By Pat Maurer
Clare businessman Randy Hale, owner of Clare Family Fitness, had front row seats at the recent uprising in the center of Kiev, Ukraine.
They are safely back in Clare now, but just two weeks ago, Hale, his finance’ Sofiia Dombrovka and her daughter Amaliia, 8, were staying at the Hotel Ukraine in Kiev, which overlooks the city square where violence between Western Ukraine protesters and riot police broke out suddenly on February 18.
Protesters had been camped out in the square in the center of the city since November, said Hale. According to an article posted at theguardian.com anti-government protesters [mostly from the Western Ukraine, said Sofiia Monday] occupied Independence Square in central Kiev after president Viktor Yanukovych’s government ditched a far-reaching accord with the European Union in favor of stronger ties with Russia.
The protest intensified when riot police attempted to clear the square. The article said, “Police attacks on protesters, new anti-protest laws, and the abduction and beating of activists caused the demonstrations to intensify.”
“On February 18,” the article continued, “violence escalated with policemen being shot, and riot police moving in to clear the protest camp. According to the health minister, 77 people were killed in 48 hours and nearly 600 wounded” The article said protesters were there in an attempt to get rid of Yanukovych, who they believed “wasn’t serving them but merely his own, and Moscow’s, interests”
Since then Yanukovych has been forced out and has fled the country, an interim government has been installed under acting president Oleksandr Turchynov, and Moscow has occupied the pro-Russian region of Crimea, something British foreign secretary William Hague described as the “biggest crisis in Europe in the 21st century”.
This was Randy’s fourth trip to the Ukraine to see Sofiia and Amaliia. Last August they had made the decision to come back to the United States to live with Hale and they began the months-long process by applying for visas.
Last month, Randy had traveled to Kiev in the Ukraine to go to an interview at the American Embassy there, part of the process to obtain “finance’ visas” to allow Sofiia and Amaliia to travel back to the U.S. with him.
Sofiia and Amaliia are from Kharkiv. They met Randy in Kiev on February 17 to “finish work on visas to come to the U.S.”
The long process to bring his finance’ and her daughter back to the states was nearly finished, medical checks complete and they had a February 20 date for the last step, the interview at the Embassy.
Randy arrived in the Ukraine on February 17 and the three of them had settled into a room on the tenth floor of the hotel, which overlooks the city’s center. “We left the hotel and went through the city square to a restaurant to eat on the 18th with no problem,” he said. “There were protesters and check points but we were allowed through.”
Coming back to the hotel that afternoon was a different story. “We couldn’t get through the checkpoint. They [the protesters] stopped us and said it was too dangerous, so we had to find another way back. When we were trying to get back [to the hotel] it seemed like there was a different ‘air’ about the demonstrators, a different feeling in the square. The protesters were dressed differently. They had flack vests, shin guards and ballistic helmets. Most were armed with clubs, baseball bats, pieces of rebar and ice axes. We didn’t see any with guns.”
They finally made it back to their room.
A little later Sofiia, looking out from the window, said, “People are running – something is happening.” We went out on the balcony and saw demonstrators clashing with police just a hundred yards outside of the edge of the square.”
That first “clash” lasted about 30 minutes, Hale said, before police overwhelmed protesters at a sandbagged area a short way down the street outside their window. “Protesters had met police at the sandbagged berm on the street which leads into the square.”
Randy said the city square (the center of Kiev) is huge. “At one point earlier, there were a half-million people in the square,” he said. “When we were there, there were still a lot of protesters there, but nowhere near a half-million.”
After police overwhelmed the protesters at that first berm built of sandbags, the demonstrators retreated into the square and made a stand there. Police surged forward on the street and across high ground across the street but were stopped at the edge of the square, just below Hale’s hotel balcony. What followed was two to three hours of shooting, running back and forth across the areas and fighting between the groups with homemade fire bombs thrown at police [Hale said he saw one police officer on fire and fleeing back to a larger group of police] and police pushing demonstrators back and setting fire to any protesters’ camps they were able to reach.
“At first the police were trying to use restraint,” Hale said. “They were shooting at them, but using rubber bullets. Then the protesters started throwing Molotov Cocktails. That’s when the police brought in snipers.”
The fighting went on into the night and police snipers were shooting at the protesters who were throwing the firebombs.
“I stayed up all night,” Hale said. “There were fires everywhere. I was afraid our hotel would be set on fire, the way a building across the square was.”
“Although Amaliia was a little scared, she was so brave,” Randy said. “She spent most of the time drawing a picture that told how beautiful the city was and how ‘these crazy people have made it dirty’.”
Her poster, which pictures their flag and a fire, says “It’s very bad. It’s horrible. Kiev was most cleanest city, but now – not. People are scared because of the bombs and yelling and it’s very scary. Everyone is tired of this.”
Randy said he plans to have the poster framed.
The next morning, Randy called the Embassy to say they weren’t safe there and asked if the interview could be moved up. It was, and they now had to get to the Embassy. He also got train tickets to take them out of the area.
The first of those two trips involved a long walk out of the rubble strewn area before they could get a taxi to go to the Embassy. “We had to go through opposition checkpoints while guys ran past us armed with everything from clubs to an ice axe and knives. At one point our taxi was searched,” Randy said.
After the interview they had to return to the hotel to pick up their belongings and go through the same area again to reach the train station.
“The whole time was a really stressful time for me,” Randy said. “I was so worried about Sofiia and Amaliia. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know the city and I was responsible for them.”
He continued, “There were really big guys all around with knives and baseball bats. I knew there was no way I could defend them, or myself if anything happened.”
Luckily nothing did happen and the three were able to get away from the center of the city. “Then I was not frightened,” Sofiia said. “Two or three streets away from the square it was like nothing had happened. At the hotel I was most concerned when a police officer was taken hostage.”
Sofiia said, “I was more worried on the second day. Most people in Eastern Ukraine are very angry over what is happening. I don’t like the situation in the Ukraine. These protesters are not smart people. They are like animals, not civilized people. Randy doesn’t believe me but I heard that many of them are high on narcotics. Their eyes are crazy and their conversations are crazy. And some stay there just for the money.”
After their harrowing experience in Kiev, Randy, Sofiia and Amaliia arrived safely in New York February 27th and were in Clare by February 28th.
“This is my first time in the United States,” said Sofiia. I really like it here. The people are so friendly.”
Amaliia is waiting to start school in Clare next Monday. She will be in the third grade.
Randy and Sofiia plan to be married sometime in the next 90 days before their visas expire.