UARU
Four Years Later: Odesa Massacre Remains Unpunished
2 May, 2018

On May 2, 2014, 48 people lost their lives and a further 100 were wounded in what was one of the most tragic events in Odesa’s history – the Odesa Massacre.Four years later, the guilty remain unpunished. Some have fled to Russia and others were acquitted in Ukrainian courts. Various political forces continue to speculate over the tragedy, trying to use its memory for their own purposes.

Losses

On May 2, 2014, there was a football match in Odesa between the local Chornomorets team and Kharkiv Metalist. Before the match, ultras from both sides, together with Euromaidan supporters, took part in a symbolic march in the city center. They were attacked near Hretska Square by a group of Odesa’s anti-Maidan supporters, who had planned a demonstration at the same time, but were supposed to be using the parallel street.

Photo credit: EPA/ALEXEY FURMAN

Both sides threw stones and stun grenades, and used both firearms and non-lethal weapons. The police made practically no attempt to quash the provocations or enforce rule of law. Six people died and dozens of people were injured during these clashes in the city centre.

READ MORE: The Odesa Massacre: Ukraine’s Open Wound 

Shortly after, pro-Ukrainian protesters went to Kulykove Pole Square, where anti-Maidan and pro-Russian protesters had already been camped out for months. In an attempt to escape the attack, these activists ran into the Trade Unions’ Building and barricaded themselves inside.

They then started to throw Molotov cocktails at one another, which caused a massive fire in the building. Another 42 people died as a result of the fire, carbon monoxide poisoning and attempts to jump out of windows. Overall, more than 200 people were injured that day.   

Guilty or Acquitted

Law enforcement are investigating the events of May 2 as part of several criminal cases. In particular, the ex-chief of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in the Odesa region Volodymyr Bodelan is accused of causing the fire in the Trade Unions’ building and for the rescuers’ failure to act when the fire first broke out. Another case involves the the former head of the Odesa regional police Petro Lutsyuk and his deputy for public security Dmytro Fuchedzhi.

None of these people have been sentenced, partly because Bodelan and Fuchedzhi have both fled to Russia.

Photo credit: EPA/SERGEY GUMENYUK

The largest case to have been investigated concerns the mass riots at Hretska Square. In September 2017, a court in the city of Chornomorsk acquitted the 19 anti-Maidan protesters accused in this case due to a lack of evidence. For example, however, only one of the police officers present on Hretska Square was questioned during the investigation.

All of the anti-Maidan protesters were released. However, immediately after the verdict was announced, Ukrainian security service officers entered the courtroom and re-arrested Russian citizen Yevgeniy Mefyodov and Ukrainian Serhiy Dolzhenkov – also known as “Captain Kakao” – who was one of the leaders of the pro-Russia movement in Odesa. They were both suspected of separatism and have been held in a pretrial detention facility for the last six months.

Photo credit: EPA/SERGEY GUMENYUK

The Mykolayiv Court of Appeal is considering an appeal against the verdict on the anti-maidan activists. However, none of the acquitted turned up to court for the trial’s third hearing. Therefore, the judges decided to conduct the hearing via video link with the Odesa court. This is scheduled for June 11, 2018.

READ MORE: Odesa Remembers the 2014 Massacre With Metal Detectors and Doves

Some of the acquitted anti-Maidan activists have already left Ukraine. For example Oleksandr Sukhaniv, who, in the spring of 2014, was the deputy commandant of the anti-Maidan camp at Kulykove Pole. Shortly after the acquittal, he first went to Transnistria, and from there to the Russian Federation.

Alternative investigation

Not long after the official investigation began, journalists and public figures from Odesa set up the “May 2 Group” – a civilian group, which is investigating the circumstances and reasons behind the tragedy.

The numerous videos captured by correspondents on the day of the tragedy, as well as footage from surveillance cameras, formed the basis of the investigation. The group includes people from different political backgrounds to ensure impartiality.

Photo credit: Oleh Kutsky/UNIAN

On the second anniversary of the massacre, the “May 2 Group” presented a detailed chronology of the events. They made a documentary film and released a book about their investigation.

Expert analysis from independent investigators dispelled the popular myth that people in the Trade Unions’ Building died due to a deliberate contamination of “American white phosphorus.” Member of the “May 2 Group” Serhiy Dibrov recalls how the official investigation even asked for the materials gathered by the group of experts. For this reason, specialists had to join a special international group created by the Prosecutor General’s Office. However, after two years, the case is still under discussion.   

 

Photo credit: Oleh Kutsky/UNIAN

“On the one hand, law enforcement have verbally accepted our conclusions and methodology, but this perception is difficult to understand in practice,” Dibrov says.

Over the last two years, the “May 2 Group” have become less active. Instead of conducting their own investigation, they now monitor the court hearings relating to the tragedy. However, according to Dibrov, the investigators are still trying to piece together some of the unexplained fragments of the case. He describes the overall picture of what happened on that day as a “mosaic,” in which the interests of various officials, political groups and separate civilian actors are all intertwined.

“However, we were not able to find the center point from which the goal of mass murder was set. There were no signs of this center point, no one had the intention of organizing the events in the way that they happened,” the journalist comments.    

“Heavy psychological impact”

The tragedy in Odesa played an important role in escalating the pro-Russian protests in eastern Ukraine, organizing the separatist “referendum” and the outbreak of the subsequent war. Despite the official and unofficial investigations, discussions over the cause of the tragedy continue in Odesa, according to editor-in-chief of local paper “Dumskaya” Oleh Konstantinov. He also received a gunshot wound while taking photos of the confrontations on Hretska Square.

“Two polarized opinions still exist: for some –‘pro-Ukrainians burned Russian babies’, for others – ‘patriots stopped the Russian world.’ There is a third version from the ‘May 2 Group,’ but for many this is too emotionally disturbing to accept,” he explains.  

Photo credit: Oleh Kutsky/UNIAN

The events of four years ago have had heavy psychological impact on Odesan society and have divided the community in two, says Konstantinov. However, he does not envisage a repeat of the bloody confrontations, as he believes Odesa’s pro-Russia groups have been “decapitated.”

Photo credit: EPA/ALEXEY FURMAN

“Most of those who knew how to carry out subversive attacks or other harmful acts went to fight for the militants in Donbas,” says advisor to the Odesa regional police Ruslan Forostyak, “But the people at Kulykove, who actively participated in the pro-Russia movement and believed in the idea of a ‘Russian world,’ are now sat at home and they know that their hopes have been shattered.”  

READ MORE: Court Finds Five Suspects In ‘Odesa Massacre’ Not Guilty

Over the last few years, the pro-Russia movement in Odesa has mainly consisted of elderly people. On May 2, they gather outside the Trade Unions’ Building at Kulykove Pole, on May 9 (Victory Day), they take part in a march for the “Immortal Regiment” and, sometimes, they hold protests on the April 10 anniversary of Odesa’s liberation from Nazi German invaders.

Photo credit: EPA/ALEXEY FURMAN

Forostyak notes that politician and Opposition Bloc MP Moris Ibrahim coordinates the pro-Russia groups in Odesa. The so-called “Kulykovites” and their actions regularly face resistance from several local radical right-wing groups.

“This is not an ideological confrontation, but rather a political game,” Oleh Konstantinov summarizes.

/By Ihor Burdyga and Dmytro Replyanchuk

/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko