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Rebels March POWs Through Streets as Rival Military Parades Mark Ukraine’s Independence Day

Today’s celebrations of Ukraine’s Independence Day exposed the ever-deepening divide between the country’s east and west.

by Harriet Salem
Aug 24 2014, 7:45pm

Photo by Ludmila Makarova

Today's celebrations of Ukraine's Independence Day exposed the ever-deepening divide between the country's east and west, as civilians turned out for rival military parades in the capital and rebel administrative headquarters in Donetsk.

In Kiev's Independence Square — the epicenter of the protests that removed the country's pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February — tens of thousands of people lined the street to watch Ukraine flex its military muscles in a display of might, which included 145 pieces of military equipment, including tanks, Smerch and Grad multi-rocket launchers, surface-to-air missiles, and armored personnel carriers. More than 2,500 servicemen from Ukraine's army, navy, and air forces marched through the capital's streets as the huge crowd cheered them on.

Most of those attending the parade dismissed the idea that emphasis on military force might be inappropriate at a time when civilians caught in the crossfire of fighting in eastern Ukraine are dying on a daily basis. At least 2,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the conflict, according to the latest United Nations statistics.

A young couple dressed in traditional Ukrainian costume embrace and take a selfie amid a crowd of tens of thousands gathered to watch a military parade in celebration of the country's Independence Day in the capital. Photo by Ludmila Makarova

A parade in Kiev held to celebrate Ukraine's Independence Day included 145 pieces of military equipment and more than 2,500 servicemen from Ukraine's army, navy and air forces. Photo by Ludmila Makarova

A few however expressed reticence at the use of such heavy-handed tactics in the east.

"It's a big problem of the ATO [anti-terror operation]," said Alexy, who travelled from Zaporizhya in Ukraine's southeast to watch the parade in Kiev. "We aren't skillful in war, and we need to learn from our mistakes."

But Ukraine's newly elected president Petro Poroshenko shows no sign of changing tactics in the conflict. In a defiant and impassioned speech the oligarch, who earned the nickname "Chocolate King" from his investments in the confectionary industry, said that "Ukraine was fighting a war against external aggression for the freedom and independence of his people" — a barbed comment directed at Moscow, which Kiev and its western allies accuse of supporting the rebel uprising.

Poroshenko also warned that in the "foreseeable future" the country will face a "constant military threat," and pledged to spend $3 billion on re-equipping the army from 2015 through 2017. Some of the troops on display today, he said, would soon be heading straight to the frontline of the fighting to bolster the efforts of the anti-terror operation underway in the country's east.

A minute's silence was held for the so-called "Heavenly Hundred" who died during the Maidan protests earlier this year, and soldiers wounded fighting on the frontline in the east were greeted by the president personally as the crowd cheered "thanks" and "glory to our heroes."

'Nowhere Is Definitely Safe Anymore': Inside the Besieged Ukrainian City of Luhansk. Read more here.

Ukraine's, newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, personally greets a soldier who lost his leg fighting on the frontline in east Ukraine where Kiev-backed anti-terrorism forces are fighting pro-Russian rebels. Photo by Ludmila Makarova

Meanwhile, emotions also ran high at a sinister counter-celebration in rebel-held Donetsk, where hundreds of locals lined the streets to watch a parade of Ukrainian prisoners of war. The 50 or so captured soldiers were marched past the city's central Lenin Square under the guard of rebel fighters in military fatigues carrying automatic weapons and bayonets.

The angry mob yelled "fascist killers" and threw eggs, water, and garbage as the handcuffed men, some of who had bandaged arms and heads, walked along the streets with their heads bowed. The procession was followed by two street cleaning machines that sprayed water along the road in what rebels said was a symbolic gesture.

"It's to clean up the dirt of the Ukrainian Nazi scum," 29-year-old Aton, a rebel-fighter from Gorlovka, told VICE News. "So that no dirty trace of them will be left here."

International human rights monitoring bodies quickly condemned the treatment of the detainees by the rebels as inhumane and in violation of the Geneva Convention. The charge was denied by the rebels' newly appointed Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko, who retorted that there was no problem as the prisoners "were not beaten or stripped naked."

But speaking to VICE News, Ole Solvang, Senior Conflict Researcher at international NGO Human Right Watch said it was in "clear violation of the laws of war," specifically Article 3 that prohibits outrages on public dignity.

"Parading prisoners in the street while people shout insults and throws things at them is clearly humiliating and degrading treatment," Solvang added.

After the procession was over, a crowd of a 200 or so people milled around waving flags and posing for selfies in front of a macabre display of half a dozen burnt Ukrainian military vehicles that were brought to the square especially for the event.

"The purpose of this day is to show Kiev that every tank, every armored personnel carrier, every soldier they send here, will end up like this," Zakharchenko told VICE News.

Rebels attend a service at the Eternal Flame Memorial in Donetsk for killed militia. Anja, a female fighter has brought along her 5 year-old son. Photo by Harriet Salem.

A child holding a rebel's gun poses with the fighter for a selfie snapshot in front of a captured Ukrainian military vehicle on display in Lenin Square, Donetsk, for a counter-celebration of Ukraine's Independence day in the rebel-republic.

Anger inside the city has risen sharply in the last week as bombardments of artillery have become and daily occurrence and civilian casualties are mounting. Standing on the central Lenin Square cradling her two month-old baby, 25-year-old Anja said she was scared about the future, but supports the rebels.

"We are terrified when we hear these explosions, it's very scary. We were taught about war at school. We couldn't feel it, but now we see it on our doorstep," she told VICE News.

Yura, her husband, stood by her side dressed in military fatigues and carrying an automatic gun, said he had made the decision to join the militia just after the birth of his child.

"I have to protect my home and family, what other choice do I have?" he told VICE News.

At a memorial service for killed rebel fighters on the other side of the city, 60-year-old pensioner Vladimir, a Stalin-fan, said he thought the prisoner parade was, "beautiful, a great way to lift spirits. These are the people who are shelling us every day."

At the World War II eternal flame memorial, a small crowd of around 50 or so people released black balloons for the dead milita. Oleg Tsariov, a former Party of the Regions deputy on Ukraine's wanted list for supporting separatism, called the deceased "new heroes of the fight against fascism."

This morning at 6 AM, in what is now becoming a regular dawn chorus, gigantic booms woke locals living on the west side of Donetsk, as mortars rained down in the area around Kalinina hospital, which has been commandeered to treat wounded rebel fighters. There were no casualties, but hospital patients were forced to hide in the basement, and the city morgue was hit. Dozens of civilians have been killed in Grad rocket and mortar attacks on Donetsk center and its suburbs in the last week alone.

Yet despite the mounting death toll, the rebels say that they will not give up the battle. At an end of day press conference Zakharchenko and his Defense Minister Volodymyr Kononov, who also goes by the nom de guerre "Tsar," announced to reporters that the rebels' southeast army had spent the last week preparing special units, including a battalion of tanks and an artillery unit, and would be launching a new offensive against the Ukrainian forces tomorrow.

"We will drive them back," Zakharchenko said. "For our land we will fight until the very end."

Watch all of VICE News' dispatches, Russian Roulette here.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

Additional reporting and photos by Photo by Ludmila Makarova

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