Homeless in Barcelona

Mention the name Barcelona to most in Europe, if not the world, and images of a thriving, cosmopolitan beachside city come to mind, along with the architecture of Gaudi and a certain football team based in its midst. Yet this vibrant, cultured metropolis, often cited as Spain’s economic powerhouse in more prosperous times, has succumbed to the ravages of Covid-19 like the rest of us. For one group of its 4.6 million inhabitants – the homeless – this has been a particularly troubling time. After all, how do you self-isolate without a place to live?

In terms of the impact of the global pandemic we are all currently experiencing, Spain is one of the hardest hit countries on the planet. I’ll spare you the figures, as I think we are all tired of these sobering statistics dominating our media, but it’s bad. So bad, in fact, that as of late April, only two other countries (United States & Italy) have had more deaths due to the Coronavirus than the Spanish have suffered.

In response, the Spanish Government has implemented some of the most severe lockdown rules in Europe. For example, children under the age of 16 have not been allowed out of their homes – even to exercise – since mid-March, and adults have been confined to their own four walls apart from to get essentials like food and medicines. At the time of writing, these restrictions are slowly being lifted , but it’s been a long few weeks for Europe’s fourth largest nation.

I’ve gained this understanding of current life in Spain due to an old school friend of mine – Robert – who is a resident of Barcelona and currently works for local homeless charity Arrels Fundacio in the city. During a recent video conversation (all the rage in these days of isolation), he explains to me how his role involves walking the streets of his adopted hometown to engage with the city’s homeless population. As such, Robert is one of the few people allowed to be outside on a regular basis – for which he needs a permit – and his insights into the plight of the city’s homeless residents are fascinating yet unsettling at the same time.

One of the most confronting consequences for Barcelona’s homeless population Robert shares, is how being some of the only people on the street has resulted in increased attention from the local police. With everyone requiring permits to justify why they aren’t isolating at home, the homeless have been regularly questioned by law enforcement just for being there. As Robert explains, this has led to “increased anxiety for many I’ve come to know over the years”, some of whom, due to cognitive and mental health issues, have little comprehension of the current restrictions.

A case in point, he tells me, is Patricia*, a 49-year-old lady who has been on the streets for “over 7 years”. She has confided in Robert of being “scared of police attention” and embarrassed to admit she has nowhere to go when they question why she isn’t at home. The streets are her home, and it’s only the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic that has made her plight more visible, which is hardly her fault. Fortunately, Robert’s employer is able to assist in any ‘misunderstandings’ with law enforcement, and regularly succeed (at least recently) in getting spot fines for the homeless rescinded. Yet one assumes that the mental toll on these already vulnerable people is more difficult to eradicate.

In defence of the Spanish authorities, they have rushed to implement measures to assist the homeless during these extraordinary times, with an increase in ready-made ‘picnics’ (cold meats, bread and cheese) being distributed over recent weeks. However, this has only papered over the cracks of the problem, merely replacing the ‘soup kitchens’ forced to close their doors because of the crisis, and the lack of hot food is a serious problem for many.

Members of the Logistics Brigade of the Spanish Army are pictured next to bunk beds for homeless people at a shelter in the Fira Pavilion, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, in Barcelona

One of the highest profile Coronavirus solutions for the homeless in Barcelona has been the temporary homeless shelter erected by the Spanish military in the iconic Plaza de Espana. Built in just three days and offering temporary accommodation for up to 450 people, it’s a symbol not only of the efforts of the Spanish Government to keep the homeless off the streets, but also the extent of the problem. Having spent 11years working with the city’s homeless population (which numbers in the thousands by recent estimates), Robert is appreciative of this temporary solution, but also slightly cynical. “It’s great in principle” he concedes, “but many don’t want to share their plight with hundreds of strangers, and it’s not exactly ideal for social distancing.”

This is highlighted in a second example Robert gives of his recent interactions with the city’s street dwellers, as he describes his conversation with Juan* – a 42-year-old male currently living in a doorway. Having lost his job as a result of the pandemic (and the inevitable economic downturn that swiftly followed), Juan has resorted to sleeping rough in an attempt to get by, a harsh reality in a society crippled by austerity measures in recent years. When asked by Robert whether he was aware of the new temporary accommodation option in Plaza de Espana recently, his response is telling. “I feel safer in this doorway” he replies, citing the risk of infection as a primary factor in his decision to stay where he is for now.

Barcelona Homeless1

Clearly there are no easy solutions to this age-old problem, and the current pandemic has only exacerbated the issue, making homelessness more visible yet no less difficult to solve. I ask my friend for his professional opinion on what he would like to see done to address the issue and for once am not surprised by the answer. “More preventative measures are needed – such as better co-ordination between landlords, local authorities and those in need – but that has been known for years” he explains passionately. “The problem, as usual, is funding to do this and the political will to solve the issue.”

