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I NEVER imagined myself entering a war zone, let alone in the company of Italian punks on tour, yet here we were on a cold and damp May morning, crossing the Russian border into rebel-held eastern Ukraine.
Almost immediately our small convoy approached a black swastika spray-painted on a building and surrounded by a red circle, which was crossed through as if it were a no smoking sign. The artist’s symbolism was unmistakable — this land is fascist-free.
It reminded me of Free Derry Corner in my native Ireland, where the people of the Bogside neighbourhood once proclaimed autonomy, and where that iconic declaration still survives on the remnants of the house where it appeared overnight during the uprising of 1969.
Our cargo, besides the guitars, drums, trumpets and trombones of Banda Bassotti — the leftist musicians behind this humanitarian mission — included medical supplies and children’s toys destined for battered but unbroken locals entering their second year of civil war.
More than 100 international visitors from Spain, Greece, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Russia, Poland, Switzerland, Turkey, Bulgaria, Britain and Peru each carried a suitcase loaded with aid provided by our respective solidarity campaigns.
The latest UN figures tell a bloody tale. More than 20,000 people are now dead or wounded in Ukraine’s rebellious Donbass region, with a further million refugees having fled into the arms of Russia — the supposed aggressor.
Last week the UN warned that its estimates were “conservative” and that casualties “could be significantly higher.”
We witnessed this destruction as our convoy passed empty villages shattered by indiscriminate shelling from the notorious Azov Battalion — 21st-century nazis who flaunt Waffen-SS iconography on their official insignia.
Hundreds of British, US and other Nato troops have arrived in Ukraine since March this year in order to train its armed forces. Kiev’s interior minister confirmed last month that Azov fighters will be among the beneficiaries.
Historically, soldiers have commonly found themselves billeted in civilian homes. In our case the roles were reversed. We were guests of the local anti-fascist militia, living for several days with the volunteers of Ghost Brigade at their barracks in the town of Alchevsk.
We arrived at night during a power cut, entering the barracks by torchlight. Our beams illuminated a red flag, complete with hammer and
sickle. This was not the Soviet national flag but a military variant, the Banner of Victory, which had been raised above the Reichstag in April 1945. Here was a replica, hanging in pride of place.
Attached to corridor walls were large detailed maps of surrounding towns and countryside, along with diagrams and instructions on the correct use of military equipment.
The highlight of our trip came on May 9 when we joined thousands of locals and the people’s militia on a parade through the streets of Alchevsk to mark the 70th anniversary of Germany’s surrender.
Families carried flowers and portraits of relatives fallen in battle, representing a tiny fraction of the 27 million Soviets killed in the “war of annihilation” unleashed on them by Hitler. Children wore Red Army outfits and held balloons adorned with the hammer and sickle.
Such displays are today illegal in areas beyond rebel control, where Soviet symbolism has been banned by the US-EU-backed regime that seized power in the Kiev coup of February 2014. Offenders face up to 10 years in jail.
In a further insult, the same legislation recognises the Ukrainian Insurgent Army — WWII nazi collaborators responsible for the murder of 100,000 Jewish and Polish civilians — as “freedom fighters.”
An outraged Simon Wiesenthal Center, world-renowned for its nazi-hunting activities, warned that the measure “has turned Hitler’s henchmen into heroes.” It was signed into law by Ukraine’s billionaire president Petro Poroshenko, just a week after VE Day.
Banda Bassotti entertained a delighted crowd on Lenin Square in central Alchevsk — one of many free open-air gigs they played at different locations during our stay.
Camped opposite the Soviet leader’s statue, the band performed turbocharged renditions of popular partisan songs: Bella Ciao from their native Italy and the Red Army’s own Katyusha, a celebration of the rocket launchers which so famously decimated the invading Wehrmacht.
It went down a storm. Military veterans and babushkas, teenagers and kids on their parents’ shoulders, pumped their clenched fists in the air, joyously singing along.
After the concert a little girl approached me holding a pen and paper. I was astonished — she was asking for an autograph. Despite my protests she was persistent and, having relented, I was rewarded with a precious hug.
Two middle-aged women followed with the same request. I drew a hammer and sickle next to my signature below the words “No Fascism!” spelt as best as I could in the Cyrillic alphabet.
I received another warm embrace as the women, nearly in tears, repeated: “Spacibo, spacibo, spacibo” (thank you, thank you, thank you). The experience left me shaking with emotion.
Eddie Dempsey is a train driver and an activist with transport union RMT. He writes in his capacity as a member of the Solidarity with the Anti-fascist Resistance in Ukraine (SARU) campaign, to which his union is affiliated. His third and final dispatch from the Donbass will appear in the Morning Star next week.
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