UARU
Crimea in Mourning: A Special Report from Kerch
21 October, 2018

On October 17, tragedy rocked the city of Kerch in Russia-annexed Crimea when an explosion followed by a shooting at a polytechnic college killed 21 people and injured a further 70. Crimea’s de-facto authorities identified 18-year-old Vladislav Roslyakov, a student at the Kerch Polytechnic College, as the attacker.

Hromadske traveled to Kerch, reading messages on social and local media about panic in the city and potential conspiracy theories, which ranged from links to Ukraine to involvement of Crimean Tatars. One of the more discussed points however was that there were more people behind the shooting than identified – some believe that Roslyakov could not have organized the explosion that killed and injured dozens of people by himself.

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The cemeteries – and those killed have been buried in different cemeteries – like the city of Kerch and the villages on the outskirts, are silent. There are no conversations, rumors or gossip. It’s so quiet that you can hear the scraping of shovels digging a fresh grave dozens of meters away. People keep silent because they can’t rationally explain why the biggest school massacre in the history of Ukraine and Europe took place here.

Relatives of deceased students and teachers from the Kerch Polytechnic College came to remember the dead at the central city cemetery in Kerch. Their relatives were buried the day before, Crimea, October 20, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

Those who have already buried their children go to the wake next day, and then to the funerals of the friends of their own children. In the old central cemetery there are nine fresh graves. “Are you from Kyiv? Perhaps you had better leave, we are unlikely to talk,” says one person as he tries to comfort loved ones. At the same time he offers food – a traditional gesture to commemorate those who died. It seems that only his voice cuts through the silence in the cemetery.

Victoria Kerova, a beautiful, calm woman, silently looks at a photo of her daughter Alina, which is attached to a cross. Sixteen-year-old Alina attended a modeling school and had a talent for drawing. She was in her second year at the college. Her mother found out about the tragedy at the school by telephone. She spent hours driving around morgues.

Relatives of deceased students and teachers from the Kerch Polytechnic College came to remember the dead at the central city cemetery in Kerch. Their relatives were buried the day before, Crimea, October 20, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

 

Relatives of deceased students and teachers from the Kerch Polytechnic College came to remember the dead at the central city cemetery in Kerch. Their relatives were buried the day before, Crimea, October 20, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

A man approaches Victoria – he is a relative of Alina’s deceased friend. It is easier for the man to speak to her about the tragedy. Seventeen-year-old Vika Demchuk – Alina's friend – was flown to Moscow for emergency surgery, where the seriously wounded were being taken. Her leg was amputated, but there was a chance she would survive. Vika died on board of the aircraft.

Relatives of deceased students and teachers from the Kerch Polytechnic College came to remember the dead at the central city cemetery in Kerch. Their relatives were buried the day before, Crimea, October 20, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

In a few hours, Alina’s mother will be attending Vika’s funeral. She will be buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city.

The relatives are emotionally exhausted and don’t want media attention. The journalists themselves, in turn, don’t approach them. They stand aside and ask their colleagues if the relatives are ready to talk.

Relatives of deceased students and teachers from the Kerch Polytechnic College came to remember the dead at the central city cemetery in Kerch. Their relatives were buried the day before, Crimea, October 20, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

Victoria, the mother of deceased student Alina Kerova (in the center with flowers), came to say goodbye to her daughter's friend, Victoria Demchuk, who was also a victim the college shooting Kerch, Crimea, October 20, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

“Everyone also fears that some information will be twisted, and used out of context. You know how it is now. Yet it’s very hard to believe that a slender boy like that shot other children in such a methodical way,” one woman who came to the funeral says. In a city of 150,000 people, there are many who have relatives that suffered, or who knew those that studied at the school and survived the tragedy – because the polytechnic college is one of the largest educational institutions in Kerch.

Ruden Dzhuraev would have been 16 in less than a month. He was the first to be buried the day after the shooting, on October 18. He was from a Muslim family and lived in the village of Hornostayivka, west of Kerch.

