Insider's view of a city in turmoil

Ex-Times staffer reports from Kiev

Last updated 05:00 13/03/2014
Ukraine

FIERY SIGHT: A Ukrainian national flag flies near burning tyres.

Jared Morgan
KIWI IN KIEV: Jared Morgan.

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In late autumn 2013, Ukrainians rose up. Those protests would evolve, from pro-European, to demands for overthrow of a corrupt government, to bloodshed, and the emergence of potentially the greatest crisis in Europe since the 1930s as Russia casts its net. Former Southland Times reporter Jared Morgan is in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, watching events unfold.

The McDonald's at the edge of Independence Square in Kiev is almost empty. Those who exit its doors emerge red-eyed. Here, burgers are off the menu; instead psychological help is being served to anyone for free. They need it. They are the men and women who witnessed Kiev's bloodiest days since World War II.

Outside the tears flow more freely, candles and flowers line the square and surrounding streets bringing colour to a central city where the mood matches the blackened shells of buildings and still obvious signs of battle.

It is three weeks since most of the 100 dead were killed in clashes with riot police.

There were losses on the other side, up to 20 police killed, but for now they aren't mourned - they represent everything that fuelled the protest, a corrupt government that served its own interests rather than the electorate, and ordered brutal force to protect a system it created to service its greed.

Kiev still mourns those it has dubbed the "Heavenly Hundred". They are men from all walks of life, aged from 17 to into their 80s, but include a woman bludgeoned to death by a specialist police force called the "Berkut". Amid the mourning the question of Russia's intentions is never far from anyone's lips. Revolutionary Road The harsh Ukrainian winter brought changes unprecedented in this country's 23-year post-Soviet history. Despite their tendency to hibernate, Ukrainians braved the cold and took to the streets. Initially, on November 21 to protest at President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to back away from an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.

The mood then was celebratory, neither I nor anyone else believed the people's will would be ignored, optimism the presidential U-turn could be reversed remained. That wasn't to be.

On November 29, at a summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Yanukovych and Ukraine backed away from negotiations seemingly permanently. Public reaction was swift, and the protest, known as EuroMaidan - maidan meaning "square" and referring to Independence Square - took on a new resolve. No longer "pro-European", the focus turned to the Yanukovych regime, which in three years had rorted the country and its people, it would later emerge, to the tune of US$37 billion in state loans that disappeared, and capital flight estimated at $70b.

On November 30, peaceful protest turned bloody. Students, journalists, including international media, were beaten in an attempt to sweep the square by the Berkut. If the clampdown was designed to break the will of protesters, instead it galvanised them. That event was one of several "game-changers" and was part of a step-by-step spiral to the brink of war. Life in a "War Zone" In the wake of the clampdown, life in Kiev changed. On my daily commute to work on Kiev's main drag - Kreshchatyk St - I emerge from my metro station in the midst of a tent city. As I walk the 700 metres to my office I pass field kitchens, supply tents and occupied buildings, all surrounded by barricades swiftly assembled from anything at hand - park benches, billboards, Christmas and New Year decorations and sand-bagged ("snow-bagged") with sacks on densely packed snow.

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With the arrival of spring that snow has melted, but central Kiev remains a fortress. Away from the barricades, life goes on, beer and coffee flows freely in the city's multitude of bars and restaurants, malls throng with shoppers, the arts set toasts the latest exhibition opening, fashionistas air-kiss as a new collection is unveiled.

Up until late February, the centre of the city remained potentially explosive with a short fuse just waiting to be lit, but life elsewhere continued against a backdrop of the attacks on protesters, new anti-protest laws, and the abduction and beating of activists. Slowly, the demonstrations intensified. On February 18, the fuse was lit and for three days a city of 4 million people almost ground to a halt. Escalation and transition After the initial clampdown, a party-like atmosphere had prevailed. My working day began, and ended, in the barricades.

At the end of the day I'd stand with friends in the square to hear musicians perform, listen to Ukraine's national anthem belted out by the crowds, join in the cries of "Slava Ukraini" (glory to Ukraine), eat the food being handed out, drink the tea. We'd stand until the sub-zero temperatures began to hurt, searing pain, where despite gloves your hands burn and refuse to do what your head tells them.

The protest was interrupted by the traditional celebration of New Year followed by (due to the Eastern Orthodox Church adhering to the Julian Calendar) Christmas.

Holidays over and people drifted back to the protest, meanwhile, the Yanukovych-led government drew plans to end it.

