By Jennifer J. Carroll
Just a few short weeks ago, walking through the EuroMaidan encampment would bring me joy. In December and early January, it was an organic gathering of people filled with music, dancing, food, and art. There were children in costume, gathering choirs, and community building the likes of which I have never seen in this country. It was a happy, open, and festive place.
Last week, this all changed. After an eon of threats and small provocations, the government’s real campaign of violence and terror against this protest movement began. So much has happened in such a short time. We are still searching for the lost. We are still counting our dead.
Now, people do not gather because they are full of hope. Now, people gather because of their hatred — hatred for the government, for the police, for the hooligans paid on the government’s dime who terrorize regular citizens. The violent skirmish on Kyiv’s streets has stopped, for now, but attacks are still happening on a smaller scale, in the quiet of the night, as people are targeted one by one.
It is surreal to walk behind the barricades today. There is static in the air. People are charged in body and breathe with a new level of anger, a new level of obstinacy. The public has been offended as deeply as it can be, and we all ricochet at a tiring pace between energy and exhaustion, between grief and fury.
I, like most people here, have been fully consumed for more than two months by the civil unrest and social uprising in Kyiv, where I live. What began in November as a public protest against the scrapping of a European trade deal has become a full-fledged revolution in which the people have taken to (and taken over) the center streets by the hundreds of thousands, demanding an end to the endemic corruption and cronyism that has plagued not only their government but every aspect of their lives for as long as they can remember.
People have come to Kyiv from all around Ukraine. For weeks, individuals from the east and from the west stood together on the streets demanding change. For weeks, the Ukrainian government has retaliated with greater and greater force, with viler and more complex psychological warfare, and then, at last, with physical attacks on peaceful people as they join in peaceful protests on public streets.
The man sitting on the wall in this picture is named Serhiy Nihoyan. I took this photo of him in December as he sat guard at the western barricade on Maidan Nezalezhnosti. He came to Kyiv from his village in Dnipropetrovsk oblast, where he works as a farmer, to support the EuroMaidan movement. He served on the EuroMaidan Self-Defense team. My friends met him on the subway just a week before I took this photo. He introduced himself to them in English. He told them about his town, about the girl who just broke his heart, about his plans to win her back when he returned home. Last week, Serhiy was shot in the street by a police sniper: three times in the chest and once in the head. He was killed instantly.
His death has made me so very sad and so very angry — especially when others, who are privileged to see these events from a distance, approach his story with skepticism. “This is quite a serious claim,” they tell me. “The presence of a sniper has not been confirmed.” It must have been a very tall man, then, who put that 7.62 mm bullet from a Degtyaryov rifle into his skull at such an angle. Serhiy was just one of four people who died from the bullet wounds they received that day.
Another of these victims was Mikhailo Zhyznevsky. He was killed on the same street not long after Serhiy. A police officer used a Makarov pistol to put a bullet through his heart. I did not know Mikhailo, but I went to his funeral anyway. I stood on the barricades on Hrushevskoho Street, the police cordons that killed him to my back, and watched as thousands of mourners carried his open casket from the place where he was murdered to the sanctuary at St. Michael’s Cathedral. I took this video of the procession, because I hoped that documenting the crowds, the grief, and the solidarity that became so viscerally manifest in this moment would help others understand what people here are going through. And because I didn’t know what else to do.
Then there is Dmytro Bulatov, the leader of a popular activist group named AutoMaidan. They use their cars and trucks to transport activists to protests at the residences of corrupt politicians and block the roads to prevent riot police from gaining access to occupied places. My friend Ira met Dmytro two weeks ago at a Kyiv court house where they had both gone to support those who had been arrested at anti-government protests. He invited her to come along with the AutoMaidan caravan to protest government corruption in front of Yanukovych’s luxury vacation home, a massive estate about twenty kilometers north of Kyiv called Mezhyhirya. She and I both went with them the next Sunday and witnessed this group’s brazen refusal to cower in the face of the Berkut brigades who stood in formation on the road in front of the mansion in anticipation of their arrival. These men did not care if the police saw their faces. They walked right up to them and asked why they had turned their back on their own people.
Dmytro disappeared Wednesday, Jan. 22. No one has seen or heard from him since. We have little to do except share hope with our words that he will be found and know in our hearts that he is surely dead. (UPDATE: Jan. 30 around 11 a.m. PST a parliament member from the opposition bloc reported that Dmytro Bulatov was found alive. This is still unconfirmed.)
Many visible EuroMaidan activists have been kidnapped in the past few weeks. Some have been found alive. Others have been found dead, their tortured and bound bodies found dumped in the woods. Most, however, have not been found at all. People are starting to murmur about the number of corpses that will be found in the spring when the snow begins to melt. These are not the bodies of radical provocateurs that we expect to find. These are the bodies of respected community leaders, of good men and women whose loss will be felt by countless many. These are the bodies of people that we have known and loved.
It is important for me to tell these stories, not only as I deal with my own grief, but because people here are met every day with reports in the western media that characterize the unrest in Kyiv’s streets as the predictably violent actions of predictably radical nationalist factions, of young, male hooligans with testosterone imbalances and a chips on their shoulders who are just looking for an excuse to break windows and start a fight.
If that is truly what is happening in Kyiv, then why are women in full length fur coats emptying their hand bags to carry cobble stones to the men on the front lines? Why are pensioners spending their fixed income to travel into the city and bring hot tea and sandwiches to the guards at the barricades? Why are priests in full vestments walking straight past the protesters who hold Molotov cocktails in their hands to implore the police to bring an end to the violence?
Even I will admit that the violence coming from both sides of the barricades can look similar in photographs; however, there is an enormous difference between provoking violence and acting to prevent violence against yourself and the people around you. One of these behaviors constitutes offense, the other defense. One is deplorable, the other very necessary.
Still, I have been amazed by how different the treatment received by the police and the protesters has been in the English-language news. Public record of the actions of the police and special forces — who have used live ammunition against unarmed protestors, who have tortured people, stripped them naked in the snow, taken trophy photos with their boots pressed down upon the heads of their injured detainees — have been relegated to passing comments and allegations couched in the conditional tense, while attempts made by everyday people to defend themselves with beer bottles and cobblestones are turned into headlines and clickbait for the world to consume.
In a recent interview with the Kyiv Post, leader of the so-called radical group Spilna Sprava, Oleksander Danylyuk, offered the following words: “I think that we [protesters] are very, very peaceful people who have stood on Independence Square for two months, and during this time the regime used violence against us, they killed us, destroyed our property and cars, took us to prisons. We were very peaceful in this period. Now is the time for actions.”
This morning, I wake up to the news that the Ukrainian Parliament has passed a new amnesty law (a disingenuous excuse to use excessive military force against protesters who continue to occupy Independence Square) and to a new message in my inbox informing me that a friend’s car, which had registration tags from L’viv, was torched just hours ago in the middle of the night. Right now, I find it hard to disagree with Danylyuk’s sentiments.
Now is the time for action — not only from the people of Ukraine, but from Brussels, from Washington, and from anyone else in a position to put pressure on this government. Otherwise, the killings will continue. The kidnappings will continue. Otherwise, the bodies of still more good and honest people will be cached in the snow banks of Kyivshchina’s woods, and as the seasons change, Ukraine’s difficult winter will give way to a most tragic and painful spring.
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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.