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Ukraine

Behind the barricades in Ukraine

Despite subzero temperatures and police raids, volunteers have organized to keep Kyiv demonstrators warm, fed and safe - while defying the government's central authority.

Listen to the report

Since early December protesters have occupied Kiev's Independence Square, known locally as "Maidan." On a recent evening, a large group of women, men and children are working with picks, axes and shovels scraping the ice off the pavement. It's 13 degrees below zero, even though it hasn't snowed for awhile. At first it seems they're doing it to keep the square from being slippery. But then we notice they're taking the ice and putting it in bags.

Dark photo taken at night of protesters on Independence Square in Ukraine who are packing bags full of snow and ice, which will be used as part of a barricade
Photo: Filip Warwick

Volunteers scrape the ice that formed after police flooded the square. It will later be used to reinforce the barricades

A 72-year-old pensioner in a long coat and fur cap named Ivan Lytvyn is watching their progress with satisfaction. Police have been flooding the square with water to keep it slick, he explains. That gives them an advantage in any confrontations. As a result, demonstrators have cut channels in the ice to drain the water downhill. They then put the ice they've collected into bags to reinforce barricades around the main square.

It's an ingenious method, and it's paying off Over the past two months those barricades made from ice and snow now tower up to four meters (13 ft.). Protesters have even erected wooden watchtowers giving them strategic vantage points over police lines.

Lytvyn, who is eager to relate stories of the hardship of his generation, says it's good to see such action among youngsters. Still, he can't resist a critique of their ice-cutting technique.

"They're hitting the stones. I wouldn't do it that way, but then again they haven't yet matured to do this kind of work," he says with a grin.

Dark photo taken at night of protesters on Independence Square in Ukraine with a close-up of the gutters that have been dug out of the snow
Photo: Filip Warwick

Police initally flooded the streets to gain a tactical advantage. Volunteers diverted the water through channels and later used it to form 'icebags' used to build barricades

Protesters are preparing for a siege and have constructed a layered defense system. At the front barricades, protesters are only a few hundred meters from police. It's a 24-hour staring contest that has lasted weeks but has broken out in serious unrest. Earlier this month three protesters were killed in clashes with riot police bringing the official death count up to six - including two police officers. More than 1,000 have been injured.

At the base of the police line there's a final checkpoint before the line of control that separates the two sides.

Andrey Kishko, a 32-year-old from the western city of Uzhhorod, is preventing people without helmets and protective gear from entering the front line.

"This system was organized to protect the people on Maidan from the external dangers," he explains as he stops a pair of teenage girls from passing. "I'm trying to protect people ... Because different things could be thrown from there."

Dark photo taken at night of a security volunteer walking past a barricade spayed with the words 'Kiev - Free City'
Photo: Filip Warwick

A security volunteer walks past a barricade sprayed with the words 'Kiev - Free City'

Kishko is a security volunteer. There are many young men loosely tied to different political groups who patrol the Maidan armed with a long stick and usually wearing a green army surplus helmet. They can appear menacing at times but Kishko says they're there to keep the peace.

"The so-called self-defense forces, volunteers who came from all over the Ukraine, they organized here in a coordination centre. And these are plain people from all sides of Ukraine - all are volunteers, like me," Kishko said.

There are rules to enforce. Alcohol and drugs are not tolerated anywhere on the square. There's also a danger of in-fighting between groups but chiefs direct their units by radio and the forces are disciplined, he said.

In their downtime platoons of young men can be seen drilling, practicing formations with their shields. Some are made of flimsy plywood, others are metal, likely seized as trophies during clashes with police.

It's very cold here. The tents are sealed and heated with wood-burning stoves. But to keep a strong presence people must remain outdoors and vigilant. To make this tolerable, a number of soup kitchens and tea stations have sprung up, operating around the clock. They are stocked with donated food and burn firewood brought by Kyiv residents who support their action.

Dark photo taken at night of protesters on Independence Square in Ukraine, specifically security volunteers train while a senior member barks instructions
Photo: Filip Warwick

Security volunteers train while a senior member barks instructions. The aim is to maintain discipline while supporting fellow volunteers

Thirty one-year-old Marina huddles over a large woodburning stove with two friends. She's prepared hundreds of litres of hot tea throughout the day.

"Without hot drinks of course it wouldn't be possible to be out here," she says matter-of-factly. "It's cold - it's very cold."

Despite the militaristic appearance of the barricades, many people say they don't want any further clashes. They're hopeful the opposition will be able to negotiate a way out of the crisis.

"It's very difficult to say what the opposition will do next - but they need to act prudently, very diplomatically," says Zhanna, a 77-year-old pensioner who had stopped to pick up a free newspaper at the Maidan's press center. "But the government has just given up to listening to people - they just listen to themselves."

Dark photo taken at night of protesters on Independence Square in Ukraine, specifically Marina, 31 (far left) and friends huddle next to one of many tea canteens. In sub-zero temperatures more than 400 liters of tea are served daily
Photo: Filip Warwick

Marina, 31 (far left) and friends huddle next to one of many tea canteens. In sub-zero temperatures more than 400 liters of tea are served daily

It's important to note that the ruling Party of Regions of President Viktor Yanukovych still draws support in the country - mainly in the eastern and southern regions which are culturally distinct from western and central Ukraine. This has led to fears that the crisis could further divide the country.

"The divide between two Ukraines is very big - it's true," says 32-year-old Oleksandr Gor, a Kyiv resident who was born and raised in the eastern city of Donetsk. He complains of a political culture that puts a premium on a strong image. If Yanukovych is perceived as capitulating to protesters, he argues, it would erode his popularity among key supporters.

That's why only extreme measures - including force - have been able to bring the president to the table.

"Unfortunately in the last two months only violence helped us to kick concessions out of Yanukovych," he says. "Without violence, no concessions."

DW.DE

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