MARIUPOL, Ukraine – Pulling back his hospital duvet to reveal his bandaged leg Saturday, Vitaly Potenko said that it was lucky he decided to stop his seven-year-old daughter from coming with him to the victory day parade in their Black Sea hometown Mariupol.
“She really wanted to go but I knew that it might not be safe so I told her to stay at home and play on the computer,” the metal factory worker, 50, told AFP.
What Potenko says happened next suggests his fears were justified. As people were heading home after Friday’s ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Soviet victory in WWII, he says government gunmen showed up and strafed the crowd with bullets hitting him in the right thigh.
Laid out in the neighboring bed, Vladimir Presnyakov shows a video he shot on his mobile phone, footage of a small crowd of nervous civilians. Suddenly gunshots ring out.
“That was when I was shot,” the plumber, 36, says.
What exactly happened is difficult to pin down. Pro-Russian locals told AFP that the army fired on peaceful demonstrators and shot at the police when they refused to fire on the crowd.
The authorities in Kiev however say that a group of unknown armed assailants attacked the city’s police headquarters and when troops intervened the situation spiralled into a full-scale battle.
The number of casualties also differs. Ukraine’s interior minister Arsen Avakov said some 20 “terrorists” were killed plus one security agent, while medical officials put the death toll at seven.
As firemen battled Friday to extinguish the flames in the bullet-riddled police headquarters, AFP journalists saw two dead men in civilian clothes laid out on the street under blankets.
“One policeman was brought here but he died before he could be saved,” said surgeon Igor Kachanov.
“In total we had 10 injured people brought in, one died, one was taken to another hospital. Four are in a serious condition.”
A day after the clashes, several blocks in the center of this normally placid port city of some 500,000 resemble a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The police are completely absent and young men build makeshift barricades around gutted, blackened buildings.
Outside the center, the city is calm and normal life continues as families with young children stroll through the suburbs.
Underlining the instability however, explosions shook the centre of town after unknown people set ablaze an armoured vehicle seized from soldiers by separatists on Friday.
“Someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the tank and it started burning. People tried to put it out but didn’t manage then the fire brigade came but they also didn’t manage to put it out before the ammunition exploded,” blonde-haired Yulia said.
People among a nearby crowd of some few hundred pro-Russian supporters were clearly angry, but how they can push on amid the chaos with a planned region-wide rebel referendum Sunday, was unclear.
“Look at what sort of weapons they are attacking us with. Look at what they’re using against us,” said a man brandishing a small shell apparently fired by Ukrainian forces.
“Look at the calibre of the weapons! And who are they waging war against? Against the ordinary inhabitants of Mariupol.”
Looking around with an expression of shock, engineer Natalya Dzyundizya was struggling to recognize her scarred hometown.
“It was such a quiet place– a very friendly town where people used to come to the sea and now it’s so terrible,” she said, shaking her head. “It is as if the Kiev authorities want to start World War III here.”