Scenes From Kiev’s Euromaidan ‘Free City’

Anti-government demonstrators have occupied an area of downtown Kiev since November, transforming city streets into a sprawling protest camp. Correspondent Luke Vargas tours the 'free city.'
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On a wide avenue typical of many European capitals, the barricades of Euromaidan appear out of nowhere, cutting off vehicle traffic, and reducing the passage of pedestrians to a trickle. But though the barricades are a startling sight, stores or homes within the have not been looted or vandalized, and some upscale retailers still receive a steady stream of business.

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A guard monitors a barricade on Kreshchatyk Street as pedestrians filter through and a man makes a cash donation. Although there are rarely more than four or five guards at any given checkpoint, they can readily summon others using cell phones and walkie talkies. In addition to their main role of deterring entrance by the “Berkut” special police forces, guards  inspect delivery vehicles and oversee the donations of cash, cigarettes, and firewood.

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Cement barriers on Kreshchatyk Street within the Euromaidan occupied zone bear the phrase, “Kiev Free City.”

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A Nike store open for business on an occupied portion of Kreshchatyk Street.

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A mask-wearing dummy “mans” a turret along the final barricade before entering the Maidan.

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The main stage in the Maidan hosts political speakers, poets, and musicians nearly 24/7. Every weekend, the crowds swell on the square, with attendees streaming into the city from across Ukraine. On Sunday, February 2, roughly 30,000 people attended the day’s demonstrations, which included speeches from leading Ukrainian opposition figures.

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Although there have been a number of incidents of violence on the Maidan, the scene has been calm of late, and many families can be found exploring the occupied zone and watching the daily speeches with their children.

Demonstrators said that the Maidan was a jovial site in late November and early December, filled with music that played late into the night and spontaneous games of soccer or ping pong. The mood these days is more somber after a handful of protesters were killed in clashes with police in late January. Since then, there's no more soccer, and hardly any ping pong, but local men can still be seen playing chess on the square each day.

Demonstrators say the Maidan was a jovial site in late November and early December, filled with music that played late into the night and spontaneous games of soccer or ping pong. The mood these days is more somber after a handful of protesters were killed in clashes with police in late January. Since then, there’s no more soccer, and hardly any ping pong, but local men can still be seen playing chess on an oversized board.

 

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A shrine on the Maidan features the photographs of the four men killed during clashes with police in January. Three were shot, while Yuriy Verbytsky succumbed to the cold in a nearby forrest after being kidnapped from a Kiev hospital. Photos and shrines dedicated the four are spread all over the Maidan.

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Demonstrators have filled the Maidan with banners, signs, and protest artwork. This photo montage compares abuse of civilians during the 1941 Nazi invasion of Kiev with an incident in January in which a protestor, Mykhailo Gavrylyak, was picked up by police during clashes near the Maidan and stripped naked by the police. He was subsequently abused and photographed by security forces, and footage of the incident went viral online.

 

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Frustration with the government and the actions of security forces has given ammunition to Ukrainian nationalist political parties, including Svoboda (“Freedom”). The group organizes regular armed patrols around the Maidan and have been involved in a number of clashes with police at the end of the barricades on Hrushevskoho Street.

 

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A short walk from the main demonstration area of the Maidan is Hrushevskoho Street, where most of the clashes between protestors and police has occurred in recent weeks. There are a series of additional barricades separating the Maidan from the “front lines.” Onlookers can come within roughly 100 feet of the final barricade, but guards only allow accredited journalists and fighters to reach the front, and everyone must wear a helmet in this area.

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The final barricade against the police is comprised of burnt police vehicles rearranged and reinforced with bags of ice and rocks. In January, police used water cannons against protestors, and the water promptly froze in the sub-zero temperatures, coating the barricades with even more ice, and making the ground on Hrushevskoho Street bumpy and treacherous. Tucked into crevices along the barricade are hundreds of molotov cocktails, cobblestones, and improvised batons, as well as scattered helmets, masks, and scraps of food.

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The “Berkut” riot police man the front line against protesters 24/7. The majority of the police are young men, and many have been bussed into Kiev from all over Ukraine. The protestors keep warm by standing next to wood-fueled trashcan fires, and those standing at the front regularly switch places with reinforcements stationed further back on Hrushevskoho Street where they guard government ministries and the parliament building.

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In recent days there has been little fighting between demonstrators and the police, and the area immediately behind the final barricade is often occupied by less than two dozen protesters. Most demonstrators rest by fires and keep warm by drinking tea and soup supplied by volunteers.

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Photographers from international wire services are camped out 24/7 at the front lines, ready to document any skirmishes with the police, although lately this “juicy visual” has not been on offer, so they have primarily concentrated on photographing police, sleeping demonstrators, and the torched busses of the barricade.

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Citizens stand atop a perimeter barricade to photograph the front line on Hrushevskoho Street.

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In addition to occupying the street and rallying on the Maidan, a number of city buildings are currently occupied by protesters. One of them, the 7-story Trade Union Building, now houses a range of offices and support services. On the ground level, volunteers gather donations of clothing, while the second and third levels are home to a media center and medical facility. The building’s upper levels are occupied by leading opposition parties and various militia groups.

 

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The streets of the Maidan, particularly the front lines on Hrushevskoho Street, are wet and oily, so large contingents of volunteers have stepped up to wash the floors of occupied buildings, a task that must be repeated multiple times daily.

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There are thousands of permanent residents living on the Maidan, and many stay in canvas tents on Kreshchatyk Street. Some of the tents are “regional,” or constructed by residents from specific towns and cities far away from Kiev, although others are organized by and host demonstrators of a particular political ideology.

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There are dozens of kitchens around the Maidan, each of which gives away food to demonstrators free of charge. At this outdoor kitchen, volunteer chefs prepare three popular types of Ukrainian soup. One volunteer said the cauldron on the lift, filled with borscht, contained enough soup to fill 1,000 small plastic cups.

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Kiev’s Independence Column seen from behind a perimeter barricade.

All photos: Luke Vargas/TRNS. February 2-4, 2014.

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Luke Vargas
Luke Vargas is a New York-based reporter for Talk Radio News Service, anchoring world news coverage from the United Nations. Follow Luke on Twitter @TheCourier
  • Wind Shear

    Beautiful. Just beautiful.

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