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Ukraine Was Not What I Expected

‘The smell of revolution is so romantic’ says Nataly, commenting on the smoke from the fires that sticks to the fur of her mink coat

Media reports in Poland of the situation in Kiev looked grim. On January 16 strict anti – protest laws passed by the government which (among other things) threatened activists with 15 years jail turned protests in Kiev violent. Activists radicalized and armed clashes with police resulted in the deaths of three people and injured many more. The reports of this violence were accompanied with dramatic photographs which portrayed a city in chaos. Expecting the worst I stupidly decide to get on a train from Warsaw and witness the situation for myself.

On the platform I receive a message from a Polish friend wishing me a safe journey,

‘Be careful Lucas. The situation is now the hands of some nationalistic and fascist movements, Klitschko is not in control anymore’

Not knowing who Klitschko was I decide I will do some Googling when I got to Kiev. Needless to say the message questioned my decision to go.

In Kiev I hook up with a friend of a friend, Andriy. Andriy lives and works for the Center for Society Research, an NGO which has focused its resourses toward humanitarian aid in Kiev.

Andriy takes me on a tour of the revolution. We get off the subway at Independence Square which has been the sight of mass demonstrations and protests for the last few months. 5 meter high barricades made of bags of ice isolate the square from the rest of a still functioning city. They enclose what can be described as something similar to a music festival or public fair. Hundreds of tents line the square most exhibiting propaganda displaying the owners’ political ideology of which there are many. Flags hang from everything and anything. What was once a 10 meter tall Christmas tree is now a giant yellow and blue cone. Opposite is a stage which always attracts a crowd. It is a forum for people who have something to say and at night there is a band or two. Families, people on their lunch break or have finished work walk the square taking photos and enjoying the free food. And if the free food is not to your taste McDonald’s is still open. There is definitely no shortage of hot drink. Tea in all its varieties is constantly on offer. If you seriously want the best tea in the world I recommend the Malteser tent. Thank god because Tea is all that is on offer, the square and the front lines are designated dry zones.

Like a true festival, the revolution is merchandised. 5 euro will get you a ski mask, 10 will get you a scarf. I forgot to ask how much the flags were.

All in all the atmosphere is quite peaceful. In fact, if it was not for the demeaning slogans and pictures of President Viktor Yanukovych and the presence of heavily armed men you could be forgiven for thinking that there was no revolution.

However, the front line is completely different. It represents the aftermath of the major conflict of the last few weeks. There are more barricades made of bags of ice, burnt out vehicles, barb wire and tires. The air is full of smoke from fires which burn around the clock and black sticky ash covers everything. This image is framed by fire damaged and vandalized monuments and buildings. Not too far away in the distance there is a wall of steel shields held by riot police that defend government buildings behind them. The area looks like a war zone but today the atmosphere is quite peaceful. Two days ago the government offered amnesty for arrested protesters in exchange for the liberation of occupied government buildings. Consequently not much is going on. Protesters are relaxing by the fire, texting on their phones. Some are posing for photos. I find a family having lunch together. Mother and daughter enjoy a meal with their boys. Mum even offers me something to eat and not wanting to offend anyone I eagerly accept. Russian dumplings full of potato, a little cold but I am ever grateful.

Getting access into the more dangerous areas at the front proved to be difficult. The area is controlled by guards who stop people who don’t belong for their own safety and I guess everyone else’s. These men are equipped in anything from motorcycle armor to ex-military equipment. All carry a weapon. After being denied on my first attempt I get pass the guards in disguise by covering my face with a scarf and lumping a heavy sack of ice on my back. Once in I start to take photos with my outdated but trusty smart phone, all at the expense of some friendly laughs from professional press photographers, who seem more concerned with my safety than I am. After, I have a conversation with David, a doctor before the revolution who is happy to discuss his thoughts on the situation.

“Ukraine has never been so united” he explains, handing me some wet wipes to help clean the ash off my hands. “Everyone is involved, people from the east, people from the west. We used to fight each other now we fight a common enemy – a corrupt government.”

I ask David about the people who are willing to fight.

“Nationalists, people with military experience, fathers and sons, basically anyone with the balls […] Even the football hooligans have put aside their differences”.

What he said reminds me of a story I was told about a woman literally getting her hands dirty on the night of 19th when protests turned violent. In heels and a mink coat she was allegedly seen digging up stones from the pavement which were transported to the front line and used as projectiles.

This was a far cry from reports I received in Poland stating that Nationalist and Fascist groups are in control of the situation.

“No one is in charge” says David. “People refer to the nationalist group the Right Sector as the cause of the violence and hostiles with police. In reality the Right Sector has evolved into a collective term representing the people who are willing to fight”.

So if they are not in charge who is?

David credits the public, “Without the support from the people this revolution will be over in a number of days”

On the ground it is easy to understand what he means. The first thing that you notice is the sense of organization and community. Government buildings which are now under the occupation of activists are full of volunteers who sort and administer donations ranging from food and water to warm clothes, medicine and fuel. A library has been built from donated books which are organized and sorted. Kitchens are constantly busy turning the donated food into meals for anyone who is hungry. The elderly go out into the streets delivering food, while trained medical professionals are giving their services to victims of violence.

