This article was originally written by Masha Chichtchenkova, Front Line Defenders, and distributed through their channels. It’s posted here with permission to help spread the word of these human rights defends in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Front Line Defenders Protection Coordinator for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Masha Chichtchenkova went to Ukraine after demonstrations – which became known as EuroMaidan – began last year, to assess the situation for human rights defenders. Below is her first-hand account of what she witnessed, along with videos featuring human rights defenders who created and organised EuroMaidan-SOS in response to the crisis.
The demonstrations in Ukraine, widely known today as EuroMaidan, started as a reaction to the refusal of president Yanukovich to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. It was perceived by the protesters as a concession in response to Russian blackmail. There was a pro-European demonstration, with very determined but not overwhelming public participation.
Everything changed in the night of 29 to 30 November 2013 when police forces tried to disperse the protest with excessive use of force. This brutality was unprecedented in Ukraine. The next day, thousands of Ukrainians gathered in the streets of Kiev in response to this police violence, as a statement that Ukrainians could not be treated like that and as a demand on the respect of human rights.
From this moment, Maidan was no longer about the agreement with the EU. For many demonstrators it had become a struggle for respect of human dignity and against a corrupt government. This struggle started to produce victims and someone needed to assist them. That is how EuroMaidan-SOS was born.
When I went to Kiev, I witnessed the extraordinary efforts human rights defenders and other activists were making and learned how it all started.
I remember being in Dublin in January 2014, planning the yearly Front Line Defenders activities for the Eastern European region, when I learned about “dictatorship legislation”, a set of laws infringing fundamental freedoms, that the Ukrainian parliament was trying to pass. I recall our anger and incomprehension when I discussed it with friends from EuroMaidan-SOS; it looked like the Government wanted to put more oil on the fire every time things were quieting down. The police brutality of 29 November was completely disproportional and unnecessary. The protest movement had by then started to weaken and faced a long winter. Later, the legislation of 6 January did the same – it helped to bring new demonstrators; it was quite bizarre.
I was regularly in touch with EuroMaidan-SOS and knew the harsh conditions of their work. It was dangerous, because there were constant physical attacks against EuroMaidan supporters. Though their addresses were not well known, it was relatively easy to figure out that they used the office of the Centre for Civil Liberties, so an attack could happen at any moment. And the volunteers, mostly women, left the office very often late at night, so there was a constant risk.
Front Line Defenders helped to secure their office and they established a strict security protocol. But it was also incredibly difficult psychologically. Even experienced Ukrainian human rights activists had never dealt with such serious violations, assisting the victims of abductions, torture or supporting families of those wounded or killed. And there were a lot of new people who joined different human rights initiatives, because they wanted to help, and those people were absolutely unprepared:
In the middle of February, the atmosphere in Kiev was electric, and it became clear even to me in Paris that something big was about to happen. My flight to Kiev was full of Western journalists. In my bag I was carrying vitamins, sleeping pills and a bottle of cognac for my sleepless, ghostly-looking friends.
What I witnessed in Kiev in February did something to me. Since then, I have spoken to many people who had been in Kiev at the time and all of them were affected by the events in one way or another. The thing that impressed me the most was not even the dead bodies in the streets of Kiev, not even the determination of protesters risking their lives, but human kindness that made all that tolerable. I saw people bringing medicines, clothes and food and volunteers sorting them, I saw rows of jars of homemade preserves (jams, pickles, tomatoes in vinegar) brought by old ladies, medical volunteers installing improvised hospitals in the city centre, people coming after working all day to help with making and distributing food, cleaning, supporting each other; visions full of hope like a young girl drawing hearts with the ketchup she was putting on the sandwiches.
I saw my friends and new faces in the EuroMaidan-SOS office dealing with families whose loved ones had been wounded or killed, and sometimes it was becoming unbearable, but they dealt with that as best as they could, with the modest means of a human being: they cried, or sometimes left the office for a walk. I saw a pale and thin Oleksandra Matviychuk who was literally living in the office and fighting insomnia during rare hours of rest. She told me that the concierge of her building had surprised five men looking for her apartment during the night. “Fortunately, they have got stuck in the elevator – I am lucky to have old Soviet equipment in my building”. The humour was important to keep things going:
While the spirit of the square was infectious and sustained the protesters and the volunteers, the effort was not without major difficulties, aside from the fact that there was violence and repression used by the authorities and pro-regime armed groups. The impact on the lives of the Euromaidan-SOS volunteers – everything from how they earned a living to psychosocial impact – will certainly last long beyond the outcome of the current instability in Ukraine:
At that time, we could not imagine that EuroMaidan would lead not only to the departure of President Yanukovich, but also to the annexation of Crimea and armed conflict in the Southern-Eastern part of the country. As if they followed the old precept: “Do your duty, come what may”, the members of EuroMaidan-SOS took care of what was most needed by victims in those precise moments. Unfortunately, one year on, they have to continue doing so.
And Oleksandra Matviychuk continues to fight insomnia in the rare hours that she allows herself to sleep:
If you have a comment about the documentaries, want additional materials for publishing or wish to contact a human rights defender in any of the videos, contact us at campaigns@frontlinedefenders. org.