The result was a raft of legislation, dubbed the "Dictatorship Laws" that criminalised all forms of peaceful protest.

Signed into law by Yanukovych on January 17, all gloves were off and the protests were peaceful no more.

On January 19, a breakaway group from EuroMaidan stormed Hrushevskoho St leading to the government sector of the city a block away from the protest hub. Protesters were met by a wall of Berkut officers.

Street warfare followed. Self-preservation tells you to stay away; journalistic instinct made me a moth to a flame.

"Apocalyptic" was the word bandied at the time. No other word fits.

Exiting the main protest zone men and women were mobilising, pavements were being ripped up to be thrown at police, bottles and fuel was being transported to the frontline, as were tyres. Apocalypse then "Na" (take) was the only word uttered to me as I reached the corner of Hrushevskoho St. The word was accompanied by two tyres - thrust into each of my hands.

The reason became apparent seconds later when I was confronted by a wall of flame - a burning mound of tyres and the shells of police buses.

Accompanying the flames were fireworks, Molotov cocktails and pieces of pavement, all aimed at the Berkut on the other side of the curtain of black smoke. From that side the occasional stun grenade and tear gas.

The visual aspect robbed me of my other senses. The noise was the next thing to register; metal oil drums being struck rhythmically by, mostly, elderly women - Kiev's babushkas. Occasionally the smoke dispersed enough and the rows of Berkut could be seen on the other side, flames reflected in their shields and helmets, moving only when a Molotov cocktail made its mark and they scrambled to pat out their burning uniforms.

The choking, eye-burning sensation of tear gas broke the hypnotic hold the hellish scene had over me. But I returned the next night and the next. I wasn't there on the morning of January 22, when EuroMaidan got what every revolution needs - its first martyrs.

The death toll was three initially, scores more were injured. And the number of dead would grow as reports filtered in of the bodies of abducted activists being found dumped in forests and the protests fanned out to take in most of the country. Wholesale slaughter The month after the first killings was dominated by an uneasy peace. All action seemed political. What came next shocked even the most blase.

It was political machinations that would lead protesters to their deaths on February 18.

They were marching to the Verkhovna Rada - Ukraine's parliament in support of a roll-back to the 2004 constitution leading to dissolution of the president's iron grip on control.

After clashes with protesters outside the Rada, the Berkut riot police tried to storm the Maidan encampment.

The scenes of tyre burning had suddenly transferred to the very heart of the city. The metro system, the city's primary means of public transport closed and thousands of people faced a long walk home as the battle raged into the night.

By the next day 25 protesters had died, some at the hands of plain-clothes thugs deployed by the government. The House of Trade Unions, which served as a media centre and hospital, had been torched, but protesters still held the square.

Meanwhile, the rest of Kiev was like a ghost town.

A negotiated truce soon broke down. On February 20 someone - there is debate as to who - gave an order for snipers positioned at various vantage points around the square to open fire.

As I walked near the protest zone (the metro system remained closed) to work that morning, the air was filled with the sound of gunfire and explosions. People were already dying.

Within hours the death toll rose to nearly 80 people.

If Kiev residents had remained unflappable to this point, now the fear was palpable. Dictator falls, Russia eyes void Talks between government and opposition, mediated by the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France, dominated the following day and resulted in an agreement to return to the 2004 constitution, increasing the power of the Rada, and to call presidential elections by December.

When the leaders of the opposition appeared on the Maidan stage it was clear the deal would not wash with protesters.

The most electrifying speech did not come from the leaders. Film producer Volodymyr Parasiuk, 26, snatched the microphone to denounce the opposition for "shaking hands with this killer".

The widely held belief is Parasiuk, from the western city of Lvov, may be recorded as the man who made up Yanukovych's mind to cut and run.

No-one was going to wait for an election later in the year, he told the crowd.

Yanukovych had to get out of town by the following morning or face the consequences.

Breaking down as he remembered dead comrades, it was powerful, the crowd teared-up before roaring their approval.

The EU-brokered deal was effectively dead before the ink had dried on the signatures.

By February 22, the president and the bulk of his Party of Regions stalwarts had fled, police were gone and protesters had full control.

However, there was little celebration, a state of mourning coupled with tours to the abandoned mansions of Yanukovych and others bore testament to the obscene wealth the deposed leadership had amassed.

Four days later, Russian troops effectively seized control of Crimea to the south, and Ukrainians sense of, albeit altered, normality is again being challenged.

Many are asking how long that "normality" will last or will something with the potential to become civil war transform yet again, this time into an international conflict.

- The Southland Times

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