The Story of Maidan: Part 11 — Maidan goes to war

When the tourists go home, we’ll see action

With the dictator law from 16 January Maidan enters Phase 2 — where we see violence and calm until 17 February

From Independence Square to the battleground / January 19/20/21

“I don’t know anything and I believe nothing. The only thing I know is that the thickness of the wallet and the height of a position won’t change the trajectory of the bullet.”

Pavel Kovalchuk, Veteran of the Afghanistan war and maidan activist on TV.[1]

The people are angry. They decide to take it to parliament at around 3:30pm. They plan to force the MPs back into session to repel the laws. One of two ways reaching the Rada is by walking 300 meteres up Khreschatyk boulevard to Ukrainian House, turn right onto Hruschevkoho Street, pass by the entry gate of Dynamo stadium and walk up the street to Parliament. At the intersection next to the stadium is a group of riot police. Through loudspeakers they say: “Dear citizens, your actions are illegal and are against the state.” The crowd is booing.[2] Police have blocked demonstrations before and they do so now. But today is different. On one hand the protesters are far more desparate than in previous weeks. Then there are suspected pro-government agents and masked members of the far-right group called “Pravy Sektor” (Right Sector). On its social media platform, Pravy Sektor openly calls for volunteers[3]:

“Even those who called us ‘instigators’ a mouth ago, now are actively urging us to act more aggressively and praising our activists.”

The police have put up military vehicles, buses and mini-vans as barricades at the intersection. At 3:30pm protesters start to rock the first bus. The police warn them not to come within three meters of them. They are present in great number, three lines deep across the street.

Vitaly Klitschko is up front, talking to police officers, trying to keep order. Masked protesters armed with wooden sticks break the windows and rock the buses. Journalist Max Eristavi tweets:

After a brief pause flares are shot and smoke bombs explode near the barricades. Police answers with tear gas. It is about 50 anti-government “self defense” fighters that start vandalizing. They use their clubs to hit the buses but also strike out against the police. A pensioner on the ground tells journalists: “I don’t condemn attacking the police. They attacked our kinds on Nov. 30, so now we attack them.”[4]

Klitschko tries to stop the clashes, surrounding protestors call him “titushka”, the slang word for pro-government hired thug. Suddenly he is sprayed with a fire extinguisher. Covered in foam he is lead away from the crowd.

Riot police hide behind the buses, their shields above their heads. Photojournalists have climbed the vehicles to get the best shots at both sides. More flares are shot and about 20.000 people chant “Revolution!” and “Today or never.”

40 Minutes later the square is covered in smoke. Some buses are overtaken and burning, fights break out at the Dynamo stadium gate. Protesters have taken away shields from police and now use it for their own defence. They hold their position against the police. The situation is getting out of control. It is only a few dozen radical protesters but they are backed by thousands of demonstrators standing behind them. It is still not clear who is behind the start of violence.

Some rip cobblestones from the pavement to throw at the police. They respond with dozens of tear gas grenades that are thrown back immediately. Until now the two sides have not clashed person by person.

Ambulances with medical personel appear, they have to treat people injured by tear gas. Then the police drives a water cannon truck up front. At first they use it to extinguish the buses on fire but then they point the hose at the protesters. By Ukrainian law it is prohibited to use water cannons in temperaturs below 0C. On the street its minus 8.

Protesters set fire to vehicles on 19 January. By Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe via Wikimedia Commons

In a first statement Arseniy Yatseniuk condems the clashes and blames the government for creating disorder to crack it down. “It was not our plan,” he weakly concludes.

Protesters re-claim buses and set them on fire again. There are injured on both sides. Police claims that protesters have captured a Berkut officer, broken his ribs, injured his head and brought him to the Trade Union building. He was later freed and put into hospital. Oppositional member of Parliament Olesya Orobets gets attacked by riot police: “I came to Hrushevskogo (Street) from the side of parliament. They knew fully well who I am. I didn’t attack anybody and was standing in an open place with a phone. A group of at least five hefty Berkut police officers wearing masks and special military clothing attacked me and swept me off my feet. I fell down on the cobblestone and struck my head, which was protected thanks to a helmet.” She said three men who were guarding her got beaten even more brutally. “They struck them over the head and body, took away their phones and crushed them. In response to my questions ‘why are you beating me while I’m not doing anything to you?’ they were laughing and said — ‘we’re not beating you, we are pushing you aside.”

Protesters set fire to vehicles on 19 January. By Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe via Wikimedia Commons

The situation remains tense at 9pm, five hours after the start of the clashes. Journalists only count 20 young men throwing objects at the police. As the crowd is thinning, the police gets reinforced with manpower and gasmasks. Rumours spread that rubber-bullet guns are handed out. While Yatseniuk and Klitschko say that they will meet Yanukovych in the night, the activists prepare for the storming of the police. By 10:30 smoke from tear gas and flares is so thick that it is hard to see what is actually happening. But medical workers confirm that rubber bullets are used.

