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Allegiances wane after Ukraine killing

Village woman's roadside execution highlights escalating tension between civilians and armed groups.

Last updated: 19 May 2014 14:53
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The cold-blooded killing of Lena Ott, by suspects believed to be linked to Kiev, has villagers rethinking their loyalty [EPA]

Starovarvarivka, Ukraine - The men from the village sweated in the harsh sun, their shovels scraping and cracking through the deep clay of southeast Ukraine. A pile of baked earth slowly grew next to the grave. A man came up the dirt road, walking between the bright blue crosses of the cemetery through the long grass.

Aleksander Ott's face was crumpled in despair. Leaning against the broken trunk of a tree, he stared absently at the newly dug grave of his wife, killed the night before in an attack near Kramatorsk, an epicentre of violence in Ukraine's southeast.  

In this quiet, sun-drenched corner of Ukraine - a place with rich, black earth and fat cows - the villagers of Starovarvarivka were in a state of shock. No one could understand how the wife of a local farmer could be shot dead in the fields. Moreover, no one could understand how the tremors from the revolution on the Maidan and Russia's response could reach them in this forgotten corner of the countryside. Only one thing was sure - Ott's wife Lena was dead.

"They shouted, 'Hands up!' Then they told them to lie down on the ground. That's when they shot her," said Ott. "Why did this happen? For what? For a free Ukraine? For Russia? I don't want either of them. I want peace."

The army doesn't want to fight against the people but this National Guard, made up of who knows who - bandits and that sort - they are the ones who did this.

- Andrei, local farmer

But in the graveyard where his wife of more than 20 years would be buried, his tone changed suddenly. As his neighbours continued to dig, he shouted, "It was soldiers, not terrorists. It was Ukrainian soldiers!"

In this slow-burning quasi-civil war of beatings, shootings, occupied government offices, detentions, rumour and ambush - facts are scarce and emotion rules the day. In this new atmosphere, in this tightly knit village and across Ukraine, who shot Lena Ott now matters less than what people perceive.

Boiling point

This is the story of how a fight for territory and influence between Russia and the West has spun out of their hands and gained a vicious momentum. It is the story of how a struggle between Moscow and Washington ends up with a village woman being shot to death in a field last Wednesday.

Ott caught his breath and choked. "The village, we were 99 percent for Ukraine. And now, after what they've done, all this shooting here, now I don't know … If I had a rifle, I would also begin shooting at both sides."

On Wednesday morning, Lena Ott and her son Pavl got in their red Niva, a Russian car known for its ruggedness and off-road ability. Living at the end of a dirt road in a shallow grassy valley near a spring-fed pond in the 200-year-old heart of Starovarvarivka, deep in the countryside of Donetsk province, they needed a tough car. But with recent events, they were counting on that ruggedness even more.

Since violence ignited in Ukraine's southeast on April 12 with the takeover in the town of Slovyansk of the police station and the district office of the Ukrainian security services by masked and armed men, people have had to find a way to keep on getting by. Many have taken to driving on back roads and cow paths to avoid the separatist and Ukrainian army checkpoints that have popped up.

Just the day before Ott's killing, fighting flared as armed men ambushed a Ukrainian army convoy of armoured personnel carriers in the nearby village of Oktyabrsk, near the separatist stronghold of Kramatorsk. The attack left at least six soldiers dead and eight wounded, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence reported. Tensions reached a boiling point.

The mother and son decided to brave the dangers and visit Nadia, Lena's sister, in the village of Bilozersk, some 20km away. The drive would take them right through the arc of instability that lies to the northwest of the city of Donetsk, capital of the just-declared People's Republic of Donetsk - a republic that has both declared independence from Kiev and asked for membership in the Russian Federation.

Armed pro-Russian fighters take position at a checkpoint in the eastern Ukranian city of Slavyansk [AFP]

Trouble after dark

They must have left Nadia's house to drive home later than they expected to. Few want to travel the roads these days as darkness approaches, since that is the time when separatists are on the move. The separatists have imposed a curfew in some towns they control.

At about 8:30pm, Pavl was driving the red Niva through the growing darkness near a stand of trees about 4km southwest of Starovarvarivka, the village in which Lena was born and in which she lived her whole life.

Suddenly a DShK heavy machine gun mounted on an armoured personnel carrier and AK-47 assault rifles opened up on the rear of the car as it drove by, shattering the window. One round, slightly larger than that fired by a .50 calibre machine gun, blew a saucer-sized hole in the left rear of the roof. Smaller rounds pierced the hatchback. Two larger bullet holes punctured the windscreen at the front of the car - one each at head level at the driver and passenger seats.

Miraculously neither Lena nor Pavl were hit. Pavl stopped the car and the pair got out. They walked back the way they had come, towards the shooters. "Hands up!" someone shouted through the darkness. They raised their hands. "Lay down!" They laid down. Then shots rang out.

When Pavl opened his eyes, his mother was lying next to him on the ground, covered in blood. A man in camouflage fatigues with no identifying marks had his finger on Lena's neck, checking for a pulse. "That's it," the man said.

