Ukranian student returns to war-torn homeland

When her country erupted in revolution, Svitlana Kostenko knew she had to return and be a witness to the great upheaval in Ukraine that gripped the world.

Born and raised in the capital of Kiev, Kostenko currently studies journalism at Santa Monica College. She moved to the United States one and-a-half years ago.

When protests spread against the government of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in November, she and her husband watched online and on television as angry crowds gathered at the "Maidan" or main square of the capital, chanting demands and slogans under the towering statue of the Archangel Michael.

"We were reading the news and we understood we needed to go, we didn't feel right staying here," said Kostenko. "We were on vacation in Puerto Rico, we came back and bought tickets and got on a plane the day after we returned."

It was not hard for Kostenko to articulate why her hometown joined cities like Athens and Cairo, which have also been set aflame with the masses expressing anger at their governments. She described a country where the people feel disconnected from rulers, where corruption is strife and post-Soviet hopes dashed.

According to Kostenko, the last straw was when Yanukovych rejected a deal for greater economic links with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Vladimir Putin's Russia.

"His decision was the trigger to make people go on the street," she said. "I know the Central and Western parts wanted to be closer to the EU."

Once Kostenko landed in Kiev with her husband and their 16-month-old son, they made their way to the square to join the gathering crowds and witnessed the rise of the barricades.

"We met all of our friends in the main square. We were happy. We said 'we are not moving from here, we are fighting for our rights, we know that we're going to win,'" she said.

In the early days of the uprising the mood among the protesters was festive with beer and snacks being passed around. Kostenko remembers standing in the square, crying with inspired, hopeful emotion as protesters shared their grievances and hopes as snow began to fall on the Maidan.

With the grace of Slavic poetry, she described coming back home with her husband as, "smelling like fire."

But when the government grew nervous over the mass size of the protests, security forces were soon unleashed.

"My husband was there [in the square] at night because I stayed in the apartment taking care of our baby," explained Kostenko. "All the bad stuff started happening at night."

Kostenko had to keep track of her husband through her iPhone as protesters clashed with police, flames licked the night sky and gunfire echoed across the streets.

The situation became tense for Kostenko when she would turn on the television and see the bloody images of riot squads smashing through crowds and beating down citizens.

"It was the worst experience I had in the last ten years of my life," she said.

Kostenko immediately connected the experience of Ukraine with that of Egypt and other Arab countries, comparing the situation in Kiev to the events depicted in the Oscar-nominated documentary "The Square" about the Tahrir Square revolt.

"I was watching it and saw Ukraine in there. I felt really connected to Egypt," she said.

On February 22, Yanukovych fled Kiev and the crowds celebrated their triumph. Although they had some sense of victory, they still have a long way to go. Kostenko believes that Ukraine's system remains infiltrated by politicians in the pocket of Putin and so this will make a real transition to a sovereign government more difficult.

Ukraine is not the only European nation to experience unrest. Greece, Spain, and Italy have seen a storm of upheaval due to economic woes affecting their populations.

The situation in Ukraine has now grabbed international attention because of growing tensions involving Russia. Immediately after a new, pro-western government took power in Kiev, the region of Crimea became a hotbed of protests that seemed to demand joining Russia.

Recently Russia has annexed Crimea following a local vote in favor of the union. The United States and its major European allies have imposed sanctions on Russia, threatening further action if Moscow stokes more unrest in Ukraine's eastern, Russian-speaking areas.

"Since my early childhood I remember a lot of Crimean people being pro-Russian," admitted Kostenko, "Russia used it. But if you dig into the history of Crimea it's never been a sovereign state. It's been under Turkey, under Russia, under the Soviet Union."

Following the annexation of Crimea there is a new fear in Eastern Europe that Russia has new expansionist aims and will soon decide to invade or make further inroads into Ukraine itself.

Kostenko herself fears that one day she will look at a map and see that the current borders that define her homeland have been changed. Another lingering fear is that upcoming elections might be rigged under Putin's influence to install another Moscow-friendly president.

"He's going to do something to escalate the situation and to try and cancel the elections," she predicted. She laments that many Russians are, in her view, brainwashed by waves of propaganda fed to them by Russia's state-monitored TV and internet outlets.

Despite the ongoing tensions Kostenko still has hopes that the Ukrainian revolution will bring hope and not war.

"I hope next time I go to Ukraine I will see Europe, I will see clean streets, people looking forward to big changes and ready to build a new country," she said.

For Kostenko change means a government that will be accountable to the people.

"I want to see a government that knows if they take money and are corrupted, they will be thrown away," she said. "I want them to fear people and be afraid of the people so they can do a good job."

Alci RengifoComment