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From the streets of Kyiv: “We Are Definitely Going Somewhere”

Looking into the streets of Kyiv

February 20, 2014

By Jennifer J. Carroll
This post was written at 11 a.m. Feb. 20, 2014 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Read Jennifer’s previous report on EuroMaidan here.

I got up early Tuesday morning. A march on parliament had been planned to demand a return to the 2004 constitution — the constitution replaced six years later by a new one of President Viktor Yanukovych’s design, one that gave him sweeping executive powers. I overslept, as I am prone to do. I hustled out of my apartment, camera in my bag, phone in my pocket, one shoe untied, half-eaten pastry hanging from my mouth, hoping to make it downtown by 8 a.m.

When I arrived at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), columns of people had already begun walking up Institutka Street toward the parliament building. Large vans with loudspeakers and music took the lead. Thousands — easily thousands — followed behind them with flags and banners. Some in the crowd were organized self-defense brigades, paramilitary units of stoic individuals (mostly, but not entirely, men) who had volunteered to serve as a first line of defense for the people in Maidan. They decorated their jackets with matching ribbons and paper stickers. They all carried the same homemade shields. They walked through the crowd beside priests and politicians, beside women who carried icons and wore shirts declaring that they were mothers. There were students, lawyers, doctors, journalists, children. The crowd passed several police blockades on neighboring streets, but managed to reach Mariinsky Park, where the Ukrainian parliament building is located.

This is where the march stopped. It stopped because walls of police and road blocks prevented the protesters from moving any further. Both sides held their position for an extraordinary amount of time. There was yelling and jeering. The crowds in the pro-government rally (the one inside and protected by the police wall, the one attended by out-of-towners that the government literally pays to be there) stood indignantly behind the riot police officers, brandished sticks and fire extinguishers. They sneered and gave the marchers from Maidan the finger with Rockette-like unison.

Photos by Jennifer Carroll

I saw the first tear gas canister go off at about 11 a.m. By that point, protesters had already started digging up cobblestones and setting fire to the trucks that had been disabled across the road, blocking their way through the street. This is the moment where most people want to have a conversation about who started the violence. Was it the police? Was it the protesters? Who threw the first stone — both metaphorically and literally?

To those who feel the urge to split hairs on this matter, I would urge you to consider two things. First, Kyiv had already buried four men in January (never mind that we now need to find space in the ground for nearly 30 more). Three were shot in the head by police forces. The fourth was kidnapped from a hospital where he was being treated. His tortured body was found in the woods days later. The police have made it very clear how they intend to interact with protesters, regardless of what those protesters are doing. These were not terrible accidents. These people were targeted specifically because of their participation in the EuroMaidan protests.

Second, internal police forces were already armed and actively blocking passage on public streets that led to public institutions. Is this not itself an act of violence against citizens? Police physically pushed crowds back as they tried to move peacefully through open spaces. “Who started it” is the entirely wrong question here, unless of course your answer is “Yanukovych.”

I already have an injury from an earlier conflict with police. I was hit point blank with a tear gas canister back in mid-January when I was standing on the road taking pictures. A piece of the grenade blew off in the explosion and hit me in the leg. It tore through my jacket, my jeans, and my tights, leaving behind a bloody pothole that has since turned into a tight knot of scarred tissue on my thigh. When that first tear gas grenade went off on Institutka Street yesterday, I had had enough. I knew I was not prepared, physically or logistically, for what was happening. I quickly went home, watched the news and video feeds closely, and tried to explain to colleagues back home what it was that they saw happening on their televisions. I stayed there, posting at my desk, until the sun came up.

By the morning, police had pushed protestors back dramatically. The people had been cleared from the park, cleared from Hrushevskoho Street, cleared from Institutka Street, and driven into the middle of Independence Square. Police spent the day turning water canons on protesters and beating them with truncheons. Others took up perches on the roofs of buildings and scattered rifle fire throughout the crowd. At this moment, as I am writing, they are still actively shooting people on the streets from the roof of the Kozatskiy Hotel. There is no debate to be had today about whether “snipers” existed among the police like there was the last time men were shot. This time, these murderous officers are being recorded, at great length, by the local news. This time, it is all out in the open, business as usual. By Wednesday morning, the death toll had reached 25. This morning, on Thursday, it is not even noon and we have already lost seven more. (A regularly updated list of those murdered by state forces in Ukraine is available on the website www.justiceformaidan.org.)

