Ukraine front-line fighters dig in for escalating battle with government

Defiant protesters say they need armor and guns – and wouldn't hesitate to use them

Protesters stand on a barricade during an anti-government protest in downtown Kiev, Ukraine, on Jan. 24, 2014. Violent protests have been raging in the Ukrainian capital since Jan. 19.
Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA

KIEV, Ukraine – Denys, a young protester who wears a plastic helmet and black balaclava and holds a satellite dish he uses as a shield, is at the front lines of Ukraine’s increasingly violent uprising.

But he’s missing a few items that an urban fighter needs as he stares at rows of black-helmeted and masked police officers 50 yards away, across barricades.

“We need bulletproof vests most of all,” said Denys, who is ready to talk about anything – except his last name, because he’s afraid that police are tracking news media reports to identify and attack activists like him.

“Also, metal helmets and real shields, not wooden ones that many use now. We have like 10 real metal shields now, similar to the ones that the police have. Also, guns. At least pneumatic guns, but real guns would do too,” Denys said.

His friend on Hrushevskoho Street, in the center of Kiev, agrees.

“We would not hesitate to use guns on police,” said Petya, another young protester. “We wouldn’t initiate the shooting, but now that they started shooting us, we’ll respond with the same.”

Nobody knows where, when and how Ukraine’s current unrest – which started on Nov. 21 – will end.

But the pace, intensity and danger are picking up speed now that lives have been lost and violence is breaking out with increasing frequency. And the uprising is spreading. Anti-government protesters have now seized regional government headquarters in at least 11 cities. In Kiev, protesters have taken over at least five buildings, including the City Hall and Agricultural Ministry. By late Sunday, demonstrators had added the Justice Ministry to that list.

At least four protesters have been confirmed killed in clashes with police, including three men on Jan. 22, when police tried to forcibly break up the demonstrations. Two died from gunshot wounds. A fourth confirmed victim is an activist allegedly kidnapped from a hospital on Jan. 21. His beaten body was discovered in a forest outside Kiev two days later.

The uprising that has since become increasingly violent began when President Viktor Yanukovich backing out of a far-reaching trade and political agreement with the European Union on Nov. 21 under pressure from Russia's President Vladimir Putin. 

Protests began on Kiev’s main Independence Square – known in Ukrainian as Maidan Nezalezhnosti – the very same night. The daily street demonstrations ebbed and flowed, sometimes drawing up to 1 million people onto the streets at their peak, sometimes just a few thousand people.

But the government's own handling of the protests has embittered the protesters and escalated the confrontation, drawing many thousands more onto the streets.  A violent overnight crackdown on hundreds of demonstrators on Nov. 30 left dozens injured. Protesters responded by pitching tents and setting up a protest city on the square. Another attempt by police to forcibly break up the protests on Dec. 10-11 was aborted. 

On Dec. 17, Yanukovich signed a deal with Putin to bail out the Ukrainian economy by providing a $15 billion loan this year and offering Kiev a 33 percent discount on the imports of Russian natural gas that fuel the country's industries.

I am here because this country must change. All the corruption, unfair trials, bribery, it all must go away.

Liudmila Lebed


The deal with Moscow further outraged the core protesters. And just when the crowds were thinning out in the new year, the parliament dominated by Yanukovich's supporters – via a hands-only vote and no public notice or debate – rammed through new laws curbing free speech and the right to demonstrate.  Insulting the honor and dignity of public officials is now a criminal act punishable by prison. Participating in unsanctioned demonstrations can land the offender in prison for 15 years. Protesters and opposition leaders dubbed them the “dictator laws” and demanded their immediate repeal.

But a militant wing of the protesters pressed for more direct action, and a Jan. 19 saw a section of the crowd begin heckling opposition leaders as they spoke from stage, instead demanding confrontational tactics.

One group announced they were going to storm the parliament, less than a kilometer away. They were stopped by a police cordon on the way, but the first wave of protesters took control of parked police buses meant to stop their path, and torched them. 

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The confrontation grew into a street battle overnight. Police fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at demonstrators, and deployed a water cannon to send continual streams downhill, where it froze in subzero temperatures and made the street slippery.

Demonstrators hurled paving stones and Molotov cocktails, and continually stoked a fire of burning tires near the barricades to make it hard for police to see them. They filled bags with snow and piled them high as barricades.

Four days into this standoff, on Jan. 22, police attacked demonstrators during the pre-dawn hours. Shots were fired. At least two men died of gunshot wounds. Police mounted two more offensives throughout the day, injuring some 300 people who were hit with truncheons, fists and stun grenades by police.

The government has, throughout the protests, tried to discredit the people involved as radicals and “terrorists.” But although it does include extreme elements, EuroMaidan also has widespread support among large segments of the public, much of which has been outraged by the harsh tactics of the authorities.

Liudmila Lebed, 53, works the night shifts at a flour mill in Kyiv and spends her days at the protests. On the afternoon of Jan. 24, she and four men were shoveling snow and ice at Hrushevskoho Street, making a ditch so that the water from the police hose would go to the drainage.

“When women from my work heard about the protesters being killed, they all cried for the whole day,” she said. “I am here because this country must change. All the corruption, unfair trials, bribery, it all must go away.”

Svitlana Shcherban, 45, is a florist who took time off work from her home in eastern Ukraine to join the Kyiv protests.

“I just cannot live up with what is happening in my country. They beat people, they kill people, no matter who it is – a woman, a child or an old man. I just can no longer watch this violence.”

Nina Kyryliuk, a 63-year-old pensioner from Kyiv, said she is going to fight to the end to remove those in power.

“I am not afraid of anything,” she said. “Unless they make me an invalid, I don’t care. Death would be fine. If need to die for Ukraine, I will. Most of all I don’t want young people to die. I, at least, have lived a little. I picked my side, I understand that there are children on the other side of the barricades, but they seem to have become animals already.”

She believes that Yanukovich cannot be removed without bloodshed.

“There is no way back actually, after Nov. 30, when our children were beaten (by police). Now we cannot even think about way back. I even carry a little shovel with me everywhere now, so I can always help gathering snow for the barricades,” she laughs, pulling the instrument from her handbag.

Mykola Podrisan is 60 and disabled, getting around in a wheelchair.

“I am not afraid,” Podrisan said. “Scary is the fact that those beasts in uniforms are among us. I am a Kievan and how, just think, how is it possible that there are barricades in my home city and not from an enemy, from people who are supposed to protect us. I just pray there would be no more blood.”

Inna Taran is just 18 and already an active protester. She looked frustrated as she sat in a café on Independence Square, warming up after spending an afternoon at Hrushevskoho Street.

Her big hazel eyes filled with tears as she talked about how the protest has changed her.

“You know, my friends dreamed to go to Oxford or build a career and I’ve always just wanted a family and three children, and even thought of names for them. But they just ruined my dream on Nov. 30,” she said, referring to the first time police violently dispersed peaceful protesters from Independence Square.

Taran was among those beaten that night. After that she had to undergo surgery to remove part of one of her kidneys, due to the beating. “I still have another one, so I can afford being here,” she smiled bitterly.

Taran said she has been coming to the protest every day since she left the hospital. “God knows I have never hated anyone, but now I do and I do so hard,” she says.

The young woman believes that women should be standing in the front lines, and says she would do it herself.

“If I don’t get beaten, someone else will in my place," she said. "But what makes me better than anyone else at the fire line?”

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