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Odesa "Massacre" Propaganda vs. the Facts

Halya Coynash
The tragic events in Odesa on May 2, 2014, are rapidly being transformed into a propaganda campaign for Moscow. The facts are now available and need to be widely known. By allowing outrageous claims of a fascist ‘massacre’ to go unrefuted, we risk proving yet again how very little human beings learn from history.

The tragic events in Odesa on May 2, 2014,  are rapidly being transformed into a propaganda campaign for Moscow.  The facts are now available and need to be widely known.  By allowing outrageous claims of a fascist ‘massacre’ to go unrefuted, we risk proving yet again how very little human beings learn from history.

While the horrific reality of MH17 was so vivid in people’s minds, the alternative reality presented in the Russian media was widely recognized as grotesque.  Denial may seem comical now, it will not necessarily in a few months or in a year, as those presenting various conspiracy theories and counter-claims are well aware.  As people’s memories fade, media coverage presenting alternative points of view, alternative witnesses accounts, have greater impact on the audience’s perception. Here, as with political talk shows, presentation and speaking style may prove more persuasive than hard facts.

More than 3 months have passed since the confrontation between supporters of Ukrainian unity [pro-unity] and pro-federalism activists in Odesa on May 2 and a terrible fire left 48 people dead.  The tragedy was reported at the time in most world media, with many reports suggesting that civic conflict had now spread to southern Ukraine.  The situation in Odesa, however, did not escalate and media attention waned.  This means that the bulk of western reports came in the first few days when the main source of information was from witnesses, often themselves participants in the events. 

Attention since then outside Ukraine has largely come from the Russian foreign ministry and Russian media, as well as from various organizations with unspecified sources of funding and an agenda focused almost solely on exposing what they claim is the ‘fascist Kyiv regime’.  All offer roughly the same version.  This focuses solely on the fire in the Trade Unions House in the evening and claims that pro-federalism activists were burned alive with the fault clearly laid on ‘radicals’ and Right Sector ‘ultra-nationalists’.  Some of the reports claim that the ‘radicals’ killed anybody who tried to escape, suffocating or beating them.  It is asserted that the real death toll is unknown (or being concealed), and likely much higher, and that it is Russia who has demanded an international investigation and supposedly been ignored.  

This version is pushed unchanged regardless of the evidence and of the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s Monitoring Mission 15 June report  which presents a much more comprehensive and complex picture.  Other evidence and reports are examined in more detail here.

There are no grounds for believing that those presenting the murderous fascist radicals version are unaware of this weight of evidence.   The travelling exhibition with its very own ‘witnesses’ of the events which has already been shown in at least two EU countries (Poland and Hungary) had a large number of witnesses to choose from, as well as 8 hours of video footage.  Media reports on Russia Today and others make it safe to assume that those chosen will present themselves as victims of murderous Right Sector ‘radicals’ or the events as “the true face of Kyiv fascism”.  Not a big price to pay in any case for an all-expenses-paid trip around Europe. Somebody doubtless has a fat budget to spend on these events.

Cynicism seems warranted after the recent interview given by an alleged refugee from Slovyansk to Russian Pyervy Kanal.   The description of how the 3-year-old son of a Kremlin-backed militant was ‘crucified’ by Ukrainian soldiers was taken entirely seriously by the interviewer despite the lack of any corroborating evidence about a supposedly public ‘execution’ (on a misnamed square).

Witnesses who were on one or other side of the confrontation cannot necessarily be expected to provide information that casts them and their co-activists in a bad light or could result in criminal prosecution.

There were, fortunately, journalists present who not only reported on the events as they happened, but streamed the events.  A group of such journalists, former police officers and others have formed the May 2 Group which has investigated all the video footage, forensic reports etc.  The group includes one journalist representing the pro—federalists. 

