I was in Kiev on February 18th, 2014

Louis Blanchard, in Kiev, translated by Rodolphe Leclerc
25 Février 2014

Place Maidan, the theatre of the anti-government manifestations in Kiev, had known a relative calm these last weeks. On Sunday February 16th, the protesters evacuated the city hall, before the government freed 234 demonstrators as a gesture of appeasement. Two days later, the assault of the anti-riot policemen, the Berkut, caused 25 deaths. Story of an escalation into chaos.

© Hugo Mathy
© Hugo Mathy
It is February 18th, 10:30am, Independence square. A strange feeling of insecurity settles at the exit of the Maidan Nezaleznhosti underground. When exiting the escalator, two threatening individuals in the semi-darkness look askance at the passersby; watchers of stairs obstructed with tires and barbered wires that spit out a muffled twitchy noise.

This noise is the Ukrainian hard rock, which is spat by the speakers of the stage. Under the sun, the place looks vaguely like a giant fair: passersby walk around, take selfies before the monuments in the colors of Ukraine and European Union, vans offer coffee.

These last weeks, life took back its rights here. But it keeps the legacy of occupation: hooded demonstrators have a lunch at McDonald, a fashionista in fur coat gets out of the Zara shop and mixes with the crowd of military uniforms. Barricades, still watched over by some veterans, look like attractions for tourists. And we are not surprised when an individual in a Bugs Bunny suit offers us to take a picture before the Archangel Michael statue.

From the top of the hill which overlooks the place, in the shadow of the International Center of Culture and Arts– closed for the occasion, the feeling of tranquility becomes established : a sea of flags and tents, some hundreds of people, an easy-going mood. Several groups armed with helmets and sticks seem to head toward the Instytutska street; and between two songs, explosions can be heard in the distance.

11:20am, first checkpoint

Past a barricade of sand sacks, on the top of which sits a wooden watchtower, a long procession walks up the street. The more we get away from the square, the noisier the explosions, to which adds up the one from the metallic objects struck against the street lamps and the noise of the crowd.

A barricade looms on the left. Three trucks, placed across the street, are covered with flowers graffiti. The policemen have climbed on them, and some protesters try to convince them to go down, from their side this time. To no avail.

The square gets more and more crowded, the noises get clearer and turn out to be melodious. A middle aged woman sings while striking a post, further a bagpipe plays the European anthem. Some individuals unseal the cobblestones of the pavements for unclear reasons. And all of sudden, all of this crowd applauses: a few meters away, somebody set the barricade on fire.

3pm – checkpoint 2

The flames arise, and the smoke blocks the corridor of the street. A fire lance is activated from the other side, a water spurt which came from nowhere. A cobblestone, then two, fly in its direction, and spontaneously the crowd organizes itself: a human chain takes shape to carry the stones to a first group, near the barricade, that takes care of breaking them to pieces. Franc-tireurs wearing gas masks, hockey protections or simply a beanie send projectiles beyond the flame wall to the invisible enemy.

Second cheer: demonstrators placed themselves on the roof of the building nearby and shake a Ukrainian flag. Quickly, policemen armed with pump-action shotguns place themselves behind a chimney and make them step back. With the result that the authorities manage to go down to the door that opens on the occupied street. A row of shields and a few stones take care of keeping them inside. On the other side of the street, a second barricade traces the limit between the protesters and, a hundred meters away from there is a line of policemen.

© Hugo Mathy
© Hugo Mathy
It is around 3:30pm when the Berkut charges. Knocking down the barricade, a swarm of metal shields and black helmets pierces the crowd. Truncheons stir without restraint, crash down on the closest individual – protester, journalist, mere onlooker – without discrimination. But the objective of the regime soldiers is to join their peers, on the other side of the flaming barricade: they regroup massively at the center of the crossroads.

This is the signal for the counter-attack: the demonstrators regroup and quickly circle around the policemen, and a rain of cobblestones and Molotov cocktails comes crashing down on the latter. In a matter of a few minutes, the Berkut officers are forced to withdraw.

The protesters quickly take back their positions. Some wounded persons are evacuated with the only ambulance available; the others will have to be carried. Several demonstrators insult, shove and strike a policeman who had the misfortune to be separated from the group. His skull is stained with blood, but he manages to stand. A female demonstrator in a yellow raincoat emerges to circle him in her arms, and chases away the crows of the trial by the mob.

The civilians will manage to hold the street for some time again; at least until the night. But the ultimatum formulated by Yanukovych will force them to make a decision: stay, and endure the assault of the armored vehicles and the Berkut armed with assault rifles; or leave. We are February 18th, it is 6pm, the ultimatum expires: a lot have decided to stay. In the night between the 18th and the 19th, 25 protesters will be killed in the heart of the blaze of the flaming Maïdan.