My Reflection on the Maidan
I was very fortunate to be in Ukraine during the Soviet ‘putch’ in 1991 and the Orange Revolution in 2004, however the 2014 Euro Maidan would prove to be the most difficult.
Ukrainians were faced with the most corrupt and ruthless president in Ukrainian history, Victor Yanukovych.
In the past, some Ukrainians would say that during a real revolution there has to be ‘krovoprolyttya’ (spilling of blood). Unlike 1991 and 2004, this revolution happened to be the real thing.
Late in the evening on Sunday, January 12, 2014 seven volunteer acti-vists, including myself, arrived in Kyiv from Lviv. We travelled in a small van. Our experienced driver was able to avoid police inspections and road blocks. We arrived on the Maidan without incident on that unusually cold night.
As I made my way along Vulytsia Kreschatyk, heading toward the stage I noticed a small group of people gathered in front of the City Hall. I approached the group to find them standing around a man at a piano, who, in the frigid cold at 11:30 at night was playing classical music.
This was to be a precursor of what I would witness over the next five weeks: a revolution to align with the European Union or autocratic Russia.
On one side, people from all regions of Ukraine, men, women, the young and the old, the highly educated and skilled, the poor and unemployed villagers bound together by their rich Ukrainian culture. On the other side, Yanukovych with his well armed state interior police and ruthless Berkut special forces.
The Maidan stage was a 24/7 experience. At any time during the day one could see and hear musicians, singers, poets, philosophers, historians and priests, creatively fulfilling the needs of the Maidan and providing spiritual leadership.
On the Maidan, they were organized into about 40 ‘Samooborona Sotnyas’. Each Sotnya consisted of approximately 100 men and women. One group was known as the Khudozhnia (artists) Sotnya. It was made up of musicians, poets, artists, photographers and computer programmers who helped to create a dignified and culturally sophisticated revolution.
The Maidan was adorned with poems, giant murals and photographs depicting the many aspects of life on the Maidan. There were images of the earlier skirmishes with the interior police and the brutal Berkut special forces.
Many of the Samooborona members painted their helmets and shields with patriotic slogans and cultural and religious heraldry.
I spent my first night in a tent setup and occupied by Ukrainians from the Borshchiv region of the Ternopil oblast. The region, where my father was born and raised.
I had the utmost respect for these brave people, from all over Ukraine, who were living under extremely difficult circumstances on the Maidan. They were sleeping in cold tents. There were few showers; however those living around the Maidan offered use of their showers. There were only portable toilets. The most frightening and difficult part of living on the Maidan was not knowing if, in the middle of the night, the well armed interior police or Berkut special forces would storm the tent city.
I met men who said there was no point-of-return, no going back, because if this revolution failed, they could end up dead, maimed or incarcerated.
I only lasted one night in the tent on the Maidan!
The next evening I was in the field hospital set-up on Vulylsia Institutska in the ‘Zhovtnevyj Palatz’ (October Palace). After coming down with bronchitis I wasn’t sure if I had the right stuff to survive in tents on the Maidan. I opted to live in the Zhovnevyj Palats, sleeping on the floor.
The chief doctor for the Zhovtnevyj Palats was Dr. Ihor Petrovych, an Afghan veteran, who along with dedicated staff provided excellent care to all who required it.
I witnessed my first major confrontation in the evening, on the Feast of Jordan (January 19th). Early that day, activists of the Auto Maidan attempted to proceed with their vehicles along Vulytsia Hrushevskoho towards the Verkhovna Rada but were prevented by the interior police.
Hundreds of people from the Maidan gathered on Vulytsia Hrushevskoho where a group of them turned a bus onto its side. In the evening, we watched a fierce battle erupt between the state interior police, Berkut and the Samooborona of the Maidan.