A representative of the group Yury Mukan attended July 9 European Parliament hearings on the events of May 2 in Brussels and informed the MEPs of the group’s preliminary conclusions

His appearance was clearly not expected by the event organizer Tatyana Zhdanok, a  Latvian MEP known for her strong pro-Russian views.   Zhdanok had announced that the hearings would be addressed by four people, all with a pronounced anti-Kyiv position, who would enlighten the MEPs on what she called the ‘Odessa Massacre’.  The most noteworthy is surely Galina Zaporozhtseva, a former police colonel and member of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers.  Zaporozhtseva is quite a star on Russian TV, and her appearances from different hot spots warrant separate scrutiny.  Her assertions about the events in Odessa do not withstand even a cursory comparison with the UN report and video footage. Some were grotesquely absurd, such as the claim that the Right Sector ‘radicals’ had been guilty of cannibalism in the Trade Union building.

The May 2 Group suggests that it may have been Mukan’s appearance and wish to present the results of an independent investigation that made Zhdanok try to close the hearings and prevent him from speaking.  Her version later to Russia Today was that the Kyiv authorities had sent anonymous people to disrupt the hearings and prevent the MEPs learning the truth about the Odessa events.  Unlike her, Radio Svoboda had no difficulty in identifying the people it recorded.

If there was confusion and conflicting versions of the actual events in the first days after the tragedy,   that is no longer the case.  There is ample video footage, supplemented by witness accounts, material evidence and the results of forensic examinations.  Some of this is provided below and will be updated as more becomes available.

There remain some fundamental questions, in particular, concerning the role of certain high-ranking police officers, and the failure of the police and fire brigade to react swiftly to a situation of grave danger to human life, or at all.

The May 2 Group stresses the need for independent international experts to take part in a full investigation.  This is vital in the first instance to ensure confidence in the results and to enable an analysis of the tragedy and assessment of guilt that cannot be dismissed as biased and lacking in objectivity. 

Delay serves only those who use uncertainty and apparent lack of proof to push their  ‘fascist junta’ narrative.  Vast amounts of money are being channeled into these efforts.  The one thing they do not have on their side is the truth. 

Let’s use it.  

The following material is mainly from the May 2 Group.  The first text is what was presented to the European  slightly abridged only for ease of reading.  Since there is already a lot of information, specific concerns about the role of some police officers, the fire brigade etc. are discussed in more detail separately:  Dangerous silence over police role in Odessa May 2 events

July 18, 2014: Preliminary findings on the events of May 2 presented to the European Parliament hearings

1.     The Group has grounds to assert that the police had been warned about possible public disturbances on May 2.

2.     The Group considers that the police plan for ensuring public order envisaged a sufficient number of officers, however their deployment did not fully comply with the dangers present.  This meant that the plan was not properly implemented.   The Group believes that this should be the subject of an investigation by independent (foreign) public order experts.

3.     The Group established that the regional police management, and in the first instance, its head, Petro Lutsyuk, had sufficient powers, forces and means (including the staff of civic organizations engaged by the police on a regular basis) to, as a minimum, localize the disturbances as they were beginning and prevent the continuation of violence on Kulikovo Pole, but failed to use them.  In the Group’s view, this provoked a greater level of violence.

4.     The Group has information indicating that the head of the Odessa Regional branch of the State Emergencies Administration, Volodymyr Bodelan who was in charge of fighting the fire at Trade Union House incorrectly assessed the situation.  This meant that the fire-fighters were unable to prevent deaths from the flames and smoke inhalation.

5.     The Group has concluded that at least some groups and members of the opposing sides had prepared in advance for clashes. There are, however,  facts which suggest that neither side was intending to cause fatal injuries to their opponents.   These include the gear worn by the activists, as well as the fact that the rifles which fired the fatal shots appeared on the scene only an hour and two hours after the clashes began.

6.     The Group has grounds for believing that the first mass clashes were the result of deliberate and planned actions by one of the numerous groups which were part of the ‘Kulikovo Pole’ protest.  These actions were not agreed with other groups and were against the instructions of their own commanders.

7.     At the present time the Group has no grounds for believing army-type phosphorous incendiary ammunition was used in the Trade Union building.

