By Nataliya Sadykova
We are to reform the country (without shifting the responsibility on politicians’ shoulders), eject the Russian bandit groups out of the country, and win Crimea back.
Oleksandra Matviychuk, Head of the Board at Center for Civil Liberties and Coordinator of Euromaidan SOS, shares her experience at EuroMaidan, being the fourth Maidan in her life, and her reflections on which way Ukraine should head in order to become a democratic state.[Editor’s note: Maidans are large-scale protests centered around Kyiv’s central square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti.]
– Oleksandra, please tell us what the Center for Civil Liberties does?
– Our organization engages in the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms. We focus on freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, combating discrimination, and protecting human rights activists. We don’t work only within Ukraine, for as you know, human rights go beyond state borders. While authoritarian regimes in post-Soviet countries cooperate together to eliminate civil society, we – the human rights organizations – must work on creating a unanimous international platform.
– What about civil rights in Ukraine nowadays?
– Ukraine is facing a new reality now – the military occupation of Crimea and the “undeclared” war being run by Russia in eastern Ukraine. In these circumstances it is very difficult to just stick to a democratic development chosen by the people – to reform the police, carry out lustration of the judges, and to liquidate corruption, etc. [Editor’s note: Lustration refers to the purge of government officials who were once associated with Communist governments in eastern Europe.]
Human rights situations differ depending on the region.
There is Donbas, where there are military actions going on, and where illegal military groups supported by Russia apply terrorist policy against the peaceful population, torturing and kidnapping civilians.
There is Crimea, where de facto Russian repressive legislation applies, and even a prayer service for Crimean Tatars to commemorate the 70th anniversary of their deportation is forbidden. [Editor’s note: The Tatars are a Turkish ethnic people group who have lived on the Crimean peninsula since the 15th Century and are noted for the Crimean People’s Republic, which was the first democratic republic in the Islamic world. They suffered much persecution and in 1944, Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered the forced mass deportation of more than 230,000 Tatar people to Siberia and central Asia, killing more than 100,000 from disease and starvation. They were allowed to return to their homeland in the 1980’s under Perestroika] Other regions are getting ready to defend against external aggression, however, it must be mentioned that the situation with respect to human rights there is back to normal.
As a matter of fact, we now live in a very interesting period in history. Since the end of World War II, there has not been a single case of one country “stealing” territory from another country and having it officially annexed.
This is not just a matter of what Ukraine is supposed to do in this situation. The question is, what are other countries supposed to do in a situation such as this?
The terrorist-caused passenger airplane crash and the deaths of its 298 passengers have demonstrated once again that everything is interdependent in this fragile world.
– You have been through four Maidans in the course of your life. Please tell us how you’ve managed it, being so young yourself? You mentioned harassment – against you and your close ones – what was that all about?
– During the Orange Revolution, I was a law student. The color orange was the symbol of that Revolution. I remember putting on the [orange] ribbon back then when hardly anybody had it on. And I thought to myself: now I must act in a way that nobody could question my honesty – because I have this ribbon on, people will judge me by those who support democracy.
I signed up as an elections monitor during the elections. When the counting of votes was over, a woman from the election committee invited me to stay over at her place. I remember the two of us watching TV first thing in the morning when they announced Yanukovych’s election win. We both started crying. But then they reported on TV that some people were gathering in protest at Maidan. So I went there.
Then there was the Tax [Maidan] (against elimination of small business), the Language [Maidan] (against Russification), and now – the EuroMaidan. The main thing I realized is that no one knows for sure whether Ukraine, in its striving to become a democratic state, would never need the next one [the next Maidan]. However, we must create guarantees that no other government would ever dream of shooting unarmed people in the street.
During EuroMaidan everyone was at gunpoint. The government applied violent and ruthless terror, and anybody, including random people, could become its victim. In my case there were bandits [waiting to meet me] outside my house and “invitations” to the General Prosecutor’s office. I remember they asked if I was ready to go to jail. I gave an honest response, that many people believe themselves to be ready to face something until the fate actually tests them for readiness. Thus, I was wondering myself [whether I was ready]. But to myself I thought that I had a wonderful life, I had a chance to meet a lot of amazing people and I was doing what I believed in. The only thing I never had time to do, is to have kids. When the war is over, that is what I am going to get myself busy with.
– Where were you, and what were you doing during the tragic events in February? What can you tell about those events?
– I was in the office of Euromaidan SOS. At that moment I could not return home. I remember that just the day before, volunteers went to Maidan to hand out telephone numbers for our hot lines. But when it all started and people started calling us to say people were being shot, there was nothing we could do. We do legal assistance. Thereafter volunteers went to mortuaries, hospitals and locations where people carried the dead. We were afraid the government would liquidate the bodies, so we were hastily making lists. That is why we were among the first ones to learn there were more than just a dozen or even two dozen killed.
