Thousands of Ukrainians congregated around Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti on Friday and Saturday to pay their respects to the dozens of Ukrainians who lost their lives there one year ago during the climax of the Euromaidan protests, when riot police and still unidentified snipers opened fire on protesters, setting in motion the fall of former President Viktor Yanukovych.
About three quarters of the 110 protesters killed during the Euromaidan revolution last year were killed between Feb. 18 and Feb. 20 or died days later from wounds received during those 48 hours. Yanukovych was rumored to have given police orders to open fire. He fled the country for Russia on Feb. 21, effectively ending the government that protesters sought to replace.
Earlier this week, President Petro Poroshenko declared Feb. 20 the Day of the Heavenly Hundred to commemorate those that died in last year’s violence. Those who were there remember their experience vividly. IBTimes spoke with three people who found themselves in the middle of a violent, almost unbelievable scene to hear their own stories from the Maidan.
“People would say ‘this is like the old Cossack fortresses.’”
That's what locals said to Damian Kolody, a Ukrainian-American filmmaker based in New York, when he arrived in Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti this time last year, surrounded by thousands of protesters who had barricaded themselves in the city square with makeshift walls of concrete blocks and metal scraps. He had been tuned into the Maidan protests since they started in September 2013, but by December, he knew something serious was happening, so he hopped on a plane from New York to Kiev and began shooting video around the Maidan, which at the time was filled with only a few thousand people and was relatively peaceful.
It wasn't until he returned on Feb. 12 that the Maidan had been transformed into the Cossack fortress. Now he saw protesters equipped with blunt weapons, helmets and shields stolen from riot police. Seven people had been killed since his trip in December.
“I got there in the middle of a truce. They were sort of gearing up and putting on some training sessions to prepare for clashes with police.”
There were people there all day and night, he said, shoring up the massive barricades, burning tires and ensuring a sense of order. The protesters manning each barricade had shifts and an organizational structure. Someone would be at each entry point screening those who came in.
“They would regulate who came in and out, no smoking, no drinking,” he said, describing the masked men who would berate him for smoking in an unsanctioned area. “They were pretty strict about that…. To get into the square you had to go through these sort of checkpoints at each barricade. You’d go in one side, go out from the other side. It was all organized in an organic way.”
On Feb. 18, Ukraine’s Parliament was supposed to change the constitution to distribute more power to the parliament and away from the president. Some protesters started to march toward the parliament building from the Maidan down Mykhaila Hrushevs’koho Street to show their support for the measure, but thousands of police had blocked off access. With tensions high, some protesters began throwing rocks and eventually Molotov cocktails, prompting the police to respond with flash grenades and rubber bullets.
Then the police charged in an effort to clear the streets. Damian had moved up toward the front of the crowd to shoot video, but began retreating after flash grenades and tear gas started going off around him. At one point, he and the rest of the crowd were squeezed into a small street by pursuing police.
“You couldn’t run anymore because there were so many people. I’m trying to move and film at the same time, because I’m seeing that the police were getting closer and I had dropped back near the end of the crowd to film. We’re shoulder to shoulder and [as police neared] I start seeing them beating the men around me with batons. I had a helmet on and a camera so maybe that’s why they didn’t target me, but I don’t really know.”
The mass of protesters were driven into the Maidan and began burning tents and tires to ward off the advancing police. Damian made it to his apartment, where he put up a few friends who had been injured. Feb. 18 ended with 21 protesters being killed and dozens wounded. The protesters barricaded themselves in the Maidan through the 20th, when police began firing on them with live ammunition. The next day police abruptly left the streets, after Yanukovych denied he was responsible for the order to shoot.
A year later, Ukraine is embroiled in a bloody conflict, but Damian’s close friends in Ukraine are all confident that the Maidan movement was a positive one and their frustrations lie more with Ukraine’s failure to defend itself and support its military. Some have told him they regret Ukraine didn’t do enough to stop Russia from annexing Crimea.
“At the time it was seen as admirable to not answer to the Russian provocation and thinking that maybe the international order would prevent what Putin wanted to do but that didn’t happen. Now they regret they didn’t fight back.”
There’s frustration over a lack of support for Ukrainian soldiers on the front, Damian said, and even more that the West “abandoned” Ukraine.
“That’s the biggest complaint I’ve heard from my friends,” he said. “They’re not questioning that they did what they needed to do… I remember looking and talking to people on the square thinking, ‘there’s no going back for these people,’ and there’s no going back to a normal life for them, that wasn’t an option. They knew that they would be persecuted and put in jail if they didn’t keep the movement going, so they did.”
Damian returned to Kiev on Tuesday this week to see friends and attend memorial ceremonies on Friday and over the weekend.
“We thought we lived in a different kind of society ... we learned the world is still a dangerous place.”
Nineteen-year-old Sviatoslav Yurash made himself an ambassador of the Maidan movement to the world’s press when he founded the International Press Center in early January, where for the next several months he and other demonstrators translated local news reports from Ukrainian and gave interviews to the international outlets that had descended on the Maidan.
When he wasn’t giving interviews from the IPC’s makeshift headquarters in the House of Trade Unions, he was stationed out on the barricades watching the tense standoff between the Maidain’s “self-defense” corps and Kiev’s riot police. On Feb. 20 he was stationed near a hill facing riot police, watching as dozens of protesters were shot and killed as they moved up or down the hill. But people were also being shot around the Maidan in what were previously considered safe areas, he said.
