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Ukrainian police against four old French people

On May 2nd 2014, a peaceful rally took place on Kulikovo field in Odessa, during which activists who had opposed the recent coup in Kiev were gathering signatures demanding a referendum for a federal organization of the Ukraine. This is when they were attacked by right-wing radicals and pro-Maidan neo-fascists of the Pravy-sektor. Many took refuge in the House of Trade Unions, which the assailants set on fire, and were burned alive. Those who jumped out of windows were beaten to death on the ground. According to official reports, at least 48 of the activists died—a number that doubles when including those who have disappeared—and hundreds were injured.

In January 2015, a delegation of the Ukrainian human rights organization “Mothers of Odessa” toured France on an informational mission, sponsored by several French associations and NGOs. We met them during their visit to Nice. On May 2nd, 2016, for the second anniversary of the massacre, we were invited to the local commemoration in Odessa—we being: 88-year-old Serge, former member of the WW2 French resistance; his daughter Sylvie; Claude, whose father Gleb Sivirine, also a noted member of the resistance, was born in Odessa; and her daughter Mireille. Claude and Mireille saw the occasion as a return to their roots.

We long hesitated to make the trip: the news reports had announced that president Poroshenko and Odessa province governor Saakashvili were purportedly mobilizing a thousand members of the Azov battalion to handle forecasted violence, a regiment known for its neo-Nazi proclivities. Odessites were bracing for riots, with the predicted deployment of over 3000 troops. To avoid fueling further brutalities, activists and relatives of those massacred in 2014 decided to cancel the public commemorative events and only hold a memorial dinner, as well as a limited processional journey to Kulikovo field for the laying of flowers under municipal security.

The presence of foreign witnesses was important to our friends in Odessa, who feel shunned by Western media. Despite the warnings of tension, they reiterated their invitation and promised us protection. We therefore headed to Odessa with the intention to attend a private memorial dinner and provide moral support to our friends.

But the presence of foreigners and their potential testimonies is apparently threatening to Ukrainian officials. Clearly expecting us, Odessa airport customs officers refused to let us onto Ukrainian territory, confiscated our passports and interrogated us for a few hours. We were straight forward about our intentions, and told them that our friends were waiting for us outside the security gates. Additionally, Claude and Mireille shared their long-standing wish to visit Odessa, as well as documents, maps and old passports which would help them locate their father/grandfather’s childhood home.

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After being declared without sufficient motives to visit the Ukraine, we were forced to spent the night at the airport under military surveillance. We slept on cold metal benches. Here we’ll not only remind the reader that Serge is 88 years old, but also note that his arm was bandaged due to an injured shoulder, that Sylvie had burst a tympanic membrane during the descent and had blood running down her ear, and that Claude is 78 years old. The four of us were deported on the first flight out in the morning. From one end of the trip to the other, between flights and through our long transit in Istanbul, we were handed over from one authority to the next under a DEPA status—international civil aviation code for escorted deportees. Only back in Nice, after a much shorter and rather bewildered set of questions, did the local police return our passports to us. They now feature in bright red ink the stamped record of our denied entry.

And thus we got a taste of disenfranchisement, of the stripping of our identity and basic rights (not least benign the right to alcohol per article 4.8 of the ICAO Guidelines for the Removal of Deportees, not cool for those of us fearful of flying…), of the very public degradation of traveling under a DEPA status. (As we later agreed while digesting these events, the experience is one we would recommend to everyone: we entirely take the legality of our status for granted, and this experience was a valuable reminder that too many people live their lives, not just a couple dozens of hours, in such a total state of marginalization and of geopolitical precarity.)

And so on May 2nd, we were prohibited from attending a commemoration, from reflecting upon the site of the 2014 massacre, from providing the support of French citizens, and from sharing with our hosts and the families of the victims a private memorial meal. We recognize with outrage that such behavior can only be orchestrated by the Ukrainian authorities with the active support of the European Union and the complicity of our own government, while reliably counting on the deadening silence of our media.

Serge Lesou, Sylvie Pille, Mireille and Claude Roddier

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