Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Floods in southern Russia- Some justice for Krymsk victims at last?

Many of Krymsk's houses collapsed under the weight of the water and many of the dead were asleep inside, unwarned and unable to get out in time.

It was the night of the 6th July 2012 in the small town of Krymsk near the black sea. As locals slept there and in nearby areas in Russia's southern Krasnodar region they were unaware of flash flood waters surging toward the town. Six months worth of rain had fallen in one night. They would have had a better chance if the local authorities, who knew what was happening hours before the surge hit, had warned them properly. 

As it was a virtual tidal wave smashed into the unsuspecting town. More than 170 people drowned as the waters rose in minutes. Terrified survivors fought for their lives as their houses collapsed around them, clinging to fences or any debris that managed to stay standing as the deluge flipped cars over in the streets and filled properties with trees and debris. I was one of the first outside journalists to arrive in the wreckage of Krymsk. Bodies lay in the streets and aid was slow to arrive, enraging the distraught locals. There was no electricity and very little edible food or water left. At the town's mortuary, unusable in the blackout, bodies had to be stacked in refrigerated supermarket lorries.

What had formerly been someone's bedroom.

What most angered the people of Krymsk and the surrounding area was that this gut wrenching tragedy was an avoidable one. 

Over a year later some justice has finally been seen to be done for the bereaved and angry residents of Krymsk. Four local officials have been found guilty of criminal negligence for their failure to warn people on that terrible night. Vasily Krutko, former head of the district administration, Vladimir Ulanovsky, former Krymsk mayor, Victor Zhdanov, head of the district emergencies and civil defence department and Irina Ryabchenko, former head of the Nizhnebakamsk local administration were all convicted of negligence. 

But their crimes are greater even than that. Krutko, Ulanovsky and Ryabchenko have also been found guilty of hurriedly forging documents after the flood, lying that they had adhered to proper practice and warned people in time. Zhdanov was also found guilty of stealing compensation money meant for victim's families. 

Three of the defendants deny their guilt, only Krutko accepted it. Prosecutors have asked the court for sentences of six, four and a half, and three and half years imprisonment for Krutko, Zhdanov and Ulanovsky respectively and a suspended sentence of three and half years imprisonment for Ryabchenko. 

Another defendant, Nadezhda Kurochkina has made a guilty plea bargain in a separate trial. She was head of the Prigorodny settlement in the area and is on trial for negligence and forgery.

The bloated faces of unidentified victims are posted up as bodies are carried out refrigerated supermarket lorries to be placed in coffins.
However one figure is conspicuous by his absence in the doling out of punishment. Alexei Tkachyov, the regional governor and a man heavily involved in the allegedly corrupt Sochi winter Olympics plans, visited the shocked and betrayed residents shortly after they had just learned that his administration could have saved them from this catastrophe. 

All this time later, as the verdicts were announced, a spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee said, "The people were defenceless not only from the elements but, as the investigation has discovered, also from bureaucratic indifference." 

Back then, as Alexei Tkachyov stood in front of a furious crowd in a Krymsk town square they yelled questions about why they weren't warned. He yelled back at them, "what did you expect us to do! Go door to door!" Yes was the answer. Yes that is precisely what you should have done, as Mr Tkachyov and the deadly complacency and corruption of Krasnodar's authorities was drowned out by the shouting of a people who felt utterly betrayed.

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