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One rebel’s story from Hrushevskiy Street in Ukraine

Someone asked me to talk about Maidan and [the barricades] on Hrushevskiy Street. The most memorable things. So I’ll try. Perhaps because I want to get all of this off my chest. The people who came here deserve to be heard.

Over there, you start to feel proud of your [people][country] and believe in victory. And you know that that the victory depends on you personally. And today, this is the only place in the world where you can be who you are – a human being, for example.

It’s easy to become a hero. All you need is a photo of yourself in front of the barricades. Bonus points if there’s a stack of black smoke in the background. You can then [safely][confidently] return as you type on your phone: “Hey, I’m returning from the front lines. We messed them up badly. But everything’s stable now. See you soon.” 

To prove or disprove something is impossible. Over there, everyone is a hero. And no one is a hero.  Instead of faces, you see gas masks, respirators, construction or medical masks, ski masks. You could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with someone on a barricade, but in the morning, on Maidan, walk by without ever recognizing him or her.

Once we take our gear off, unbundle, and show our faces, perhaps the only way to recognize each other is by voice.  But after hours of yelling, cursing, and swallowing smoke or tear gas, your voice sounds like everyone else’s. Weak. Hoarse. Sick.

Don’t think that everything is fine and everyone is well if an assault ends with just an isolated incident or if someone gets shot with a non-lethal weapon. One night, there were 43 injured. One guy was shot in the head with a rubber bullet. Another one broke his hand when he slipped off a burned bus.

Everybody else got frostbite. From time to time, the fire hoses, instead of putting out the flames, were directed at the guys. The water is freezing, with chunks of ice in it. And the men literally turned into ice statues. Even the proximity to the fire [of burning tires] didn’t help.

You feel moved when you see women or girls bringing around the tea in five-liter jugs. They make it through while tripping over the piles of ready to be thrown cobblestones or untangling themselves from the wires of the burnt out tires.

But what the fighters do next may surprise you. While hiding under a barricade, they finish the tea and take the disposable cups to a garbage can, or at least to the designated pile of trash or a barrel of fire, even though there may be fighting underway. I’m not even going to mention the  cleanliness of the Maidan, itself.

“And where are the Afghan veterans? Why aren’t they on the front lines? Why don’t they come and lead us in an attack? Tell me where I need to start the fire and that thing will burn! But we don’t have the military experience, so we fight however we know … And if they don’t lead, they should keep their mouth shut”. That’s what the [football / soccer] ultras said in response to a supposed plan to form a very large group of people to push the soldiers of the internal forces and the Berkut [riot police] out of the Hursevskoy Street and towards the Dnipro river.

“And who’s going to be in the first few rows – us? Of course. We’re not idiots. The first few rows will be shot dead on the spot. Let those who have been leading us and calling for this take the spots in the front line. You know they won’t. And you know this well. But if there isn’t a first row, there won’t be a second or third.” This is what a young man said, decked out head to toe. Judging from his voice, wasn’t even seventeen years old.

How easy it is to silence tens of thousands of Maidan supporters. You don’t need grenades. You don’t need to beat people with a nightstick or shoot them in the face with rubber bullets (and not only rubber bullets). No. That’s all for the people with low intellect and no fantasy.

There are more effective methods. For example, recall how this was done after, or rather, during  Yatseniuk’s speech. That’s when, instead of a bullet in the head from Yanukovych, he was offered the position of prime minister. After that, Yateseniuk’s rhetoric changed, and the question of Yanukovych’s resignation and punishment of those who killed our people was placed no the back burner. The people of the Maidan understood this very well.

The shouts of “shame!” and whistling from a crowd of thousands confirmed that. And then a miracle happened. From the music stage, a pleasant voice said, as if not hearing the dissatisfaction from the crowd: “Friends, let’s sing our national anthem!” Bingo! It’s a crowd of patriots, who will not, under any circumstances, whistle or yell “shame!” during the singing of the Ukrainian anthem. Simple and ingenious.

And let’s not treat the people on Maidan as fools who believe in amnesty or the fact that, after the repeal of the “dictatorship laws”, everything is going to be fine. The people understand that only after they get rid of Yaunkovich and his cronies will they be able to return home safely.

Otherwise, is it that hard to fabricate a drug charge? Or provoke a fight? Or accuse someone of theft? Because doing so [for law enforcement] is not an issue in our wonderful land. On the contrary, it’s even more convenient for the government to take that path. Because instead of charging the jailed demonstrators for civic disobedience, they can pursue criminal charges, leaving no wiggle room for defense.

But the rebels know that the maximum prison time for them is six years. It doesn’t matter if the [new dictatorship laws] carry a maximum of 12 or 15 years. The end game is simple: if we lose, Yanukovych will hold onto the presidency for another year plus five more in the next term. And only then will something change.

The question is whether you’ll survive these six years. Because as of today, hundreds have been killed. Don’t trust the official statistics. There are ten times more victims than what’s currently known. It’s just that they haven’t been found yet. Or they don’t want to admit to it.

The police arrested one girl simply because she forgot to take her Maidan volunteer badge off [on her way home]. The cops handed her over to Berkut. They moved her around from one police station to another, and when none of the stations would keep her in custod,y they took her into a forest. This little one has asthma. Berkut took away her inhaler and left her in the snow, probably hoping she would freeze to death. Luckily, she survived.

And how many have disappeared after deciding to go out for a stroll outside the barricades? They were snatched by the Berkut dressed in civilian clothing, who was preying on them from parked cars and dark corners. And how many were arrested by the police? Where are they? Nobody knows. Because nobody knows that they have disappeared. You can enter Maidan as a group but not see or talk to each other for weeks, with relatives at home thinking that you simply don’t have a spot to recharge the battery for your phone.

Don’t think that people who fight there are only football fans. Speaking of fans, I was a witness to an argument between the fans of two different teams. I don’t know how it started, but the argument was classic: “They divide us onto a football field. And we will see each multiple times in the future. But that’s later. Here, we look out for each other, for Ukraine. Do you get it?”

Speaking of the Russian language, for the first time in my life, my incomprehension of Ukrainians speaking Russian language was shaken. You see Russian speaking citizens singing, open-heartedly, crisply, with no accent, and despite pain in their lungs – “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the nation! Ukraine above all!” There is something incredible in this, especially when they stand on the roof of a burnt bus while holding a black and red banner.

Don’t even think that pity from one side or the other can be manipulated. As cynical as this sounds, those mothers with peaceful signs annoyed us the most. Well, sort of. They are respected, and their intentions are in the right place, but everybody knew that their appeals and banners would have no impact on the internal forces or the Berkut riot police. It does not matter what individual soldiers or police were thinking. Had they received an order to attack, they would have attacked.

As for us, sometimes we had an opportunity to launch [a stone or Molotov cocktail], but the women interfered. And the priests. Because of them, we had to partially disassemble our barricades. It so happened that I had kept to the right side of the barricades and, for some reason, the priests wanted to get through that way.

I remember one priest from the Moscow patriarchy. He came to our side calling for compassion (real or fabricated), looked at the defense line of the internal forces soldiers, and said to us: “Take pity for the children. They are not guilty of anything”. I couldn’t hold myself back. I pointed with a stick at the line of our guys: “And you don’t feel sorry for them?” He answered something along the lines of us coming here on your own, but the soldiers being there to execute orders.

And I cannot omit the word “provocateur”. Were they on the frontlines? Try to figure that one out when, everywhere you go, you hear someone on a phone providing the details and the location of everything around. It’s hard to tell what’s this for. Are they providing coordinates for a sniper or directions to a group that’s coming here to help us? You just stop paying attention to this.

But there are things that force you to pay close attention, like when a pair of well-equipped people arrive with laser pointers and try to blind people on the other side. You can’t always tell if they are pointing at the soldiers with the guns or the ones with the riot shields. What are they doing? Are they really preventing the soldiers from firing at us? Or are they signaling the location of the Molotov cocktail cache? You just don’t ask. You simply sit in the shadow of the barricade and, without peeking out, quietly move the Molotov cocktail bottles to another location.

