Upheaval in Ukraine: A missionary's story

(AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
Protesters ride atop of what appears to be a military truck, in central Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Protesters in the Ukrainian capital claimed full control of the city Saturday following the signing of a Western-brokered peace deal aimed at ending the nation's three-month political crisis. The nation's embattled president, Viktor Yanukovych, reportedly had fled the capital for his support base in Ukraine's Russia-leaning east.

People around the world have watched the crisis in Ukraine with grave concern for those affected by the upheaval. Markus Wolf, an American, has been in Ukraine since 2005 as a missionary working with orphans. He serves in the heart of the city as a staff member at International Christian Assembly, an English-speaking church in Kiev that ministers to both Ukrainians and internationals living in the city.

His also teaches in a British English school and describes his work as something of a microcosm of the situation in Ukraine more broadly.

"My good students, the ones who need no outside help, they all cheat. It's discouraging and I've shared with them that if they want corruption out of Ukraine they need to start with their own hearts," he says.

"Ukraine is corrupt in every sphere of society. You bribe your way through school. You pay under the table to get decent health care. You pay off building inspectors if you're trying to get something done. An honest entrepreneur could never get ahead here. They make it really hard to start a business here."

The desire to have is an undercurrent in the protests, Mr Wolf believes: "The European agreement started this thing, but it's really not about that. It's about people wanting to have the opportunities that other nations have economically."

Despite how things may appear on TV screens, it is not a clear-cut case of Ukraine versus the people. 

"Many people don't support the protesters because they don't think it will accomplish anything," he says. 

Situated close to the Parliament building, Mr Wolf described events in the vicinity in recent days as "crazy" and gives a fuller report here:

"The isolation of the battle zones has been bizarre. You could go to the Ocean Plaza and feel like you're in an American mall but for the language. Even eat at McDonalds and pretend nothing is wrong. But four metro stops over is a fight between Ukrainian people and the police and hired thugs.

"We heard explosions during our staff meeting on that Tuesday morning. We closed our meeting early that day, but a few of us stayed behind. Things seemed relatively quiet, and so my wife and I and another friend went to as close as we dared. For me that was the barrier where the protesters had their homemade shields.

"[The noises outside the office] didn't sound like gun fire, but more like a garbage truck running into something, that's all I could connect the sound to. It wasn't a mystery that the protesters were marching to parliament. They had said publicly that they would day before.

"So we heard these metallic thuds a few times, and then opened our window to hear it better, to find out what was going on. We could see nothing because there are buildings between us and the main street but about every five or 10 minutes you'd hear one or two more.

"It was quieter after an hour or so. We decided to stop by a street vendor and get some food and she said it would be half an hour before our khachapuri - a Georgian bread with cheese inside it - would be ready, so the three of us decided to use the time to see what was happening.

"Marinsky Park was the base camp for the pro-president people. Beyond that was the Parliament building. We only wanted to see what was happening.

"Near our food kiosk, however, were two cars that had been wrecked, not just hit, but it looked like a gang had had a field day on it. The tires were slashed, all the windows were broken and the passenger door hanging from the hinge. The trunk of the car had been beaten in and forcible opened. A few onlookers were looking it over. The kiosk lady said it had happened forty minutes earlier.

"We asked who it was. She said they had searched it for weapons. Another passer-by said that it was a bandit from Kharkov (an eastern region sympathetic to Russia).

"It's noteworthy that the license would have told us where the car was from but it had been ripped off and removed. The back bumper was on the ground too. This may have been the loud metallic thuds we were hearing earlier but it seems like it happened later than what we had heard.

"This area has been dominated by pro Yanukovich supporters. There are large men in small groups here and there. They are known as Tatushki. They've been brought in to intimidate and rough people up if necessary, by the president. Maybe this is the worst part of being here. We've been warned to stay away from such groups, but they dress in normal clothes. You don't know if the big ugly guy next to you is a good guy or not, so you tend to avoid any big guys.

"The air is dirty, with the smell of burning tires and other things, but it's not oppressively hard to breathe. But people walk around as if there are revolutions every day. Ukrainians aren't happy looking people like us Americans. They tend to be less expressive, so unless they're really angry or really afraid, it's hard to tell. But despite the danger, and most kiosks being closed, there were still plenty of people walking around.

"There are bricks missing from the curbs, which frankly isn't unusual for Kiev, but someone's definitely been digging them up right here, looking for the loosest ones. We see a bloody knit hat under a tree with some blood drops around it. I note that sensible people wouldn't go further, but I'm the coward of the group.

"Further up the sidewalk we see something interesting in the middle of the road. It looks like a spent firework, almost like a paper towel roll but thinner. And there is ash around it. People are near it, chatting about it, taking pictures of it as proof. We come closer and find the importance of it.

"There are tiny nails in all around it. This is one of those incendiaries that are loaded with nails, little black nails, thin and long, like carpet nails. The police claim to use rubber bullets and harmless smoke bombs, but this is evidence that they're really trying to hurt and maim people. A man who was hit by some of the nails is telling his story as others take pictures with their cell phones.

"We found many more of these nails closer to our office. You don't really notice them until you look for them.

"Further up the road, we see a line of the opposition. They have shields, like the Berkut have. The Berkut are the special force police, the black stormtroopers you see in the video coverage. Jesse, the youth pastor of our church, pointed out to us that the protesters have military forms now. Some of the shields are made of metal with a big letter A in the middle. Some of the shields are made of wood and have images of eagles or birds.

"There are at least two different 'companies' of protesters. These men, wearing all manner of head gear from stocking caps to construction hats to more military looking things line up and block the entire street. We are free to walk further in, but we don't. People who live and work in the area do walk behind the lines, and the guards don't even question them.

"In the middle of the street, though, when a car or truck comes. They stop them and ask questions, or something, before they allow them in. The guys in the middle of the street tend to be the ones with the camouflage and the big metal shields.

"The wooden shield guys are on the sidewalk. Beyond the shields, there were more people, but there wasn't much to see. If we had gone further we would have gotten to Marinski Park.

"Later we went back to our office, and learned that the metro system had been closed to everyone except the Berkut, but I never saw any Berkut there. My wife and I decided to go the opposite direction of the street, away from the fighting, to get some photos developed. Here we saw a bunch of telephone booths knocked over. We thought this could accounted for the some of the noises we heard before, like the garbage truck sound. But it didn't seem like there weren't enough telephone booths to account for all the crashes we heard.

"When we left the photo shop, we saw a parade of people marching away from the direction of Marinsky Park, I'm talking hundreds of people going down the sidewalk. They started going by before we saw them, so I have no idea how many there were.

"Again you can't tell their expression, if they're angry or sad because they're Ukrainians. But they seem to be older people, civilians, dressed in warm clothes. No children among them, but plenty of old ladies.

"There were some younger people but very few. When we got nearer our office, there were women yelling at the parade of people to leave and go home. We asked a few people who they were, but nobody seemed to know or want to tell us. So we went to the women who were yelling at them. They told us these were the Yanukovich supporters who didn't even live in Kiev. My guess is that they had been kicked out of the park where the party of regions had their headquarters. We don't know where they ended up going."

The church Mr Wolf serves at is close to the action but it has been determined from the outset not to take any sides in the conflict.

As the uncertainty continues and Ukraine faces the long road back to stability, the church's priority is the same as it always has been - to support people in being peacemakers and preach the Good News.

"The kingdom of God is our focus, and it should be that way no matter who's in power in the government. We all have our opinions, but we don't 'preach' one way or the other, or encourage people to attend protest rallies," he said.

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