Interior troops holding protective position under Molotov Cocktail rain, Dynamivska str. Euromaidan Protests. By Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe via Wikimedia Commons

Smoke and fire, masked protesters throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, police hiding under shields. The scene is apocalyptic in visuals and in what is to become the signature sound of the revolution: people hit metal rods on fire barrels, makeshift drum beating, a monotonous angry, tribal sound of war, clack, clack, clack that will go on for weeks.

After meeting with Yanukovych, Vitaly Klitschko returns claiming that civil war cannot be ruled out if the government continues to use violence as a tool for ending Ukraine’s political crisis. The president was not happy with the demand for early elections. More to come at tomorrows peace talks.

Video footage from Russian TV shows that the violent protesters are ruthless. While the masses chant the national anthem, they attack two Berkut officers with sticks and stones. The officers fall and are hidden under the beating attackers. They get up again and run from the scene. Amateur-videos from mobile phones will later show the full scene: 20 officers charge at the protesters but are pushed back when two of them get separated and beaten in the counter attack. This is a blueprint for pro-government Ukrainian and Russian TV, focussing on the violence of activists and sparing the retaliation of authorities.

The strategy remains the same for hours: police hold a line with shields, single protesters pick up stones or cocktails, run some meteres, throw and try to get away quickly. Some are more daring, they approach closer, an older man without masks in a green army helmet calmly walks away from the barricade, not looking back at the police, a cigarette in his mouth, Mister cool.

Some tie clothes together to form a rope, trying to carry the busses to a better defence-position. One young man undresses in the very frontline. Without any shirt in freezing temperatures he picks up stones and throws them at the enemy just a few meteres away. He must have angered the police, they advance, the half naked man goes down, probably hit by a grenade or a bullet, he is dragged away while some try to protect him with shields and flash lights that are supposed to blind. A Molotov cocktail hits right in the advancing policemen, they have to retreat again into the ranks. They have risen to 3.000 despite claims from opposition party members that people have blocked the movement of military personel from bases in the cities Ivano-Frankivsk and Kalush.[5]. Protesters in Western city Lviv claim to have painted the windshields of police vehicles with red color to prevent them from driving to Kyiv.

Many journalists are injured and claim they were deliberately targeted by the police including being shot at with rubber bullets.

By midnight, the protesters have secured the intersection, they now hold the vehicle barricades and the Dynamo gate. Police officers have retreated up to the hill leading to Parliament. Some of the water cannon trucks obviously don’t work. Activist Kataryna Kruk tweets: “corruption at it’s best:new water cannons can’t shoot water properly because of some defects.stole money and bought rubbish,no comments.” The trucks were bought overpriced preceding the EURO 2012 championship and were part of an exposed corruption scheme.[6]

On Maidan fear is growing. Will the police try to dismantle the tent city? Activists keep on reinforcing the barricades, making Molotov cocktails and digging up cobble stones.

The toll of the day: 103 protesters injured, 42 in hospital. 70 policemen injured, 49 in hospital.[7] Among 15 injured journalists is Maks Levin who got beaten by hired thugs when he returned to his car after the clashes.[8]

Jouranlist Max Eristavi concludes the day with a tweet: “All those who participated in clashes in downtown #Kyiv could get a 15 years jail-time.”

By 6 am the violence has died down. Police and protesters keep their distance. They stay 30–50 meters apart. There are only 2000 protesters left. Leaders of Maidan come round to and distribute news. They say that police will storm at 4am. But they don’t. In view of daylight, the battle ground looks surreal. Burnt out vehicles, fences, smoke, street and house-facades covered in black soot, icicles in destroyed windshield frames. The slope between the two sides is iced due to continuous use of water cannons. Some people shout “out with the gang.” Some explosions, a police line, some protesters. They have painted the stolen shields in white with red crosses on it. The sound of rods against corrugated steal sheats and snowy streets covered with cobblestones. The shovels hitting cobble stones join in the eerie sound of war. A priest stands in front of officers holding a cross. Stalemate.

“Meanwhile riot-police at the scene of clashes became more aggressive in dealing with protesters,” writes journalist Max Eristavi. “Policemen were actively provoking activists to come closer to their base, then would shot rubber bullets at them, break away from the crowd, then beat them brutally. Sometimes it looked more like a “safari” with hunting down on civil rights activists.”[9]

Photos appear of journalists released from jail, having been beaten heavily. Later that evening Radio Svobody releases a video showing how the cameraman is shot at with rubber bullets. It is clear that he is targeted. This happened not by accident just as the video of a Channel 5 cameraman whose equipment gets hit. Local journalist Andriy Kovalov tweets: “Tonight I will not wear my orange “press” vest, because we become an easy target for Berkut that is intentionally shooting at us.” In this light it is an unwilling joke when the government issues a statement claiming that they have used far less force than what the law allowed.

But the authorities rather act behind the scenes. According to witness reports, police arrest those who check into hospitals even when still injured. [10] A news agency claims that police have been deployed to many gas filling stations and arrest everybody who fills gas into metal cans.