Photos of those who died placed at the memorial for the victims of the explosion and mass shooting at the polytechnic college in Kerch, Crimea, October 20.  Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

“For 48 years I haven’t had gray hair. And now it all came at once. Ruden is not a nephew to me, he is my son, I raised him, held him to my chest, every summer he would come to visit me. He was such calm and quiet child,” says Bakhtiyar, the uncle of the deceased student. “He holds his heart. I’ve on validolum now, but his parents...” We move away from the house so that our presence does not disturb the family, who is not ready to talk.

Kerch Polytechnic College after is guarded by police round the clock after the tragedy, Kerch, October 20, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

“I personally saw seven helicopters and believed that Ruden was on one of them, because he was not on the list, nor alive, nor wounded. And then at night I saw an ambulance. And everything went numb, I realized that’s it,” Bakhtiyar describes Ruden’s injuries in detail – the teenager was at the epicenter of the explosion.

Ruden just started at the college, he was studying to be an electrician. His older brother Rinat also went to the college, but left during lunch that day. He only heard the explosion later, his uncle tells us. Rinat remembers the shooter – Vladislav Roslyakov – but told the family that he was inconspicuous and was meant to be expelled from the school.

People continue to bring flowers and candles to the memorial for the victims of the explosion and mass shooting near the polytechnic college in Kerch, Crimea, October 20, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

“Still, there are heroes in this situation,” Bakhtiyar continues, speaking about a young teacher who looked for his students late into the night.

Lilya (name changed at the request of the interlocutor - ed.) is one of these heroes. She studies at the medical college located next to the main hospital, where victims were first brought. It was later that the seriously wounded were transported to Simferopol and Moscow.The funeral of 17-year-old Victoria Demchuk in Kerch, Crimea, October 20, 2018. They tried to save Victoria after an emergency amputation of her leg, but she died on a plane to Moscow. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

Relatives of deceased students and teachers from the Kerch Polytechnic College came to remember the dead at the central city cemetery in Kerch. Their relatives were buried the day before, Crimea, October 20, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

Despite the fact that all the doctors in the city, including private ones (one of the doctors confirmed), rallied to help the wounded, they did not have enough hands. Therefore, third and fourth year students at the medical college were called on to assist with first aid.

“Another car arrived and then they said that they would be bringing the heavily wounded ones. There was so much blood. One of my classmates carried a wounded person to the sixth floor. We were later told that some of the people we wanted to help died. I saw a girl without arms and legs. We were supposed help those with less injuries first of all.”

Relatives of deceased students and teachers from the Kerch Polytechnic College came to remember the dead at the central city cemetery in Kerch. Their relatives were buried the day before, Crimea, October 20, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

Lilya is 18 years old, so those who she and her classmates worked to save are essentially her peers. “Of course it’s scary. We all thought that could be us in their place. But the worst thing is, I don’t know if my mom would have survived, if it was me.”

No one went to school in Kerch during this period. Classes are however expected resume on Monday, including at the polytechnic college – although in other buildings. It’s hard for locals to imagine returning there. Although it is quite a large area.

Just opposite the college is the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The college is surrounded by police, with dozens of police cars on duty. But on the third day after the tragedy, the streets were not blocked off and there weren’t many people in uniform.

At the college, police come up and indicate where you are allowed to take photos of the main building.

People can only take photographs where police allow, Kerch, October 20, 2018.  Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

At the corner of the street there is a memorial made of flowers, toys and candles. A day earlier, drawings and letters were left here, but the colors ran as a result of the morning dew. Nevertheless, you can still make out the word "friendship”. On Saturday morning there was a stream of visitors. They laid flowers, cried or just stood silently. A gray-haired man says he used to study there at one time. Teens came with their elders, most of them local students. Parents don’t want their children to talk to reporters. And they themselves have nothing to say. We mostly hear: "What could be worse than burying children?"

Despite all the online conversations, Vladislav Roslyakov is hardly remembered among those present at the cemetery or at the school, where 21 people were killed and 70 injured – 25 of them teenagers, 10 of whom are now in serious condition.

People can only take photographs where police allow, Kerch, October 20, 2018.  Photo: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

In Kerch, a three-day mourning period was declared. But the city seems to understand that the grief, like the silence, will remain here for a long time.

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk and Oleksandr Popenko

/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov