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12th Apr 2024

Interview

2014: Ukraine: 'He told me he loved me then said goodbye'

  • Events in Ukraine shattered the post-Soviet order in Europe (Photo: Christiaan Triebert)

"He told me he was on the Maidan, that he loved me, and then he said: 'Goodbye'."

Oleksandra Matviychuk cried as she recalled the phone call, from her husband Oleksandr, six years ago. "It was the most horrible moment in my life", she said.

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  • Oleksandra Matviychuk: 'There's still a lot of work to do' (Photo: Oleksandra Matviychuk)

His call came on the morning of 20 February 2014 and snipers had just opened fire on protesters in the Maidan square in central Kiev, in the final act of a revolution which led, one day later, to the fall of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, shattering the post-Soviet order in Europe.

Matviychuk, a then 31-year old lawyer and rights activist, spoke with her husband from the office of Euromaidan SOS, an initiative she had created to give legal aid to victims.

By February 2014, they were so busy she was sleeping just two-to-three hours a day.

And Kiev was so dangerous she was living in hiding, after regime thugs tried to raid her flat.

Her husband was not hurt in the end.

But dozens of other people were gunned down in cold blood, surrounded by EU flags — the symbol of the opposition movement — on the uprising's most deadly single day.

"I'm lucky, because many others never saw their loved ones again," Matviychuk said.

"The shooting went on for hours and we received thousands of calls for help. Our volunteers rushed to the morgues, to Hotel Ukrayina, to hospitals, and other places where the bodies were being taken, to photograph them and their IDs," she recalled.

"Being a lawyer in such a situation, you feel absurd, but we had to document the truth," she said.

Protests began peacefully (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

'Likes don't count'

The 'Revolution of Dignity' had begun three months earlier, at about 8PM on 21 November 2013, with a Facebook post by Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayyem.

"Let's get serious ... Who's ready to come to Maidan before midnight? 'Likes' don't count", Nayyem wrote, after Yanukovych, earlier the same day, had halted preparations to sign an EU accord and opted to stay, instead, in what Matviychuk called "the Russian world".

Matviychuk and about 1,000 others heeded Nayyem's call.

"Everyone was smiling that night, even though it was freezing ... but, inside, I was concentrated, because I knew 1,000 people were not enough to stop the ruin of our country," Matviychuk said.

As days and weeks went by, to her "huge surprise", the crowds kept growing, at points numbering over 500,000, despite increasing police brutality, including the first lethal shootings of protesters — Serhiy Nigoyan, Roman Senyk, and Mikhail Zhyznewski — on 22 January 2014.

Some were also happily surprised when top EU and US diplomats visited the Maidan.

But for Matviychuk, what counted was "support from ordinary people, not just the political elite".

"When violence broke out on 11 December, we were scared because our relatives were on the Maidan and we didn't know what would come next," she said.

"It was deep into the night, but, suddenly, our Facebook page was flooded with messages: 'Spain is with you. Italy is with you. France is with you ...'," she said.

"These gestures were so important, because we knew we weren't the only ones who weren't sleeping, that we were not alone", she said.

Nayyem's Facebook post has gone down in history, but for Matviychuk, the revolt had deeper roots — and its first casualties were women.

When 29-year old Iryna Krashkova was raped and beaten half-to-death by two policemen in the village of Vradiivka in June 2013, one of whom went free because of relatives in high places, it prompted protests against regime lawlessness from Lviv in western Ukraine to Donetsk in the east.

And when 18-year old Oksana Makar was raped and murdered in March 2012 in Mykolaiv, on Ukraine's Black Sea coast, by three men, two of whom went free, it also sparked a wave of disgust on social media and street protests against Yanukovych's "world".

Relatives grieve for Maidan victims (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

Suspects freed

Fast forward to 2020, and two new presidents later — Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky — and, for Matviychuk, the fight for "dignity" goes on.

Her NGO — the Centre for Civil Liberties — is still battling in the courts for justice for the 83 protesters killed on the Maidan.

They are also seeking justice for the 18 policemen who died. "These men were also tools used by the regime", Matviychuk said.

"Nobody believes they [the Maidan snipers] were Georgian or Italian mercenaries, or any other Russian propaganda stories, but what we need are court verdicts, not popular knowledge," Matviychuk said.

Her struggle was made harder when Zelensky, last year, let five key suspects — officers from Ukraine's 'Berkut' special police — flee to Russia in exchange for Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, whom Russia took hostage in the war in east Ukraine.

And her fight is being obstructed by Yanukovych-era officials, who never left their posts, and some of whom have crimes to hide.

"It's not just about top officials who ordered attacks, or Berkut officers who killed people — you must consider the whole chain-of-command, the responsibility of the middle ranks, and these people are not so interested in our investigations," Matviychuk said.

"We still have to build the institutions our country needs, and we have to protect Ukraine from Russian aggression, so there's a lot of work."

This article first appeared in EUobserver's latest magazine, 20 years of European journalism & history, which you can now read in full online.

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