Dispatch

Today There Is Mourning

Today There Is Mourning

KIEV, Ukraine — On the morning of Feb. 22, I set up my makeshift portrait studio by the barricades on Hrushevskoho Street for the first time since the horrific violence that gripped Maidan, the city’s Independence Square, last week.

Before my fixer Emine Ziyatdinova and I got to the spot that we had scouted out the night before, we met Oleg, a 39-year-old fighter from Zhytomyr. I had photographed him a few weeks ago, when I was last in Kiev and before “bloody Thursday.” At first we didn’t recognize him with fresh clothes and a clean-shaven face, but Oleg hugged and kissed us both tenderly, lingering in each embrace. He had a black eye, the only visible trace of a beating by police on Feb. 18 that left him hospitalized for two days. This meant that he had missed the battles on Thursday, Feb. 20, when 100 protesters were reportedly killed and nearly 600 others injured, which he lamented.

Like so many men we have met since the violence of last week, Oleg looked as though he had just stepped out of the battle: wild eyed and stunned, trying to comprehend what has happened here. Still, he insisted on carrying some of our equipment across the square, helping us set up the backdrop. A few other protesters gathered around to help erect the large metal frame and hoist the black muslin into place. The first portrait I made was of Oleg, and then one after another I photographed the battered, blackened, and exhausted young men who made up the Maidan self-defense force. Many were still visibly traumatized; some of their hands were still trembling. The question, “Were you here?” prompted bowed heads and at times even stifled sobs.  

So much has changed since the last time I set up this makeshift portrait studio in the square. The barricades here saw heavy fighting and were destroyed in a police attack on Feb. 18, only to be taken back and rebuilt two days later. The buoyant and defiant atmosphere is gone. The young men who stood in front of my camera have lost their youthful swagger, their cheeky winks, their puffed chests and jokes. They have been replaced by hollow stares and heavy shoulders.

Hrushevskoho Street remains much the same, blacker from the recent fighting, but the cleanup has begun and the smell of burning tires is fading. Now, only a few fighters guard the barricade, which is no longer sealed and leads past the old front line where the lines of riot police stood, up the hill, and to the Ukrainian parliament, which is now under the control of protesters.

On Feb. 23, I went back again, and this time I took pictures of the streams of women coming to Independence Square, which was full of people carrying flowers to honor the dead — Zoya, Galina, Oksana, and Olga from Kiev, Alla from Dnipropetrovsk, and Katerina from Donetsk. They arrived with bunches of roses, carnations, and tulips in their arms, which they then gently placed on the barricades, adding to the huge piles of flowers that had been amassing since Saturday evening.

Most of these women cried as they stood in my studio. Zoya, 38, (seen above), choked back tears as she spoke about the violence over the last few days “It’s really hard to talk about what happened here. It’s so sad that people were killed during peacetime, especially that 17-year-old boy. I want my son, who is also 17, to live in an honest and fair Ukraine.”

In the short time I have worked here, I have felt Maidan filled with frustration, boredom, at times anger or terror and fear, sometimes jubilation, but today there is mourning.  

“This is the first quiet day for Kiev’s residents to come here. So we came to put flowers and pay respect to the people who died.” —Olga, 26 years old, from Kiev 

“I came here for our freedom. I want to live in a normal, free state. There has been enough corruption here.” —Yulia, 29 years old, from Kiev

Natasha from Kiev.

Galina, 58 years old, from Kiev.

“I want the bloodshed to stop. I came here to pray for those who were tragically killed, to pay respect with flowers. Our hearts and souls are with them, with those young boys, those sons who were killed here. We have been watching TV 24/7 when they were being shot, and we wanted to pay respects to them in some way.” —Larissa, 60 years old, from Kiev

Anastasia Taylor-Lind is a photojournalist currently working on a project about Europe’s declining populations.