Protestants persecuted in rebel-held Luhansk

LVIV, Ukraine — Protestants and pro-Ukraine residents in the war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine are being persecuted by separatist rebels and forced to flee, says a man from the Luhansk area.

“The separatists say all Protestant churches are American spies, so there is religious oppression,” said Yurii Radchenko, 46, from the town of Zymohiria. Radchenko, a Protestant, said he was shot at twice in separate incidents but emerged unscathed.

“All the religious communities have been threatened except the Russian Orthodox. My property was taken and we have nothing,” he said. Others, including a recent report from the United Nations Human Rights Office, confirm that looting is being done by rebels and their supporters.

“That is the problem. I have lost everything in eastern Ukraine,” said Radchenko. “Those who remain undergo threats, oppression and are beaten up. That is the tragedy. If the separatists learn that people are pro-Ukraine they suffer a lot. It is like cleansing. Either you leave or you suffer.”

Yurii Radchenko says he has been shot at, his houses stolen.
Yurii Radchenko says he has been shot at, his houses stolen.

Radchenko and other Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) spoke to a reporter recently through an interpreter at a former military compound in the town of Vynnyky, east of Lviv. About 200 men, women and children are being sheltered and fed there by The Good Samaritan Protestant Church, said a Canadian, Roman Yereniuk, who is helping to fund the effort.

“Many Protestants are not tolerated by the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine,” he said. “The other two Orthodox churches have good ecumenical relations with the Protestants. Many have escaped from the east to the west.”

Some 375,000 IDPs have fled from the violence in the east and are living largely off their savings and the largesse of friends and family across Ukraine, the United Nations Human Rights Office reported Oct. 8. The report confirms that persecution is taking place.

Some of them near Lviv arrived four months ago, others more recently, said one of their leaders, Elena Pavlenko. All had similar stories of fearing for their lives as a result of either direct threats or concerns about being caught in the crossfire between Ukrainian and separatist forces.

In a recent article in Ukraine’s The Day newspaper, Mykola Siry, a senior researcher at the Koretsky Institute of State and Law, said “we are talking about systemic torture of people in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, intentional murders. It is a form of intimidation of the whole population.”

In the Middle East, ISIS is attacking and killing civilian populations because of their beliefs, and the international community is taking military action. But violence is also happening to civilians in eastern Ukraine, where the West is avoiding engagement.

For Pavlenko, fears arose when the separatists placed missile launchers beside her house. The noise was deafening, she said, and they feared being bombed by their own side. Her husband arranges the refugees’ humanitarian aid, and they have a small child. The rebels, a mix of local men resenting the centralized control of Kyiv and foreigners she said are from Russia, are shelling the airport about eight kilometers away in a bid to force out the Ukrainian forces in control.

Elena Pavlenko, a leader of the group, talks to a reporter.
Elena Pavlenko, a leader of the group, talks to a reporter.

Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatist fighters recently marked one month since the signing of a Kremlin-backed truce with one the most heated battles of the six-month war in Donetsk. Ukraine said 75 soldiers and civilians have been killed since the Sept. 5 cease-fire. President Petro Poroshenko is hoping the shaky truce, signed as part of a peace plan, will hold together for parliamentary elections Oct. 26.

Pavlenko said many soldiers have died in the fighting, noting a “massive burial site” near the airport. About 400 civilians have also died from Luhansk, to her knowledge. Most people have fled, she said, and those who remain stay inside. Thousands of IDPs have also gone to Russia.

Protestants make up about 2.4 per cent of the Ukrainian population, but Ukraine has been called the “Bible belt” of Eastern Europe and a hub of evangelical church life and missions. Most people are Ukrainian Orthodox (40 per cent), Russian Orthodox (30 per cent), or Ukrainian Greek Catholic (14 per cent). Roman Catholics account for 1.7 per cent of the population, Moslems 0.6 per cent and Jews, 0.2.

While the loss of Crimea in March appeared to reduce tensions between the Orthodox churches – one pro-Moscow prelate even denounced Putin as a “bandit” – bitter divisions remain.

Mr. Radchenko, who worked for a non-profit organization that helped drug addicts and former prison inmates, said pastors have been tortured. He gave the example of one who was injured and taken to a hospital, where separatists were also being treated. When they heard him proselytize they informed their leaders, who hauled the man from the hospital, beat him up, and left him for dead in a forest. Parishoners found him and he is recovering, Radchenko said.

