April 2014. Roman during his treatment in Vienna, Austria. Photograph: Pavlo Bishko
At first, he was just a drop in the ocean. Then, with a red cross on his back, he was helping people until a sniper bullet hit his leg. After all he has been through, he will never be the same: Roman Kotliarevsky, biologist and logistics manager. During the revolution he worked as a volunteer at the Red Cross, having many exciting, tragic and sad Maidan stories to tell. He himself was injured, but he does not regret the time and efforts he has devoted to an exceptional experience that changed him a lot as many other Ukrainians.
Lydia Akryshora, a journalist and an activist of the local Maidan, was visiting Roman regularly during his medical treatment in Vienna. Now he is getting better and ready to talk about what has happened. He does not speak much, but his words have weight. Despite all the terrible things he witnessed he can still make jokes and smile remembering the Maidan. His smile is warm and kind, although now and then it becomes very sad.
Drop in the ocean of the Red Cross
“I was on the Maidan from the very beginning because for me it was the right thing to do. I wanted to support those protesters, I wanted to be a drop in this ocean“, Roman Kotliarevsky starts his Maidan story.
On January 20, 2014, when the confrontation began, the fate led him to the Revolution of Dignity. Among teams of the Red Cross first-aiders in Hrushevsky Street he recognised three friends of his. One of them was a person he has known for twenty years, he was a leader of the team. “It was the moment when I realised that I wanted to join them. I didn’t want to be just a useless witness anymore. There was a real work to do: to help people. So I came up to them and said I wanted to join the team“ – Roman recalls.
The next day, he signed an agreement with the Red Cross at their office, which was essential after the adoption of the “dictatorship laws” on January 16 (Translator’s note: ten laws restricting freedom of speech and freedom of assembly), received his insurance and got started. There were 4 teams; each of them was every two or three days on duty.
According to Roman Kotliarevsky, there were no great clashes over the next month: they just practiced and observed different situations. In late January/early February, the Red Cross was mainly busy with losses of consciousness, frostbites and minor injuries.
Though the tension was increasingly growing, especially after the Kyiv City State Administration was returned to the representatives of the power. Many people expressed their disagreement.
The Red Cross did both: provided first aid and helped to resolve psychological conflicts. As Roman says, people mostly trust those wearing a red cross on their backs. For instance, during the seizure of the Ukrainian House by Ukrainian security forces, there were around 200 unarmed police conscripts and quite a few protesters on the other side. The Red Cross became a negotiating force to prevent a violent conflict succeeding mainly due to Vasyl Zhuravel, who convinced the crowd to hold back.
“We were standing between them as a buffer“
“They are humans, just like us. Now they are doing things we don’t like and represent wrong people. But you cannot favour anybody as long as you wear the Red Cross uniform. We did not talk about politics while being on duty because the Red Cross is a neutral organisation and this is the way it should be”, points out Roman, talking about the moral side of the situation. After all, the basic principle of the Red Cross is to provide help equally to all people requiring it. This is the reason why we bandaged protesters as well as Berkut (TN: “Golden Eagle” – a riot police unit) and soldiers of the Interior Troops.
On February 18, when the Interior Troops retreated, two soldiers stumbled and fell to the ground. Demonstrators nearly beat them to death. Roman and his friend rushed to help the soldiers and were also hit. Then people recognised the doctors and stopped, so the soldiers could be taken to the medical aid station.
Under similar circumstances many people were saved. “There was a dressing station in one of the courtyards. They said they would not hurt us in case of an attack, because we helped everyone independently from their views. They really didn’t touch our makeshift hospital where about five people were receiving treatment at that moment. So, when they went on the offensive, they just went past it.“
When the October Palace was taken over by Berkut, there was still one protester inside who had not managed to leave in time. So we gave him our medical gown and helped him get out.
Through such skilful negotiations and psychological tricks of the Red Cross volunteers many people escaped police vans and Berkut. There have been several occasions when policemen were afraid to start an offensive and asked to bandage them pretending to have injuries to avoid clashes.