It is now 11 a.m. in Kiev on Thursday. In the early morning, protesters pushed back against the police forces and regained the square. I am watching the live streams on Espresso.tv and listening to the speakers on stage count the newly dead. They are attempting to rebuild the barricades on the north and east sides of the square, where the police stormed through two nights ago. They are working fast, because a brigade of titushky (government sanctioned vigilantes) can be seen forming to the south at Bessarabskaya Square. They are working fast because people are still being killed. The speakers on the stage scream that citizens are not to exit the barricades on Institutka Street; the road that leads into the government district and police snipers are shooting people from the roofs of buildings. Seven are already reported dead from sniper fire this morning. Pictures of their bodies have begun appearing on Facebook. Priests sit inside the perimeter of the square keeping watch over the corpses.

Yesterday in Brussels, Ukrainian musical artist and public figure Ruslana, who has been an active figure on the EuroMaidan main stage since November, made an impassioned speech to the European Commission. She declared that Yanukovych is fully in charge, that he is making all of these tactical decisions, and that he is responsible for the deaths of now some three dozen Ukrainian citizens. This is not a conflict, she said. This is not a revolution. This is not a civil war. This is a war waged by Yanukovych against his own people. Rather than working to quell growing outrage and public unrest, the tactics of Ukraine’s government forces have been carefully designed to provoke panic and aggression in the activists on the street. Instead, the violence — both physical and psychological — has become a rallying point around which protesters have come together in greater numbers with a deeper feeling indignation and a stronger determination to outlast Yanukovich’s presidency.

Despite the outrageous violence that has taken place on the streets, the people of Maidan have continued to act not only with rage and indignation, but also with kindness, with cooperation, and care. When I enter into the barricaded area, camera in hand, it is not uncommon for strangers to literally carry me up hillsides or physically pick me up and place my feet on higher ground to get a better shot of the action. Unknown persons gather around me with dozens of arms to hold me steady as I stand on fences and barricades to capture photos and video. People in Maidan stop me at every turn to make sure I had food, water, face masks, eye protection, milk and lemon for the gas.

In January, an army veteran fighting on Hrushevskoho Street stopped what he was doing to give me instructions on how to better handle a sudden wave of tear gas. He showed me how to squat down to avoid the roll of smoke over your head. Squatting in the right posture allows your lungs to expand further and helps avoid the vertigo, convulsions or other aggravating and involuntary bodily movements that may occur of you are standing. Yesterday, I had a man in his 60s give up his chair for me. He asked me to stand on it to take a better picture of the fires that were burning. My feet were so muddy that I hesitated. “Mozhno?” I asked. “May I?” “Nuzhna!” he answered. “You need to!”

As a medical anthropologist who has built her career conducting ethnographic research in unfamiliar places, I am all too familiar with the stress and discomfort of inserting yourself somewhere that you do not belong. It is my job to interfere, and sometimes that interference is not tolerated. It would have been much easier for the mostly male crowd on Hrushevskoho Street to hustle me to the back of the line, keeping me from putting myself (or anyone else) in harm’s way. It would have been easier for the volunteer guards and medics at the scene to treat me like what I was: a foreigner who came unprepared, with neither proper protection nor a reasonable sense of self-preservation, into someone else’s fight. I could have been treated like someone in the way. Instead, my presence was welcomed and my work assisted. I was shepherded into the clouds of smoke and walls of fire by strangers who, without being asked, looked after me until my work was done and then thanked me for coming to document their struggle.

The bad things that have come from the EuroMaidan movement have made for easy headlines and for easier narratives about what is going on here. The damage to the city is visible. The beatings and kidnappings are being documented. The people of Ukraine are, even today, still counting their dead. The good, however, is harder to quantify. It lies in the demands for transparency in government. It lies in in the joyful expressions of the crowd as the national anthem is sung. It lies in the new hope that Ukrainians now hold for the future of their country. These things are hard to measure, but they are even harder to write about without resorting to hyperbole or losing the visceral force of these experiences as soon as words are put to the page.

As an anthropologist, I often attempt skirt this technicality by telling stories. Stories like that of the army vet who took me under his wing; or the man who physically obstructed my exit from an occupied building used to house out-of-town activists one late night in December, refusing to allow me to leave until he was convinced that I was not in need of food to eat or a place to sleep; or the volunteers who gave my friends and I helmets and told us to stick close to them on a night that the Berkut (special police forces) raided the camp, not because we were in immediate danger, but because they saw that we were scared. These are the stories of EuroMaidan that are true for me and for many other Ukrainians who are resisting the long and violent arm of their government. These hard-to-tell stories, not the violence or the fear, have motivated the people occupying Kyiv’s Independence Square into action. No matter how this movement eventually comes to an end, this is how I will remember what happened here.

Jen­nifer J. Car­roll is a med­ical anthro­pol­o­gist who researches gen­dered iden­tity and drug addic­tion in Ukraine. She is cur­rently work­ing towards a Ph.D. in Socio-cultural Anthro­pol­ogy and a con­cur­rent M.P.H. in Epi­demi­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Washington. Read Jennifer’s previous report on EuroMaidan here.

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