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Uprising in Ukraine: How It All Began

  • A group rally in Kyiv, Ukraine
    Students during a mass rally on Independence Square—the Maidan—in Kyiv, Ukraine, on November 28, 2013. The protests were sparked by the last-minute decision of ex-President Yanukovych, under pressure from Russia, to abandon an association agreement with the European Union. November’s protests began a series of mass protests around Ukraine, which culminated in bloody clashes leading to up to 100 protesters dead and the annexation of Crimea. © Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images
  • Mustafa Nayem, an activist
    Mustafa Nayem hands out Ukraine and European Union ribbons during a rally on November 21, 2013. Nayem’s Facebook message in November 2013 is sometimes credited with starting the first demonstration on the Maidan against the abandoning of the association agreement with the European Union. Nayem is a Ukrainian journalist of Afghan descent. He currently writes for Ukrayinska Pravda, an online newspaper, and is a founder of Hromadske.TV, an online TV project set up by a group of independent journalists. © Gleb Garanich/Reuters
  • A protestor holding a sign
    Students in the Western Ukraine city of Lviv take part in protests in November 2013 against the decision of ex-President Yanukovych to abandon Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union. Lviv, situated in Western Ukraine and traditionally seen as European facing, played an important role in the country-wide protests. © Marina Striltsiv/Reuters
  • a lightboard poster
    A lightboard poster of ex-President Yanukovych is seen vandalized with graffiti on it as protesters gather on the Maidan in Kyiv on December 4, 2013. Yanukovych eventually fled Ukraine at the end of February 2014 as mass protests continued to grow around Ukraine. In April 2014, international investigators arrived in Ukraine to assist the Ukrainian government with recovering as much as $70 billion that ex-President Yanukovych and his close circle allegedly stole. The website yanukovychleaks.org is investigating corruption revealed in documents recovered from the ex-president’s residence. © Carsten Koall/Getty Images

My name is Mustafa Nayem. I am a journalist. I was born in Afghanistan, but I have lived in Ukraine for the past 24 years. I am sometimes credited with sparking the protests that brought down President Viktor Yanukovych and triggered the crisis now roiling my adopted homeland. But no one person can claim credit for starting this uprising. It is a true people’s movement, fueled by Ukranian citizens’ desire for a better government.

Many factors contributed to Yanukovych’s downfall: his jailing of political opponents, pressure on independent journalists, and use of brutal force against peaceful protesters. But the final straw was his refusal to sign the agreement forming an alliance between Ukraine and the European Union.

The morning it happened, I was covering parliament in Kyiv. At first, I thought Yanukovych was just playing politics, holding out for more money or concessions from the EU. But soon it became clear that the agreement was truly dead. Facebook erupted with rage, people’s posts dripping with venom. They were so disappointed after all the buildup. They had so little faith in their own institutions, in their ability to make their voices heard; many had come to see the EU as their chance to change everything.

It was ironic that the defeat happened on November 21—10 years after the Orange Revolution that prevented Viktor Yanukovych from becoming president. It felt cruel that hope was being dashed on the very day that had come to symbolize freedom.

The outrage needed an outlet. Around 8:00 p.m., I posted on Facebook: “Come on guys, let’s be serious. If you really want to do something, don’t just ‘like’ this post. Write that you are ready, and we can try to start something.” Within an hour, there were more than 600 comments. I posted again: “Let’s meet at 10:30 p.m. near the monument to independence in the middle of the Maidan.” When I arrived, maybe 50 people had gathered. Soon the crowd had swelled to more than 1,000.

Eventually, I went home to write my story. My editor wanted me to focus on the politicians, and parliament’s failure to act. All the while, I was thinking: “Come on, it’s not about that!” I didn’t even mention the Maidan in that first piece, because I didn’t really believe that we’d started something huge. We hoped, but we didn’t yet believe.

Three acts unfolded on the Maidan. First came the citizen protests. Then, the brutal government crackdown. And finally, after the first guy was killed on Hrushevsky Street, what I call “the Maidan of dignity.” At that point, it had become obvious that the people would never accept Yanukovych again. It was the beginning of his end, and the start of this journey toward Russia that is still playing out.

Once, Ukraine looked at its leaders like Olympic Gods; they know what to do, and how to do it, and we’ll just follow them. But over these last three months, the people have seen that’s not true. Politicians are no better than the rest of us. People want to participate in politics now. They demand equality, the right to assembly, and a fair court system. And they see their leaders for what they are—really old. If you asked Yanukovych or some others about Facebook, they wouldn’t understand what it can do.

I understand that the moment I posted on Facebook, I was no longer acting as a journalist; I was an activist. As a journalist, one must remain independent. On the other hand, as a citizen, I had to act. It is difficult to do nothing as your future is being destroyed right before your eyes. As the crackdown began, I realized I could no longer stand by as an unbiased observer while the government was killing people. It has been a long time coming.

The press gained freedoms under Yanukovych. But it wasn’t until 2013 that a group of us left our jobs at companies owned by oligarchs or political partisans and began to create a truly independent media. In the first months of the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych we formed Stop Censorship! to protest persecution of the press.

Three years later, we founded the first Internet TV channel in the country that operates through donations from our viewers—Hromadske.tv, where I work now as editor in chief. The media showed everything that was happening—helping people to believe that if we all act together, we can accomplish great things.

But the Russian media are different. They are trying to create a parallel reality. They are under Putin’s control, and he is trying to convince Russians that evil has overtaken Kyiv. The Russian people don’t have access to a free Internet, like we do. Putin, as Angela Merkel said, is not living in the real world, and I don’t think he can change Ukraine.

But this struggle is about something much bigger than a battle for control between Kyiv and Moscow. The Maidan proved the power of the people. It was like a child who had been discouraged for so long finally discovering he could walk. We are not children anymore. People will not be satisfied with just another new government. They want real change.

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