Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

In Central Kiev, Maidan Volunteers Watch and Wait

"We are waiting until it becomes clear which way things are going," says one.
By John MacLeod
  • Barricade on the Khreschatik, on the approaches to the Maidan in Kiev. (Photo: John MacLeod)
    Barricade on the Khreschatik, on the approaches to the Maidan in Kiev. (Photo: John MacLeod)
  • The Bratska Sotnya’s tents. (Photo: John MacLeod)
    The Bratska Sotnya’s tents. (Photo: John MacLeod)
  • Members of the unit do shifts here so that there is a 24/7 presence. (Photo: John MacLeod)
    Members of the unit do shifts here so that there is a 24/7 presence. (Photo: John MacLeod)

Two months after protests on a central Kiev square culminated in police snipers shooting demonstrators where they stood, hundreds of volunteers still occupy the Maidan 24 hours a day.

Divided into numerous groups, they live in tents and patrol the square to guard the barricades and generally keep order. They say they are watching the political leaders who replaced ousted president Viktor Yanukovich to make sure they do not fall back into bad ways.

Often in camouflage fatigues, some are part of the organised “self-defence force” that polices the Maidan, others belong to various “sotnyas” (squadrons, literally “hundreds”) that coalesced as the protests escalated. Some identify with the Right Sector group; others represent various regions of Ukraine, the Crimean Tatars, Cossack groups and more.

On the Maidan, the stage where speeches, songs and prayers went on continuously during the protests is still a focus with occasional performances, speakers, TV relays and music. The square is always full of visitors – Kiev residents who come to look, to mourn the dead, and just to be part of this continuing, sombre “happening”.

Another sotnya, the “Heavenly Hundred”, is ever present on the Maidan. Photographs, mementos, candles and flowers are laid out everywhere in honour of those who died on the square – 106 at the last count.

IWPR spoke to Oleg, a member of one unit which like many others has a couple of army tents in its own chosen area, by the barricades of tyres and debris that still block the way to all but pedestrians. His group calls itself the Bratska (“fraternal”) Sotnya because its members comes from all over Ukraine.

An economist by training, Oleg’s real interest is in theatre, but the anti-Yanukovich demonstrations that took off from November onwards forced a change in direction, and he has been part of the Maidan ever since.

He began by describing how the months of demonstrations ended in clashes, gunfire and death:

[Oleg:] People were always angry throughout Yanukovich’s rule, but everyone was scared.

You have to understand the chain of events that led up to this [February clashes]. I am totally against violence. They talk about “Banderists” and “terrorist”, yet it was just people who had had enough. The cup was full and at some point it simply had to spill over. As for the way it happened, well we saw how it went. It could have been better, it might have been worse.

But in my view, things couldn’t have gone on the way they were. They just couldn’t.

How did your group get started?

At the start we were separate; we kind of knew each other to talk to on the phone. It all kicked off on Febrary 18. Initially it had been peaceful, people going out to protest. Clearly tensions were exacerbated on both sides….

We formed on February 18. At the start we didn’t have a tent or really anything. We sat in the open air, on crates, with nothing over our heads. Later we rang round the lads, and they came and joined us, and that’s how our squadron began.

There are a lot of sotnyas. Most people don’t belong to any party; they’re just ordinary people from various towns, various regions who have organised and got to know one another. So there’s a Lviv Squadron and others.

We are not part of the Maidan self-defence force. We’re just the Bratska Sotnya, some guys who were on the front line standing up for their civil rights. We united and now we are here.

So why are you here?

The situation here is complicated. Most of the guys are waiting for the [May 25 presidential] election to see how the situation will change in this country.

Many people don’t agree with the political decisions now being taken. There’s an interim government and many people are unhappy with its decisions. But things aren’t getting out of hand because this is a point where we need to allow time for problems to be addressed. So the guys are staying here and waiting till it becomes clear which way things are going

What sorts of people are part of your group?

There’s a guy from Dniepropetrovsk, there’s a guy from Luhansk and another from Odessa…. They’ve got families. One might be a builder, another something else….  ordinary people, young guys who’ve got girlfriends . They do some work, then come here and spend some time on duty, and then go off again. There aren’t that many there right now in the tent – ten, 15 or 20 – they take turns.

We share a common idea. We have come together to watch what’s going on in the country. We don’t have a specific aim. We are for the people, we are for Ukraine

A lot of other people come to the Maidan to look or somehow participate.

Yes, some of them sign up for sotnyas or the self-defence forces. There are people who just come here and take photos, ordinary people… a lot come to the barricades and discuss politics.

It’s a place to meet and discuss politics.

Women join up for the volunteer medical services. Older people help out in the kitchens [in huts on the square] and take tea and coffee and food around.

There’s no fixed concept that the Maidan is just this, or just that. Every day new things happen and it changes.

When will you know that things are going to be OK and you can go home?

That’s hard to say, because everything depends on how the current government addresses issues around national stability.

For sure, most people will stay here until the election. Some people support one candidate, others a different one. So a lot of the guys are saying we should to stay here to prevent acts of provocation, and to see who gets into power and how that changes things….

Depending on how things then develop, they will probably disperse

When will you know whether the new president is going to be good or bad?

It’s a really limited choice [of presidential candidates]. We know all the candidates…. It’s hard to say that if any particular individual is elected, the situation will fundamentally change, corruption will end, there will be no more lawlessness, and all will be well.

Whoever comes to power, I am sure they will realise that we, the people, are aware that we were able to change things. Every politician and official needs to understand that, and act in the nation’s interests.

I don’t think people are asking for the impossible.

I do believe and hope that things will really change fundamentally, because we can’t allow more bloodshed. I saw people die before my eyes. Seeing that was no joke, honestly.

Should there be a repeat of this kind of negative cycle, it will be an offence to those guys who are no longer with us. I do realise that the police suffered casualties as well as the Maidan people. It should be a lesson to us all.

I would say that using weapons to resolve any difference is unacceptable. I wouldn’t rule out conflicts recurring until the election takes place, a president is elected [and assuming] that the country is moving in one direction. Right now the direction is towards the European Union– that’s obvious.

But I think it is still too early to disperse, because there are so many ordinary people who have stood here and who just want a decent life.

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