May 17 2008

Trouble in Odessa

Published by at 2:08 am under World Tour 2008

Odessa city limits
Odessa city limits

I am staying in another Soviet-style hotel in Odessa (Одесса) for a couple of days and yesterday I managed to make two really stupid mistakes worthy of a newbie traveller:

I hadn’t slept much the previous night (catching up with emails) and had spent all day walking around the city before heading towards the beach a few kilometres away. I was almost there when two obviously drunk young men asked me something aggressively. I didn’t understand and gave the usual nyet and kept walking but they persisted.

First mistake of the day, which I blame on my lack of sleep, was to tell them to P* off, in a less gentle way and in English. Next time I’ll keep my mouth shut or at least swear in French because one of the drunks immediately got very angry and obviously wanted to share more than foreign words. Knowing I had just made a terrible mistake I went to ask for some help to two guards standing around a nearby hospital gate. They weren’t keen to help me, more interested in keeping me and the drunks outside the hospital. Eventually I forced my way in, they restrained the drunks a bit and I asked them to call the police. After a few minutes of shouting from everyone’s part they eventually called and the drunks went out of sight. At that point I was inside the hospital’s courtyard and a few patients were quite supportive, much more so than the guards who didn’t want to let me out anymore! After 30 minutes the police (militsya) came, 4 guys in a military-type uniform in an enormous 4×4. I thought that was a bit overkill, after all no one was hurt and I just wanted a safe way out, a taxi would have been good enough. A nice lady at the hospital explained what had happened and we drove a few minutes around the area in search of my attackers. We were on the way to my hotel (I think!) when I saw them on the street.

Second mistake of the day, which I blame on me still thinking like in England, was to tell the policemen. The car stopped, 3 policemen came out, started beating up the drunks (enough for them to bleed) and eventually arrested them. We drove to the central police station where I was expecting to be briefly questioned, sign a few papers, and out maybe an hour later. It took two hours for one of the policemen to write down a rather long statement (not mine as I hadn’t been questioned), during which the young drunks were not restrained as I was standing next to them, often with no other supervision. No one stopped them trying to intimidate me, or me talking back to them, in French this time as I thought it would be better to pretend not to speak English. I started to get a bit more worried about the police than my attackers.

We all went back in the 4×4, driving to the beach. This time I would be questioned at the local police station. It was a slow process done by 3 or 4 different people (I had quit pretending not speaking English but that didn’t make much difference) and it wasn’t really going anywhere. I was wondering why I was being kept for so long, after all I was the obvious victim and the affair was quite simple.

I ended up in the chief’s office and then it took a different angle. He searched my bag for “narcotics” (weed would have made his day) and that gave him a good excuse to go through all my stuff: cameras, mobile phone, counting the dollars and kopecks in my wallet, etc… He and his colleagues were all quite impressed by the cameras (an SLR and a compact) and didn’t hesitate to try them. I carry some pepper spray (not illegal in France) and I was rather worried but that didn’t bother him when I said it was against dogs (I haven’t used it yet). He eventually noticed a missing bit of paper in my passport. I had lost the immigration paper they give you when you enter Ukraine (It looks like a cash machine receipt and fortunately I found it later in my hotel room) and apparently that was a big offense: deportation! Gulag? He threatened to stamp my passport with his “deportation stamp” which would have apparently meant me leaving the country ASAP by plane and not being able to come back for many years (that latter part was fine by me at that point). He also told me that the two drunks were pretending that I had actually robbed them and they didn’t know who to believe. I strongly suspected all that was mostly for show but after an hour of this I started having doubts about where it would lead. I was starting to make new plans in my head: in case of quick deportation maybe I could catch a ferry to Turkey in Odessa instead of having to fly with my heavy bike. At some point the chief made me understand that he was after money but he wouldn’t give me a figure. He knew how much I had on me (about $140 in local money and dollars). I didn’t want to make an offer either. I asked him his name but he would only give me a first name. This went on for another hour as they made me come in and out the chief’s office many times. Eventually I offered all my local money (about $70) which he refused, and at that point I was already dreaming about Turkey so I said ok you can deport me. He waved his fake stamp a few more times over my passport, another 30 minutes of waiting in a separate room and at last I was free to go. I jokingly asked if I could take his photo but he refused. It was all a big show that had lasted almost 5 hours and entertained the bored militsya of Odessa.

It wasn’t all that friendly though: as I was leaving, the two young drunks (sober by now) came in the chief’s room with a few other policemen and started to be seriously shouted at and pushed around. I made a very quick exit and headed out to a bar for a strong coffee!

I’ll remember than from then on, the police (especially in large cities) can’t be trusted…

I still have one more day in Odessa, doing admin and planning rather than visiting. The beach is definitely a no go for me anyway! (Show on Google Maps)

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Trouble in Odessa”

  1. Bob Wilkinsonon 17 May 2008 at 11:45 pm

    Hi Arnaud

    That sounds very hairy. I am glad that you got out of that situation in one piece.

    Live and learn!

    Bob

  2. Dave Myttonon 18 May 2008 at 8:39 pm

    hi Arnaud glad you got out of that OK. Keep speaking French !

  3. Maksym Schipkaon 17 Jun 2008 at 2:54 pm

    Hi Arnaud,

    Welcome to former Soviet Union. Police there is serving the rich and those who hold power, not people. 🙂

    Congratulations that you got out so easily – I got my nose broken by police in a much less serious situation.

    Word of advise: always stick to normal, everyday people, not to police.

    Good luck!

    Maksym

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