After having spoken with Yanukovych alone, Vitaly Klitschko becomes the first among the three equal opposition politicians. He calls Ukrainians to Kyiv to defend Maidan. “The authorities wage a war against its own people. We need you here in Kyiv.” The government itself makes it clear that it will not budge. Yanukovych says in a public address: “I respected your right to protest peacefully, but recent clashes threaten the whole Ukraine.” In another address prosecutor general Pshonka qualifies the clashes as a crime against the state.[11] “The current situation is a result of two months of rhetoric of irresponsible politicians, their shallow promises and impunity for crimes,” Pshonka says. All parties agree to talks but they only send deputies. Yanukovych sends Andriy Klyuyev, head of the National Security and Defense Council who is suspected by the opposition to be responsible for the violence in November. Not a promising start.[12] Of course there comes a statement from the EU’s Catherine Ashton. Not surprisingly, she is deeply concerned. As usual.

In the same time on Maidan some carry wooden planks about and build a structure that is revealed in the evening of 20 January: a three meter tall catapult.

A protester says: “They scare us with their stun granades and we will scare them with the catapult. It is our only option.” They put it to the test, it works and is able to send stones flying, although it looks as dangerous for the bystanders as for the enemy. It has a counterweight mechanism similar to a trebuchet, the arm is pulled down, the hard hat at the end is loaded with stones. Then the arm is pulled further, tensed and then released.[13] It gets it’s own Twitter account from which it comments the throws it takes. The catapult is active on Twitter even six months later after being at least twice destroyed.[14] The catapult works so well that police retaliate with flash grenades. They try to attack at the Dynamo gate but are beaten back. Snipers are on the roof of the gate but are exposed with fireworks and laserpointer.

Even with these events, one peculiar habit of Maidan becomes clear: contrary to many other anti-government protests in Europe, this one is not destructive. In two months of protests, activists have not broken a single shop window. As Kyiv-Post editor Katya Gorchinskaya poignantly put it: “The anger of the people is directed against the corruption of the nation’s top officials. They have no squibble with the shopowners.”

Destruction is brought from outside by hired thugs. There is no official order so there is no proof of their orders. They are called “Titushki” after the family name of a private sportsman who had beaten up a journalist in the previous year for pay. On Maidan they are used to wreak havoc and create anarchy. Many of them camp in Marilynski park. There are witnesses having seen them with Berkut officers so there is a link between thugs in sportsclothes and the authorities.

In the night from 20 to 21 January members of the group Automaidan and opposition politicians capture about a dozen men believed to be Titushki. Activist Olga Chervakova reports: “Titushka are around Volodymrysky Street, around 150.” She notices a Mercedes from which they receive bats and crates of weapons. [15] When they start attacking people near McDonalds on Khmelnytskoho Street, activists including Vitaly Klitschko chase them and capture some. They are taken to the Trade Union Building into the main theatre. Hromadske.TV broadcasts their interrogation. Maidan is holding a people’s trial and is giving the teenagers and young men the opportunity to confess their “crimes” and ask for forgiveness. One of their weapons is presented, a kitchen hammer usually used to soften escalope. Some say they were promised 300 Hrivna per day (30 USD) but have not yet received it. Their order was to smash windows and cars so that this vandalism can be blamed on Maidan.[16]

The day after the Hrushevkoho riots. By Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe via Wikimedia Commons

The night is still hot from fights. Maidans medical coordinator Oleh Musiy reports that 1.400 people have sought medical aid in the previous two days. The main injuries are wounds to legs and arms from bullets or traumatic guns as well as injuries from shrapnel.[17] Berkut advance as the energy and the number of the activists dwindle. Still they can repel the police with Molotov cocktails, but they are being closed in. The Churchbells of St. Martin ring again. The situation becomes more and more tense. Interior Minister Zakharchenko has given his officers the order to use physical force, although they have exercised this already for 36 hours. Additionally the dictator laws are published this morning in the government newspaper which makes them official. In the morning the authorities report 120 injured police with 80 in hospital and 32 people imprisoned. While protesters bang their metal drums, police uses loudspeakers to constantly remind the crowd that they are facing 15 years sentences.

The day of 21 January remains mostly calm. There is a truce on Hruschevkoho Street, police officers and protesters meet in a no-mans land for a chat. Three monks called Melhisedek, Gavriil and Ephrem stand between the warring parties to appeal for peace. Vitaly Klitschko is meeting Yanukovych’s envoy Klyuyev for talks. In a surprising post on website VKontakte, the Ultra fans of football club Dynamo Kyiv call their members to come to the city to prevent Titushki from their violent work. This is a puzzling statement since football Ultras could have been expected to be on the other side. In the following weeks fan groups of many other clubs signal their sympathy for Maidans cause and start protecting protesters in their respective cities. They even suspend their often violent fights against other clubs.


[1] hromadkse TV, 14/01/14

















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