The protesters who occcupied Kiev's Independence Square may have deposed their hated president, but they don't believe that the fight is over – least of all the “Iron Hundred” (or Zalizna Sotnia), the self-declared elite of Euromaidan’s volunteer defence force. These guys were involved since the very first clashes on Hrushevskoho Street in January. “We were all in different squads, but we recognised each other by face,” a young fighter told me. “Eventually we veterans came together in this unit. Some of our comrades were killed from the 18th to the 20th of February, and a few more are still missing.”
Kiev was in mourning when I joined the Iron Hundred on their way to pay their respects to the dead. Just about every spot where protesters had died in the government’s onslaught was covered by flowers, candles, religious icons and pictures of the dead, who have been dubbed the “Heavenly Hundred”. At one of the sites on Hrushevskoho Street, which saw some of the fiercest battles, a woman broke into a distraught rant, “Where were all of you when these kids got killed? What were all of you doing?” She was met with an awkward silence. A few girls in the crowd tried to fight back tears. The squad leader, a man named Sergei, prayed with his men. They laid flowers, and moved on to the next site.
The mood in Kiev in the days immediately after Yanukovych fled were not the post-revolution party that you might expect. If anything, the atmosphere became more tense and sombre. The revolutionary pop-rock playing from the stage was gone, replaced by broadcasts from Parliament on the latest votes and Ministerial appointments. Few faces in the crowd seemed happy with the results. For many people, it was a reshuffling of politicians in a system that should be completely purged of its participants.
I met with the Iron Hundred when they had just returned from the east-central city of Dnipropetrovsk, where they had been on a mission with an outfit called AutoSich. “It’s kind of like AutoMaidan, but more radical,” the young fighter said. “We managed to make some contacts with local militants who will join us in our fight.” A “sich” is a Cossack encampment, or fortress. The history of volunteer militia units in Ukraine plays a large role at Euromaidan, and one could argue that the camp in Independence Square is a sort of modern-day Cossack society.
Members of the Iron Hundred have been riding in columns of cars to combat the titushki – unemployed, bodybuilding thugs originally hired by the Yanukovych regime to beat up and terrorise protesters. The titushki have now gone completely out of control. “They’re not even following their original orders any more, and have joined forces with local gangsters,” Sergei said. “Just terrorising people, robbing and looting. Though Yanukovych’s government has fallen apart, they are still paid by some Party of Regions MPs – and possibly Russia, but we can’t confirm this yet.”
Many law enforcement officers have neglected their duties since Yanukovych fled, allowing these bandits to roam the eastern cities of Ukraine. “Maybe Odessa is next,” Sergei speculated. “We don’t know where we’re going for sure yet, but we’ll be where we’re needed most.”
The Iron Hundred’s banner is the red-and-black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a paramilitary force that fought during the Second World War and then against the Soviet Union. Its use has generated controversy; Russian state media has seized on the association to brand Euromaidan as a neo-Nazi uprising. The UPA collaborated with Nazi Germany during certain stages of the war, but they pretty much fought anyone standing in the way of Ukrainian nationalism, including Germans or Soviets. Sergei said that the Euromaidan’s Iron Hundred adopted the name of a legendary UPA squad that was never defeated. “Even when the UPA was losing in 1949, they fought their way through the Russians, Poles, Slovaks and Hungarians into western Germany, and were eventually taken in by the Americans.” However, the Euromaidan’s Iron Hundred has divided itself into two separate squads. “They brought in all these new guys from Lviv, and many of us didn’t feel like being the Iron Hundred of Lviv. So we split up, and now we share the same floor here in the City Hall.”
Sergei showed me around the other floors of Kiev’s occupied City Hall. Swastikas and other right-wing imagery had been erased from the walls, except on the seventh floor, where the Right Sector, credited with giving Yanukovych the ultimatum on February 21st that is said to have prompted his flight the following day, has set up shop. A giant swastika and the numbers 1488 adorned their entrance. “We don’t talk with the Right Sector any more at all,” Sergei said. “We just can’t agree on our ideas, they are too radical.”
Sergei explained that the Iron Hundred is politically independent; its members support varying parties. He is a supporter of Yulia Tymoshenko, who was embraced by the Euromaidan movement after being released from prison, where she spent three years. “Some say she is also corrupt, but her party (Fatherland) has a good programme for economic, political and social reform,” he said. “I think she can bring change to our country.”
Later, we stood outside City Hall. Sergei pointed to a collection box with a sign that read, “For weapons”. According to Sergei, they are trying to raise some serious firepower. “Many young guys here are ready to fight. I too want to fight. The Ukrainian people are strong and brave, and we have a long history of guerrilla warfare.” I personally witnessed how resistance fighters charged up the hill on Instytutska Street on February 20th — the deadliest day of Euromaidan — into a rain of shotgun pellets and sniper fire, against which their metal shields were about as useful as cardboard. It didn’t prevent them from recovering ground that had been lost in previous days to Berkut special forces. The Euromaidan combatants built new, bigger barricades while still under fire.
With a Russian occupation of Crimea currently underway, the thought of a civil war doesn’t seem far-fetched. “Throughout our history, we have always been fighting for independence,” Sergei said. “Now, we might have to fight again.” If Russian forces persist in invading Ukraine, these fighters could end up in many situations where they would be outnumbered and outgunned.
Amid the posturing and talk of war stood Katya, who was helping the Iron Hundred and other Euromaidan activists as a medic. Although she sounded tough when talking or joking with the other guys, the violence had clearly taken its toll on her. The 19-year-old student joined the movement during the earliest protests, in November. Since then, she’s seen many people shot, wounded and killed. A man saved her life and lost his eye as a result. “I was crying for hours after that,” she recalled. “I can’t sleep at home, because when I close my eyes I keep seeing the dead people.”
She tries to spend as much time as she can in Independence Square because it’s where she feels most comfortable and true to her purpose. “I’ve missed my exams, but hopefully I can re-take them sometime,” she said. She was not alone among those who have suffered from the violence. Some of the fighters in the Iron Hundred looked barely older than her, but exhaustion was visible on their faces. Like Katya, they occupy a space between their previous day-to-day life and the post-revolutionary Ukraine they want to see develop. Talking to them, it became clear to me that the revolution is ongoing.