On my direct flight from Istanbul straight North to Kiev, the Captain nonchalantly announced in his “how do you do’s” that our flight path would be diverted to the West over Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria then directly east to Kiev. A strange path, except our original flight would have taken us over parts of both Crimea and the embattled South of Ukraine.
Next on arriving in the Kiev Airport, we were all greeted with uniformed military with automatic weapons over their shoulders and a long stare. Arriving in the center of Kiev at Maidan Square, I thought I was prepared, but clearly wasn’t. The square, previously one of the most beautiful in all of Europe and certainly Central/Eastern Europe, is destroyed. Everything torn up, pulled out, busted, broken, smashed, blackened buildings now covered with construction mesh with graphics of nature and flying geese to mask the fact that these major banks and government buildings have been gutted by fire and explosives. Every last sidewalk paver has been pulled up and in piles for projectiles. There are still people walking, talking, working, dressed in their usually nice, colorful Ukrainian cloths, on their cell phones but it’s an eerie silence, like those days after 9/11. The shops are empty, the plaza empty, the streets empty from the previous throngs of locals and tourists. Many thriving shops from my previous visits are now boarded up or abandoned.
The most dramatic however is the military camp throughout the streets and gutted Maidan Square. The city center is full of make shift baracades, tires, barbed wire, pallets, metal, sheets, hundreds of army tents. The “camp” is filled with what appear to be local militia in fatigues. Some with Cassack hair cuts, some with weapons like knives, swords, clubs, pipes, baseball bats, shovels, pitch forks, all Ukrainian, all fiercely Nationalist. Many look very scary and I and the local population give them a wide berth. Most are permanently camped there with cots in brown army tents, burning fires, spits cooking dinner, smoking, drinking, and circles of standing group meetings. Lots of arm flailing and pointing, the men are dark from dirt and sun and smoke, unshaven and angry.
They don’t bother anyone , but they are surely there to defend against any incursion into the city. They believe realistically or not, that the Russians could parachute into Kiev at any moment and all hell would break loose. If Russia decided to try to take this country by force, I’d say “Good luck Mr. Putin!”. There is no doubt in my mind that every last one of these guys would die fighting with knives, and bats and pipes rather than be taken over by Russia. It may be the equivalent of the nuclear option, a horrible, dastardly, bloody fight played out on an international stage as in February of this year. The dastardly bully, the Soviet Bear, rising from the dead, rearing it’s ugly head against the poor people of Ukraine. That would change world public opinion in a hurry! These people are ready, ready for whatever comes their way. They feel abandoned by the West and NATO and Europe and the US. They are on their own, so they man their tent cities with farm implements and anger and pride.
At the end of my first day here, I went to the underground supermarket where many shops are typically located. It’s part of a vast Soviet system of the grand plan with huge boulevards above and shopping underneath. Thank you Mr. Corbu! I bought some groceries, made my usual mistakes not following the buying customs of every single country I visit…not following the local protocol with fruits, vegetables and pastries, labels, weighing and so on. Appropriately scolded by the Russian speaking clerk…they all speak Russian here and everywhere I’ve traveled in Ukraine. Then summarily hauled back to the check out counter I imagined, by my ear as in Barnard Elementary School. Then paying for my groceries, there’s this Ukrainian militiaman in uniform, red baret, dirty face, dirty uniform, unshaven, filthy boots, dark from the sun, trying to buy a single beer with a pile of pennies about a foot in diameter. One single beer! The clerk was counting out the pile of pennies for the less than $1 beer. I froze, my heart sank, this guy is out there on the front line of their war, real or imagined, with pennies for a single beer. I quickly paid for his beer and without looking up to get a reaction, left the store in a daze.