And then my husband called me. He told me, “You do realize I am at Maidan, don’t you?” I said, “I certainly did realize that.” And although I wanted to tell him to please run away, how could I? The majority of those who were at Maidan had families. I only asked if he had an armored vest. He laughed and told me those were useless. We said goodbye to one another. I remember I stepped out of the office for a quarter of an hour to collect my thoughts, and then proceeded with work.
Honestly speaking, it still pains me a lot to walk down Instytutska Street where people were killed. I know a lot of them by name now, and somehow I still feel uneasy that we survived and they didn’t.
– How did the idea of the “Euromaidan SOS” come about, and which problems did you face? Who are those people who did the searching?
– On a Saturday, the 30th of November, 2013, our organization was supposed to hold a seminar for activists from other regions. Naturally, when everybody arrived and found out that several hours before the police had violently beaten the students at Maidan, the seminar was out of the question.
People were depressed. Most of them felt a strong impulse to go to Mykhaylivska Square, where a protest was forming. However, we decided we should [first] think through how we – the human rights activists – could be [most] helpful in this situation, because at that moment there were a lot of injured people and it was not clear if legal assistance was being provided to them.
At about 10 a.m. we registered the Euromaidan SOS account on Facebook and made the first two posts. The first post had the telephone numbers of our hot lines. The second post was a call for the advocates who were ready to provide free legal assistance to come forward. And then it all began.
During EuroMaidan the number of daily calls (we were taking those around the clock) could reach up to several thousand. Our official list alone had contact details of over 400 advocates who had given their consent to work pro bono, day and night. However, Euromaidan SOS could not have made it through without hundreds of volunteers and the active Facebook community of Euromaidan SOS.
It must be mentioned that the majority of these people were never involved in any civic activities before. But when the critical moment came, they did not stand aside, nor passively remain indifferent. EuroMaidan made it possible for people to demonstrate their best. That is why it is called the “Revolution of Dignity”.
– How exactly did EuromaidanSOS search for people? How many were actually found? How many are still listed as missing?
– During EuroMaidan almost a thousand people in total were registered on our list as missing. The majority of them were found rather quickly. Searching for the others took days, weeks and even months. This is because the injured were taken to theunderground hospitals organized by means of donations and thereafter taken away to other cities and countries to prevent their harassment. Some were unconscious, some had no mobile. The relatives called us. Well, they could not have possibly approached the police back then.
Some of those listed as missing were removed to be listed as dead. We are currently still looking for over 30 people who went missing during EuroMaidan.
– There are a lot of rumours that people were kidnapped from Maidan and killed. What can you say about that? Have you heard of such cases?
– I can tell you about the kidnapping of a close acquaintance of mine, Ihor Lutsenko. I got to know him before EuroMaidan, as he was one of the leaders of the “Let’s Preserve the Old Kyiv” movement. They were working for the protection of green spaces and heritage assets of the city. He and Yuriy Verbytskiy, a researcher seismologist, were kidnapped directly from the hospital by some unidentified people (the so called “titushkas”, who were cooperating with the police). Yuriy’s eye was injured at Maidan. (It should be mentioned that back then the police deliberately chose to aim at eyes. There are over 50 people injured that way.) I spent that night talking on the phone to Yuriy’s brother. Both of these kidnapped men were tortured and then each separately taken out into the woods. Ihor was able to get out of there and survive. Yuriy did not.
– What happened to your organization after Maidan succeeded?
– Maidan has not succeeded… yet! We are to reform the country without shifting the responsibility on politicians’ shoulders, eject the Russian bandit groups out of the country, and win Crimea back. That said, Euromaidan SOS continues to work and help people. It is true, it’s hardly possible to send an advocate to the war zone, so we use different methods now. Presently we are organizing human rights agencies and mobile teams. We make visits there and document everything, and work with hostages and torture survivors.
– Oleksandra, do you think it is right that Maidaners will not leave [the Maidan]? What is it they want, in your opinion?
– Euromaidan SOS has issued a statement on this. We wrote that while earlier it was an obligation of every decent man to go out to Maidan, now there is a lot of specific work to do and someone needs to actually do it. That impulse from Maidan, i.e. the democratic transformations, must reach every village, even the smallest ones; not to mention the war in the east.
– What do you think the country needs in order not to lose the impulse it received from Maidan, and to develop further?
– You know, Maidan is over, however, the citizen activism does not decrease. This is not so obvious to an external observer because of the war. People engage in different initiatives: investigate the crimes committed at Maidan, help the wounded, transport supplies for the military, control the Parliament to stimulate it to introduce the reforms that the country needs.
I am sure there will be a time when the whole world will study our unique experience of self-organization, the time when common people got together to essentially perform the state’s functions. We were left with the “Heaven’s Hundred” after EuroMaidan. But we cannot move forward [just] on their account. Everybody must provide support to public society/organizations/institutions. And we are aware of that.Source: respublika-kaz.info Translated by: Svitlana Skob, edited by: Lisa Spencer