lack of official information leads to all kinds of stories being bandied about. We must establish what happened. But all sides are guilty to some degree.”
Opponents of the new government – which will hold a presidential election tomorrow – hold up the fire as proof of Moscow’s claim that Ukraine has been taken over by Russian-hating neo-Nazis.
In restive eastern regions, supporters of pro-Kremlin separatists say it is impossible to live in the same country as those responsible for the Odessa fire.
“Saying the protesters started the fire themselves is a way of covering up mass murder,” said former Odessa council member and anti-Kiev activist Alexander Vasilyev.
“We need an investigation at the level of the United Nations. For me this was an act of genocide, a mass killing that reminded me of what happened in Rwanda.”
Some 800,000 people died in the African state’s 1994 massacre, but such comparisons are not uncommon among Russians and pro-Moscow Ukrainians; prominent Russian politicians have likened events in Odessa to the Auschwitz death camp.
Death threats Vasilyev says he left Odessa after receiving death threats, and he is now in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March.
With people he describes as fellow exiles from his home city, Vasilyev has now established a “Committee for the Liberation of Odessa” in Crimea.
He said it was “absolutely possible” that Odessa and other parts of southern Ukraine could witness the kind of armed insurgency now roiling Donetsk and Luhansk.
“It doesn’t depend on what Russia does, but on the actions of the Ukrainian government and an economic situation that is getting worse and worse,” he said.
“When something like the Odessa fire happens, and dozens are killed and hundreds injured, it has to have consequences.”