In the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, AAU international relations student Olena Kagui, who said she “hated being helpless from the moment that my country began to fall apart on Nov. 21,” applied for a grant from Prague Freedom Foundation to travel to Kiev. The Ukrainian then had a chance to witness the Maidan and to report on it in her blog. She spent a week hearing stories of ordinary Ukrainians affected by the events unfolding on Kiev’s main square.
“I originally wanted to speak mainly to politicians,” she said. She went to a parliamentary session and managed to talk to parliament deputy Lesya Orobec. Leader of political party UDAR Vitali Klitschko didn’t want to talk to her because she didn’t have a “big camera.” Overall, she said, “It was ridiculous with the politicians.” She described the ways many of them interacted with each other as “kindergarten all over again.”
In her words, she realized it is more important to “watch ordinary people” than the government. “I spoke to people who worked as doctors for free, to this old man who saved many lives, to injured people,” she said. Despite the media portrayal of Maidan as a violent place, what Kagui experienced was a sense of unity. “All the people there knew each other; when I went to talk to them, they would offer me tea in their tents,” she said.
What she saw in Kiev were the remains of Maidan, where many people cried when they talked to her. The square today serves more as a memorial to those who died since the beginning of the conflict.
In her blog, she wrote, “It was painful looking at how many flowers and candles people had brought – you can feel the sorrow and imagine them holding back tears or breaking down and bawling as they bring those flowers.”
Demonstrations started Nov. 21 and continued to be peaceful for three months until Feb. 18 when 25 protesters were killed on the way to Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, to demand the return of the 2004 constitution.
“My mom was at a park where several people were killed,” said Kagui. “Two of her friends died.”
Later, on Feb. 25, snipers opened fire at people, which resulted in 80 deaths. It is still unknown who gave the order to start shooting.
Recently, after the annexation of Crimea by Russia, violence also erupted in the eastern regions of Ukraine. According to Kagui, the conflict reaches far into the everyday lives of many Ukrainians. “I know a cleaning lady at my company who is Ukrainian and her friend in Crimea has to get a Russian passport, otherwise she will be fired,” she said.
Kagui believes that “Ukraine should be sovereign, all of it, including Crimea.”
The status referendum in Crimea was held in March and 96.77 percent of inhabitants were recorded as deciding to join Russia. “That referendum, in my opinion, was a joke,” said Kagui. Voters “had only two choices: for Crimea to become more autonomous, or to join Russia. There was no third option of just being Ukrainian.”
Most importantly, according to Kagui, “Crimea belongs, more to anyone, to Crimean Tatars.” This Turkic ethnic group has formed the majority population on the Crimean peninsula since the 15th century but many were displaced eastward by Stalin.
Many have now returned but still struggle to reclaim their national and cultural rights.
After returning to Prague, Kagui, who wants to become a journalist, decided to write for The Prague Post and to plan an exhibition of her photographs from Maidan. “I’m speaking to people at AAU to make it possible,” she said. The pictures “show a part of Maidan not everyone knows.” As an aspiring journalist, she believes that “reporting should be more personal because that makes it more real.”
For more information on Kagui’s coverage, visit olenakaguiukraine2014.wordpress.com.