DONETSK, Ukraine – To shouts of “Fascists!” and “Hang them from a tree!” captured Ukrainian soldiers were paraded through the streets of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk on Sunday as bystanders pelted them with eggs, water bottles and tomatoes.
The spectacle of the bruised and filthy soldiers being marched hands bound and surrounded by gun-toting pro-Russia insurgents came as Ukrainians in Kiev celebrated their country’s independence from the Soviet Union – a stark display of the growing divisions between east and west.
While support and mobilization for Kiev’s campaign against the separatists has grown in many parts of the country, resentments fester in much of the east, where civilian casualties and shelling have become a part of daily life.
Illustrating the divisions, an ostentatious procession of tanks and weaponry rumbled through downtown Kiev to mark Ukraine’s 23rd anniversary of independence from Moscow – a highly publicized event accompanied by speeches and a vow by President Petro Poroshenko to boost defense spending to defeat the rebels.
In Donetsk, thousands gathered in the main square as the insurgents staged their own spectacle mocking the national army. To jeers and catcalls, dozens of captive soldiers, some wearing tattered Ukrainian military uniforms and some in torn and dirty civilian clothing, were forced to march past as nationalistic Russian songs blared from loudspeakers. They were flanked by rebels pointing bayoneted rifles.
Two water trucks followed the captives, hosing down the road in a move apparently meant to cleanse the pavement where the Ukrainian soldiers had passed. The image had historical parallels as well: In 1944, Red Army soldiers paraded tens of thousands of German prisoners of war through the streets of Moscow.
The top rebel commander sent a mocking message to the Ukrainian government.
“Kiev said that on the 24th, on the Independence Day of Ukraine, they would have a parade. Indeed, they did march in Donetsk, although it wasn’t a parade,” top rebel commander Alexander Zakharchenko said. “Soldiers of the armed forces of Kiev walked along the main streets of Donetsk. What Poroshenko planned has taken place.”