Monday

28th Nov 2022

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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.

Opinion

Post-Brexit UK vs EU on Ukraine's future

Boris Johnson hopes that the new partnership demonstrates to his counterparts on the continent that, despite quitting the EU, Britain will remain a key player in European security affairs via a commitment to upholding Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Guns blaze in Ukraine as leaders meet in Paris

Hundreds of explosions and bursts of small arms fire were reported on the contact line in east Ukraine, as France prepares to host the first peace summit on the war in three years.

Opinion

EU must give full support to Ukraine to dissuade Kremlin

With Donald Trump unable to fill the US's traditional role of standing up to authoritarian regimes - and his inner circle even putting pressure on Kiev to investigate the Democratic frontrunner, Joe Biden - Europe should take a harder line.

Opinion

Ukraine and EU - stitched together

It's more than geography. Ukraine and the European Union are "stitched" together with a common worldview and goals, with common values and future. And the best thing we can do – is to make these threads stronger.

Interview

2018: Juncker: Far-right 'never had a chance' against the EU

The far-right rose in power over the span of 2017 and 2018. But for former EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, they never posed a real threat. "They are not right because their basic societal analysis is wrong," he said.

20 years of EUobserver

Our special anniversary magazine gives an overview of the major events of these past 20 years - and, for every event, we talked to one of the key players. It makes this magazine a document of recent EU history.

News in Brief

  1. 'Pro-Kremlin group' in EU Parliament cyberattack
  2. Ukraine will decide on any peace talks, Borrell says
  3. Germany blocks sale of chip factory to Chinese subsidiary
  4. Strikes and protests over cost-of-living grip Greece, Belgium
  5. Liberal MEPs want Musk quizzed in parliament
  6. Bulgarian policeman shot dead at Turkish border
  7. 89 people allowed to disembark in Italy, aid group says
  8. UN chief tells world: Cooperate on climate or perish

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  3. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  4. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  5. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  6. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos

Latest News

  1. Legal scholars: Prosecuting Putin 'legally problematic'
  2. A missed opportunity in Kazakhstan
  3. EU's Hungary funds, China, energy, and Frontex This WEEK
  4. Sweden says 'no' to EU asylum relocation pledges
  5. The 'proof' problem with EU sanctions — and how to fix it
  6. The EU gas cap: will the bottle ever be 'uncorked'?
  7. Enough talk, only rights can eliminate patriarchal violence
  8. Swedish EU presidency: 'Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  2. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  4. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  6. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us