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On Kyiv's Shell-Shocked Maidan, A World Turned Upside Down

Independence Square in Kyiv still bears the scars of the past few tumultuous months.
Independence Square in Kyiv still bears the scars of the past few tumultuous months.
KYIV -- In front of the scorched husk of the city's Trade Union building, three young men in grubby fatigues sit outside a tent pitched on Independence Square, their faces rattled and vacant. One stares up at the clear blue sky, spinning idly on an office chair.

The tent is a rehabilitation hub, part of efforts by Euromaidan supporters to provide counseling and relief to thousands of protesters struggling to cope with a mix of defiance, grief, and fear as the demonstration's hard-won triumphs have suddenly given way to the threat of war over Crimea, whose residents are all but certain to vote for reunification with Russia in a referendum tomorrow.

The Kyiv square is quieter and emptier than it was during the height of the Maidan protests. Some of the people who remain attempt to busy themselves with errands, chopping wood for fires or delivering food. Others simply sit, staring into the distance, contemplating Ukraine's uncertain future even as they recover from violent clashes that claimed more than 80 lives at the protest's peak last month.

Ordinary residents still make a regular pilgrimage to the square, where mounds of flowers and makeshift memorials continue to honor the victims, who have come to be known as the "heavenly hundred."

New Sense Of Purpose

Svitlana, a 52-year-old housewife, says after months of unrelenting political turmoil, that the Russia-backed military buildup in Crimea and on Ukraine's eastern borders have left her stunned.

"It's just the latest shock," she said. "But it's a big shock. We never thought that there could be threats from [Russia]. Of course we want unity and peace. They don't need to divide us. Their actions aren't logical. We expected help and assistance. God forbid there will be military action. I dread it. It's going to make things even worse."

PHOTO GALLERY: Kyiv's SHell-Shocked Maidan

For some Maidan demonstrators, the possibility of war with Russia has provided a new sense of purpose. Outside a cafe on the city's main Khreshchatyk street, men line up at a desk to register for the National Guard.

But on the square, any sense of common purpose has given way to a cacophony of moods and political views. A large portrait of nationalist icon Stepan Bandera hangs next to the stage. A portrait of Jesus Christ hangs nearby, amid a muddle of anarchist art and spray-painted antiauthority slogans like "ACAB" -- shorthand for "All cops are b**tards."

Dozens of missing-people notices flap in the wind. Militia members, armed with bats and wearing a variety of insignia, patrol the streets unchallenged. Police are rarely seen anywhere near the square.

At night, a ballad booms from the Maidan stage, praising the historical friendship between Ukrainian Cossacks and Moscow, but warning of bad endings for the "Moskali" if they attack.

A speaker interrupts the song to announce that the parliament has promised ousted president Viktor Yanukovych a fair trial if he returns to Kyiv. The speaker, in turn, is cut short when revelers in fatigues call for a tear-jerking video immortalizing the dead to be played on the big screen overhead.

Maelstrom Of Emotions

Halina Tsyhanenko, a psychologist, says that Maidan demonstrators -- many of whom have remained on the square since protests began in late November -- are suffering from a range of problems.

Some simply have been undone by the prolonged absence from their families or worries about how to reintegrate back into whatever emerges as "normal" life in Ukraine. Others are grieving personal losses - the deaths of friends or comrades in the violence encircling Maidan.

Tsyhanenko, who has coordinated the efforts of 500 volunteer psychological counselors for Maidan protesters, adds that many demonstrators have turned to alcohol or drugs rather than seeking help for their problems.

"A person who has come face to face with death has undergone a big experience for the psyche," she says. "Living in proximity to death really has a big impact on the mind of a person, and it's very important to relive what has happened and accept it. Here many people cannot do that, because they have no experience of this."

Tsyhanenko's organization, which has been in operation since December 2, has a mobile group that sets up tents on the square, as well as psychologists stationed in several nearby buildings.
Psychologist Halina Tsyhanenko
Psychologist Halina Tsyhanenko

Despite the apparent victory of late February -- when Maidan activists forced Yanukovych's ouster and the creation of a new, opposition-led government -- Tsyhanenko says many demonstrators are still reeling with the monumental uncertainties that lie ahead for Ukraine.

"There is no victory," she says. "It remains only a potential victory. There are a lot of questions. It's not straightforward when there is a certain way of making [government] decisions and then suddenly there is a new way.

"Not every politician in power will be interested in real change. This worries people, because they don't know if these politicians are going to fight for the interests of protesters, instead of their own interests."

Then there is the Russian incursion into Crimea, which has not only pulled the rug out from under Maidan's hope for the future but raised the tangible threat of returning to a past that many Ukrainians had thought long behind them.

Leonid Markevych, 26, lays flowers at a Maidan memorial after traveling from outside Kyiv. He says it's next to impossible to describe the range of emotions "churning" inside him.

"I walk around and I'm amazed," he says. "It's awful. It's so awful it brings me to tears. It's difficult to think what's in store for us now."

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