That’s when he asked friends to find a place for him and his family – wife, four children and mother in law. His wife and kids arrived here four months ago, but he stayed home until mid-September.

It all began with widespread protests in Ukraine last November when former President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of a deal with Russia. He was forced from office in February, as most Ukrainian people support ties with the EU as essential to cleaning up a corrupt system. Ukraine is also deeply in debt, and Yanukovych was despised for lining his own pockets and those of his family and friends. But his departure displeased the Kremlin and led to armed rebellion by pro-Russian rebels in the east and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

As a 17-year-old student, Valentine, said at the monument on Maidan or Independence Square, “Russia wanted to control us, hence the fighting in the east.”

Another man who fled from the east, Vasiliy Klimov, 40, who has four daughters and a wife, said things got quickly out of hand at his home of Krasnodon.

“When the war began, local people who formed the bandit groups took weapons, from I don’t know where, and captured the police station, and it surrendered and joined them. Next these separatists blew up the customs building on the border with Russia.”

Klimov said it was frightening to go into town because the armed rebels without uniforms were openly stopping cars and people. “It was scary to say something that would provoke them. Some friends heard people scream from the cars, they heard someone shoot. That’s why we packed up and left for Crimea in June.”

But the family left Crimea Sept. 22 because “there is uncertainty in the air and some people expect the war also in Crimea,” on the Black Sea peninsula. It has Russia’s only warm-water port (which it had been leasing) and is home to its Black Sea fleet. “Crimea is wanted back by local authorities,” Klimov said, “and local Tatars (who are Moslem and more than 10 per cent of the population) are against the annexation of Crimea.”

Vasiliy Klimov with three of his daughters; they fled twice.
Vasiliy Klimov with three of his daughters; they fled twice.

Annexation happened after the March 16 referendum showed 97 per cent support for joining Russia. Even if the voting was rigged, some people say most Crimeans wanted change; others say a majority liked the status-quo. Some Ukrainian people from the Soviet era believe that under Russia their old ways would be better protected.

Like many here, Pavlenko believes the war is rooted partly in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire for a land route to Crimea.

Putin has said his concern is to protect ethnic Russians. He has accused Ukrainian troops of acting “like Nazis” in the conflict by targeting residential areas of towns and cities like German troops did in the former Soviet Union during the Second World War.

Propaganda comes from both sides, but much of it is from Russia. Russian military leaders have claimed on TV that only Ukrainian can be spoken in the region, when in fact Russian is freely and legally used. The UN report says propaganda and incitement to hatred are causing tensions in eastern Ukraine that could lead to the region breaking away like Crimea.

Language is a sore point. Ukrainian is the only officially recognized tongue, which tends to hamper rather than build national unity. Many people speak Russian, especially in the cities, while Ukrainian is more common in the country. The interpreter, Ievgenii Sinielnikov, a 27-year-old businessman and former PhD student from a town near Kyiv, said many use a blended Russian-Ukrainian language called “Surzhyk,” after a mix of grain.

Another problem is corruption in the legal system: bribery of judges is common.

But the key reason for regional discontent in Sinielnikov’s view is the lack of local control over taxation, spending, and other matters. While countries like Canada have empowered their regions and largely removed the grievances of those in outlying areas, many in the east resent Kyiv’s control of their lives. For them, it smacks of the Soviet Union at its worst.

The month-old ceasefire agreement addresses this concern, as greater autonomy will be granted to the rebel-held areas. But the separatist genie is out of the bottle and will be difficult to stuff back in.


Mr. Bird is touring Ukraine and area. For more about the refugee camp see teenagerfund.org.ua

Cover photo: Orthodox church overlooks a smoke filled Luhansk

Russian official fighting in Donetsk admits locals refuse to collaborate, 90% of unit are Russians and "defending Slavs"

Locals are refusing to collaborate with Russian forces as they storm the Donetsk airport, says Communist Party member Alexander Negrabetskikh – a city council deputy and Chechen War veteran from the Russian city of Zlatoustcurrently operating in a terrorist “volunteer” cell in Donetsk.

Negrabetskikh with other soldiers
Negrabetskikh with other soldiers

Now in Ukraine, he is part of a unit involved in storming the Donetsk airport – 90% of which are Russian, half being Siberian and half from the Urals; with the remainder being self-identified Russians from Donetsk. In whole he says 7,500 men are involved in the current battle, which he says would be better handled with smaller, specialist groups. He admits his unit suffered heavy losses while attacking Ukrainian forces defending the airport on Wednesday, saying his men came under heavy shelling.

