I have just spent a week covering the shooting down of flight MH17 in Ukraine. I don’t want to write about the tragic events; there is little left to be said about the needless loss of life. So I decided to blog about Kiev, a city which I would love to explore one day, in happier circumstances.
When the plane landed at Kiev’s Borispol Airport, the passengers broke into spontaneous applause. Not the normal response to landing at the end of a four hour flight, but very little is normal in Ukraine at the moment.
I assumed it was due to the fear of flying many people had instantly developed following the MH17 tragedy, a fear compounded by the fact we were flying into Ukraine itself. But I was later told that Ukrainians (and Russians for that matter) tend to give the pilots a round of applause upon touch-down.
This was my first week as a freelance reporter in Europe and what is certain to be one of the biggest (and saddest) news events of the year was unfolding. After a night in a London studio doing live crosses for Channel Seven’s rolling coverage, I jumped on a plane to Kiev for SBS Australia.
The Ukrainian capital is an odd mix of Russia and Europe. While the EuroMaidan protestors would hate to admit it, it’s still more like Russia. There’s money in Kiev. Louis Vuitton and Prada stores, amazing upmarket hotels and spectacular palaces. But much of the city feels if it has been left unfinished. Buildings from the fall of the USSR sit uncompleted next to perfectly nice apartment complexes.
In the middle, is Independence Square or the Maidan as it is referred to locally. It was the site of the bloody protests earlier this year which brought down President Yanucovich, turning Ukraine from the east, to the west.
Surprisingly, the tyre barricades are still there today. As I drove to our live cross position at the famous Hotel Ukraine (which looks and feels like the Grand Budapest Hotel) we were stopped by a man wearing camouflage pants and a soccer top. He looked at my cab driver, looked suspiciously at me and waved us through.
The self-proclaimed militia man was one of a few hundred Euromaiden true believers who still live in the square, behind tyre walls, in old military tents. Attempts to move them on have been half hearted so far and as a result, the main plaza of Kiev looks like a film set from a war-time epic. Bricks torn out to throw during the protests are still missing. Each day, prayers are said for the dead, while Ukrainian Billy Bragg equivalents sing protest songs to no-one in particular. The plaza has become a tourist attraction, with hawkers selling everything from the ubiquitous blue and yellow scarves to Vladimir Putin toilet paper.
At some point, the protestors will need to be moved on. As a local remarked, a modern city needs to be able to do business. But the hundreds of photos of young men who died during the battles suggest that for some, moving on will be impossible.
Returning to my hotel the first night, the staff were attentive. Incredibly attentive. By day two, I realised I hadn’t seen another guest in the entire building. I asked the concierge if I was the only guest. I was. While putting out a full buffet for breakfast just for me seemed wasteful, I made sure I ate as much as I could; the chef hasn’t had someone to cook for in days.
It’s a shame, because despite the conflict and the constant threat many Ukrainians feel from across the border, Kiev is a fascinating city, one with a remarkable history and people who deserve to be free from fear and violence.