Kiev Maidan’s demand to know who killed ‘Heavenly Hundred’ falling on deaf ears
Forty days after 100 killed, protesters are asking if new regime is better than old one
Ukrainian school girls painting slogans for peace on Independence Square in Kiev earlier this week. A memorial ceremony for about 100 protesters who were killed in and around the square in the final days of president Viktor Yanukovich’s rule takes place on Sunday. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA
For months now, an army surplus tent has been their home, and a split log the place they sit and smoke, as history unfolds in their backyard – Kiev’s Independence Square.
Tomorrow, Lyoha Kuznetsov and Sergei Matvechuk will join a memorial ceremony here for around 100 protesters who, in the final gruesome days of president Viktor Yanukovich’s rule, were shot dead in the streets surrounding the square that locals call Maidan.
The Maidan movement defeated Yanukovich, his corrupt cronies and Russia’s determination to keep him in power. But it paid a great price in blood, and, barely a month after their victory, many of its members are already asking whether Ukraine’s new leaders are any better than the old regime.
“The police were already shooting on the 18th [of February]. We had shields and sticks, but it was tough against real weapons,” said Kuznetsov (50) from Sumy in northeast Ukraine.
“One of the men from our ‘hundred’ was badly hurt on the 20th, that was the bloodiest day. A bullet smashed his hand to pieces,” added Matvechuk (44) who came from the eastern city of Donetsk in December.
The Maidan’s self-defence volunteers were grouped into “hundreds”, and the dead have become the “Heavenly Hundred”. Activists say at least 101 protesters and 17 members of the security services died during Ukraine’s uprising, the vast majority on February 20th, as snipers picked off people on Instytutska Street, which runs from Maidan to presidential and governmental headquarters. It leads uphill past the Ukraina hotel, which became a makeshift field hospital.
“The first sniper victims on February 20th were hit between 9am and 10am. The last was killed at about 4pm.This was an inhuman, genocidal situation,” said Olga Bogomolets, a doctor who helped run an emergency operating theatre in the hotel.
“We had eight surgical tables. Doctors were making incredible efforts to save lives, but most people died within a few minutes. They were hit in the heart, neck, brain and eyes. We had 12 dead bodies here,” she said this week in the bullet-marked Ukraina.
Bodies also lay on Maidan and in the grounds of the nearby St Michael’s Cathedral, as people desperately loaded the wounded and the dying into cars and sought medical help, amid warnings that police were waiting at major hospitals to arrest demonstrators.
The carnage appalled Ukrainians and the West, and drove protesters’ fury to new heights. When EU foreign ministers brokered a compromise deal between Yanukovich and opposition parties the next day, the Maidan rejected it and vowed to use force if necessary to oust the president. He fled that night and found refuge in Russia. Most of his clique, now fugitives, are thought to have done the same.
In a bugged phone conversation, Estonia’s foreign minister Urmas Paet informed EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that Dr Bogomolets had told him the “same snipers” killed protesters and police, and suggested “behind the snipers it was not Yanukovich, it was somebody from the new coalition.”
Paet’s claim is used by Russian officials and state media and other opponents of the Maidan movement as evidence of a murderous conspiracy to replace Yanukovich with pro- western politicians.
“I don’t know if his statement was a misunderstanding or some sort of provocation,” Bogomolets said of Paet’s account of their conversation. “I said the presence of snipers could be proved because of the type of wounds on protesters. But on the 20th I was too busy to help any wounded police, so I had no information about them.”
Politician Hennadiy Moskal has uncovered documents that he says show the Ukrainian security services were following a plan formulated with Russian colleagues. Extensive video footage shows men in Ukrainian special forces uniforms firing automatic weapons and sniper rifles towards protesters from areas controlled by police. A small number of demonstrators were seen shooting pistols and hunting rifles towards police lines.
Paet also told Ashton that it seemed Ukraine’s new leaders “don’t want to investigate exactly what happened” on those deadly days before Yanukovich fled. On this point, many on Maidan now reluctantly agree with the Estonian diplomat.
“We need an independent expert investigation to give people the truth,” said Bogomolets. “We don’t need any more lies or corruption. The people are sick of that.”
As they prepare to mark 40 days since scores of protesters died, Ukrainians wonder why their new, supposedly open and transparent authorities are unable to tell them who did the killing.
“The more time goes by, the less chance there is that the criminals will be punished,” said Nelya Vterkovska, an organiser of the Heavenly Hundred Centre to commemorate the dead and help their relatives and those injured during protests in Kiev and other cities.
“Maidan feels it is not being listened to. People have something to say, they want to build a new country, and they have already taken great risks and paid a high price to do that. We need to know what really happened,” Vterkovska added.
The new government is reeling from Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a possible further invasion and the threat of bankruptcy, but critics are impatient.
They accuse it of acting like Yanukovich’s old cabinet, making decisions behind the scenes, doling out jobs to cronies and refusing to support full disclosure of politicians’ assets and business interests.
Calls for a full purge of the security services grew louder this week with the killing by a special police unit of Oleksandr Muzychko, a leading member of Right Sector, the revolutionary nationalist group that rose to prominence on Maidan.
Chanting “revolution, revolution”, Right Sector rallied outside parliament to demand the resignation of interior minister Arsen Avakov.
“It’s not going well for the new lot,” Kuznetsov said, puffing a cigarette outside his tent on Maidan. “Seems we’ll have to get rid of them too.”