A village within a city
I’ve been to Kiev before (or Kyiv as locals pronounce it), but that was two years ago. Since then, it’s all kicked off in the country and an uprising began in November 2013 to change the situation and dethrone the corrupt government. Lots of terrible deaths happened here as you’ll have witnessed on the news and are still ongoing in the East of the country. Since the trouble first began, people started to erect tents all over the square and along the main avenue (Khreshchatyk).
I booked my flights 2 months before I was due to come. I knew it was a bit risky at the time, so I didn’t book anything else until about a week before. My travel insurance provider said they would cover me for any problems, as long as they were not due to terrorism, civil war or if I was travelling against the advice of the British government. After a lengthy phone call with them, it turns out they will cover me if I get hurt, but will not help me get home if something happens for the above reasons. Great.
A few weeks before coming, there was the news that MH17 was shot down over Ukraine most likely by Russian rebels who are trying to take the east of the country like they already did with Crimea. I knew this was in the East of the country so it was likely I’d be safe as my plane wouldn’t go past Kiev. However, most people don’t know the geography of Ukraine so they were naturally worried about my trip. I was too a little; I even contemplated cancelling my trip after this news, but I decided to carry on regardless and here’s what I found.
When I arrived at Boryspil airport near to Kiev, they just stamped my passport and let me in. This is quite unusual as on all previous visits I was asked lots of questions about why I was coming here and what my plans were. I was reading before that they could ask for proof that I could support myself in the country, but nothing at all. Perhaps they saw I had visited many times before, but it’s still strange as even I asked myself why I was coming this time, but they just let me in.
I wouldn’t say Ukraine is a tourist friendly place as most people don’t speak English. Luckily I can read the Cyrillic alphabet and I can speak and understand some Ukrainian, although it’s very broken. The most spoken language in Ukraine seems to be Russian, not Ukrainian, so even with my limited language skills, it’s still hard to get by. I have some amazing friends in Ukraine (you know who you are) who have helped me and shown me around. I would have struggled very much in the country on my own without them.
On the afternoon of my arrival I met my friend Marina who took me to Independence Square (Maidan). On the way I was pleasantly surprised that everything seemed so normal with no sign of any problems at all. Everything was operating as usual except in the square and a small part of the adjacent Khreshchatyk Street which was closed off. As I was walking along this street I began to see the famous tent city (or village as I prefer) in the distance. I was assured by my friend that it was safe here and I was somewhat reassured by the amount of normal people/tourists in the area and Babushkas (old grandmothers) selling souvenirs depicting the ex-president and Putin such as replica golden loafs of bread from his home, toilet rolls with their faces, magnets and flags galore. We walked through the first barricade and could see many tents, most with names of different cities painted on the sides showing the vast distances people have travelled to be here. Inside these tents were bunk beds, cooking facilities and all you could ever need. To me it seemed they were just living here because they could rather than trying to change anything. It really was just a homeless person’s paradise. As we continued we saw a circular basketball court surrounded by a metal fence which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a real village or a sports centre and also the famous Christmas tree which is now just a convenient place to hang flags and memorials.
There must have been at least 50 tents scattered around everywhere, and to be honest it looked a mess. However, the area also has a symbolic meaning as many people died here which you are reminded of at every turn by hundreds of photos of those who lost their lives, display boards, flowers, candles and the fact that a lot of the barricades still were in places like it happened only yesterday. I’d compare the feeling to that of visiting a war museum or when I visited Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, although not on the same scale of course.
Late the next evening I was walking through the same place again, all perfectly normal and nothing different to the previous day except some city workers were delivering some paving bricks to re-lay the pavements as most of the cobbles and bricks were previously taken up by the protesters and thrown at various people at the end of last year when the fighting was really bad. As I woke up the next day, I saw news and photos from Kyiv Post on Facebook of Maiden Square up in smoke again. It turns out the city workers were trying to clear the main street so they could open it up to traffic again as it’s one of the main arteries through Kiev. Obviously these protesters didn’t like this so set some of the tyre barricades on fire which I can only assume also caught onto their tents. I was in two minds whether to visit there again that morning as I wasn’t sure if there would be fighting or not still, but I decided to go anyway because I was curious. As I was walking I saw a guy with what looked like an AK47 gun over his shoulder, but after that just lots of people just taking photos of the aftermath. In less than 12 hours since I was last there, half the tents had been burnt down.
In the middle of the square all there is a big stage which was used for protesting and campaigning during the elections. In front of this lots of crowds were gathering, people preaching with loudspeakers (which I couldn’t really understand) and news reporters interviewing the protesters dressed in military attire to get their version of events. I walked around a little and took photos as everyone else was doing. As I was leaving I saw more of the protesters gathering and coming with baseball bats, so I probably was a good time to leave.
I haven’t visited again since then as I’m currently at the Black Sea for a few days. I read in the news that a big community effort to clear the street that was pushed through by the Mayor was progressing and I haven’t heard any reports of more problems. Hopefully by the time I get back the main road will be reopened and I’m expecting there to be far less tents, although it seems almost obligatory that some will remain. I’m happy (and lucky) I came when I did as I could see everything change so fast, if I had come later I probably wouldn’t have appreciated the feeling of the area and how bad everything was.
After visiting the square after coming back from Koblevo, I was really surprised to see all the tents had gone, the area has been cleared, the Christmas tree was in the process of being taken down and hundreds of workers and volunteers were repairing the damage to the streets and gardens. It was really unbelievable. If I had come just 2 weeks later, I wouldn’t have even seen any of what I saw and everything about the city would have just been normal with no sign that anything ever happened except a few flowers and memorials.