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Dispatches from Ukraine

Inside the crisis in Ukraine

Tetiana Ostapenko in Kiev.
(Submitted Photo)

Tetiana Ostapenko in Kiev. (Submitted Photo)

Tetiana Ostapenko, 53, is journalist for a weekly newspaper called “Prybuzky novyny” in Nemyriv, a district in western Ukraine that is 3½1/2 hours from Kiev.

Ostapenko, who met Leyden resident Betsey Yetter during Yetter’s Peace Corps days, supports an independent Ukraine and wishes for closer ties with the European Union. Before working in journalism, Ostapenko was a public school teacher in the Vinnytsia region, near where she grew up. Ostapenko’s dream is to visit the United States.

Editor’s Note: This is one of an occasional series of dispatches on the crisis in Ukraine as reported by Tetiana Ostapenko, a Ukrainian journalist with ties to Franklin County.

NEMYRIV, UKRAINE — In Kiev, a small bookstore had been quickly transformed into a secret hospital, a hideout for pro-independents seeking to avoid capture and arrests from Ukrainian President Yanukovich forces.

My sister Iryna lives in Kiev and works in the bookstore. Much of the hospital’s patients had fought for months at Maidan, the central independence square in Kiev where daring Ukrainians organized meetings to fight for impeachment of our former president Yanukovich and Ukrainian government. Maidan had been the scene of a mostly peaceful protest camp since November until police stormed the area and protests erupted into violence.

Ukrainians resorted to the “private” hospitals out of fear they would be arrested or kidnapped in the state hospitals. At the secret hospitals, volunteers like Olexandr Guslits, a surgeon from Germany, treated patients without question.

The Ukrainians’ secret was revealed, however. Last week, hired bandits called “titushky” knocked at the locked door of the hospital and fear spread throughout the small make-shift medical room. Guslits grabbed a metal stick to ward off the bandits and the nurses called out to him to stop.

“What are you doing? Stop! What will we do if the bandits break your hands? Who will operate on the people?” argued the nurses.

Quickly, a group of Ukrainian men arrived and fought off the bandits.

Since that day, a guard stands at the hospital. The wounded are not operated on anymore. Some men arrive with rotting wounds after attempting to treat their wounds at home themselves, hiding from police. And some men lie on hospital beds with pneumonia they contracted during battles at independence square by breathing in black smoke from burning wheels of the cars and gas.

The private hospital and the wounded warriors represent one of the struggles many Ukrainians face as they fought former Ukrainian President Yanukovich and for his government’s departure — and to remain independent from Russia, which has tightened its grip on the Crimean Peninsula.

The situation is tense, with many Ukrainians wanting Russia to leave the southern part of the country.

Earlier last Saturday, bus loads of people from Russian cities, Murmansk and Bryansk, were headed to Donetsk, the center of a coal-rich region in eastern Ukraine, for a meeting. My two cousins Liza and Tania live there with their families. The pro-Russian people carried Russian flags and shouted, “We want to be with Russia.”

The pro-Russian protesters stormed the region’s government building, raised the Russian flag and called for a referendum on the region’s status as Russian forces tightened their grip on the Crimean Peninsula.

Many Ukrainians there want to see the country remain independent and free from Russia.

I speak Ukrainian and my cousins speak Russian — but we don’t have any problems with communication and respect. My cousins, their children and Tania’s husband Valery want Ukraine to be independent from Russia.

The problem is not in language, but in the corruption of the country and our former bloody president, Yanukovich, and his people.

While pro-Russian forces have taken much control over Donetsk, many people do not want to be part of Russia but are afraid to speak up.

The crisis is widespread, affecting even small children. On Ukrainian television news, several children were shown sending Russian President Vladimir Putin parcels filled with their toy soldiers and tanks.

“It will help nothing,” Maria, my 10-year-old niece, said. “Will Ukrainian people win?”

Despite the large and better equipped Russian forces, many Ukrainians believe their country can outlast the Russian forces.

Even if Russia invades, Ukrainian detachments will begin to act. Yanukovich, had tried to fence the country in with barbed wire, but he didn’t manage.

Something has changed in Ukrainians and they aren’t going to give up.

More and more young men are showing up at recruitment offices to enlist in the army, claiming their support for Ukraine, and saying they are ready to defend their native land and to protect it from Russian invasion.

I questioned a military commissioner who refused to say how many men had arrived at the office, but he said “there were many.”

This is in contrast to a few months ago when guys didn’t want to join the army. At that time, enlisting was a joke among Ukrainians. First the recruiters office tried to entice them, now they storm the recruitment offices!

While some men sign up for the army, others form self-defense detachments consisting of fighters and militias. The detachments are divided into small groups and help the police keep order.

Last Monday, I’m told, a small group led by a man named Olexandr Rybalko was called to Vinnytsia in central Ukraine, where bandits were gathering around a hotel called Pivdenny Bug. Rybalko’s volunteer forces stopped some Ukrainian bandits, who were hired for $35 to cause disorder.

Recorder Staff Writer Kathleen McKiernan contributed to this report.

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