Negrabetskikh says he is fighting in Ukraine because he is a “Russian patriot” and defending racial Slavs. “I’ll be there to protect brother Slavs and Russian land from the Nazis,” he explained. “If we do not, then sooner or later this fascist abscess would come to us.”

He claims that Ukraine’s forces are replete “Poles and Germans,” a conspiracy which Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has dismissed. Russian media has loudly implicated Poland in other conspiracies on national television.

The reason for his unit being almost entirely foreign with little actual Donetsk citizens is that support for the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) is low, he concedes, a sentiment previously echoed by Russian terrorist leader Igor Girkin. In Negrabetskikh’s words, he was shocked at how few locals would collaborate with Russians to “protect” their land, or in other words, join the DNR. “They go to Russia, and we come here!” he exclaimed.

Ultimately, many he talked to simply care about pensions, not allegiances. Ukraine’s government has stated that public sector salaries and pensions will not be disbursed in occupied territory, while DNR officials have said salaries and pensions are being paid on time, without indicating where the vast funding was coming from.

NSDC: Terrorists enforce conscription, forced labor in Horlivka

At a briefing in Kyiv, National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDC) spokesman Andriy Lysenko informed that in Horlivka DNR terrorists have enforced conscription on city’s residents. In the report, all local residents aged 20 to 60 are thus required to join so-called “self defense” squads, or perform forced labor.

Horlivka is currently under the control of Igor “Demon” Bezler, a Lieutenant Colonel of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).

Bezler is known particularly for his discipline, temper, and brutality. In an interview with the Guardian, Bezler openly admitted to executing hostages. “We question them and then shoot them on the spot. Why should we show any pity to them?” he said in one of his many altercations with journalists.

RT journalist films how Russians bait Ukrainian army into returning fire on residential areas

Filming from an ‘secret location,’ an RT journalist lent a hand in documenting further how Russian forces intentionally fire from residential areas in order to provoke Ukrainian forces with the intent of drawing return fire on the area.

In the segment, the correspondent tells viewers that they are preparing to fire Grad rockets at nearby Ukrainian soldiers, which a Russian soldier, described as an “anti-government fighter,” says always hits its targets. In the video, a house is seen in the background of what appears to be a village.

The fire
RT journalist notices the fire they have started

The camera then pans to show that they have started a large fire on the property of a small home adjacent to their set-up.

Camerman zooms in on the handiwork before fleeing

They then, realizing the damage they have caused and knowing this may warrant return-fire from the nearby Ukrainian forces, promptly flee the area.

We’re going to get out of here because now it is dangerous […]  there is the fear that missiles will start coming in, so let’s get out of here.

The practice of firing from residential areas by Russians has been long documented in the war and has utility both in providing human shields, or in aiding the propaganda that Ukraine is intentionally firing on civilians for no particular reason. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also made public threats that Russian forces would use women and children as human shields.

‘Grad’ rocket launchers, which translates literally to “hail,” are a weapon which relies on scorching a given area rather than hitting specific targets. Ruling on quantity of strikes over quality, the volley of unguided rockets from a Grad have been described as a “definite psychological weapon.”

Live on Twitter: Russia breaks ceasefire in Mariupol

Explosions have now been confirmed near Mariupol, reports a number of western journalists including Will Vernon and Fergal Keane of BBC, Roland Oliphant of the Telegraph, and Shaun Walker of The Guardian. The press service of the DNR has also stated that they are storming the city.

Recall that yesterday Russia’s ambassador to the OSCE anticipated the “liberation” of the city by Russian-backed forces, falsely stating that the region was 90% “ethnic Russian” and that this would be “natural.” (the region is actually 38% Russian)

https://twitter.com/press_dnr/status/508359309621985280
Translation: “Armed Forces of New Russia taking Mariupol.”

Is Luhansk about to be annexed by Russia?

[quote float=”right”]the city is full of Russian soldiers[/quote]

In a series of Tweets today, German MP and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Marieluise Beck described the Russian occupation in Luhansk as she saw it – and the ominous signs of its potential annexation.

Occupation & infrastructure

In the messages, Beck says that the city is “full of Russian soldiers,” and that an engineering brigade has already begun the reconstruction of infrastructure, including electrical lines, to Russia.