8.     According to official information from the investigators and the forensic medicine office, those killed in the Trade Union House were not subjected to military toxin or strong-acting substances.  The official findings are that the cause of death in all cases was due to fire-related factors: as well as the flames, these including carbon monoxide or other burning-related poisoning; or when people jumped trying to escape.

The Group has closely studied all information from open sources; that presented to members of the Group on condition of confidentiality; as well as that published in the Ukrainian and foreign media.  At present it has no material or other objective evidence to suggest that there was mass use of toxic substances in the Trade Union building.  Nor is it aware of the fire-fighters, investigators and experts who worked in the building immediately after the fire having used measures to protect themselves from toxic substances.  It has no events of people in the building or directly around it having suffered either fatal or non-fatal doses of toxic substances.

The Group is continuing to study the material in order to give an unequivocal and fully argued response with respect to whether toxic substances were used.

9.     The Group shares the view of the UNHR Mission that some pro-Ukrainian activists tried to take the law into their own hands and beat up those hurt in the fire; others took part in trying to rescue people from the burning building and tried to stop the violence.

10. At the present time the Group has no objective evidence to suggest that the number of fatalities was greater than that officially stated.

The Group’s conclusions are based on open information; on official answers to information requests; on audio and video material made public and on group-members’ own recordings; as well as on information received by asking participants and witnesses, including on a confidential basis.

Members of May 2 Group

Vladislav Balinsky; Serhiy Dibrov; Tetyana Herasimova; Valeria Ivashkina; Yury Mukan; Yevhen Peresypkin; Pavlo Polamarchuk; Volodymyr Sarkisyan; Vladislav Serdyuk; Leonid Shtekel; Yury Tkachev; Yury Vesilyk; Vera Zaporozhets

Most of the Russian media reports concentrate only on the fire, or if they do mention the earlier disturbances, blame them on  Right Sector ‘radicals’ and right-wing football fans from the pro-unity camp.  The May 2 Group has prepared a chronology of events earlier in the day which shows that the situation was more complex.  The first of the six people who died (all of gunshot wounds) before the fire was a pro-unity activist, however there were victims on both sides.  Although the original trouble was caused by a particular crowd of pro-federalist activists, people from both sides undoubtedly played an active part in the disturbances and some committed serious crimes. 

The Odessa ‘massacre’ narrative claims that:

-        Pro-federalism activists fled into the Trade Union building to escape from an enraged crowd of pro-unity ‘radicals’ who were burning their tents;

-        The Trade Union building was deliberately set alight;

-        People were killed by these ‘radicals’ either in the Trade Union building or when they managed to escape from it;

-        No mention is normally made of the 40 minute delay before the fire brigade, located very close by arrived.

The narrative is in direct conflict with the facts.

No spontaneity

1. According to Vladislav Balinsky from the May 2 Group, the evidence* indicates that that some of the pro-federalism activists had prepared well in advance to barricade themselves in and defend the Trade Union building. 

2.  The police for some reason showed no wish to protect people on Kulikovo Pole by either organizing a guard on the perimeter or evacuation despite the approach of pro-unity activists who did not conceal their intention to dismantle the tent camp.

3.  Barricades had been set up several hours earlier, with a large amount of inflammatory liquids (for Molotov cocktails), places for sleeping, first aid points all prepared.  The first photo here shows people calmly moving into the building. .

4.  Despite the obvious danger, “certain leaders of the Kulikovo Pole protest (Albu, Artem Davydenko and others) used deception or open calls to entice around 380 people into the building. 

There were calls to people from the very first clashes, with people being told, for example, that they were gathering medical and other aid.

According to witnesses, some of the people at the last stop of Tram No 18 were openly tricked. They were told that there was a bomb in the tram, and that they should hide in the Trade Union building.

This meant that a small group of around 50 turned into a crowd of around 400 people in the building.

