The death of dozens of men and women in a fire in Odessa on Friday may end up being one of the many pivotal moments in Ukraine's ongoing crisis. While it's still not exactly clear what happened (the BBC has one good rundown), the basic facts of the incident don't seem to be in dispute: a pro-Ukrainian mob attacked tent camp set up by pro-Russian activists, which forced them to flee to a nearby trade union building, which in turn was set on fire. Thirty-one men and women died, either from smoke inhalation or after jumping from the windows.
It's a tragic moment, and one that may sow broader discontent for weeks to come. But in the eastern city of Donetsk on Monday, something else rather strange happened: Firefighters were reportedly being detained by the pro-Russia Donetsk People's Republic.
Associated Press reporter Pete Leonard was on the scene, where he tweeted the following account:
So while rage boils over about the fire in Odessa, here is a little and now everyday story about what the Donetsk Republic is up to.— pete_leonard (@pete_leonard) May 5, 2014
Some Donetsk People marched a couple of detained blindfolded firemen into the seized administration building. Unclear why.— pete_leonard (@pete_leonard) May 5, 2014
Earlier, I heard Donetsk Republic officials arguing furiously about this (didn't understand at the time). One said: What if there is a fire?— pete_leonard (@pete_leonard) May 5, 2014
If there is a fire at the Donetsk Regional Administration and no rescuers come, there will be a reason. Sad and stupid story.— pete_leonard (@pete_leonard) May 5, 2014
With Molotov Cocktails the order of the day, the Donetsk People's Republic is kidnapping firemen. Utterly astounding.— pete_leonard (@pete_leonard) May 5, 2014
Leonard also pointed to photographs that appeared to show the firefighters being detained:
There's little information about what exactly has happened to the firefighters for now, so it may well be a misunderstanding or isolated error. Those detained may well be released soon.
But the apparent situation – pro-Russian separatists detaining fire crews just days after dozens of pro-Russian separatists die in a fire – shows just how chaotic things have become. As Leonard notes, even other members of the Donetsk People's Republic are fuming about the move.
It also shows how confused the role of state workers such as firefighters and police officers has become in Ukraine. On Monday, Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote a post on Facebook that said that police action in Odessa had been "hideous, possibly criminal" and that the entire leadership in the city had been dismissed. On Sunday, a pro-Russian crowd had stormed a police headquarters and freed a number of detained activists.