Columns of Russian armor and thousands of troops have been seen in the region in recent days.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has already called for discussions on the region’s “statehood” and Russian-installed officials have announced bilateral negotiations with Moscow  “at the highest level” over the supply of Russian gas to occupied territory via a Luhansk pipeline. Such negotiations bypassing Kyiv would confer de facto recognition of southern Luhansk as being independent from Ukraine.

“In Moscow we have discussed the issues concerning the heating season and gas. We have a separate pipeline and we were guaranteed to receive gas supplies. The pipeline comes into the Lugansk region and covers the Donetsk region. We are the only two regions that in general do not rely on Ukraine,” Leonid Baranov, the Donetsk Republic’s so-called “Minister of State Security” told Russian media.

Russian passports

Mirroring Crimea, Beck also confirms that Russian passports are already being handed out in the city, and that Russian soldiers are distributing to locals cash sums of Russian currency.

After the Russian-Georgian ceasefire, Russian-backed police in South Ossetia forced ethnic Georgians to accept Russian passports or leave, amounting to ethnic cleansing.

“Russian authorities have launched the full-scale issuing of Russian passports in Donetsk and Luhansk. It is being done to give Russia an excuse to bring in the Russian Army under the pretext of protecting Russian citizens,” said Yuriy Serhiyev, Ambassador of Ukraine to the United Nations yesterday.

[box]

Ominous similarities

Since signing a ceasefire agreement with Georgia two weeks ago, the Russian military and its local allies have carved a substantial buffer zone around the tiny enclave. To consolidate its latest conquests, Moscow has shipped in what Georgian officials describe as “industrial batches” of passports.

“The Russians are telling everyone in the town they must take a Russian passport,” said Akhalgori shopowner Guram Chkhvidze. “One came to me and explained that if I did not take it, my safety could not be certain. I was scared, so I am leaving.”

The Telegraph, August 30, 2008

[/box]

Linguistic and religious Russification

Russification has also begun in the school system, with Beck also informing that lessons are already being conducted with Russian school textbooks; the curriculum change to that of the Russian Federation was verified by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. In Crimea, the Ukrainian language was summarily banned from schools by Russia.

“The Ukrainian church and the mosque in Luhansk have been closed. The Ukrainian-Orthodox priests had to flee,” read another tweet by the German MP observer.

Sectarian violence and religious persecution has been widespread during the conflict, with pro-Russian separatists considering Christian denominations such as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Roman Catholics, and Protestants, as anti-Russian and see them as obstacles in the path of the separatist goal of uniting the region with Russia.

Previously during the occupation and annexation of Crimea by Russian forces, Ukrainian Catholics were forced to flee the peninsula under threat of arrest and property seizures. “All my parishioners are patriotic Ukrainians who love their Crimean homeland. But Russia is now seeking to drive us out,” Father Milchakovskyi told the Catholic News Service in April. The Ukrainian Catholic Church was banned under the Moscow regime from 1946 to 1989, resulting in many clergymen arrested and Church property appropriated by the state and Russian Church.

New Russia or Novorossiya, Russia’s name for the occupied parcels of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, has already embedded in its constitution that it will act as a monolingual Russian state, with the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Orthodoxy acting as the official state religion.

What next?

This story will develop in the coming days with a Tuesday press conference already scheduled by Russian-installed officials. The ongoing ceasefire may just be the calm needed to begin the process of solidifying Russian hegemony in the region, as occurred in Georgia. It remains to be see what form of annexation will take place: be it the formal annexation of Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk, facilitating their recognition as vassal states in the model of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or unofficial recognition as Russia maintains with Transnistria.

Lithuanian consul murdered by Russian-backed terrorists

Lithuania’s Honorary Consul in Luhansk was murdered today by Russian-backed terrorists. Shortly after the announcement, a tweet was sent out by the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Linas Linkevicius, saying that the consul, Ukrainian businessman Mykola Zelenets, was “kidnapped and brutally killed by terrorists.”

“We lost a sincere friend of Lithuania and Ukraine […] who had a lot of plans for the development of the two countries, including cultural and business ties. We condemn this crime and we believe that it will be investigated and those responsible prosecuted and punished persons.” the Ministry said in a written statement.

The President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite also expressed her condolences. “I am shocked by the news..myself and the people of Lithuania on behalf of the deceased to express condolences to the family and loved ones, ” said the President.