5.  The crowd coming to attack Kulikovo Pole were met with shots from firearms, flares and Molotov cocktails from the sources of fire in the Trade Union building, including from the roof.

The pro-unity activists did not know that there were other, unarmed, people in the building and responded with aggressive acts of their own.  This led first to the barricades at the entrance going up in flames and then to the fire inside the Trade Union building.

There are grounds for assuming that some of the tents outside went up in flames because of flares or Molotov cocktails being hurled from the roof (there does not appear to be evidence of these being hurled from within the building)

At 2.16 on the video one can see a flare hitting a tent

In the first minute or so of the tape here, activists are clearly hurling Molotov cocktails, at least one of which appears to hit a tent

From 1.50 at the video here shots are being fired and the young men below begin running, shouting angrily, "what the hell are you doing?!"

At  0.44 in the video here, the person on the left by the window is holding a gun, and as the video ends a shot can be heard.

At 1.50 onwards in the video below the person speaking explains and points to the bullet shots through the window pane that prove that this window was used to shoot at people from.  It was an ideal location, he says, as the people below could not see where the shots were coming from.

From 5.10 to 7.50 in the video here, you can see that a lot of Molotov cocktails were thrown

On the roof’s gutters a large number of 7.62 and 5.56 calibre bullets were found.

6.   The action by certain pro-federalism activists in defending the Trade Union building, including with the use of firearms:

- prevented them from escaping to a safe part of the building;

- obstructed efforts to rescue other needing help by pro-unity activists outside, and – officially – by the emergency services. 

This is also confirmed by direct and indirect evidence: photos and video footage; the forensic assessments of cause of death; the thermo-dynamic model of the given fire; testimony of witnesses and participants, as well as the official report from Volodymyr Bodelan on how the fire was extinguished.

7.  The actions by EuroMaidan activists and ultras [football fans] in getting into the Trade Union building (from the left wing entrance), including with the use of shock pistols and pneumatic weapons resulted in the pro-federalism activists not being able to use the left wing for evacuation and gathering in the central and right-hand parts of the building.  The central exit was also blocked by flames.

According to Group May 2’s information, these aggressive pro-unity groups had firearms, but no evidence that it was used has been found (no marks from bullets; victims; videos showing the weapons being used.  There is, however, reliable information indicating that one member of a ‘self-defence’ unit [sotnya] named only as Mykola. used a shock pistol. There is also evidence, and testimony from the victim, that a revolver with a Flaubert shot system was aimed at one of the windows of the Green Drama Hall.

At 6.29 of the video below, Mykola can be seen shooting at a window (probably the corridor of the fourth floor, second from the corner)

8.  The complicated layout of the building, the barricades, the passage ways blocked by railing, the closed exit to the roof; intense smoke; and poor lighting also impeded people from moving to a safe part of the building in time.  This conclusion is based on photographic and video footage; witnesses’ testimony; where the bodies were found; the map showing the areas most affected by smoke; a study of the plan of the building as of May 4 and its technical documentation from 1997; and others.

9.  The large amount of combustible materials (including explosive substances) in the barricades in the ground floor foyer by the entrance ensured that it would go up in flames quickly and that the fire should spread. This also resulted in a high temperature of up to 800 degrees and intense smoke in the central wing corridors.

10.  Balinsky writes that his conclusions regarding the speed with which the flames spread, etc., are based on the expert assessment of the parts of the building affected by fire; the combustibility of the materials and surfaces; temperature indicators; the map of areas affected by smoke; the thermodynamic model of the fire and the aerodynamic specific features of the building, with these in relation to the position of the bodies; the official conclusions regarding cause of death; the photographic and video footage, witness accounts, etc.,

He writes that a specific feature of this fire was how swiftly its second phase developed.  This meant that the pro-federalism activists who for a number of reasons (see items 6 and 8 above) were concentrated in a particular area during the first phase of the fire suddenly found themselves in the very epicentre of the fire with a temperature of around 700 degrees Celsius.   They died from the flames, or because they jumped trying to escape them. 