The same goes for the journalists. If the press shows up in some sector of a barricade, the guys try to keep their heads down. Everyone has his or her tolerance of risk.  Why take risk for nothing? Right?

The journalists were a frequent target. Both because they are journalists and because they were looking for a sensational picture: a box of [Molotov] cocktails, the catapult… Both sides knew about this and used this information accordingly.

And snipers and tier gas attacks – that’s the number one problem. I don’t even want to state the obvious. Everybody understands this.

One more word about the heroes. Don’t think that the only agents of change are those who throw the stones and Molotov cocktails into the wall of the riot police shields, or those who wield sticks to attack the Berkut.

These people are just the highly publicized part. Remember what I said… everybody and nobody is a hero at the same time. Everybody does something useful. One brings the tires, another one the [Molotov] bottles, yet another warns about the danger, or simply drums with a stick on an empty barrel, a metal sheet, or street post flowing into a single rhythm: “bam-bam, ba-ba-bam.” Or just shouting out with encouragement and slogans.

There is another category of participants. Those who don’t go to the frontlines, but who are trying to be useful in some capacity.  You find these men and women whenever you leave the action zone, young and old approaching you with a package and asking you to take it to the guys. The package may contain medical face masks, bandages, harnesses, gas masks, hardhats, or a bag of sandwiches.

I remember, in particular, one old man with a Hutsyl cane, so elderly, so frail. You beg him to go back, but he insists on the same for you: “I’ve lived enough,” he says, “but maybe I can at least shield one of these young guys.”

But don’t think that I or anyone else on the front lines divide the people into categories – those who are on the Maidan [square] versus those who are on the Hrushevskiy Street barricades. No. Whatever people may say, we are a single unit. If it weren’t for the so called tourists who stood afar from the front lines – those who just came to yell and bang on a barrel with a stick – we wouldn’t have made it through. The reason for showing up is irrelevant. What matters is that they came.

When I got first got here, a female volunteer approached me and offered me some tea. It felt awkward. I said, “I haven’t done anything yet. Let others have it.” And she replied, “You’re here, and that means you live for something.” I was deeply touched.

In principle, I’m sort of enlisted in a volunteer platoon. But I don’t usually eat indoors. I spent most of my time on Hrushevskiy Street. And it’s not just me. Everyone decides on their own how they repay the care provided by others: you either get a free lunch or you make yourself do something useful for every calorie you consume.

I decided the following for myself.  If I take even one sandwich and tea and don’t go to the frontline barricades or to the burned-out buses, then the least I will do is to excavate the stone pavers and bring up a pair of car tires. I don’t think I’m the only one with such rule.

In general, as to Maidan and Hrushevskiy Street, just to set the record straight – these two are inseparable. We went to “play” by the burned buses, but we knew that we had a place to return to – Maidan – the safest place in the world for us.

Let me to make a historical analogy. The Maidan is like the Zaporizka Sich, the heart from which everyone [Cossacks] drew moral and physical strength. And Hrushevskiy Street, Ukrainian House, the Justice Department building – these are like a wild field where daredevils go for victory. But the Maidan is above all.

Oh, and about the daredevils. They, to continue the historical analogy, have changed. In historical times, they were exclusively dedicated young men on horses with swords, mustaches, an oseledets [cossack hair], and lassoes. Nowadays, it’s an old pensioner who’s offering baked goods. And a 14-year-old girl providing shoe inserts. And the medics (those who wear vests with a cross). And the old man with a stick yelling “Give it to them, guys!!!”

In one word, all those, who the rebels must remember, find, when everything ends with our victory – and respect forever. [This sentence is unclear. Check the original]  Really, do something and don’t wait for payback, and the goodness will return to you a thousand-fold.

I’m not going to sign my last name to this. Why should I claim these thoughts as my own when they belong to thousands of people? This, and many other things any participant can tell you – those whose hands and feet were tied with the duct tape or those who wore a facemask for a few days. It’s on the Maidan that you become all that you can be. Here, as in the past, you’re known by how others call you.

Source: Sergiy Fedorchuk,  

Translated by Constantin K. – @iFirebrand

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