'Fascists' or heroes? How WWII history divides Ukraine

Lviv (Ukraine) (AFP) - He fought alongside the Nazis, then against them. He tried to drive the Soviets out of his native Ukraine, and spent 11 years in a prison camp in Russia.

What does that make Oles Gumenyuk -- a fascist? Or a hero? It depends on who you ask.

Mustachioed and vigorous despite his 90 years, he calls himself a freedom fighter, proud of having served in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in World War II.

"We were warriors, fighters, patriots. We were proud people and never asked for compassion from our enemies," he said in an interview in his apartment in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Seventy-five years on, it's a controversial boast.

In Ukraine's latest conflict, "fascist" is the insult hurled by pro-Russian separatists -- and Russian media -- at the Kiev government side.

The epithet harks back to the Ukrainian nationalist fighters who sided, for a time, with the Nazis, hoping they would drive out the Soviets during the war.

Among these was Gumenyuk, who at 18 joined a Ukrainian division of the Nazi SS force.

He says it was a strategic decision.

"We joined them so we could get trained. But we knew even then that Germany was going to lose the war," he said.

After tactical training from the Germans, he joined the nationalist UPA, which first supported but then turned on the Nazis, fighting the Germans and the Red Army at the same time.

- War hero or Nazi stooge? -

On the wall of his apartment, Gumenyuk has a portrait of one of the most divisive figures in Ukraine's history: World War II nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.

Ukrainians in the west hail Bandera as a hero; others in the pro-Russian east and in Russia itself hate him, branding him a Nazi collaborator.

Some historians say Ukrainian nationalists committed atrocities during World War II, notably against Poles in Ukraine.

But Ukraine's pro-European Union parliament this month gave them unprecedented recognition, adopting a new law granting UPA members the status of "Ukrainian independence fighters".

Parliament has also approved a controversial ban on Nazi and Communist symbols and propaganda.

The reforms have angered Russia at a time of tensions between the neighbours over the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 6,000 people in the past year.

The Russian foreign ministry accused Ukraine of "rewriting history". It said the law would "create divisions" and promote a "nationalist ideology".

- Siberian gulag -

Formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Gumenyuk's native region of Ivano-Frankivsk was under Polish rule when he was born but would change hands several times over the course of the 20th century.

In 1939, "when the Soviets arrived, we really thought that our brothers had come to liberate us from Poland," he recalled.

At that time, Ukrainians hung two flags in their villages: their yellow-and-blue national one and the red one for the Soviet troops.

"But after a couple of weeks, they started looking for those who had hung the yellow-and-blue flags and arresting them," Gumenyuk said.

Hundreds of thousands of western Ukrainians are said to have been killed or sent to Soviet prison camps in the ensuing repression.

"When the Germans arrived we also saw them as liberators," Gumenyuk said.

In September 1945, he was wounded in fighting against the Red Army and ended up a prisoner of the Soviets.

He spent the next 11 years in a Siberian prison camp in the far northern city of Norilsk, thousands of kilometres from his home in western Ukraine.

Parliament's recognition of UPA members as freedom fighters comes too late for most of his former brothers in arms, many of whom have died.

"But it is still very important for our descendants, so that our children's and grandchildren's generations can never say we were bandits," he said.

Lviv-based historian Igor Derevyaniy said the legislation could help Ukraine make peace with its painful history.

"It is a matter of justice for those who fought for a democratic Ukrainian state and those who died for it," he said.

"Ukraine for the first time is abandoning its totalitarian past."