11.  The serious time gap before the fire-fighters arrived and began extinguishing the heart of the fire in the foyer led unforeseeably and rapidly to the walls of the central staircase landing going up in flames with this causing the death of most of the people.

In ending, Vladislav Balinsky expresses his sympathy for the families of those who died.

The claims that the ‘radicals’ killed those who managed to escape the fire is not borne out by the video footage, nor by witnesses, such as Serhiy Dibrov, coordinator of the Group, and himself streaming footage of the events for some 7 hours.

The Group has so far established only one case where a person injured after jumping was attacked by a man who in a few seconds dealt the injured man two or three blows.

There were also cases, Dibrov reports, of rough treatment of people who managed to get out of the building themselves.  He is not aware of any case involving life-threatening violence.

Without any suggestion that such behaviour was justified, it is nonetheless worth noting that those Russian media and organizations pushing the line that these were  murdered victims of ‘radicals’ who demonstrated the “true face of fascism” either avoid or totally lie about:

-        the fact that the first victims were pro-unity demonstrators whose peaceful demonstration was attacked;

-        the fact that there were people shooting from the building and throwing Molotov cocktails;

-        the considerable evidence that desperate attempts were made to save those trapped before the fire-fighters finally appeared.

Such evidence is found in Dibrov’s footage here

From around 2.0 on the video you see attempts to help people on window ledges (three at one, two at another) first by throwing a rope, then with a person actually getting up as far as the ladder will reach to get the rope to them.  People call to them, saying “Don’t jump” (the distance being far too great).  At around 4.30 Dibrov explains that thus far the attempts have failed, and mentions with frustration that the fire service has still not arrived although they’re located just around the corner.

At around 6.08 there is an exchange between two people, where one says: “But they’re people!”; the other “so what?” , and the first responds: “games are games, but shit, nobody wants people to die”.

Whether some disagreed or were simply thoughtless is hard to say, but certainly despite the fire raging, and the fact that people were stuck, you can see a couple of Molotov cocktails still being thrown.  (around 7.00 , just after Dibrov says that the storming of the building has gradually turned into an operation to save those stuck.

At 9.07 there is great applause from below as they finally succeed in getting a rope to two people on the window ledge.

On the other hand, as Dibrov points out (around 9.40) while efforts are underway to rescue people others are continuing to throw stones and burning things from the roof of the building. 

At 11.00 a young man with a red jacket flings a Molotov cocktail at the part of the building where the rescue attempt is just beginning.  There is outrage from people around who scream at him angrily (and as Dibrov tells his viewers a little later, came close to beating him up).

Just after 13.00 there is again applause, this time because some of the pro-unity activists have managed to find some scaffolding which they drag up to the building to help with the rescue.  

One young man then climbs onto the scaffolding and after a couple of attempts manages to throw the rope high enough for the people a floor above to catch.   It is only as this operation is underway that a fire engine finally turns up.  Dibrov expresses the hope that they won’t be forced to leave by the Molotov cocktails being thrown from the roof. The cheers and chanting “Ukraina!” begin as the first people are saved. 

Worth noting that Dibrov, streaming throughout the events, even at this stage is still repeating the hope that all is now well and that there will have been no casualties.  The number of people in the building and the scale of the disaster was simply unknown. 

27.00 last people being evacuated to cheers from those outside

Dibrov consistently talks of ‘opponents’ and they remain such to the end.  He mentions around this time that a corridor is being created to enable the pro-federalism activists to leave the area safely.  With cause, as one person lunges at them. 

Here and in another video, taken even later, those attacked are in good form after being saved from the building, and there is no suggestion of anybody trying to kill them.  Others around also tell those behaving aggressively to stop.

There is plenty of video footage and more examples can be provided – of inadequate behaviour by a few, of real bravery, also from a few.  Of normal human behaviour where people’s lives are in danger from a much greater number.  . 

There remain multiple questions, not least over the reprehensible delay in getting fire engines to the scene of a massive fire

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