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article imageTears and anger among Odessa's ashes

By Michel Moutot (AFP)     May 5, 2014 in World

They walk on charred rubble, hand-in-hand, sobbing, looking around inside the building in Odessa that became a fiery tomb for nearly 40 of their fellow pro-Russian activists last week.

Olga and Nadijda, residents of Odessa, followed hundreds of other people entering the Trade Union House on Monday in this Ukrainian port city, their shock and anger bubbling over.

"To call those who did this Nazis is a compliment," spits Nadijda, 46, who like everybody else declines to give her last name.

"They're even worse than that. They are monsters, animals. They should be slaughtered."

Since Saturday, a day after the horrific inferno that killed 38 people inside the building, following clashes that claimed another four lives, a crowd has gathered outside the immense stone building, demanding entry.

It was inside that the pro-Russian militants had taken refuge after pro-Ukrainian activists turned on them following an attack on a rally for national unity by pro-Moscow thugs wielding knives and bats.

Both sides had lobbed Molotov cocktails at each other, according to witnesses, and those flaming petrol bombs were likely the cause of the deadly blaze.

On Monday, the police who had been preventing access were gone.

Some in the crowd, visibly emotional, give up the idea of climbing the blackened stairs inside. But others are determined to see the scene of the carnage.

Sergei, a white-haired man of 61 wearing a black leather jacket, is among them. He takes the steps slowly, eyeing the words "No to fascism" that someone had etched out using their finger on the cinder-coated wall.

People visit the burned trade union building in the southern Ukranian city of Odessa on May 4  2014
People visit the burned trade union building in the southern Ukranian city of Odessa on May 4, 2014
Anatolii Stepanov, AFP

"I came to try to understand," he says. "It's simply not possible that, in the 21st century, something like this could happen in Odessa. It's not people from here who did this atrocity. They came from somewhere else, from western Ukraine. It was planned well in advance."

- 'Monsters' -

Next to him, the tears well up in the eyes of a young redhaired girl. She shakes her head at a request for an interview.

With her mobile phone she films a burnt walkie-talkie lying on a ramp which has been turned into a shrine. On it are also hardhats, batons, pick-axe handles. One handle is two-thirds burnt and someone has tied an orange and red ribbon around it: the colours of the Russian nationalist surge.

Igor, 31, has his clenched fists thrust into the pockets of his sweatshirt.

Activists mourn on May 5  2014 at the funeral of Vyacheslav Markin  a pro-Russian opposition leader ...
Activists mourn on May 5, 2014 at the funeral of Vyacheslav Markin, a pro-Russian opposition leader, in Odessa
Anatolii Stepanov, AFP

"Those who died here are our heroes, fighters for freedom and truth," he says. "I saw the videos: when they managed to escape the blaze, many of them hurt and burnt, they were set upon by youths laughing and chanting as they beat them savagely. They are monsters. And the police let them do it."

In front of the building the word "genocide" is painted, surrounded by flowers and coloured candles. Tempers still spill over into cross words, the occasional slap. A few police officers who are there to step in are spat upon and accused of either incompetence or complicity in last week's deadly events.

Flowers commemorating the lives lost pile up at the building's entrance, at the base of the pillars bearing in plastic sleeves printed photos of the deceased, their bodies horrendously incinerated or crumpled in hallways from lethal smoke.

There are also photos of young, smiling girls wearing the blue-and-yellow of Ukraine's national flag as they fill beer bottles with petrol to make Molotov cocktails.

"Those girls there, those whores, we know who they are. Our boys will find them," murmurs one old woman.

Another photo is a mash-up of images, showing a mountain village in flames with German soldiers in World War II uniforms and the legend "Khatyn, 1943" above a picture of the burnt Trade Unions House with the caption "Odessa, 2014". Next to it is an Orthodox crucifix, under which lies the exhortation "Remember Khatyn".

The reference is to a village in Belarus which was burnt to the ground on March 22, 1943 by the occupying Germans after a partisan attack on a convoy. The German soldiers locked up all the locals into a barn and the houses before torching them, killing 149 people. Today, the ruins of Khatyn stand as a memorial to Nazi atrocity and every Soviet schoolchild learned its history.

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