Conflict & Justice

Kyiv remembers its fallen 'heroes'



Ukrainians remembered fallen comrades who died in clashes with security forces in Kyiv last week.


Ben Solomon

Editor's note: This story was first published on Feb. 23, 2014. GlobalPost is featuring it again as one of our must-reads of 2014.

KYIV, Ukraine — It was Sunday morning on Independence Square, and the strains of a heart-wrenching requiem drifted into the sky along with the acrid smoke from dozens of field kitchens strewn across central Kyiv.


Just up the street, the country’s parliament was busy establishing a new revolutionary order, naming an interim president and dismantling the vestiges of the old regime.

But on the square, at that moment, there was little mention of politics.

Instead, thousands of protesters joined in a somber memorial service for what’s become known here as the “heavenly hundred” — those killed last week in clashes with security forces and pro-government thugs.

Led by a coterie of priests onstage, demonstrators bid a tearful farewell to their “heroes.” They flocked in droves to makeshift shrines around the square, flowers in hand, to pay homage to those they say died for Ukraine.

While the battle for Kyiv may have been won and embattled President Viktor Yanukovych ejected, it’s clear most here are traumatized by the cost of the fight.

“I don’t even know how long it will take for this pain to subside,” said Serhiy Bondarchuk, a 40-year-old from western Ukraine, after kneeling in prayer nearby.

Sunday marked the second of two official days of mourning for the fallen whose legacy on the Maidan, as Independence Square is known, has already reached mythic proportions.

Among the more than 75 official dead are young fathers, college students, and a 73-year-old man who died of a heart attack, reportedly while fleeing from riot police.

The deaths came as a particular shock to many Ukrainians because the country has largely escaped the sort of brutal violence, since its independence, that has erupted in other post-Soviet countries.

But they are also deeply symbolic, because to protesters, their slain comrades represented what they felt was their only defense against a predatory regime that turned its guns on its own citizens.

“I never in my life thought I would witness such events,” said Halyna Zadvorna, a 57-year-old Kyiv resident, “or that our people would be capable of such heroism.”

Emotional testaments lay strewn across Maidan and central Kyiv, where demonstrators have filled numerous pavement memorials with roses, candles and mementos.

Some people leave notes for the fallen — “Your death was not in vain” or, simply, “Thank you” — while others are busy keeping the candles lit.

At some shrines, candies and lollipops lay neatly arranged. At others, hard hats and gas masks are perched alongside crosses.

At the largest memorial, on Institutska Street, where much of the fighting took place, mourners comforted one another and wept softly. Couples embraced, while young mothers led their toddlers to pay tribute.

Oleksandr Bondarchuk, 39, handed out rosary beads to passersby, urging them to pray for the dead.

“They weren’t fighting simply with their hands, but with their faith, and God helped them through it,” said Bondarchuk (no relation to Serhiy).

Such rhetoric is emblematic of this country’s deep religious roots, which reach back a millennium. Even those who are not particularly religious appear to have sought comfort in mourning their defenders with a prayer.

On Sunday, supporters quickly flocked around Oleksandr Bondarchuk, grabbing rosaries and asking for instructions on how to use them properly.

The beads adorn memorials and the armored vests of some masked fighters, symbols of the spiritual refuge many Ukrainians have traditionally sought in times of crisis.

“I heard a story of one boy who had a grenade fall right in front of him while he was praying with his rosary, but it didn’t explode,” said Bondarchuk.

With the clashes still fresh in the minds of demonstrators, it is unclear how soon — or even whether — a sense of closure will arrive.

Many voiced their support for erecting a permanent memorial or renaming streets after the slain protesters, hoisting them as examples for generations to come.

“I would rename the square, this street, and make it all one entire memorial,” said Zadvorna, fighting back tears through a smile.

“This is a place we’ll be visiting forever.”