Al Jazeera gained access to the Niva, was shown the casing of a 12.7mm round used in a DShK machine gun collected at the scene, and had Pavl's statement read back by Ukrainian police. Both the Ukrainian army and the separatists have armoured personnel carriers and heavy machine guns.

That night a Ukrainian army clearance operation was staged outside of Starovarvarivka to capture or kill the group of rebels that had ambushed the Ukrainian army convoy the day before. The band was rumoured to be hiding somewhere in the surrounding woods. Journalists at a nearby checkpoint about an hour before the shooting saw a column of armoured vehicles roll by, heading in the direction of the village.

'Bandits and that sort'

The next morning, villagers in Starovarvarivka were furious and scared. Gathered in the dappled shade of a roadside tree, they all spoke at once, saying a column of armoured vehicles had rolled down the main street, shooting indiscriminately at houses as a helicopter gunship flew close cover at about 8pm.

 

"The army doesn't want to fight against the people but this National Guard, made up of who knows who - bandits and that sort - they are the ones who did this," said Andrei, a local farmer, who preferred to not give his last name for security reasons. "These guys are volunteers from the Maidan," he said, referring to groups that helped depose former president Viktor Yanukovich during pitched battles in the centre of Kiev earlier this year. "This is Ukrainian on Ukrainian.

"Here we have Russia and here we have America, and here we are between them, and they are grinding away at us," he said, leaning on a bicycle he would later use to herd more than 100 cattle back to their various owners after they had been scattered across the countryside by the previous night's shooting. "Russia doesn't want to give it up and we're here, suffering."

At a Ukrainian checkpoint where the red Niva was seen parked the morning after Ott's killing, the soldiers talked little, sitting on sandbag bunkers or reclining on top of armoured personnel carriers, smoking cigarettes. When asked where the car had come from, Denis, a soldier with a Cossack-style moustache and wearing a black ammunition carrier, claimed to have never seen the vehicle. When told about the shooting and that the villagers were blaming the Ukrainian army for it, he said, "That can't be. That couldn't happen. We're fighting against the Russians. All of what you heard is a provocation."

Anger, anguish and shock

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report on Thursday on the situation in Ukraine. It said a number of civilians on both pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian sides have been killed in protests and attacks.

Tensions in eastern Ukraine show no sign of waning [EPA]

On the same day, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence confirmed in a statement that it had carried out an anti-insurgent operation on the edge of Starovarvarivka the day before, reporting three rebels were captured. The statement also denied claims by the separatists and Russian media that the military had fired on civilians, stating no civilians had been affected.

But the men digging Lena's grave, lifelong friends and neighbours of the Ott family, see it differently. "How can there be peace now? What peace?" they shout angrily in a chorus of voices as they pass around a glass jar of homemade apricot juice.

"If I speak honestly, if I had a machine gun, I would defend the village. I wouldn't just sit here and let them shoot me. But what am I going to fight with, a shovel? Give me a weapon and I'll sit in ambush," says one man, taking a break from digging, before being told to be quiet. "Yesterday I was working in my field and I had a tank come up to me. What am I to do? They told me to go home, but I have to work the fields to feed my family. They held me up for an hour-and-a-half questioning me in my own field," he says angrily.

By Friday, anger had drained away into anguish and shock. About 50 villagers had gathered at the Otts' house for Lena's funeral. Old women in bright headscarves sang Orthodox hymns as a priest rocked a censer in a tiny room where Lena's body lay in a small coffin, covered in frilly white cloth. Neighbours and family wept as they packed the small, incense-filled house. From the courtyard, both the cemetery and the house she was born and raised in were visible.

As an old truck carried the coffin and Lena's grief-stricken sister to the overgrown cemetery on a hill above a cluster of houses, a group of women wound their way along a path, past a pond and upwards through brush and trees. Even in the face of this tragedy, Lyuba Travinska refused to blame either the rebels or the Ukrainian army.

"These incidents need to stop now, not slowly, now. When people die, we need to stop and think what is going on. We need to put a stop to all of this," she said. "We can live together with Kiev, but our decision means very little."

As a result of the actions of organised armed groups, the continuation of the rhetoric of hatred and propaganda fuels the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, with a potential of spiralling out of control.

- UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report

'Spiraling out of control'

Back at the house, sitting in the courtyard with family and friends at a funeral dinner of traditional Ukrainian dishes and vodka shots with no toasts, Aleksander Ott said, "Half of the people here are Russian, but they were 99 percent for Ukraine before this incident. Now people will have to stop and think about that."

None of the two dozen people Al Jazeera spoke to ventured to guess what would happen over the next few days, weeks or months, such is the state of instability here.

The death of Lena Ott has served to galvanise a community, which by all accounts was previously insulated from the surrounding violence and mostly uninterested in it, except to fear it. People are now on the fence about their allegiance. Though the people of Starovarvarivka may have been dragged into this conflict, how events unfold around them will determine what happens next.

For its part, the UN human rights commission draws dark and foreboding conclusions from the violence over the past months in Ukraine.

"Security and law enforcement operations must be in line with international standards and guarantee the protection of all individuals at all times," adding, "Primarily as a result of the actions of organized armed groups, the continuation of the rhetoric of hatred and propaganda fuels the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, with a potential of spiraling out of control."

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