What Happened When Shots Rang out in Mariupol, Ukraine

A seized APC in the centre of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, on May 10, 2014 Photograph by Alexander Zemlianichenko/A Photo

May 9 is a sacred day for Russia and Ukraine: It’s the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. In Moscow, it’s marked by a military parade. This year in the eastern Ukrainian town of Meriupol, riots and shootings dominated events of the day. The day after, the streets of Mariupol look empty and shops are closed in the central area. Almost all the owners removed their goods out of fear of further looting.

The Ukrainian army decided to withdraw troops from the city center to stop the unrest and avoid civilian casualties. After the army left, Mariupol remained without power. There are no police on the streets. The central police station was burned and destroyed during an assault by separatists and a counterattack by the army. The city hall also burned.

The trouble began when separatists attacked the police station and occupied it. Ukrainian army units entered the city. Rebels torched offices, including the local branch of Privatbank. The separatists also tried unsuccessfully to set fire to the office of Azovintex, a company owned by the family of Sergei Taruta, governor of the Donetsk region.

The central quarter of the city is now surrounded by barricades of tires, garbage cans, and overturned trucks. Masked men stand watch on the barricades. On May 10, a group of 150 people is demonstrating near the burned city hall. They look angry and sad, and blame the tragic events in the city center on the authorities in Kiev. According to them, the soldiers started shooting first and fired on unarmed residents. Although some pictures of civilians with guns who opposed the Ukrainian military in Mariupol had been published in the media, participants in the demonstration say they haven’t seen the photos and don’t believe pro-Russian separatists started the fight, which by some estimates has left 21 people dead.

“The junta sent Nazis here from Kiev specifically on May 9. We did not wait for them here. They invaded the city and shot at unarmed people,” a pensioner named Maya says.

Another gathering place of the residents is the destroyed police station. The building is completely burned, and there’s no information yet on how many people died inside. The roof and floors are scorched. There are bullet holes and craters from explosions in the walls. Eyewitnesses claim that Ukrainian soldiers fired from armored cars on the separatists inside.

Pro-Russian inhabitants of the town gather around the burnt building and place flowers in front in memory of the dead. They believe the Ukrainian military is the perpetrator of the incident. Fearful of getting hurt, pro-Ukrainian residents of the city aren’t going into the central area surrounded by barricades.

After the street fighting and fire at the police station, the city was plunged into chaos. Detachments of armed men began looting stores left without protection. Shops selling jewelry, alcohol, and weapons were targeted in particular.

Ksenis, the owner of a tourist shop, says that when night fell, a crowd of armed men burst into the store and began to smash and loot. “They called me and my husband at night and told us our store was being robbed, but we did not go because neither of us can do anything against such a gang,” she says, adding that “the police don’t work.”

After the Ukrainian army pulled back, it left behind a stalled armored car that was impossible to fix during the street fighting. Separatists tried to repair it, but decided to burn it with Molotov cocktails when they couldn’t. The car caught fire and the ammunition inside began to explode. Firefighters tried to put out the flames but the exploding ammo kept them away. The armored car burned on.

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