KIEV, Ukraine — It looked and felt surreal. Independence Square, particularly at night, seemed like footage from Woodstock and “Apocalypse Now” spliced together, only with priests and prayers instead of dope and booze.
As a citizen of neighboring Belarus, I know what it’s like to live under a fist, wielded first by the Soviet Union and now by my own government. In Minsk, where I live, I’ve seen people arrested just for applauding on the street to show defiance. Occupying a main square for months of peaceful protest is unthinkable in Belarus. That irony was fresh in my mind when I was sent by Bloomberg News to chronicle the struggle for greater freedom in Kiev, the capital of a fellow Slavic country whose language I understand almost as well as my own.
I’m inside the encampment on Feb. 18, the night before the march on parliament, which will end in deadly chaos. There’s a man in front of City Hall sitting at a piano painted with the European Union flag, teasing out Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” He seems oblivious to the thousands of people of all ages bustling to and fro around him, many wearing motorcycle helmets and other homemade riot gear. A motley-looking platoon of some kind ambles by, carrying clubs of wood and steel. A fellow waring a Guy Fawkes mask with a cross around his neck passes a couple pushing a stroller the other way, truncheon in hand. Women are taking food and fuel somewhere.
Further north, near the perimeter, I spot a red-haired woman in camouflage and combat boots who’s covered in soot from the tires set ablaze to defend the camp from government forces. She catches the eyes of the other 100 or so rebels marching in her unit, all in their 20s, and smiles back proudly. It becomes clear to me that women are just as important to the effort here as the men on the barricades – the ones who’ll be the first to die when the standoff turns even deadlier.
Near the barricade guarding the entrance to the main street, Kreschatyk, I recognize someone. With his sheepskin coat, tall hat and Cossack forelock, Mykhailo Gavrylyuk is easy to spot. Short and wiry, Gavrylyuk, 34, became a star of the opposition a month ago, when a video of him refusing to submit to police after being stripped naked and beaten in temperatures well below freezing went viral, attracting more than a million viewers. Women line up to get their photos taken with him and kiss his cheek as he tends to his task: splintering logs for firewood. I ask him what it’s like to be a hero.
“I don’t pay attention to that,” says Gavrylyuk, who left 1.9 acres of land and a wife in the western Chernivtsi region to join the protests. “I just do the work I came here to do,” he says. “We Cossacks are kind of tired of standing around, but we may have some fun soon.” He winks.
Ten years ago, when I was here for the bloodless Orange Revolution, this seemed like the safest and most exhilarating place in the world. The atmosphere is still determined and oddly relaxed, though now there’s a clear undercurrent of vigilance, as if something ominous is descending. Rising sporadically in the chaos is the chanting of Orthodox priests singing prayers from a stage in the center of the square.
On a street leading into the square, I meet Zoryana, or Starlight. She’s 34 and relatively well off, making about $3,000 a month from her home-decorating business, or eight times more than the average Ukrainian. She’s like most people here, rich or poor. It’s about pride, not money, I keep hearing.
“I didn’t come here to seek a better life,” Zoryana says. “I came here because I have dignity.”
Around us, the centuries-old cobblestone streets are disappearing. Women are mining the roads for stones and hauling them to the front lines. Others are busy making Molotov cocktails to ensure the ring of fire between the police and the compound lasts through the night. A lady in her mid-60s is dragging what appears to be a section of steel tram track toward the barricades. It looks like she’s dragging a cross.
The next day, people gather at the square to march on parliament, about a kilometer up the hill. As the violence spreads, I head back to our bureau to put on a flak jacket for the first time in my life. The two slabs of steel, in front and back, are shockingly heavy. What if I have to run?
Uphill from the camp, riot police are lined up and at attention, shields joined. I want to talk to one who looks like a teenager and is obviously scared, with sweat pouring down the inside of his mask, but his commander refuses.
“Those are just kids,” says a middle-aged man standing next to me, Ihor. Like most people I talk to, he doesn’t want to give his last name. “I went up to one of them earlier today and said, ‘Man, why don’t you come over to the other side?'” Ihor says. “He was swallowing tears and said, ‘I can’t. If I do that they’ll sentence me to seven years in prison.”
Most of the fighting and gunfire is on the side streets outside the square, but most of the people are in the park on the other side of parliament, aligned against several hundred police. When I get there, stun and flash grenades are exploding all around, producing a white cloud that envelops the park. The taste of pepper gas burns my mouth. I retreat with the sounds of gunfire popping somewhere close, learning the extent of the mounting carnage from the text and e-mail messages on my phone.
It’s a few hours later and I’m going around in circles in a warren of small streets, trying to find the makeshift medical center in the House of Officers where the protesters are taking their injured and dead. All avenues leading to the center are blocked either by burning vehicles or elite riot troops, the Berkut. With one eye on the map in my hand, I approach a couple dozen of what look like young protesters to ask for directions. When I focus, I see the emptiness in their eyes, like staring into a constellation of black holes, and start to walk away. “Stop, you f–king son of a b—-!” one of them yells.
I knew then they must have been Titushki, civilian thugs hired by loyalists to the president and bussed in from eastern Ukraine to cause mayhem. Now my experience of growing up in a police state pays off. I act indifferent, break off eye contact, stay silent, moving slowly, head down, looking at the map.
Don’t stick out, expect the worst, survive. That’s how we Belorussians have been taught to live. Ukrainians aren’t like that. Perhaps this is the main difference between us. I wore my flak jacket under my coat to hide it. I didn’t want to be noticed at all. The people in Independence Square don’t think about such things. This is why they die. And maybe this is why they may also prevail.