UW student in Kiev sees destruction — and dignity
Though intense and deadly battles have occurred in the streets immediately surrounding Independence Square, the community of protesters remains resilient.
Special to The Seattle Times
I had lunch Friday at a small cafe about 400 meters from the barricades that wall off Kyiv’s EuroMaidan encampment from the rest of the city. Since the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 18, as many as 100 people have been killed in the district surrounding our lunch spot. The streets of EuroMaidan were engulfed in mayhem for nearly 72 hours. Our little bagel shop, however, never closed. It was never threatened, it was never flustered, and it hosted a healthy crowd Friday at lunch time.
Kiev has become a city defined by the juxtaposition of these tiny geographies. Twenty meters in that direction there is a tire fire or tear gas; 30 meters the other way, luxury clothing stores are having their winter sales. Though intense and deadly battles have occurred in the streets immediately surrounding Independence Square, the rest of the city has been functioning normally, and the two small blocks between us and the camps separate us into entirely different universes.
Thursday morning was also defined by small spaces, as police snipers stationed themselves on the roofs of buildings just beyond a barricade at the edge of the square. As protesters worked to rebuild their encampment following a violent and destructive police raid, speakers could be heard from the main stage screaming, “Everyone! Do not go outside of the barricades on Institutka! Police are shooting people on that road. They just killed seven more people there — just now! Do not cross that threshold, you will be shot!” Many men died on one side of that barricade, while hundreds more labored for hours to reinforce defenses just on the other.
Many more contradictions exist in EuroMaidan’s small spaces. Thousands of young activists have formed themselves into Self-Defense brigades. These volunteers are the first to put themselves in harm’s way when Ukraine’s police forces threaten or attack. Menacing-looking photos of the EuroMaidan Self-Defense have been circulated widely through the media.
Dressed in helmets and body armor, carrying shields and homemade truncheons, these recruits can appear to be downright frightening. If you meet them in person, however, this impression will be shattered. Many of them blush visibly, even under their balaclavas, when young women express gratitude for their service and force them to accept offerings of hot tea and chocolates.
One night this past week, one young guard heard me speaking English with an American friend. He rushed out to talk to us and ask us how we were getting along.
He invited us into the guards’ post to chat and practice their conversation skills. There was more than one who had been actively working on their language skills. “Please come,” he said in carefully articulated English. “There is fire. We have cake.”
On Wednesday of this week, when we all thought the violence had ended (how wrong we were ... ), I accompanied a group delivering food and medical supplies to Kiev’s City Hall. Protesters had again taken up residence there, hosting a kitchen, sleeping quarters and field hospital.
The middle-aged woman who received our donations immediately tore into our bag of mandarin oranges. She thrust one toward a fully outfitted Self-Defense volunteer.
“Take this!” she said sternly, “You’ve been standing all day. You need vitamins.”
With a sandwich in one hand and a soda in the other, the volunteer raised his arms and said, “Nah, I don’t need it.”
The woman was immediately displeased. Unleashing a small tirade of concern for his health, she grabbed the hood of his jacket and assaulted his head with the orange. She did not let him go until the fruit was firmly lodged between his neck and shirt collar.
The man instinctively pulled away from her and giggled uncontrollably, like a child being tickled by a parent. Once the deed had been done, he smiled at her affectionately while she gently smacked the back of his flak jacket. “Eat it,” she said, and laughed right back.
From the beginning, EuroMaidan has been a community movement in every sense of the word. So much of the reporting on events in Kiev has missed this part of the story.
You have probably not seen that stairs and railings have been installed throughout the camp along slippery walkways that are hard to cross. You have probably not heard about the IT tent that provided the entire square with free Wi-Fi, where volunteers offered assistance with email and Skype for first-time users.
It is likely you are also unaware that EuroMaidan had a fully cataloged and operational library, an internal postal system, and an open university that hosted lectures from local academics and screened documentary films.
There was even a family-friendly art center where people of all ages could try their hand at painting and drawing. The finished products were hung with pride on the interior walls of the activist-occupied Ukrainian House on European Square.
All of these elements were lost this week. The library was destroyed in the police raid. The IT tent was burned as protesters lit a wall of tires ablaze to keep the riot police, armed with live ammunition, back and away from the heavily populated camps. Even the Trade Union building was set on fire; with no city services available to help extinguish the blaze, a lovely and highly functional building, which the protesters had also been using for housing, food preparation, and medical services, was largely destroyed.
Today, the landscape in the square is barren. Char and grease line every surface imaginable, and the foul stench of burnt plastic and rubber hangs in the air.
Despite this, the community itself remains resilient. The hospital in the Trade Union building, now destroyed, has been replaced with medical centers in the Central Post Office and St. Michael’s Cathedral.
People have come in droves to prepare food, deliver medicines, and comb through the wreckage of their camp. Inside the Ukrainian House, dozens of volunteers have been working together to clean mud and dirt off the sparkling marble floors. Even these small tasks reveal a deep sense of caring and dignity. They speak volumes about the protesters who are filling Kiev’s Independence Square.
At the moment, EuroMaidan is once again learning to cope with vast differences within a small space. As of Thursday, a deal has been struck with the government, which has spurred a return to the 2004 constitution of Ukraine.
This is a major blow to the executive powers of President Yanukovych and a victory for the opposition movement. However, the deal also stipulates that presidential elections will be held 10 months from now.
Opposition leaders seemed satisfied with this deal, but many on the ground in EuroMaidan claim they aren’t able to tolerate for another single day the presidency of this man who ordered the shooting of nearly 100 friends and loved ones.
Some protesters have threatened direct action upon government buildings if Yanukovych does not resign from the presidency Saturday. Opposition leaders are trying to ease their anger.
Come Saturday, we will see which of these sentiments gets the better hand.
Jennifer J. Carroll is a University of Washington graduate student working toward a Ph.D. in Sociocultural Anthropology and an M.P.H. in Epidemiology. She currently lives in Kiev, where she is studying drug-addiction issues in Ukraine.