Kiev —Volunteers in camouflage walk the streets surrounding Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, trying to keep the scene of their legendary protest safe and orderly. When the demonstrators were challenging the Yanukovych government, these volunteer patrollers were young men, the tall and handsome and brave type that young Ukrainian women very much admired, or so I’m told. Today, as an uneasy respite has settled on Kiev, the patrolmen are older and wearier — but no less courageous, if George “Yuriy” Sajewych is any indication.
Born and raised in Chicago’s Ukrainian neighborhood, 68-year-old Sajewych worked as a producer for Voice of America for 36 years before retiring in Silver Spring, Md. But he kept up on the news, and as he saw the protests in Kiev, “I realized I’ve got to be here, and I’ve got to be here to the end. It was awesome. People gathered together and expressed values. . . . I just got caught up in it. It was easy for me, because these are the things I care about.”
That decision nearly killed him.
When tensions escalated, the Yanukovych government would often send 18- or 19-year-old recruits to the front lines facing the protesters, several Maidan activists have told me. The strategy was simple: It was a way for Yanukovych to toy with the protesters. If any conflict happened, he could use footage that made it look like the demonstrators were squared off against children.
On February 18, the day the most violent anti-Maidan crackdown began, Sajewych and several of his friends found themselves hedged up against a line of such baby-faced troops, and behind them were the berkut, Yanukovych’s ruthless riot police. Sajewych decided to talk to the teenage recruits, explaining to them his decision to come to Kiev. Then, he recalls, “The line broke. They’re coming up, and there’s five or ten of them to one of us.”
Bricks and Molotov cocktails began to fly, followed by percussion grenades and tear gas, Sajewych says.
“All of a sudden, they moved, and they pushed us down,” he says. “We had no choice but to retreat. Five of them would surround you and just start whacking, hitting so hard. . . . They were aiming to kill, I have no doubt of that.”
Sajewych had been wearing a motorcycle helmet, which he says saved his life. He remembers lying on the ground as the berkut continued to beat him, breaking his arm in two places and giving him a concussion. Once the beating finally stopped, he looked up and saw that his helmet had come off his head and was lying beside him splintered. Nearby, injured protestors lay on the ground, some of them likely dying. Slowly, Sajewych rose to his feet and stumbled toward the nearby ambulances.
When he reached the medics, “there’s this berkut, and I’m standing there [covered] with all this blood, and he’s looking at me, and he’s happy,” Sajewych says. “He says to me in Russian, ‘You wanted your Ukraine?’”
Sajewych spent a week and a half in the hospital, recovering from his concussion and deep bruises. His broken arm required surgery, he says, and his worried family in America found out about the beating when they saw him on a Youtube video.
Meanwhile, as the Yanukovych government continued its brutal three-day crackdown on the protesters, “I really felt cheated that I couldn’t be there the next couple days,” Sajewych says, “but if I had, I’d probably be dead. I have a lot of survivor’s guilt.”
Sajewych says he will soon return to the United States for a visit to see his family, but it will only be brief. He says he wants to return to Ukraine as soon as possible to help, especially given Russia’s aggressive land grabs.
“I love these people,” Sajewych explains, looking around the Maidan. “I look at their faces, and I know I want to be here.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.