DONETSK, Ukraine – To shouts of “Fascists!” and “Hang them from a tree!” captured Ukrainian soldiers were paraded through the streets of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk Sunday as bystanders pelted them with eggs, water bottles and tomatoes.
The spectacle of the bruised and filthy soldiers being marched hands bound and surrounded by gun-toting pro-Russian insurgents came as Ukrainians in Kiev celebrated their country’s independence from the Soviet Union – a stark display of the growing divisions between east and west.
While support and mobilization for Kiev’s campaign against the separatists has grown in many parts of the country, resentments fester in much of the east, where civilian casualties and shelling have become a part of daily life.
Illustrating the divisions, an ostentatious procession of tanks and weaponry rumbled through downtown Kiev to mark Ukraine’s 23rd anniversary of independence from Moscow – a highly publicized event accompanied by speeches and a vow by President Petro Poroshenko to boost defense spending to defeat the rebels.
In Donetsk, thousands gathered in the main square as the insurgents staged their own spectacle mocking the national army. To jeers and catcalls, dozens of captive soldiers, some wearing tattered Ukrainian military uniforms and some in torn and dirty civilian clothing, were forced to march past as nationalistic Russian songs blared from loudspeakers. They were flanked by rebels pointing bayoneted rifles.
One visibly agitated man yelled slurs as he held an infant in one arm. “Hang the fascists from a tree!” one woman shouted as other women rushed at the prisoners, trying to kick and slap them.
Two water trucks followed the captives, hosing down the road in a move apparently meant to cleanse the pavement where the Ukrainian soldiers had passed. The image had historical parallels as well: In 1944, Red Army soldiers paraded tens of thousands of German prisoners of war through the streets of Moscow.
The top rebel commander sent a mocking message to the Ukrainian government.
“Kiev said that on the 24th, on the Independence Day of Ukraine, they would have a parade. Indeed, they did march in Donetsk, although it wasn’t a parade,” top rebel commander Alexander Zakharchenko said. “Soldiers of the armed forces of Kiev walked along the main streets of Donetsk. What Poroshenko planned has taken place.”
Human Rights Watch said parading the Ukrainian soldiers was a violation of humanitarian law.
Rachel Denber of the New York-based rights group cited an article of the Geneva Conventions that prohibits “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” of captives of armed conflicts.
This parade is a clear violation of that absolute prohibition, and may be considered a war crime, she said.
On Sunday, rebels put several fire-blackened, shrapnel-shredded Ukrainian military vehicles on display in Donetsk’s main square, where supporters posed for photos in front of one of the destroyed tanks. One onlooker grabbed a Ukrainian flag from the wreckage of one tank and threw it to the ground. Several others trampled on it, wiping their feet and spitting.
“Today is the so-called independence day of what was Ukraine. And look what has happened to their equipment. This is what has become of Ukraine!” shouted a pro-Russian rebel fighter who identified herself by her battle name, Nursa, pointing at the remains of a Ukrainian troop transport.
Alexander, a 40-year-old businessman from Donetsk who declined to give his surname, said the Ukrainian flag had no place in the city.
“I feel this is no place for this flag. The great achievement here is that people can see it in the state that it deserves to be in,” he said.
Resentment has grown in the east as residential areas have increasingly come under fire in recent weeks, with the civilian death toll rising to at least 2,000 since April, according to United Nations figures. In Donetsk, an estimated 300,000 of the city’s population of 1 million have fled the fighting, and many of those who remain have gone weeks without electricity or running water and spent days hunkered down in bomb shelters.
Early Sunday, artillery shells struck several residential buildings as well as a hospital and morgue in downtown Donetsk, although nobody was reported killed. The government has denied that Ukraine’s forces were responsible for the shelling of any residential buildings or hospitals.
The situation is even direr in Luhansk, a city closer to the Russian border whose war-reduced population of a quarter-million people suffered under constant fighting in recent weeks. Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security Council, told journalists Sunday that 68 civilians were wounded there in the past 24 hours, but could not confirm whether anyone was killed.
The scene in Donetsk proved a striking contrast to the fanfare in Kiev, where more than 20,000 people, many waving the country’s blue-and-yellow flags or donning traditional embroidered shirts, watched the parade on Kiev’s Independence Square, where months of protests earlier this year ended in the ouster of the country’s former pro-Russian president.
Poroshenko announced he would raise military spending by $3 billion through 2017, a 50 percent increase from current budget targets.
“It is clear that in the foreseeable future there will always, unfortunately, be the threat of war,” the Ukrainian president said in an address to the highly militarized rally. “And we not only have to learn to live with that. We must always be prepared to defend our independence.”
Ukrainian military leaders have pleaded for extra resources as they face a potentially protracted fight against separatists. In recent weeks, Kiev’s troops have scored heavy gains in territory and encircled the east’s regional capitals of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Lysenko said Sunday that 722 members of Ukraine’s armed forces have died in the fighting, with five killed and eight wounded in the past day alone.
In another symbolic move, Poroshenko traveled south to the predominantly Russian-speaking port city of Odessa to give a second speech on Sunday. Ukrainian television showed footage of navy ships bobbing by the shore on a stormy, turbulent sea. Ukraine lost much of its coastline when the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea was annexed by Russia in March, and the loyalty of local authorities in Odessa to Kiev has been a top priority for the new government.
Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are set to meet Tuesday in Minsk, Belarus, alongside other European Union leaders. The two leaders have not met since early June and many hope that the talks could help defuse the conflict in east Ukraine.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday cautioned against expectations of a decisive breakthrough at the much-anticipated meeting.
“The meeting in Minsk certainly won’t yet bring the breakthrough,” she said. “But you have to speak to one another if you want to find solutions.”