As Kiev endured the bloodiest day in a popular uprising that has spread across the country, there are growing indications the government of embattled President Viktor Yanukovych is buckling.
The violence began shortly after 9 a.m., barely 12 hours after Mr.Yanukovych announced a truce in the protest movement against him that has been under way for months. Protesters moved out from Independence Square in central Kiev and clashed with police along a road next to the Hotel Ukraine, which became a makeshift hospital. As groups of police retreated up the street, several stopped and opened fire.
It wasn’t clear at first if they were firing rubber or real bullets but within an hour wounded protesters were taken into the hotel to be treated. Some protesters had guns as well and at least one could be seen taking aim at officers. A group of protesters, some carrying guns, also rushed into the hotel in the morning to get a better vantage point to attack police across the street. At least 37 people died, with some reports putting the figure as high as 70. Several hundred were also wounded.
The violence was condemned in capitals across Europe and in Washington, and blame laid squarely on the Ukrainian government.
“We are outraged by images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
The country’s parliament, meanwhile, met late Thursday and passed a motion to prevent “anti-terrorist” measures Mr. Yanukovych hoped to introduce. In a sign of his weakening authority, several members of the President’s ruling party, the Party of Regions, voted with the opposition. It’s not clear how binding the motion will be, but it also said that only parliament and not the president could declare a state of emergency. The European Union, Canada and the United States also introduced sanctions against Ukraine.
Throughout the day the Hotel Ukraine became the focal point of the violence, as injured and dead protesters were taken into the hotel’s lobby. The four-star hotel sits across from Independence Square, where the protests have been based since November, and it has largely escaped previous violent episodes.
So many corpses arrived at the hotel that they ran out of room and put some bodies under a set of stairs leading to the restaurant. Other bodies were laid on a floor across from the reception desk. A priest stood nearby, offering a silent prayer for the deceased. He stooped down once and gently grabbed the wrist of a man lying on a stretcher and covered in a blanket, hoping for some sign of a pulse. After a few seconds he stood up, shook his head and quietly said “dead.”
By early afternoon the fighting subsided and another standoff set in, but the wounded and dead kept coming into the lobby.
Several doctors, nurses and medical students rushed to the hotel to help out, but at first they had little more to offer the dying men than water and they held severed blood vessels closed with their fingers.
“The three that I tried to help died,” said a medic named Oleh who did not want to give his last name. “Bullet wounds everywhere. It’s open season out there.”
Lying next to him on the floor Volodymyr Vanchuk grimaced in pain. He’d been shot five times, in the back, arms and legs.
“Snipers were shooting from the [Metro station],” he said adding that he’d lost track of this son-in-law who was also outside fighting.
When told his interviewer was Canadian, he said: “Dear Canadians, we want to live in a normal civilized European state. We don’t want to be terrorized.”
Soon more doctors arrived, bringing donated medical supplies, blankets and medicine. By late afternoon the lobby had been transformed into a kind of field hospital, with boxes of morphine, antibiotics, disinfectant, needles, intravenous equipment and stretchers. Tables in the lobby were covered in sheets for makeshift operating tables and the dead were reorganized in another area behind blankets hung from the ceiling.
“I couldn’t take it any more today, I had to come,” said Lyuva Belaglazova, a dentist who showed up with her husband, Anatoliy. “Our leaders will understand that Ukrainian people, you cannot scare them all ... They do not want to live the way they live.”
As the day wore on, people such as university professor Volodymyr Vyatrovich began to mourn. He discovered that his 30-year-old friend Bohdan Solchanyk, was dead, shot when helping someone else get to safety. The grief of Prof. Vyatrovich was deep: he had been something of a mentor to Mr. Solchanyk and had encouraged him to join the protest movement back during the Orange Revolution 10 years ago, when a public uprising forced Mr. Yanukovych from taking office in what was seen as a rigged election. “I was one of the main people that pulled him into activism,” he said. “When I met him, he was a young student in university. I brought him into the campaigns. He was a brother in arms.”
Around 5 p.m. just when it appeared the fighting was over, a group of men burst through the lobby door carrying a man who was bleeding from his head. He had been shot in the jaw and the bullet had gone through his head and out his neck.
Somehow he was still alive. Three doctors, including the dentist, Dr. Belaglazova, worked on him for nearly an hour. They stabilized him enough for stretcher bearers to carry him far across the square, beyond the barricades, to an ambulance that took him to hospital.
“He lost a lot of blood and his nerves are damaged,” said Dr. Serhiy Kharsika, a surgeon who was among those working on the man. “I really hope he survives. The chances are small.”
As night fell medics removed the 12 dead bodies from the hotel lobby – each body each carrying a small piece of paper with the name and hometown of the victim written neatly in pen – while a small crowd of doctors and onlookers sung the national anthem.
Dr. Olga Bogomolets, one of the country’s best-known doctors who came to help out at the hotel, watched with tears in her eyes. “It’s difficult to live in a country where politicians have lost their minds and where Ukrainians are killing Ukrainians,” she said as volunteers wiped blood from the floor.
“Our politicians, it doesn’t matter which party, they have to open their eyes and understand that they have to be human beings. They have to stop this.”