Ask Me Anything: Reporting From Ground Zero In Ukraine
NPR's Berlin Correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has covered four revolutions in the last three years, including the Arab Spring. In 2006, she opened the network's Kabul bureau and reported in depth from Afghanistan during the following three and a half years.
Nelson returned Monday from Kiev, Ukraine, where she covered the demonstrations in the city's Independence Square as they turned violent and the subsequent ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. She fielded questions about the uprising there, the similarities between the Kiev protests and the Arab Spring, and on challenges ahead for Ukraine during her Reddit "Ask Me Anything" Wednesday.
On who may have participated in violence in the Kiev protests
There is little doubt that [the radical group, the Right Sector] is heavily involved in the [opposition's] "self-defense forces," as they are called. But by the time I got there on Feb. 19, a lot of different groups in the square were engaging the police with bats, knives, axes and probably guns, although I didn't see any until after it was over. It's important to remember the police carried out a lot of attacks on protesters, first with beatings and then with sharpshooters, who took out scores of them last Thursday. I saw that bloodshed first-hand, and it was the police, not the protesters, who were shooting.
On how what she observed in Kiev differs from other uprisings she's covered
Actually, I was struck more by the similarities than the differences. ... As to the similarities, you have a widely diverging group of people united in an effort to rid themselves of an authoritarian leader without having thought through what comes next. ...
I really did have a sense of deja vu in Kiev — the euphoria of a people's triumph at ousting a hated leader, the release of political prisoners, the fleeing of police. But what was disturbing was how quickly the self-defense forces from the square started displaying guns, taking over police equipment, setting up neighborhood patrols that were bullying/hassling people — all of which I also saw in Cairo.
On the role of social media in popular uprisings
Social media definitely plays a major role in the speed with which these folks are able to communicate with each other and launch plans. But I think it played a greater role in Egypt than in Ukraine, but that's just a personal observation. ... It was far more noticeable in Egypt, where Mubarak shut down the Internet and cell phone service to try and stop what was happening. That ended up only galvanizing people more.
On ongoing political and economic challenges in Ukraine
I think Yanukovych going is only the tip of a very big iceberg. Even if all the sides there come together, there's still the issue of ending widespread corruption and overcoming economic struggles that are worse now than during the early post-Soviet days.
On protesters' frustrations with the West
Let me answer this from the perspective of protesters I spoke to: They were disappointed not only in the U.S., but in the EU, which they were looking to for help but felt only provided rhetoric with no follow-up. That's why, when the deal was announced that Yanukovych signed, the protesters said "No way," and pushed ahead with their plans to force him out.
On who might take political control in Ukraine
It seems that Vitali Klitschko is the lukewarm favorite (not even sure we can call him a favorite, actually) because he doesn't have history as a politician and is a sports icon for Ukrainians. But the problem is that he doesn't have much political experience. This is a key problem for the Ukrainians, just as it was for Egyptians and we see what happened there.
On moments of humanity she observed in Kiev
It was the way people helped each other. At St. Michael's monastery, which was one of the main makeshift protester hospitals, volunteers brought all sorts of medical supplies, and others with medical knowledge braved the freezing rain on my first night there to sort through those supplies. Everyone would pitch in to help and do the most menial chores, whether it was cleaning up the square after every conflict, preparing food in makeshift kitchens to help hungry fighters, etc.
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