Smouldering hope turns to grim resolve in Kiev’s Independence Square

Around burning barricades, police and protesters locked in hand-to-hand combat

Protesters stand at barricades at the edge of the protest camp in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

Protesters stand at barricades at the edge of the protest camp in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

Thu, Feb 20, 2014, 01:00

Independence Square is no stranger to fire and smoke, but they feel different here now, darker and more dangerous. For three frigid months, protesters warmed themselves around makeshift braziers and with hot drinks.

The smell of burning wood filled the winter air, along with songs, prayers, poems and defiant speeches. It is a little warmer now in Kiev and by day the braziers grow cold, but the smell of soot and ash hangs heavy over what locals call the Maidan. On Tuesday night, protesters set their own barricades alight, creating a screen of flames to keep thousands of riot police at bay.

Soon some of their tents were ablaze, though it was unclear whether they were used as fuel or were accidentally ignited by a protester’s petrol bomb or police stun grenade. Later, amid a fierce struggle for what people have dubbed their “island of freedom”, the trade union building used as their headquarters caught fire. Those inside smashed windows and clambered to safety on roofs; others were forced to jump.

Around the burning barricades, police and protesters were locked in hand-to-hand combat, one group wielding truncheons and the other wooden clubs and iron bars.

Their silhouetted fury recalled medieval combat, but the maelstrom was modern: live bullets were allegedly used by both sides and an armoured personnel carrier was engulfed by a hail of Molotov cocktails. At least 26 people died and hundreds were injured.

Yesterday, the barricades smouldered and smoke billowed from the charred shell of the trade union headquarters. The optimism of the protest camp had become grim resolve, and its remarkable order and variety had narrowed to something like a military regime.

Over the months, the Maidan evolved into a commune, which managed to keep itself fed and warm and ran everything from self-defence units to an artistic division, a “university” where lectures were given, a chapel and a library. Now there are four main jobs on Maidan: manning the barricades; breaking the pavement into throwable chunks; preparing food and drinks; and medical help.

“If we don’t change Ukraine now we might not get another chance,” said Kiril (25), smashing paving stones. “Now blood has been shed I had to do something to help.”

He hoped the European Union would slap sanctions on Ukraine’s leaders at a meeting today. “But for months we’ve waited for help from the West and nothing has come,” he said. “We have to do this ourselves.”