Smiling faces turned to bloodshed and back to smiling faces in a matter of days in Kiev, Ukraine, last week, according to one Glenwood Springs resident who was an eyewitness to the anti-government rebellion that led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Peter Heitzman had been following the protests closely since they began last November, after Yanukovych rejected a trade agreement with the European Union and instead said he would work to strengthen the country’s ties with neighboring Russia.
Especially when the protests became violent in January, Heitzman kept a close eye on the happenings in Kiev, where he has traveled several times on business during the past two years and was due for another visit.
“I thought this would be a good time to go with the world spotlight on the Olympics, because that tends to be a better time to go to trouble spots,” Heitzman said of the just-completed Winter Games that took place just 850 miles to the east of Kiev in Sochi, Russia.
“You say you want a revolution,” he posted on his Facebook page when he arrived in Kiev the night of Feb. 16, as upwards of 200,000 people had taken over the city’s central square, called the Maydan, in what to that point had been a mostly peaceful demonstration.
Heitzman, who owns a construction management business in Glenwood Springs, had last been to Kiev in July of last year. But something was different this time, as he said he could sense political change was in the air.
“I just saw a lot more smiles on people’s faces this time than I did on any of my previous visits,” he said upon his return home to Glenwood Springs this week.
While in Kiev, Heitzman said he and his colleagues would often go down to tour the square, which was located a mere 300 yards from their hotel.
One of the men he was with spoke fluent Ukrainian and Russian and had grown up in Poland during the labor unrest in that country in the 1980s.
“That raised my comfort level being with him,” Heitzman said. “He could talk to people and get an idea of what was going on, and whether we were in danger.”
A Turn for the worse
He described the scene as similar to the Occupy Wall Street protests in this country a couple of years ago, but said it was more organized and with an emphasis on maintaining a perimeter to keep the riot police at bay.
The protesters themselves were mostly younger adults but represented what he described as a “good cross-section” of the population, “from average workers to hoodlums and crooks to millionaires and billionaires,” he said.
At times, he said the square resembled a war zone.
“Their main defense is thick smoke, and they build these huge piles of debris to shield themselves,” Heitzman said of the makeshift barriers made of bags full of snow, tires, cobblestones and anything else they could find.
“I didn’t have a helmet or a club or any kind of protective gear, so I made sure to stay away from the police force,” he said. “I just wanted to be a peaceful observer.”
The next day, things took a turn for the worse as clashes between protesters and government police, called the Berkut, became more violent and several people were killed.
Heitzman said he rejoiced when a truce was called by government officials on Feb. 19, only to post on Facebook the next morning, “I misunderstood the meaning of a truce.”
That was the day government snipers opened fire from rooftops above the square, killing dozens more protesters as the violence further escalated.
“We had to walk over to the lower part of square, and as we were walking we heard the gunfire and saw the ambulances responding one after another,” Heitzman said.
Another Facebook post later that day declaring, “It’s ugly, and it’s going to get a lot worse,” raised concerns for his already worried family members back home in the U.S., he said.
He later posted, “Well, it sure feels like the people have turned the corner tonight on this. But it’s not over until Yanukovych is gone.”
The ousted president has since been impeached by opposition leaders in the Ukrainian parliament, and has fled the country for Russia. Meanwhile, the parliament named speaker Olexander Turchynov as the interim president.
Although a warrant has been issued for Yanukovych’s arrest, he asserted via Russian media on Thursday that he is the rightful president and would be holding a press conference in Russia today. At the same time, pro-Russian factions were protesting in Crimea in the far southern part of Ukraine, and the Russian military was conducting drills near the border.
Despite the ongoing tensions, Heitzman said he is hopeful for a peaceful resolution that will keep the country unified.
“I am totally for the people’s protest, and I’m just amazed at how fast things turned around,” he said. “After the sniper attacks, I wasn’t so sure. There were a lot of weapons coming into the square.”
Ultimately, Heitzman said his hope is that Ukraine will “get to experience democracy the way we do, and that the people are able to assemble a fair government.
“I would like to see a lot more smiles on the faces of the Ukrainian people when I go back over there,” Heitzman said of another trip to Kiev that’s in the works for March.