No closure for Ukraine’s heavenly hundred

Two years since Euromaidan began, families of the victims still wait for answers.

[Philippa H Stewart/Al Jazeera]
Ekaterina holds her son's medals, awarded posthumously when he was named a Hero of Ukraine, along with the rest of the heavenly hundred [Philippa H Stewart]

Kiev, Ukraine – Sergey Shapoval is a Ukrainian hero.

There is a memorial to him on the wall outside the block of flats where his 70-year-old mother lives with the two cats he rescued.

Ekaterina Shapoval keeps her son’s Hero of Ukraine medals in a box lined with red velvet in her small living room, along with books about the Euromaidan protests, and biographies of the heavenly hundred – the name given by Ukrainians to those who died in the worst days of the violence at the anti-government demonstrations.

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Sergey did not tell his mother that he was joining the protests that started two years ago, on November 21, 2013. 

“It is very, very hard to speak about it, but we must because it is very important,” she says, sitting in her half-decorated living room which, she explains, she does not have the energy to complete without her son.

“Every day I miss him.

“He didn’t tell me that he was on Maidan. He tried to protect me so that I wouldn’t worry about him. In the first days, he just went after work, but then, as it grew, he quit his job and stayed there all the time. He told me that he had gone on a work trip.

“The first I knew of him being there was on February 18, [2014], at 7:30 in the evening. On TV, they showed that the protesters were at the house of officers [the headquarters of the armed forces in Ukraine], and there were three people lying there.

“My Sergey was there. As soon as I saw that image, I started to call him on the mobile phone, but no one replied. Someone told me he was in the hospital, but he was never taken to the hospital.

“He went straight to the morgue.”

Left behind

Her memories of the days that followed are fragmented.

On February 20, she spent the whole day at the morgue, waiting to identify her son’s body. But Sergey was killed during the height of the violence at the protests and ambulances were constantly arriving.

More than 50 people were shot dead on February 20 alone.

In total, about 130 people died in the protests, which lasted from November 21, 2013, until the increasing levels of violence prompted then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country in February 2014.

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“No one could show him to us because there were so many other people being accepted. We waited all day to get the papers signed,” Ekaterina remembers.

Two days later, before Sergey was laid to rest beside his father and grandparents in the family plot, his coffin was brought to Maidan to be seen by the protesters still gathered there.

The 44-year-old security worker left behind his mother and his then 14-year-old daughter, Olya.

It has now been two years since the start of the demonstrations in Maidan Nezalezhnosti in the centre of Kiev, which holds the iconic Independence Monument column.

Olya turned 16 without her father in the same week in July that Ekaterina had her 70th birthday.

“She has grown up quickly to deal with so much,” Ekaterina says.

“It was very hard for her to go through the death of her father. Only now has she begun to pass the stages of mourning. When she found out about his death, she closed herself in the bathroom and didn’t go out. It was very hard for her.

“We supported each other through it, but you know, I try to be very delicate with her when we are talking about him.”

Sergey loved cats and gave his mother her two pets. The black and white photos show him on his first day at school. He's also shown feeding his newborn daughter, who is held by Ekaterina in the middle [Philippa H Stewart/Al Jazeera]
Sergey loved cats and gave his mother her two pets. The black and white photos show him on his first day at school. He’s also shown feeding his newborn daughter, who is held by Ekaterina in the middle [Philippa H Stewart/Al Jazeera]

Hearts and minds

Ekaterina and Olya have joined the other families of the heavenly hundred in campaigns and meetings intended to make the investigation into the deaths of the Euromaidan protesters move more quickly.

But, despite promises from the government before they were elected, the heavenly hundred families are still seeking justice.

“You know, in my mind I understand how hard it is for this government that Russia has attacked Ukraine and that there is war in Ukraine now,” Ekaterina explains.

“In my mind, I understand that they cannot do it immediately, but in my heart I cannot understand or comprehend how they can let this take so long.

“It is not only me. All of the families of the heavenly hundred and all the people who supported Maidan, they see that the process for justice is so slow, and we are offended.

“We are offended by the government. Not only the government but by the prosecution office. We are offended that these bodies cannot find anyone to take responsibility.

“We are arguing a lot with the government at the moment, and we are making demands of them – for them to be much more dignified in the way they treat their memories.

“We want someone to talk to us and give us sympathies – it would be easier on our souls and our hearts.”

Golden stars, but no justice

Early this year, on the first anniversary of the February 18-21 violence, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called all those who had died on Maidan national heroes.

“The struggle for the right to live in a truly European country, which began on Maidan, continues now in Donbas,” he told the families. It was Poroshenko, too, who petitioned to have the men and women who died awarded with the ‘Hero of Ukraine’ golden stars.

Despite this, there have been no answers for the families and no justice for anyone responsible for the deaths of their relatives.

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The lack of transparency and speculation about the presence at the protests of a ‘third group’ of armed men, who were neither police nor protesters, has led to a rise in conspiracy theories about the deaths.

Ukrainian prosecutors alleged Russian involvement, but that has been roundly denied by the Russians. Russia, in turn, has suggested that those now in power, but who were then among the opposition, could be responsible.

Poroshenko’s government has long held that it was Yanukovych and the Berkut, a special operations police branch, who were responsible for the deaths.

On March 4, 2014, Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said the unnamed group of snipers responsible for most of the deaths “was the key factor in these clashes that became a bloody massacre in Kiev and turned the whole country upside down.

“And that force was not Ukrainian.”

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On the same day, and in response to the claims, Vladimir Putin blamed Avakov’s allies, Yanukovych’s rivals, for the deaths.

“There exists the opinion – and among the erstwhile protesters, too – that these were provocateurs from one of the opposition parties,” he said at a press conference.

A mother’s message to Europe

But none of this means anything to Ekaterina and the other families looking for answers. She says that her son had been fiercely patriotic, serving in the army in Azerbaijan before returning home.

During the 2004 revolution, he was part of a division that protected politicians’ homes, and it was then that he started to see the injustice in the country.

“He saw the unfairness of how they lived,” she says.

“His daughter is very much like her father now. She will fight for a free Ukraine like he did.

“I used to not mind one way or the other, but now, since the death of my son, I feel very patriotic and passionate about Ukraine. We must be an independent country.

“Now, I must live to keep my son’s memory alive and keep alive why he fought.

“I would add one more thing: I would say to Europe and America and Canada, where there are a lot of Ukrainians, I ask that they remember the heavenly hundred and that they remember that we, as Ukrainians, were standing up to join Europe.

“So now we would like Europe not to forget the heavenly hundred.”

You can follow Philippa H Stewarton Twitter: @flip_stewart

Source: Al Jazeera