DONETSK, Ukraine – The conflict in eastern Ukraine has been fought in recent days with bullets, bombs and mortars. But Sunday, the weapons of choice were chocolate, caramel and lemon-lime.
What started as a separatist publicity stunt ended in one angry, gooey mess.
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First, the PR stunt: The rebel government staged a rally for children in Donetsk’s Lenin Square to highlight what it claims are indiscriminate Ukrainian army attacks on civilians. Under sunny skies, mothers and fathers flocked to the square, kids in tow, to hear speakers rail against the “bloodthirsty Kiev junta.”
At the end, there was a special surprise: A white van pulled up and militants dressed in green camouflage hopped out. But rather than their usual assault rifles, the fighters were bearing candy. Big brown boxes of candy that they said had been plundered from a local warehouse.
Kids squealed with delight. Parents rushed to claim their share. There was applause as happy children walked off bearing bags of sweets wrapped in blue, yellow and red plastic. It seemed the Donetsk People’s Republic, as the separatist movement here is known, had won a victory in the all-important battle for hearts and minds.
But in Ukraine these days, even candy is political.
Some in the crowd noticed that the sweets were made by Roshen, the company owned by the Ukrainian tycoon known as the Chocolate King, Petro Poroshenko. He became the country’s president-elect last month in an overwhelming vote, but rebel supporters here blame him for the violence that has engulfed the country's southeast.
The mood turned in a flash from exultant to furious. The carnival became a mob.
“It’s a provocation!” some in the crowd began to yell.
“The candy is poisoned!” screamed others.
“No to blood candy!” they chanted.
Shoving broke out. Mothers kicked the boxes, stomped the candy with their feet and screamed at the militants. The militants screamed back.
“We wanted to give candy to children! That’s all! What difference does it make where it came from?” one exasperated fighter shouted.
But it was too late. The crowd had turned. The fighters jumped back into their van. As it sped away, a father pelted it with a bag of sweets.
Philosophical arguments broke out about whether rejecting the candy had been the right thing to do.
“We smoked German cigarettes during the Second World War. What’s the difference?” asked a kindly looking white-haired man with gold teeth.
“Poroshenko can’t both murder us and feed us at the same time!” replied a woman in a tiger-print blouse as she smashed the boxes into tiny bits of cardboard.
The colorful wrappers flew about in the breeze. The caramel clung to the hot pavement.
Under the watchful gaze of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who looms over this square in black granite, it was the workers who were left to clean up the mess.