In every conflict, information becomes part of warfare, and Ukraine is no exception. Each side creates its own narrative and comes up with casualty figures which at times have little to do with reality. It gets worse when journalists fuel the propaganda machine, disseminating unconfirmed or plainly invented “facts.” Through social media, such distortions get amplified, reaching tens of thousands within minutes and, for some, become a call to action.
On Friday, I came to Mariupol, a city in southeastern Ukraine, as Ukrainian law-enforcement agencies were trying to oust anti-Kiev forces who had just captured the police headquarters building, supported by large, unarmed crowds of anti-Kiev residents. In recent weeks, several government buildings in Mariupol have been captured by anti-Kiev forces and then reportedly retaken by government troops.
Social media was exploding with videos and conflicting casualty numbers, with some reports, citing “witnesses” claiming hundreds of deaths. The Ukrainian Ministry of Interior claimed yesterday “at least 20 terrorists” were killed, as well as one member of the security forces, but did not provide any detail regarding the circumstances of the deaths.
Two major armed incidents in which people got hurt happened yesterday. Around 11 a.m. there was shooting at the Mariupol police headquarters, when Ukrainian forces tried to dislodge anti-Kiev forces from the building. About two hours later, more Ukrainian forces, apparently on their way to the police headquarters, fired at what appeared to be a crowd of unarmed people near the town theater, about 500 meters from the police building.
Through visits to four hospitals and a morgue, I was able to confirm that more than 40 people were seriously wounded and at least seven killed. Today, a reliable source with no affiliation to either side but too frightened to be named informed me that “no more than 10 bodies” were brought to the city morgue. Did other people die whose bodies were not brought to the morgue? I have seen no proof of this. The official website of Mariupol city had the names of seven killed as of 8 p.m. on May 10, 2014. Several websites run by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic cited four casualties on May 9, and have not updated the numbers since.
I recorded the gender and ages of the patients, and spoke to the doctors about their injuries. All of the wounded were male, from 30 to 50 years old; six of the wounded and at least one of those killed were from the security forces. The doctors said that, with one exception, all had gunshot wounds from automatic weapons, to the legs and abdomen. I interviewed some of the wounded, who told me they were walking home from the May 9 demonstration when Ukrainian armed forces opened fire at them near the theatre.
Medics now say they have been instructed by the security services not to release any additional information. Some of the wounded security services personnel were transported to other cities.
I spoke to anti-Kiev forces who currently control most of the town, passers-by who witnessed the events, and the Ukrainian police and pro-Kiev self-defense units.
It is very hard to say at this point whether the Ukrainian government forces at the police station used excessive force.
My preliminary findings suggest that Ukrainian units might indeed have used excessive force near the drama theater, which resulted in deaths and injuries of some unarmed people. Videos show that the crowd was large but unarmed, and the low numbers of wounded Ukrainian government forces suggests the same. The wounded said they were marching back home from the demonstration. Two of them, when pressed, said the Ukrainian forces may have opened fire in order provide cover for soldiers who were approaching the police building. Anti-Kiev crowds had swarmed government troops earlier that day, so that might have been a factor they were considering.
A full, thorough investigation is needed to establish what exactly happened near the drama theater in Mariupol; what role was played by the unarmed crowds, as opposed to the armed men who seized the local police headquarters; to what extent they presented a threat to Ukrainian forces; and whether the use of force, including live ammunition, was justifiable and lawful under the circumstances. It is the responsibility of the Ukrainian authorities to conduct such investigations in an impartial manner and inform the public about progress made.
In the meantime, anybody commenting on the events, including officials and journalists, should exercise utmost care and remember that their words and figures could be used to fan the flames in this already volatile situation. Distortion of facts will not serve the need for justice for anyone killed unlawfully, nor will it help to salve the pain of families who lost their loved ones.