First Person / My heart remains in Ukraine

It is hard to watch from afar as my people fight for freedom

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Black smoke rising from burning police vans and civilians in face masks throwing Molotov cocktails at riot police are not typically the images that come to mind when you think of Ukraine.

The capital of Kiev went from normal to smoldering battlefield in less than a couple of days due to the recent actions of the Ukrainian president. Reports of protesters being shot or beaten to death are becoming common. Journalists reporting from the scene are bruised or bandaged. Ukrainian officials are banned from the World Economic Forum. How did the situation escalate so quickly?

Being Ukrainian but having lived in Pittsburgh for the last five years, I stay up to date on events in Ukraine by reading the news online and talking to family and friends who live there.

Three weeks ago, Ukraine was in peace. The peace was fragile, though, because Ukrainians had been concerned since November with the president’s last-minute decision under pressure from Russia not to sign a trade treaty with the European Union. They poured into Maidan, Kiev’s central square, in late November to condemn his actions. But the president ignored the protests.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the rushed passage of oppressive laws that limited free speech and outlawed many of the ways people were protesting. On Jan. 19 protesters clashed with the police, leaving over 100 people injured. After that, tension spiraled as protests gradually spread across the country.

Growing up in independent Ukraine, I had never witnessed mass violence. Sure, things were rocky at times as the nation shook off old Soviet habits, but Ukrainians generally are a peaceful people. The only explanation for today’s events is that they have been pushed to their limit.

The people on Maidan square didn’t choose violence, it came to their door. It came in the form of anti-democratic legislation that made public protest a criminal offense. It came in the form of for-hire thugs brought from the suburbs to roam the city streets at night and destroy everything in their way. It came in the form of bullets fired by riot police at peaceful demonstrators and into journalists’ cameras. It came as the death of a 20-year old protester, Sergey Nigoyan, who had traveled to Maidan from my home city of Dnipropetrovsk to fight for his country’s future but was callously shot by a sniper on Jan. 22.

Most people on the streets of Kiev are not homeless or unemployed with nothing to lose. They are businessmen, professors, journalists and doctors. This battle is waged by successful, educated professionals who feel betrayed by their leaders. They are people who no longer trust their future to corrupt, power-hungry government officials.

Being so far from Ukraine is hard at these times. And the distance doesn’t make it hurt less.

It is scary to see fires burning in the center of the beautiful Ukrainian capital. I am deeply bothered to read the news about the police denying the wounded proper medical care and throwing them in jail. It saddens me to think of all the people who will have to give their lives before the officials step up and resolve the crisis. My heart skips a beat every time I hear alarming news because my friends, former co-workers and other people I know are among those on the street.

But I am also amazed at how resilient the Ukrainians are. Every day, I read about a new hero rising up in this battle. The journalists give up their jobs and start independent organizations to cover the news live and serve the Ukrainian people, not the government. A lot of them go into the trenches and risk being shot as the riot police target their bright “safety” vests.

With the little equipment they have, doctors at Maidan save lives while often endangering their own as they constantly have to evacuate from buildings stormed by the riot police.

Lawyers provide pro-bono legal help to arrested protesters who face 15 years in prison for participating in public demonstrations.

Many other people, different in age, background and ethnicity, continue volunteering at Maidan, cooking, cleaning and building their own little Europe in Kiev.

And, finally, those brave Ukrainian men who stand their ground during the night battles on Hrushevskogo Street knowing that they confront far more powerful forces — to all of these heroes, I am thankful.

Despite the mass intimidation tactics from the government, people still go to Maidan to take a stand. Unlike the riot police, whose each and every step is planned and supervised by their commanders, these people don’t have an obvious leader. Yet thousands of them act in such a coordinated way that it’s hard to deny that they are driven by true passion. What unites them is the common vision of a strong, democratic country, which they know they can build.

The Ukrainian people are doing their best to make this vision come true. Those on the streets of Kiev have a strong spirit that rises up against intimidation and bullets. With fire burning in their hearts, success is their only option.

Iryna Serdechna was born and raised in Ukraine. She came to Pittsburgh in 2008 to attend graduate school, earning a master’s degree in professional writing from Slippery Rock University. She now works as a technical writer for Intermedix and lives in Greenfield. Her family still lives in Ukraine.

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