World News

Taken From Ukraine’s War Zone, Grenades Are Used in Crimes, Too

Posted December 24, 2017 1:24 p.m. EST

KIEV, Ukraine — The murder trial in Nikopol, a town in eastern Ukraine, was entangled in bureaucratic delays that were clearly angering a father of one of the victims.

By the time a hearing opened Nov. 30, the judge had already delayed the case 20 times over a year and a half. Two weeks earlier, the father, Ruslan Tapayev, had posted on Facebook that “the criminals who committed the crime should be punished. Otherwise, society will plunge into chaos.”

When the 21st hearing led to yet another postponement, the distraught man decided to take justice into his own hands. He pulled the pins from two hand grenades, then threw one at the three defendants and held the second, killing himself.

It blew the windows out, and there was a fire, screaming and panic,” said Anzhelika Bahrova, a judge who just moments before had stepped out of the courtroom. “It is not easy to forget. Still, everything here reminds me of that blast.” One of the defendants was killed, and a dozen others were wounded.

After nearly four years of war with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the spread of weapons stolen from the army has led to an increase in gun violence unusual for a European country. It has also led to something new and more disturbing: Hand grenades are turning up in a variety of crimes, including domestic violence and bank robbery.

The Ukrainian police reported seizing about 2,500 hand grenades this year, compared with 100 in 2013.

“This is the consequence of the enormous and uncontrolled circulation of military weapons on the territory of Ukraine after the beginning of hostilities,” said Anna Maliar, a criminologist. “In the past, people also had aggressive quarrels, but there was no access to grenades or other weapons. Now, it is very easy to purchase weapons from people who visit the war zone.”

The police are seizing an ever growing number of explosive devices, even in areas far from the fighting, Small Arms Survey, a group that monitors the distribution of weapons globally, said in a report released in the spring.

Arms experts say it is no surprise that more and more grenades are leaking from the war zone. Hand grenades are easy to hide and hard to keep a good accounting of in combat situations.

“A grenade is consumable: It means that a soldier can claim that it exploded, but easily hide it instead,” said Bohdan Petrenko, the deputy director of the Ukrainian Institute of Research of Extremism in Kiev. The soldier can then sell it on the black market for about $15, a tidy sum in a country with per capita household income in 2016 of $1,135.66.

As a result, hand grenades have become an increasingly familiar aspect of Ukrainian life. In one of the earliest and deadliest attacks, a hand grenade thrown into a crowd of protesters in Kiev in 2015 killed four police officers and injured 141 people.

More recently, a Ukrainian serviceman killed himself by detonating a grenade after a quarrel with his girlfriend. An unemployed man threatened a gas station attendant with a hand grenade and then drove off without paying the bill.

Most hand grenade crimes take place in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, a frequently lawless area where the Ukrainian army is fighting Russia-backed separatists.

One factor making grenades hard to track is the sheer number of people who have permits to enter the zone of military action, called the counterterrorist operation area. More than 10,300 people have died there since 2014, many of them civilians.

Thousands of people can be in the area at any given time, including residents, volunteers who bring supplies to the troops and members of paramilitary groups. “Civilians, especially women, are usually checked less,” said Petrenko, the researcher.

Firearms have flowed from the war zone as well, but because Ukraine lacks a central registry, it is hard to know how many. Moreover, gun ownership is widely supported in Ukraine. In 2015, it took only six days for a petition calling for a law for easy, legal, firearms possession to collect 36,000 signatures.

After the antigovernment uprising in 2014, several members of Parliament proposed legalizing firearms to eliminate black-market trading. They have suggested easing regulations to allow civilians to legally possess firearms for self-defense, rather than only for hunting, as is the case now.

But even if firearms were made more widely available, civilians would still not be allowed to possess hand grenades.

That makes a lot of sense, said Maliar, the criminologist, who said the war and economic hardship had put a lot of people on a short fuse. “Social tension increases in the society,” she said. “Law enforcement is not efficient, and people don’t trust the police.”

Many people, she added, think it is easier to take matters into their own hands.