With the two major universities closed these occupied buildings have also become the forums of public lectures. Andriy informs me that Professors debate and discuss topics ranging from education to economics. Topics associated on how best to develop Ukraine after the revolution.

In the street, people with skill are building and maintaining fortifications while others fill and carry sacks of ice or chop and transport timber for fires. Production lines which consist of mainly women and young people make Molotov Cocktails of which there are hundreds. Everyone is busy doing what they can. The streets are kept clean, traffic is controlled and the people are policing themselves.

Even tattooists are working for free.

However, despite all the support protesters are divided on the recent escalation of violence and clashes with police.

People like Mathew an independent coffee shop owner who is sympathetic to an EU- Ukraine would like the protests to remain peaceful. He would prefer that protests would represent the mass demonstrations similar to those organized last year.

In contrast, Slava a friend of Andriy’s who is also pro EU, believes that revolution should take a more active approach and thinks that conflict is necessary to see results. He compares the current situation with the French revolution.

‘The time for singing and dancing is over. Progress can only be achieved in blood’.

Despite this divide however all the people that I have talked to welcome the protection that an armed force can provide.

Protesters are all too aware of the hard line the government continues to take since the first sign of brutality by police on students during passive protests on the night of November 30th.

According to Andriy, It is not only the police you need to watch out for. It has been alleged that government has paid Ukrainian thugs known as the Titushky who employ intimidation techniques in order to cause unrest amongst protesters. The Titushky who dress in plain clothes are blamed of many accounts of acts ranging from destroying property, kidnappings and assaults. Allegedly, some of these acts have been committed in view of police which have not resulted in intervention.

On January 22nd Dmytro Bulatov, a high profile figure amongst activists went missing and was hospitalized after being found 8 days later almost frozen to death in a forest, badly beaten, mutilated and tortured.

However, protesters are also to blame for similar acts of violence.

Andriy infoms me that the Automaidan, which can be described as a mobile protest unit responsible for the transportation of protesters and supplies, have also taken part in patrols known as Titushky safari. On safari members of the Automaidan, which included Bulatov, would hunt for Titushky and those found were intimidated and beaten.

In fact, last night around 11pm while walking home after dinner I stumble upon a group of about 15 people all in ski masks and are heavily armed. They appear to be in the 20s. I approach them and ask very politely if I could take a photo, all the while telling them I’m Australian with the hope this will save my life. They were very friendly but declined telling me what they were doing was a secret and that I should keep walking. Shortly after they walk past me with a clear purpose and disappear into a nearby apartment. One was armed with a cattle prod.

With all the conflict, human rights activists are at hand to help people who are caught in the conflict to receive the support they need. For example, Andriy’s NGO assist in providing activists with legal advice and financial aid. More importantly, they help to ensure that activists who are injured in the conflict receive medical attention. However, I am told that some have been denied this basic right.

‘In some cases activists injured in the conflict have been arrested in hospitals and denied of medical attention. Some who are caught behind police lines and severely beaten are detained without even making it to the hospital’. I am told by Inna the creator of the Center for Society Research.

For example it is alleged that police attempted to arrest and detain the tortured Bulatov shortly after being admitted to hospital. Activists defended the hospital and were successful in stopping police.

My experience of the Ukrainian revolution is in contrast to my expectations. There are no riots and the city is not in a state of chaos. However, I do not want the reader to think I am downplaying the situation. There has been violence and hostility from both sides which has led to the deaths of 7 protesters, 1 police officer and has seriously injured many more. What should be understood from what I have observed is that at this moment the revolution is not under the ‘control’ of one political group, radical or otherwise. Rather, the power resides in a well-organized and unified collective of people of different beliefs. It is true that fascists, radicals, and I imagine even psychopaths who are itching for a fight are amongst the ranks of activists, but they are also alongside people of every other walk of life, such as mothers, Russian speaking Eastern Ukrainians, Pro EU Ukrainians from the West, farmers, intellectuals, coffee shop owners, and students. It appears that despite individual political differences and motivations, people of Ukraine are working together in order to build a better government.

Slava, over a few vodkas sums it up well.

“The fighting and demonstrations are not in aim to replace the current government with another of a specific type or ideology. People are not thinking that far ahead. It is rather a revolution of mentality, a revolution of change”.

Of course this leaves a problem about what will happen if the revolution is successful. Can these different political groups continue to work together without a common enemy?

‘God only knows’, states Dave the doctor on the front line. ‘But we will have a new President and that’s a start’.

Video footage can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPonKmt4EKU

All images property of Lucas O’Leary

Tags : Features
Lucas O'Leary

The author Lucas O'Leary

1 Comment

  1. Hi lucas, would it be ok if I ask the Green Left weekly if they would like to print your story and image?

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