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Two Odessa fire survivors, both in the anti-government camp, tell their stories

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May 8, 2014, 7:46 p.m. | Ukraine — by Lily Hyde

Odessa’s Trade Unions House burns on May 2. Most of the 46 people killed in clashes between pro-Ukrainians and pro-Russians died from smoke inhalation, according to official preliminary findings.
© UNIAN

Lily Hyde

Editor's Note: The investigation into the fights and fires that killed 46 people in Odessa on May 2 is still ongoing. There are conflicting claims. Here are the stories of two women who say they were part of the anti-Ukrainian government camp.

ODESSA, Ukraine  - As citizens of Odessa come to terms with the tragedy of May 2, more accounts are emerging of the fatal events that killed 46 people. At a funeral on May 7 for an anti-government activist killed in the fire that destroyed local Trade Unions House, several other protesters who had been trapped in the burning building came to pay their respects.

 Two women told the Kyiv Post their stories of what happened. Neither woman would give their surname becaue they said it was too dangerous to be identified as anti-government witnesses to events.

Many of the funerals of those who died on May 2 have not been publicized for fear of attracting more violence. Pro-government activists have faced threats and intimidation since May 2, as many names and addresses have been published online.

Tetiana

Tetiana, a 57-year-old retired teacher from Odessa, had been a frequent visitor to the tent protest camp on Kulykove Pole Square in central Odessa. A very vocal opponent of the new Ukrainian government which she believes to be run by fascists, she said a core group of about 40 unarmed demonstrators were living in the camp, while others came daily.

According to Tetiana, there had been rumors going around for several days of an attack on the camp on May 2 by pro-government forces. The young men there said they would stay and defend it to the last.

“The young ones said ‘We’re not leaving, we’ll be a memorial to the fact that Odessa will never be a fascist city,’” Tetiana said. “We wanted to help them; we thought if adults were there too it would be safer. It never occurred to us that they would kill us.” 

Tetiana had been in the city with a friend and when she arrived at Kulykovo Pole Square, at much the same time as the main pro-Ukrainian crowd arrived from the direction of Pushkin Street, she saw protesters from the camp building a barricade on the steps to the Trade Unions House, using boards and poles from the camp. The building door was open; Tetiana guesses the protesters had broken the glass to get in. 

“Before that, our Markin [Odessa city council member Vyacheslav Markin] shouted that all women and older people should run from the square because they might get killed,” Tetiana said. “But people didn’t believe it. They wanted to shut themselves into the building and not let anyone in.”

After that everything happened very quickly; Tatiana heard shouts and shouts from Pushkin Street and saw people running towards Kulykovo Pole Square. The camp protesters were still shouting at the women to leave, but Tetiana could not see where to go and ran inside the building.

The young men told the women to go to the upper floors, leaving them to defend the first floor. When Molotov cocktails began to fly from outside and there was firing through the main door, Tetiana ran upstairs to the second floor and down the corridor. Molotov cocktails were being thrown in through windows. The window frames and curtains began to burn. Tetiana and several others tried to put the fires out, covering their faces with the blue surgical masks which many protesters wear for anonymity.

Choked by smoke, they hid in an office which soon filled with smoke too. Tetiana and four young men tried to break the windows for more air but the glass was too thick.

“There was such an awful stink and I decided to go back to the first floor - let them shoot me but I’m suffocating here,” Tetiana said. “But outside in the corridor there was black, black smoke coming from the stairwell and I understood I couldn’t get out that way. So I went back into the room. We stood there and waited, I was calling the police and the fire brigade and the ambulance but no one answered. I understood that no one was planning to rescue us.”

Whenever any of them went near the window, she said, Molotov cocktails came flying and people shouted and shot at the window.

“They were burning us inside on purpose and no one would let us leave,” the woman said.

Molotov cocktails broke the window. At last Tetiana went to the window and started waving for help before she climbed out onto the broad cornice outside and held on to the AC unit. After a while, one of the young men, who was wearing a balaclava and helmet, climbed out beside her.

“He was standing on the right of me. I could hear shouting: ‘We’ll kill you’. My face was to the wall and I couldn’t see, but something hit me on the head, I don’t know what it was,” said Tetiana.

Her hair caught on fire but the man next to her put it out, saving her life, she says.

Below, two men from the crowd outside brought pallets from the destroyed tent camp and tried to persuade Tetiana to jump to safety, but she was too afraid. She doesn’t know how long she stood on the cornice – maybe thirty minutes, maybe an hour, she says.

Finally, at about 8 p.m., the police arrived and at the same time someone –she’s not sure who – pushed a scaffolding tower to the building. The photos from the scene show it was the pro-Ukrainian activists who brought the scaffolding to the building. Tetiana was the first person to climb down on it.

Tetiana says she doesn’t know what happened to the men in the room with her, or the one beside her on the cornice.

“It was obvious [the crowd] were really trying to get him, they really wanted him,” she said, because he was wearing a mask and helmet and was therefore clearly an activist.

Tetiana was led away to an ambulance by Odessans in the crowd. But she said she saw other people in the crowd beating and kicking protesters who had escaped from the building.

Two days later, Tetiana was one of the anti-government crowd who demonstrated outside the Odessa city police station, breaking windows and storming the gate to demand the release of people detained by police on May 2. She says one of those detained was her friend who came with her to Kulykovo Pole Square on May 2, a young woman who also got trapped in the building and who had no hand in instigating the violence. 

Alyona 

Alyona, a 35-year-old native Odessan, was one of the protest camp’s volunteer medics. She and her colleagues had planned May 2 as a “training day.” She arrived to Kulykove Pole Square at much the same time as Tetiana, and also fled inside the building. There she set up a first-aid station on the second floor, expecting to treat minor injuries until the police arrived. When the stairwell filled very suddenly with choking black smoke and the lights went out, she ran and hid in a fourth floor office.

Both Alyona and Tetiana say attackers ran inside the building in pursuit when the protesters took refuge on upper floors. They think there may even have been people who were not from their group inside beforehand. They both think those on the building roof throwing Molotov cocktails, clearly seen in video footage, were not from their group.

However, Alyona says protesters inside may have been making Molotov cocktails, in panic, but were not very competent and failed to throw them outside.

But she thinks it impossible that the building was set on fire from the inside.

“It happened immediately, there was terrible black smoke everywhere, on all the floors at once,” she said.

She did not see any flames. At the same time as the smoke appeared, all the lights went out. Later, the water was turned off.   

Alyona describes how she and four women and eight men barricaded themselves inside the fourth floor office because they could hear people coming to attack them from the corridor. She and the others shouted out of the window for help, but then the people in the corridor broke down the door. They were in camouflage and mostly wearing masks, and Alyona believes from the way they spoke that they were not from Odessa.

She says they threw gas canisters, broken glass and possibly sound-light grenades over the cupboard those inside had pushed over the entrance.

“We said ‘We give up,’ and they came in and made everyone lie on the floor,” Alyona recalls.

Then, Alyona says, others came who told the first attackers to leave the women alone. There was an argument, she says, then the second group protected her and her fellow protesters with shields and took them out by the back door. Alyona believes this second group, who were dressed in ordinary clothes and were not aggressive, were local pro-Ukrainians.

Meanwhile the Ukrainian State Security Service says toxic chemicals were used in the Trade Unions House fire, and the violence was orchestrated and financed from outside with the connivance of local police who, along with emergency services, did not arrive at Kulykove Pole Square until hours after the clashes began.

Freelance journalist and writer Lily Hyde can be reached at lily@lilyhyde.com.

Editor’s Note: This article has been produced with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.

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