It was surreal. I watched as these heroic people, young and old, worked intuitively. Like a colony of ants, building barricades with materials, that for me, appeared out of nowhere. Many of the onlookers watched from a safe vantage point on the surrounding hill tops. Some journalists and on lookers, including myself, watched from between the pillars at the entrance to Lobonovsky Stadium (Kyiv Dynamo).
We watched with great awe and admiration as hundreds of brave heroic protesters confronted the interior police and Berkut onslaught that included tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and water cannons.
Amid the inferno of buses, military vehicles and tires, I saw protesters of all ages, some without gloves, enduring freezing temperatures, breaking up the stone sidewalks with steel bars and pipes. They formed human assembly lines, passing the bricks up to the front lines to the Samooborona. I watched with great pride and respect as heroes used archaic weapons in response to the aggression of the state police utilizing 21st century armaments.
The conflict on Hrushevskoho continued for the next couple of days. In the morning on Janaury 22, Den Sobornosti, the ruthless Berkut special forces attacked the Samooborona and pushed the protesters back down Hrushevskoho. The protesters counterattacked, pushing the Berkut back to their original positions.
Later, around noon I arrived on Hrushevskoho and entered the ‘Medpunkt’ (field hospital) that was set up on the front line of the barricades in a seven storey building. It was guarded and maintained by the Fourth Sotnia of Ukrainian Kozaks of the Maidan. Having earlier befriended them, I was allowed to enter the hospital just as a CNN film crew of three women from London and New York and one Ukrainian interpreter were interviewing Mykola Bodnar the Kozak’s Suddya (judge). We then escorted Diane Magnay and her CNN crew to the attic of the seven story building. They were one of the few camera crews able to film from this vantage point, ultimately informing the world of the brutal violence on the Maidan.
They were able to contradict Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. Live ammunition has being used against the Maidan.
Shortly thereafter, I almost fell into the hands of 3 or 4 Berkut soldiers but with God’s help I was able to escape.
That day four men of the Maidan were killed. They were the first casualties of the Euro Maidan.
Any sympathies that some may have had for the young uninformed recruits of the interior state security forces evaporated. They were not defending the Ukrainian nation. Rather, they were serving the dictator, Victor Yanukovych. During those four days on Hrushevskoho, any time the Samooborona was able to strategically land bricks, fireworks or Molotov cocktails, the crowd roared.
Later, a mother of one of the state police recruits appealed on television in Ukrainian to her son to stop harming and maiming fellow citizens and leave the militia.
The next day her son appeared on television and in Russian said he wanted to remain with his peers in the militia.
One can only imagine the extent of indoctrination these recruits must have gone through to turn against their mothers.
Many other mothers of recruits joined together in groups prevailing upon God to encourage their sons to leave the militia and bring peace.
The other major confrontation that I witnessed was on Tuesday, February 18th, when a few thousand of the Samooborona along with other protesters marched from the Maidan to Mariyinskyj Park adjacent to the Verkhovna Rada. Having entered the Park with other protesters and journalists before the Samooborona an ominous sight appeared before us.
One could see hundreds and hundreds of interior police and special forces. Berkut, all lined up together with a couple of hundred ‘titushky’ (hooligans).
The special interior forces Berkut attacked the Samooborona lines under a barrage of arsenal (tear gas, stun grenades, questionable rubber bullets).
Mychaylo Havryliuk, the Kozak, who back in January was beaten, stripped naked and humiliated gave an interview of what he witnessed in Mariyinkyj Park that day. Two men from Samooborona were decapitated and a couple had their scalps torn off by the savage titushky.
Many men disappeared that day and how many died is not known.
It is imperative that the Ukrainian government punish those responsible (ministers, deputies, upper echelons of the state militia).
Those that swore allegiance to Ukraine, yet they were only loyal to a despot leader like Victor Yanukovych. The state militia together with the Berkut forces need to be disciplined so that they will not continue to betray the Ukrainian nation such as some are doing today in Eastern Ukraine.
Second on the left Vasyl Burtniak