As Ukraine celebrates Independence Day, rebels march prisoners of war

While Ukraine marked its Independence Day with a military parade in Kiev, separatists countered by parading captured Ukrainian troops through the streets of their main stronghold, Donetsk. (Reuters)
August 24, 2014

Ukrainians celebrated their first Independence Day since war broke out with dueling celebrations Sunday: patriotic songs and parades in the west and a prisoner-of-war march in the rebel-controlled east.

In the capital, Kiev, thousands of Ukrainians dressed in traditional clothing posed for pictures, waved blue-and-yellow flags and watched a military parade that showed off some of the soldiers’ shiny new armaments – antitank guns, rocket launchers and armored personnel carriers. The president, Petro Poroshenko, was on hand to announce that he was beefing up spending on the country’s under-supplied forces by $3 billion, and the minister of defense, in dress uniform, saluted from a Soviet-era open car.

The crowd broke out into spontaneous chants of “Glory to Ukraine,” and many said it was the first time they had witnessed such fervor since Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

But others said they felt ambivalent about the show of military force at a time when the eastern part of the country has been torn by conflict and more than 2,000 people have died. It was the first time the country had held a military parade in five years. Ukrainian officials said that it would be a valuable lift for soldiers’ morale and that the troops and arms would be heading back to battle as soon as the festivities were over.

“On one hand the parade is a tradition of our country, but I think the equipment should be at the front. The guys need it there,” said an army captain, Igor Onischuk, who was on the way east himself.

Rebel forces parade Ukrainian army prisoners of war in downtown Donetsk. (Sergei Ilnitsky/European Pressphoto Agency)

Meanwhile, the Russian-backed separatists operating around two besieged cities in the country’s east had a counter-celebration of their own, where they displayed burned-out military equipment from the Ukrainian army in the center of the city of Donetsk.

The bayonet-wielding rebels paraded about 50 prisoners of war nearby, a tableau one onlooker said evoked the march of German POWs in Moscow in 1944. The unshaven men marched with their hands behind their backs as supporters on the street shouted, “Fascists, fascists.”

Later, a representative from the rebel group said that it has not abandoned a plan for a prisoner swap with the Ukrainian military, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.

The differing celebrations underscored the deep divisions in this country of 46 million, torn between the allure of greater integration with Europe and the emotional hold that Russia still exerts, primarily in the industrialized east.

The long months of conflict against the separatists in the east have unified the rest of the country around a sense of national identity, more fully than at any other time in Ukraine’s independent history. Sunday marked the 23rd anniversary of the vote by the Ukrainian parliament to declare independence in the wake of a failed coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. It wasn’t until December of that year that Ukraine, Russia and Belarus amicably agreed to go their separate ways.

“We never understood what proper independence was until now,” said Vera Diakova, 56, a teacher. Referring to President Vladi­mir Putin of Russia, she said, “I would like to tell Mr. Putin that he has united Ukraine!”

She was wearing a shirt with traditional Ukrainian embroidery called a vyshyvanka, a garment that was once worn on special occasions but that has become something of a fashion statement in recent days. Poroshenko’s wife, Maryna, wore one on the September cover of Elle magazine.

“Nobody dressed like this before,” Diakova said. “It’s like a protest act to show the world we are Ukrainians.”

Up the street, Independence Square, the scene of pro-democracy protests earlier this year, has been swept clean. Gone are the stacks of charred tires, the protesters, the barricades. A stories-tall poster that said “Glory to Ukraine” covered the blackened trade union building that had been set on fire in the chaos. In recent days, workers were trying to repair broken windows.

What remains are makeshift memorials to those who died in the violence, now called the “Heavenly Hundred.”

At the square Sunday, two veteran protesters stood grim-faced in the crowd. They did not support the parade or the government’s efforts to clean up the square, also known as the Maidan. They had just returned from the front, where they brought needed supplies to former Maidan protesters who are now part of a volunteer battalion in the east. They came back with 15 wounded and three of the dead.

“It is not a celebration day for the soldiers,” said Zhanna Novikova, 46, a transport company manager. “When they are safely home and victory is achieved, we will celebrate. Now, our hearts are hurting.”

Karoun Demirjian in Moscow and Alex Ryabchyn in Kiev contributed to this report.

Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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