“What was so incredible was the kind of people that were there and the state they were in,” said Sviatoslav. “On the 20th we saw this older man with a shield riddled with bullet holes; he was just sitting there terrified. He later told us he was a member of Parliament, which I thought was incredible. I couldn’t believe that the man who was sitting there on that hill almost killing himself to change his country was one of our lawmakers.”
Sviatoslav has been out on the streets this week, watching the preparations for this weekend’s commemoration events. This weekend will be the first for many Maidan veterans to reunite with their Maidan comrades, particularly for demonstrators who came from outside Kiev, he said.
Kievans reconstructed memorials to the Heavenly Hundred at the Maidan for the commemorations this week. The Heavenly Hundred have become almost legendary amongst former protesters, Yarush said. Many feel more connected to the Heavenly Hundred than they do to the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers who are fighting in eastern Ukraine, because of how closely knit a society the Maidan became over the course of the revolution.
Sviatoslav regrets that what he helped build eventually led to a war that threatens to tear his country apart, but he’s firm with his belief that he and fellow protesters were right to push for reforms and said he would do it all over again if given the chance. He is also sad that many of the protesters from last year who went on to volunteer for the Ukrainian military won’t be able to attend this weekend’s events, as many of them have had little time off duty since the war began in April.
Still, he said, now is a time for reflection for Ukrainians and a chance to reaffirm the values they espoused last year.
“This weekend will show me and the others what we have managed to build as far as a national identity in Ukraine,” he said.
“I dropped everything, my job, my graduate school applications in London, everything.”
Iryna Ovchar, now 21, was splitting time between Kiev and the London when protests started in November 2013. She was in Kiev for the first day of protests, when it was just a small demonstration of a few hundred people.
“It was quite fun because it was a student thing,” she recalled. “Every day after university we were going to the Maidan to demonstrate, listen to music and share some coffee.”
She went back to London afterward for school, but after seeing the situation deteriorate in Kiev, she made the decision to drop everything and return. She told her mother she was returning for school business, but she was really there to protest full time on the Maidan. Her mother was not happy.
Besides tossing aside her promising applications to graduate school, Iryna was putting herself in a situation that would make any parent nervous. Tires were burning around the square, thousands of protesters were hunkered down with makeshift weapons and there were already at least a dozen casualties. She quickly got involved with Sviatoslav's press operation.
Iryna made time to demonstrate at the barricades around the Maidan separating thousands of protesters from hundreds of riot police. She joined the “Women’s 100,” a group of women who put themselves on the frontline of the fight alongside the Maidan’s most intimidating and militant protesters. One day, Iryna and a friend thought to appeal to the police across the barriers, so they grabbed a loudspeaker and explained to police they were not fighting for Europe, but against a president who “doesn’t care about killing students and protesters.” The riot police answered by banging on their helmets and shields in a show of force and that’s when Iryna said she knew they weren’t interested in negotiating. The dangers looming across the barricades became much more real on Feb. 18, when riot police began advancing to clear the square and were shooting live ammunition to do it. Iryna was out taking photos.
”We were out taking photos to post to the Euromaidan Press Twitter page and we came back to the House of Trade Unions when they started shooting and advancing. My mom called me and said ‘do you know the Trade Unions building is burning?’ I didn’t want to run because that would mean abandoning all of our work, but we had to. Before we left I realized that if the police got in they would get our records of protesters with their names, phone numbers and passport info, so I took them all to the bathroom and began burning them in the toilet. I woke up Sviatoslav and the others and we ran.”
She would stay on the Maidan until Feb. 28, working at the International Press Center with Sviatoslav and helping protesters on the ground. By that time Russian troops had started deploying across Crimea and the new Ukrainian government was scrambling to form a viable administration.
Iryna’s decision to commit to the Maidan protests forced her to delay her studies, but like Sviatoslav she feels little regret over her decision. Still, this weekend will be tough for her. She’s in London and knows of at least one commemoration service in the city, but she isn’t sure she’ll attend, because remembering the Maidan brings up very raw emotions for her that she often doesn’t like to think about.
“I’m really more concerned about my old friends, mostly from the east,” she said. “I spend a lot of my time trying to get in contact with them, asking how things are going, if they are safe and getting away from the fighting. It’s quite hard for us to discuss, so I avoid conversations about it.”
Widespread corruption in government was a driving force behind the Maidan movement and while Yanukovych and his political allies are out of the government, many Ukrainians worry that Poroshenko’s government could end up being just as corrupt. A lack of support for Ukrainian soldiers in the east have soured opinions toward Poroshenko, who campaigned on promises to end the crippling corruption that drove people to the Maidan. Iryna is optimistic that Poroshenko, who played a key role in supporting the Euromaidan movement, can steer Ukraine in the right direction.
“I can’t imagine a better president for nowadays,” she said. “Of course there are a lot of problems, but still he’s trying to sort them out. I hope that they’ve involved a lot of Georgian specialists, which should help Ukraine recover.”
Iryna and Sviatoslav both gave off the same cautiously optimistic air when asked about the future of Ukraine, but both were certain that Ukraine is better now that the world has taken notice of the country and its people. Before the revolution, when Iryna told people where she was from, some didn’t know Ukraine wasn’t a part of Russia.
“Now they know. Ukraine is not a part of Russia,” she said. “People finally understand what has been happening in Ukraine and the struggles we have endured.”