On February 18 the first-aiders were inspecting Shovkovychna Street area with an office of the Pravex Bank at the corner. This very morning, there were one guard and five female employees inside. When the clashes started, the manager approached the Red Cross team and asked if they could help them out. Berkut officers were on the roof of the same building throwing gas grenades. So the volunteers asked a Berkut commander to order a-five-minute-ceasefire and create a corridor to enable the evacuation. He gave the order over the radio, Berkut ceased fire and the people were cautiously led through the office window outside, it was a very anxious moment. Roman explains: “To some extent we were like a buffer between them and the protesters. It was the only way to help people. We had to find a common ground. There was even one police general who came up to us and promised to provide us with all the needed medicines”.
The fatal story of the blue helmet
During the clashes the first-aiders had to bear a lot on their back including stones and electric shockers. But they had no fear because there was work to do. The really scary part started on February 20.
Roman remembers he went home to have rest on February 19. He and his friend wanted to go to the Red Cross office the next day. They always watched news before leaving the house and knew what they could expect. “We got scared for the first time. Nobody sang patriotic songs anymore. Everybody was terrified, many were injured and killed”, Roman shares his memories.
He realised he could not step back anymore. It would have weakened and frightened the whole team. They were told to go to Instytutska Street for there were many injured people. The team was divided into two groups: the girls were giving first aid in the hotel “Ukraine”, Roman and three others were carrying the injured to the hotel.
He remembers all these as a surreal dream taking place right before his eyes: shots, blood, smoke everywhere, men running around with shields, asking to go up and help the injured. They said we shouldn’t be afraid of the shooting, they were not aiming at doctors. Then there was one guy. He wanted to say something and started to bleed instead: he had been shot in the lung. The Red Cross team bandaged and took him to the hotel. Roman says this guy has got better.
As they went further up Institutska Street, they saw somebody in a blue helmet lying on the ground in front of the Arkada Bank. He did not show any signs of life, but they had to make sure he was dead and take him out of the massacre. Later on, he found out that the sad story of the blue helmet is about the eternal hero Ustym Golodnyuk.
They had just put the body on a stretcher trying to get up when Roman received his, as he calls it now, “present”. A sniper bullet reached his right thigh. It doesn’t sound right to call it salvation, but this is what it looks like after having watched the video of the incident. If he hadn’t got up, the bullet would have reached him in the neck or head.
“Then a hospital bed and many visitors”
Having felt the strong hit, Roman naively believed it was a rubber bullet. On this war of dignity the rule “not to shoot the doctors” was broken. Further events remind of a movie: hotel “Ukraine”, injection, administration, ambulance, hospital, x-ray, surgery. Then was hospital with many friends visiting him during his two-weeks’ stay.
His fellow-volunteers were doing their best to find a better place for Roman’s treatment. His second surgery could have taken place in Poland, the Check Republic or the USA. Roman said to himself he could wait for there were others badly injured. But his thigh was in a bad condition, so he was sent for further treatment to Vienna, the Austrian capital.
In Vienna Roman had two more surgeries. During the next 1,5 months he was getting acquainted with the local medicine and his Austrian roommates. Some of them considered Roman a hero, who told them the truth about Ukraine. At the same time, there were others who believed in Nazis on the Maidan, which saddened Roman.
Since May he has been back home, returning to his “normal” life, recovering and waiting for the spring Soon the metal parts in his thigh will have to be taken out, which means he will experience the hospital environment once again.
Life for revolution
Looking back now from a year-long distance, Roman has dubious feelings. On the one hand, many people did not realise what happened: some acquaintances keep asking him how much he was paid there. On the other hand, the Maidan changed people: they learnt to be friendly, humane and to share. They realised they had the power of influence and they took responsibility to move it forward.
Roman takes his mother as an example. She is a born Russian and she used to teach Russian language and literature. After all what happened, she started speaking Ukrainian only and is very proud to be living in such a wonderful country. “It’s not the best way to start loving one’s country, but I am very happy Ukrainians have become patriots”, Roman adds.
Talking about the war in the East of Ukraine, Roman does not consider smart sending there young unprepared soldiers, who are not able to face the challenge. This job should be performed by well-prepared men just as any other kind of job.
Roman had often been on missions to Africa including Sudan and Congo. Ironically enough, he was shot at home, on the Maidan. Nevertheless, he does not regret anything. Even if he could have foreseen his outcome, he would still have joined the Red Cross. Why? His answer is simple: “It was real life. We would have been happy to save just one singe life. And we saved many, which is wonderful”.