KIEV, Ukraine — One year ago, Ihor Zastavnyi was shot three times and lost a leg while taking part in demonstrations that he hoped would lead to a better Ukraine. Today he faces a country that is racked by war, struggling with corruption and pleading to the world for financial help while still stinging from Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Yet, reflecting on the situation he still expresses a level of faith.
“All this was not in vain. It’s impossible even to think like this,” he said.
“When a person wants to give everything and devote himself to something, as did the Heavenly Hundred, it can’t be for nothing,” he said, referring to the term that Ukrainians have adopted for those who died during months of protests in 2013-14 that led to the ouster of Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych. The grisliest day was a year ago Friday, when more than 50 people were killed by sniper fire on the capital’s main square, known as Maidan.
Various sources count the total number of Heavenly Hundreds as somewhere between 110 and 123. It includes those who died in earlier clashes with police as well as opposition supporters who died in beatings or mysterious circumstances.
On Friday evening, Ukraine’s current pro-Europe president, Petro Poroshenko, spoke at a gathering of thousands on the square to commemorate the dead and echoed the belief that their deaths were not pointless.
“We will stop the war and after a few years everyone will see how Ukraine has changed; we feel with every cell how the people demand that change be accelerated,” he said.
He vowed to fight the “fear, panic and mistrust” that he said “a neighbouring state” was trying to sow in Ukraine.
Heated, contradictory allegations still surround the question of who fired the shots on Feb. 20, 2014. Protesters and their supporters assert that the bullets came from rifles held by Ukrainian police or Russian marksmen to try to definitively put down the demonstrations against Yanukovych. Their detractors allege radicals within the protest movement were responsible, purportedly willing to slaughter their own people to drive the political crisis to a breaking point.
Poroshenko on Friday claimed Ukraine has evidence that Vladislav Surkov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisers, organized the snipers. The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the claim as “ravings.”
Whatever the intent, the gunfire helped force chaotic change. The day after the killings, European Union envoys put heavy pressure on Yanukovych and opposition leaders to sign a pact that would allow Yanukovych to stay in power for a few months, but call early elections and make constitutional changes that would weaken his power.
But hours after the pact was signed, Yanukovych vanished from view. He surfaced the next day in one of his political strongholds in eastern Ukraine and then disappeared again until he turned up in Russia, where he eventually bitterly abandoned any claim to still being president.
It was a coup, shouted his partisans in the heavily ethnic Russian east and south. Within a few weeks, Russian troops solidified their presence on Crimea and citizens on the peninsula voted to secede in a hastily called and legally questionable referendum.
A month later, armed separatists began seizing buildings in the mainland east, sparking a war with government troops that has killed more than 5,600 people and persists despite two internationally mediated cease-fires.
As the violence in eastern Ukraine slogs on, the question of who fired the shots a year ago has fallen into the shadows. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk expressed expectations that the Interior Ministry and Prosecutor General would present a full report on their investigation by the end of the week, but by Friday afternoon there was nothing forthcoming. Three suspects, members of the Ukrainian security service, were arrested last year, but one was released on bail and disappeared.
What remains are the memories of those who were on the square terrifying day. The trade union building that had been turned into an opposition encampment had been gutted by fire and the air was filled with vile smoke from piles of tires set afire to deter police.
“I was very impressed when I came to Maidan on February 20th. It looked like hell,” said Zastavnyi. “And I recognized in that moment that something serious will happen — a battle, maybe the last battle.”
Then it did.
Zastavnyi suffered bullet wounds in the stomach and one arm. Trying to escape, he was shot a third time in the leg, which doctors eventually amputated.