independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Irishman's eyewitness account of Ukraine clashes

An anti-government protester carry the national flag as he walks trough the rubble after violence erupted in the Independence Square in Kiev February 20, 2014. Ukrainian protesters hurling petrol bombs and paving stones drove riot police from the central square in Kiev on Thursday despite a "truce" which embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich said he had agreed with opposition leaders.   REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (UKRAINE  - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
An anti-government protester carry the national flag as he walks trough the rubble after violence erupted in the Independence Square in Kiev February 20, 2014. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

The first thing on everyone’s mind in Kiev this morning was not the winter weather but if the protestors huddled in their tents behind ramparts of burning tires on Independence Square (‘Maidan’) had survived the night.

For over three months, an eclectic bunch of protestors - students, pensioners, farmers, office workers, teachers, radicals and veterans - have been permanently camped on Maidan, united by a desire for fair elections, free speech, independent courts and an end to rampant corruption.

Two days ago, in our 10th floor offices looking toward Independence Square, my colleagues and I were busily finalising VAT returns when the hated special police – the ‘Berkut’ – launched their long-expected attack on the unarmed Maidan protestors.

We were gradually distracted by the rising smoke and the sirens of ambulances rotating ever more frequently.  Thanks to the many news agencies and social networks following the protests, the scale of loss of life quickly became clear with two dozen killed, hundreds shot and fifteen hundred injured. 

Among the dead, a journalist for the ‘Vesti’ network was beaten to death by government thugs – the ‘titushki’.  To stop Maidan supporters from outside Kiev coming to reinforce the protestors, the police closed all roads into and out of the city and our new Mayor closed the metro so the streets thronged with commuters walking home, many sobbing.

Shock was followed by rage.  By evening, reports came from around the country of protestors storming government buildings, even a ‘People’s Parliament’ in city of Lviv announcing secession from Ukraine.  In Kiev, the battle for Maidan continued into the night, police armoured personnel carriers burned and titushki prowled the neighbouring streets for stray protestors and journalists. 

After a futile 1am meeting on Wednesday morning with opposition leaders, President Janokovich made a late-night speech offering threats not compromises and, in the morning, the State Prosecutor mooted the arrest of opposition leaders.  That afternoon, our half-empty office heard the head of the state security services announcing that Anti-terrorist legislation was being invoked, allowing curfews and arbitrary detention of potential 'terrorists'. 

Author: Cathal O' hAimheirgin

But across the country, people were more angry and scared - more state offices and police stations were ransacked and burned, and regional governors were arrested and forced to publicly resign by angry mobs.  Several government deputies resigned from the President’s party and 20 other became unavailable to vote in parliament due to being out of the country. 

Late last night, the President appointed a new head of the army to replace the former head who had refused to become politically engaged.

At first light this morning, the Maidan supporters on buses stopped by the police at the city limits started walking into the city center.  European Foreign Ministers arrived to unusually quiet streets as few of the city's 5 million inhabitants were going to the office and everyone was watching TV and social media.  Maidan was still there, and its numbers were growing. 

An anti-government protester carry the national flag as he walks trough the rubble after violence erupted in the Independence Square in Kiev February 20, 2014. Ukrainian protesters hurling petrol bombs and paving stones drove riot police from the central square in Kiev on Thursday despite a "truce" which embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich said he had agreed with opposition leaders.   REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (UKRAINE  - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
An anti-government protester carry the national flag as he walks trough the rubble after violence erupted in the Independence Square in Kiev

At 9:30, the Berkut withdrew from their gained ground to their original positions around the Parliament and President’s Palace, but not peacefully - the retreating police and snipers blasted protestors with their AK-47’s and high velocity rifles with lethal accuracy. 

By 10:00, dozens of protestors lay dead and dying and snipers continued to pick off unarmed protestors and even female medics coming to the assistance of the wounded.  At lunchtime, in an impassioned speech, the Mayor resigned from the President’s political party because of the bloodshed and promised that the metro will open. 

More deputies of the President’s party resigned from an apparently sinking ship. 

Over 50 people have been killed by the police on the President’s orders in the past three days and there is no sign to the end of the bloodshed. 

Today’s 3pm meeting of parliament did not happen as the President’s supporters refused to attend.  All the violence would stop tomorrow if the President resigned but this is unlikely to happen as he has the unwaivering support of Russia and EU sanctions are of far less threat to him than losing power. 

The Ukrainian people sense freedom is in the air and demonstrate impressive bravery facing off Berkut who routinely shoot them. In the East, peaceful protestors are blockading a train carrying paratroopers to Kiev and this evening, state offices are occupied in over 75pc of the regions. 

The government appears to have lost of the country and needs to suppress the Independence Square protests in order to free up the merciless Berkut to impose order on the provinces. 

This afternoon, the loyal Minister of Interior appeared on TV in combat fatigues to say that the police had been issued AK-47s with live rounds and ordered to enforce anti-terrorist legislation. 

Night is coming and no-one knows what it will bring for Maidan but for sure no-one is counting on the EU leaders to do anything to help and the snipers are still doing their work.

Cathal O' hAimheirgin in Kiev 

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