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FOCUS

FOCUS

Latest update : 2014-02-03

The volunteer army protecting Kiev's Independence Square

© Photo: AFP

Protests at Kiev’s Independence Square have been raging for months. And despite negotiations between President Viktor Yanukovich and opposition leaders, as well as violent confrontations with riot police, demonstrators show no sign of backing down.

In fact, the men and women occupying the square, also known as the Maidan, are becoming increasingly well organised and have even set up volunteer defence forces, which activists claim number 5,000, to protect the area.

One of those volunteers is Vadim, a 25-year-old from the southwestern city of Chernivtsi. At 7pm, he is getting ready for guard duty. Along with his comrade Marian, he will spend the night patrolling the barricades.

“Our unit is called Vatar Maidan, we keep order on the Maidan,” Vadim explains.

The flat where the two men are staying serves as a dormitory for militants and, thanks to its high vantage point above Independence Square, is also a surveillance post for tracking the movements of the riot police.

“From this window here we can see what they are doing and if they are planning to attack we warn the Maidan self-defence organisation,” says Vadim.

Vadim and Marion use a hidden entrance behind the building to get to the street outside, where temperatures are around -20 degrees Celsius.

‘Ordinary people’

“This is the first barricade, our guys are manning it and keeping warm by the fire,” Marian points out.

Much has been made about the role of far-right groups taking part in demonstrations in Kiev. But though such groups undoubtedly have a presence here, they are in fact in the minority.

“Here there are just ordinary people who have come to help. No one asked them to and certainly no one is forcing them or paying them,” says Vadim.

Just a few hundred metres from the Ukrainian government’s offices, the bottom of Grouchevski Street has seen some of the worst clashes with police.

Violence flared up after the government introduced draconian anti-protest laws last month.

They were subsequently repealed, but not before two people had died in the fighting.

“We were taking the wounded out and bringing them to the medical point and at one point me and a mate were taking a guy out who had just lost three fingers,” Vadim recalls.

Though the situation is calmer now, the barricades are still heavily guarded.

“We won’t leave here until the president leaves office,” says one masked activist. “We need to live in a normal country like anywhere in Europe. An ambulance should come when you call for it, for example, in half an hour maximum, not three hours like it is here. We want a normal country.”

Not far away, the riot police have their own camp. They also keep watch all night.

‘People have the right to protect themselves’

At Kiev’s Trade Unions House, which faces Independence Square, the protesters have taken over and made the building their headquarters.

There Vadim introduces the head of his unit, Ivan, who used to work for the president’s Regions Party, before protests broke out in November.

“When the movement started I was a bodyguard for an MP from the Regions Party, but I decided to side with the Maidan,” he says. Ivan, who has not been home for more than two months, has 30 men at his command.

But not everyone is suited to serve as a Maidan defence volunteer.

“We make new recruits pass a psychological test, they have to be a help not a hindrance,” he says.

Wearing helmets and carrying makeshift weapons, the Maidan’s self-defence teams patrol the occupied areas day and night.

They make for a fearsome sight but one the local residents welcome.

“People have the right to protect themselves and their families, their lives, we’re talking about self-defence, it is in those terms that most people see things at the moment,” says Nadezhda, a local architect.

But though the Maidan now has the atmosphere of a crudely militarised zone, there is one great fear hanging over it - the possibility that President Viktor Yanukovich will declare a state of emergency and send the real military in to clear the area.

Even such a well-organised defence force would be unlikely to withstand such an assault.

By Gulliver CRAGG , Abdallah MALKAWI , Jonathan WALSH

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