SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine -- "Serhiy, Serhiy! Remain in the cabin and stay put! And open the doors, these scumbags will break them down anyway," a man in his mid-30s shouted into his telephone. He had closely cropped hair and wore a tracksuit. "Tell the old one to stay put!"
"I deserted the ship like a rat today," another man, smaller but stoutly built, rejoined gloomily.
He was obviously very drunk and upset as the tugboat approached the Ukrainian warship "Slavutych," A few dozen burly men could easily be spotted at the stern. It was 5:30 p.m., March 22.
A few hours earlier, when I heard that the "Slavutych" would be raided sometime during the day, I found a good vantage point between two military fences on a hill.
To get to where the "Slavutych" was moored, I had to take a ferry. It was called "Jupiter." The man sitting behind me was talking on his phone in a businesslike manner, arranging to send to Simferopol "a group of guys to support Interior Ministry troops." Someone called him back. I shuddered. Instead of a musical ring tone, the phone gave out an explosion, a round of machine-gun fire, and a voice shouted: "Everyone on the ground or I'll shoot!" The man picked up his phone and said "Hi, Katya!"
The national flag of Ukraine flew above the "Slavutych," which was hemmed in between two Russian ships. Several people could be seen on the deck. It was clear they were leaving the ship with their belongings, without uniforms, in civilian clothes, carrying plastic bags. (For some reason, many people here carry black "BMW" plastic bags.)
A middle-aged couple showed up on the hill where I was preparing to watch the raid. They were looking at the "Slavutych." I asked them if they knew someone on board. "Acquaintances," the man, who wore camouflage trousers, answered evasively. "These men were betrayed," he said sadly. "No orders or instructions, just the threat of facing court in Ukraine."
The man stepped away, trying to see whether he could somehow reach the ship. This drew the attention of Russian sailors guarding the area, who made it clear they wouldn't let him through.
"You must be a journalist?" the woman asked cautiously. I told her I was and asked for permission to switch on my recorder. I wasn't surprised when she declined, but we nonetheless went on talking. "The euphoria is already fading," she said. "People are starting to realize that they won't be able to meet up with their relatives, that there could be a war. I'm not against Russia. But they shouldn't have cut off Crimea just like that! Even in February nobody thought it would be part of Russia. But things really got going ahead of the referendum. It's incredible how quickly people's views can change."
She went to the man and whispered something to him. He shot a quick glance at me and walked up to me. "You can write about it or not, but let me tell you one thing: the Ukrainians tried to rally me to their side as a Soviet naval officer. But no one ever humiliated anyone or held anyone face down on the ground at gunpoint!" He was visibly worked up and looked unwell.
"Why are the ships being captured by Sevastopol's "self-defense" forces and not by Russian troops?" I asked.
He laughed. "Because this way it looks like "disgruntled citizens" rather than enemies are trying to seize the ship," he said. "And this way you're not really supposed to shoot at them. But there are always Russian special forces among these self-defense groups, you can tell by the way they stroll on the deck. Self-defense forces would never have stormed a warship on their own! I feel sorrow for Ukraine and shame for Russia."
Four hours later, when I tried to return to my vantage point on the hill, it was no longer accessible. Patrolling guards stopped me.
"Let's go to the pier," a man nearby gestured to me. I followed him. A man and woman in their 40s with a girl of about 12 came along. The man was wearing an evening suit and a tie, the woman a long coat and high heels. The girl had colorful ribbons in her hair. "My son will take part in the storming," the woman informed me before reminding her husband to prepare the camera. "He stormed the "Ternopil,"
too," she said with pride. They stood there for a long time. But the girl got bored and the man started shivering. They left.
The "Slavutych" was visible from the pier, but it was still far away. People started trickling in around 5 p.m. A fisherman who had sat there for a while was talkative despite his poor catch. "The captain on the 'Slavutych' is stubborn. He says that he won't surrender, that he'll shoot to kill. Forty percent of the crew has already left the ship. Some of those serving on a contract basis even jumped into the water and swam to the shore. Their mothers picked them up and took them home. Many of them are from Crimea." The fisherman slammed authorities in Kyiv and told dreadful stories about Ukrainian troops who had chosen to leave Crimea.
In the meantime, the tugboat had reached the "Slavutych." "It's starting," sighed the man who had called "Serhiy" on the phone. A woman shouted "Russia! Russia! Surrender!" One of the men standing on the pier swore at her and dialed a number on his phone. "How are you holding out over there?" he asked.
From the "Slavutych" came loudspeaker warnings that those on the tugboat were acting illegally. The tune "Varyag"-- a song praising the heroic crew of a cruiser
from the Russo-Japanese War -- was then played. "They still haven't managed to come up with their own song," someone sniggered on the pier.
Like A Pirate Raid
The man who had earlier admitted deserting the ship like a rat was almost in tears. "I wrote my report and quit today," he moaned. His name was Mykola. Until that morning, he had been midshipman on the "Slavutych." "But what could I do? Against whom should I fight? What should I fight for? I spent four weeks on this ship. Where am I supposed to go, to Ukraine? To be jailed there for five to seven years? My mother is disabled, my child goes to school in Sevastopol. I have a wife. How will I help them? Should I tell them to wait until they release me from jail?"
I asked him why he was so sure he would be jailed. "Three troops who quit were detained in Kherson, the information has been checked, the military recruitment office was contacted," he answered. "I have nothing against Ukraine, until 11 a.m. today I was a bona fide Ukrainian! But my wife called me and said, 'No way.' So I'll get drunk today. And tomorrow I'll return to serve on the 'Slavutych,' this time as a Russian."
As Mykola delivered his monologue, abundantly peppered with obscene language, blows from a sledgehammer resounded in the background -- the captain's cabin was being broken open. There was an explosion. "They're using grenades," someone commented.
The scene unfolding on the deck resembled a pirate raid. A small boat circled the ship, carrying armed troops -- those same forces that are allegedly not interfering in the so-called "demonstration of civil discontent."
It was getting dark quickly. The raiders asked for projectors. Gaping doors could be seen on board. Gunshots pierced the air, but it was unclear who was shooting at whom. Only one thing was clear: it was all over. The Ukrainian flag, the last one in Sevastopol's bay, had disappeared. It had been taken down immediately.
Among those who had come to watch the seizure of the "Slavutych" was a young woman in her early twenties. She did not utter a word.
The ship had been stormed, the crew had no chance of escaping. It was getting cold. It was already dark, but she did not take her eyes off the "Slavutych."
I didn't ask her who she had on that ship.