According to the Lithuanian Ambassador to Ukraine Peter Vaitiekűnas, Zelenets was kidnapped 12 days prior by a group of armed terrorists, his whereabouts since unknown. He was then shot.

Update:

Below is the official statement by the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

[box]

Abduction and murder of the Honorary consul of Lithuania in Luhansk Mykola Zelenets was confirmed today. This tragedy happened as result of criminal actions of the Russia-backed terrorists. At their hands suffer residents of Donbas region, hundreds of citizens of Ukraine and other countries of the world have been murdered.

We extend our condolences to the relatives of the deceased and to the friendly people of Lithuania.

We will take all efforts to bring those murders to justice.[/box]

Mykola Zelenec © cxid.info nuotr.
Mykola Zelenets © cxid.info nuotr.

Fighting breaks out in Luhansk, Ukrainian forces move in

By Mat Babiak

The battle for Luhansk is reportedly underway.

Ukrainian forces are closing in on Russian-backed insurgents in the city of Luhansk, Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council (RNBO) spokesman Andriy Lysenko said at a press briefing in Kyiv on Friday.

Map of Luhansk
Map of Luhansk

The head of the NGO “Right Cause,” Dmitry Snehirev whose information came from witnesses and group members, told UNIAN correspondents that street battles had broken out in Luhansk, and that the Ukrainian military took control of the regional hospital and the surrounding area. “And just within the last 2 hours of street battles are closer to the city center,” said Snehirev.

Multiple media outlets have disseminated a source in the regional state administration via Ukrainian News, stating that forces involving the National Guard had been fighting in Leninskyi district.

In addition, Obozrevatel reported a posting on the Luhansk – Our City Facebook page which cited a source in the Armed Forces, who says the situation is complicated by “terrorists shooting indiscriminately  into residential areas.” “In fact, the militants have turned the whole of Luhansk into a fortified area. It is not just the militia. On the side of the [Luhansk People’s Republic] fight professional soldiers,” reads the posting. Ostro, a local news outlet, has also compiled eyewitness reports from social media chatter but did not state independent verification.

Despite these reports an official source in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) refused to confirm these reports to Ukrainska Pravda at this time. However, the headquarters of the Russian-backed militants in Luhansk claimed to have captured a group of National Guardsmen in a Luhansk suburb.

Earlier today a column of Russian reinforcements, witnessed by western journalists and confirmed by NATO, entered the Luhansk region as part of an ongoing stream of Russian forces and equipment over the porous border. Yesterday, leader of the Luhansk separatists Valeri Bolotov resigned from his position citing injuries sustained in battle.

[hr]Photo via Informator

Live on Twitter: Journalists confirm invasion has begun

Did long predicted invasion of mainland Ukraine “officially” just start? UK journalists Shaun Walker (Guardian) and Roland Oliphant (Telegraph) seem to think it has, seeing Armored Personnel Carriers with official Russian plates cross the border. Various other journalists documenting the situation have photographed columns of tanks and other heavy military vehicles heading in the direction of the border.

(last updated Aug 15, 10:45am EST)

 

“A column of armored vehicles (12 pieces) goes towards the Ukrainian border.”

This article will be updated as the situation progresses on Twitter.

Luhansk Republic leader Bolotov resigns due to injury

Self-proclaimed leader of the Luhansk People’s Republic Valeri Bolotov has resigned from his post. The news follows a similar departure from the Donetsk Republic’s militant commander Igor Girkin.

Bolotov confirmed that he was leaving due to an injury, however, his resignation coincides with Luhansk’s encirclement by Ukrainian forces. According to AFP, Ukrainian forces “completely surrounded the rebel bastion of Luhansk by cutting the last road linking the city to the Russian border.”

Bolotov's announcement
Bolotov’s announcement

“I decided to temporarily leave the post of the head of the People’s Republic of Lugansk. The consequences of my injury do not allow me to continue work from this post for the benefit of Luhansk in a difficult war,” said Bolotov. “I am from Luhansk, this is my home, and I will continue to fight for our common ideals. I am sure that our struggle will be a success,” he said.

He recommended current ‘defense minister’ Igor Plotnitsky take his place.

Bolotov, a Russian native but raised in Luhansk, was a Ukrainian citizen before taking up arms in separatism. A former Soviet soldier, he worked as a manager at a meat factory before leading a group of terrorists to seize the Security Service building in Luhansk, raiding its armoury.