Accessibility links

Breaking News

Uneasy Quiet Settles Over Kyiv After Days Of Bloodshed

A man walks amid burning remains of barricades on Independence Square in Kyiv on February 21.
A man walks amid burning remains of barricades on Independence Square in Kyiv on February 21.
It is still just hours since the clashes between protesters and police that took at least 77 lives on Kyiv's Independence Square on February 19 and 20.

Yet a day later, the square popularly known as the Maidan is quiet enough that old people and children are back among the youths in helmets and makeshift armor who man its barricades.

Zhanna Bezpiatchuk, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, describes the scene: "[Just] now, I saw, for example, a man with a very small child, 4 or 3 years old, and they were just walking along. There are very many women, many girls, and I saw some buses with men who came from some western regions just recently, obviously, to support the people at the Maidan."

The sense of quiet on the square, where the barricades are charred after protestors ignited them on the night of February 19 to drive back a police assault, comes as security forces have withdrawn to defend the government district on the south side of the square.

LIVE BLOG: Chaos In Kyiv

Bezpiatchuk says that gives an impression that, for now, it is the protesters who have the government under siege after enduring 2 1/2 months under siege themselves.

"The areas around the Maidan are all now occupied by people. Some shops and some offices along Khreshchatyk Street [the main boulevard to the square] now are used either for hospitals or they provide shelter for protesters who sleep there, have some rest or food," she says.

"So, there are many people, really many, much more than we would expect after bloodshed when people normally presumably would be afraid of everything."

A Tense Stalemate

The fact people can come and go to the Maidan, and have been able to do so ever since the protest began in November, is one of the stranger aspects of the drama that today dominates every aspect of the capital's life.

To both defend the district of government buildings, plus launch attacks on the protesters, means the police have to keep their forces concentrated largely in one place. Even with the full deployment of Ukraine's riot police, the Berkut, which numbers 3,000 to 4,000 men, there is not enough manpower to cordon off the entire Maidan area and prevent new protesters from coming in.

On weekdays, the number of protesters defending the Maidan number between 20,000 and 30,000, while on weekends the number can swell to over 100,000.

ALSO READ: Dozens Of Pro-Regime Figures Flee Kyiv

Bezpiatchuk says that beyond the Maidan area, the city of Kyiv is slowly turning into a no-man's land where it is no longer certain how much control the government still exerts -- even though much of the city's life continues normally.

People go to work but prefer to work from home. Morning rush hours are a shadow of what they used to be, particularly on days when the Maidan turns bloody. And residents are increasingly organizing their own neighborhood-watch groups out of fear for their own security.

Fear Of 'Titushky'

The neighborhood self-defense forces are bands of men and boys who sometimes arm themselves with clubs as they keep a lookout for roving groups of toughs the government has brought in to help boost its street power. The protestors have dubbed the thugs "titushky" after Vadym Titushko, one of three men who received a suspended sentence for beating up journalists in Kyiv in May.

Bezpiatchuk says the titushky, burly and impoverished young men from the Russian-speaking east and south of Ukraine, roam the streets with a mixture of motives. Some are ideologically driven, some are thugs for hire, and others are dupes who thought they were coming to the capital just to take part in peaceful pro-government demonstrations.

Once they arrive, however, the titushky are used as reinforcements by the riot police or are sent into neighborhoods to set fire to the cars of identified protesters and create a climate of intimidation.

Bezpiatchuk says residents organize patrols to protect their neighborhoods because they are no longer certain the police will do so: "There is a feeling that the situation is out of control. Sometimes we have seen how police try to help the self-defense groups to protect people from the gangs," she explains.

"But there were many more cases where the police and the gangs of titushky were acting either together or where the police did not interfere with the titushky."

The increasing sense of insecurity in Kyiv adds to a palpable feeling in the capital that its residents are embroiled in a crisis that none can ignore or escape.

On February 19 and 20, the smoke billowing from the flaming barricades of the Maidan hung in clouds above the city. On February 21, the sky was clear again but life remains anything but normal.