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Meet the Amateur Medics of Euromaidan

Now that violence has subsided in Kiev and the Maidan is peaceful, medics who attended the protests share details of their experiences.

by Maximilian Clarke
Feb 26 2014, 3:55pm

Photo by Maximilian Clarke

The blood of protesters in the Maidan, Kiev

Severely beaten and many close to death, scores of injured lay across Kiev’s Mariinsky park as temperatures hovered well below freezing.

Earlier that day, the 19th of January, tensions between authorities and anti-government protesters had escalated. Angered by the draconian laws introduced by embattled president Viktor Yanukovych — dubbed the "dictator laws" for their restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly — thousands of demonstrators rallied in Kiev, while opposition leaders called for the crowds to ignore the new legislation.

It wasn't long before a pitched battle kicked off between poorly armed activists and the government’s elite police units, the "Berkut." The cops were supported by hundreds of sportswear-clad thugs (known as the "titushki"), who were hired by Yanukovych’s regime to coerce and intimidate crowds. At that point, the day's clashes were the biggest display of violence the two-month Euromaidan demonstrations had seen.


Marina

In the center of the park was Marina, a 25-year-old English teacher who abandoned the new life she'd created for herself in the Netherlands when she saw reports of the demonstrations and the state-sponsored violence that surrounded them. Returning home in mid-December, she joined the protest camp on Hrushevskoho Street, where she volunteered as a medical assistant with the Maidan self-defense force's "5th Squad."

Protesters at the barricades were loosely organized into groups of about a hundred, known (logically) as the "hundreds." The 5th Squad had suffered heavily during the clashes, forcing some to disperse, while others lay around Marina, screaming in agony.

"We have to evacuate them — can you not see they’re injured?" Marina begged police and titushki. But they refused. And when she persisted, she was met with a tirade of vile abuse. "You bitch! You fucking whore!" they screamed at her, before joking and laughing about all the casualties they had caused.

Despite their threats, however, she persisted, all the while fearing that her fiancé, Igor — the 5th Squad’s 28-year-old second-in-command — was among the wounded. An Orthodox priest later joined her in her pleas, and eventually the injured were allowed to be removed from the park. Covered head-to-toe in dirt and stained with the blood of the injured, Marina left too and headed down into the Maidan.

She told me about the events matter-of-factly, but the lines on her face illustrated exactly how exhausted she was from the weeks of consistent violence. "When you feel so strongly like this, it's not bravery," she said. "You do what you have to do."

Sergei

Sergei, a 48-year-old doctor from the nearby Poltava region, was in charge of the 5th Squad's medical operation. As a trained doctor, he brought a much-needed medical expertise to the situation, though his work as a traumatologist at a private medical practice was a long way from conducting surgical operations on the frontline of the country's worst unrest since the fall of the USSR. Nevertheless, Sergei and his team treated hundreds of wounded without once losing a patient, despite treating 12 gunshot victims in a single day.

Speaking through Marina, Sergei shared further details of the clashes during the 19th, 20th and 21st of January. Particularly disturbing was the news of an unknown, powder-based chemical of Russian origin being used by riot police against the unprotected. Scores of blinded people with severely irritated corneas were brought in, but attempts to clean the eyes with distilled water or eye drops only exacerbated the problem.

The team was at a loss as to how to deal with the growing number of victims. And to make matters worse, the agent was blowing into the tent and affecting the medical staff. All Sergei could do was wear a peaked fur cap to try and catch some of the dust, in the hope it would reduce the amount blowing into his eyes or falling onto the already injured patients. After a few hours, the team stumbled across a simple remedy: alkaline, lidocaine and corneal gel. Luckily, no one reported any long-term damage from the mystery powder.

Patients with eye injuries were among the most common in their medical tent, Sergei explained, before rattling off a list of injuries and treatments. One man had taken a shotgun pellet to the eye. Fortunately, he was blinking at the time, which pushed the pellet downwards and away from the eye itself, lodging deep in the soft flesh between his eyeball and its socket.

Protesters in the Maidan, Kiev

Many patients checked into the tent covered in white powder, with shrapnel wounds to their eyes, face, neck and chest. The white powder was likely aluminum or magnesium oxide residue left after the detonation of stun grenades. Berkut were issued with non-lethal flash-bang grenades, but — in order to increase their lethality — often duct-taped nails and other pieces of shrapnel to the devices.

It was this tactic that caused a string of casualties and even fatalities. One man had taken shrapnel from a modified stun grenade to his neck and was placed, screaming, onto a stretcher. But the shrapnel had pierced his carotid artery and he bled out before he could reach the tent.

"Leave him — he’s dead," cried the protesters. "You’re medics! We need you for the living."

Along with shrapnel wounds came a series of horrific injuries from blunt force trauma: shattered limbs, crushed skulls, fractured cheekbones. On the 21st of January, a group of Cossacks charged the police lines with little more than their traditional clubs — "bulawa", which resemble Medieval maces. They were soon overwhelmed by the police, whose lines pushed over closer to the medical tent. Sergei drew me picture of one of the clubs that had been seized from a Cossack, before it was used against him, puncturing his skull.

The injuries had already been horrific up to this point, but the worst was yet to come.

The Hotel Ukraine was turned into a makeshift hospital

On the 18th of February, a month after the "dictator law" clashes, police launched a coordinated assault on the Maidan in a final attempt to drive demonstrators out and bring an end to the protest. Using tear gas and live fire, Berkut and titushki thugs advanced from the high ground on the east of the square, destroying everything they passed. The medical tent, despite being clearly marked with red crosses, took direct hits from Berkut Molotov cocktails; 5th Squad had just enough time to evacuate the wounded and as many medical supplies as they could before the tent went up in flames.

The team then set up camp in the concrete trade union building. They felt they would be secure up on the third floor of the building, as it also housed both the Euromaidan kitchens and press office. But their time there didn't last long, as the building was almost immediately razed by targeted firebombing from the authorities, burning through the night of the 18th.

Hours after the destruction of their second home, the 5th Squad relocated to a vacant shoe shop on the edge of the Maidan. The location was perfect: clean white walls and diffuse lighting provided ideal conditions for emergency surgery, and the shop's ample shelving and storage space were filled with medical supplies donated from across Kiev.

From their new base, the team continued to treat the wounded. They peaked on the 20th, with the pair estimating they saw over 100 patients in a single day.

Inside the medical center

Of all the cases described to me, one in particular stands out as perhaps the most gruesome. A young man who had been confronting police from on top of the 5th Squad's barricade was hit by the unknown Russian irritant power. Blinded, the man was then shot through the hip by a round from a police AKM assault rifle. The impact of the weighty 7.62mm round knocked him off balance, sending him plummeting to the ground and shattering his spine.

While he screamed and convulsed from the pain, the team dealt with his gunshot wound and stemmed the bleeding — a move that saved his life. The severity of his spinal injuries, however, demanded immediate hospitalization if there was to be any hope of preventing paralysation. But the man refused to go to hospital, terrified that by doing so he would be referred to the authorities, who would subject him to even more brutality.

Mercifully, since the removal of Viktor Yanukovych on the 22nd, violence has subsided and the Maidan has returned to peace. But though they've won the battle, they fear the war will continue, as those responsible for the corruption that triggered the uprising — as well as the subsequent massacre of civilians — have yet to be brought to justice.

For now, Marina's fiancé Igor, along with his squad of volunteer defense troops, will continue to man their barricade until justice has been won and elections have been held.

Follow Maximilian on Twitter:@MTIClarke