Until now, he explains, homelessness has been too easy to ‘sweep under the carpet’, especially in a country that has had severe economic problems to deal with, dating back to the Financial Crisis of 2008. It’s heartbreaking for Spain that just when they were starting to see the green shoots of economic recovery in terms of a falling unemployment rate , this health related crisis has stopped them in their tracks. With the federal government’s focus understandably on how to get people back to work once the pandemic is over, it’s questionable at best whether homelessness will factor into the conversation. “At least this lockdown has raised the profile of the homeless here, and hopefully that’s a good thing” he offers positively. If every cloud has a silver lining, then this one is a particularly thin sliver…

As our conversation ends and we sign off with the now familiar refrain for our respective families to “stay safe”, I can’t help contrasting the experiences I’ve just heard with the scenario in Australia. It’s been a challenge here too, with little or no access to friends and family, some of whom have lost jobs during this time, but at least everyone I know has a roof over their heads. When we look back on this time in years to come, let’s hope we are thankful for such small mercies, and remember those overseas who weren’t quite as lucky..

[*names have been changed to protect the identify and dignity of the individuals highlighted in this article.]

This article was republished in Independent Australia on May 10 2020, a copy of which can be found here


Brexitland – Opinions from a disUnited Kingdom

Two-and-a-half years after the referendum that divided a nation, one quiet corner of northern England reflects on their country’s decision to leave the European Union writes Kevan Sangster.

IT’S EARLY JANUARY in Mirfield, West Yorkshire and this provincial northern English town (population c20,000) is slowly getting back to everyday life after the Christmas and New Year festivities. Yet, as commuters drive to work or board trains to larger regional centres such as nearby Leeds, there is a nagging uncertainty as to what 2019 will hold. This is the year, the politicians assure them, the UK will finally enact “Brexit” and no one is quite sure what that will mean, even now.

When the results of the UK’s EU referendum in June 2016 were released, it became clear that places like Mirfield – small, provincial towns outside the major cities – were instrumental in the shock decision to part ways with the economic and political union that the UK has been a member of for over 40 years. As a scan of the Electoral Commission results indicate, all the major urban centres (London, Manchester, even nearby Leeds) voted to “Remain” in this union. Yet a significant majority of the population outside these cities voted the opposite way, causing the biggest political earthquake in a generation. Mirfield, as part of the wider electoral area of Kirklees, was typical of this phenomenon, with 55 per cent choosing to “Leave” the EU.

My first real experience of this comes at a gathering on New Year’s Eve, where friends and family congregate to welcome in 2019. Despite all the festivities, as the night wears on and the alcohol consumption increases, the conversation almost inevitably turns to Brexit, with the first mention typical of the general mood. “I’m sick of bloody hearing about it!” declares one lady candidly (they don’t mince their words in these parts). Others are keen to voice their opinions, with another adding that “we never voted for the EU to govern us anyway”.

Interestingly, any dissenting voices hold their own counsel, possibly not wanting to open the wound any further and conversation finally returns to more jovial subjects — it is New Year’s Eve after all!

This initial encounter has intrigued me and I’m keen to know more about what people really think about this emotive subject. This opportunity arises while talking with Chris (34), a young professional who has lived in the area all his life. Despite his amiable manner, his forthright opinions take me by surprise as he explains to me how “the whole debate is toxic, splitting families and friendships down the middle”.

It appears my fears may be justified. Going on to comment that “we will be much worse off outside the EU,” he then makes a very interesting and oft-forgotten point on the topic. “We have now spent over three years debating Brexit rather than dealing with the multiple other issues the country faces,” he laments, alluding to the almost blanket news coverage of the referendum both before and after the event, to the exclusion of almost anything else.

It’s a theme that is taken up during my next conversation with Joanne (47), a small business owner and another lifelong local. She is particularly scathing of the media reporting of Brexit, describing how, in her opinion, the UK press have “seized on any comment from either side and reported it regardless of whether it makes any sense or is factually correct”. Warming to her point, Joanne goes on to explain her view that “if something isn’t broken beyond repair then you don’t waste billions changing it,” referring to the estimated $50bn “divorce bill” the UK will have to pay upon leaving the EU.

The one thing that strikes me about both these “Remainers” (or “Remoaners” as they have been sarcastically christened here by those with opposing views) is their strength of feeling on the matter. Having known both for many years, I have never seen either express such strong political sentiments before, an indication that this debate has touched even the most apathetic of voters. The sense of frustration and incredulity in both Chris and Joanne at their nation’s decision is palpable.

In the interest of a balanced view, I seek out alternate opinions and, fortunately, don’t have to wait long to hear such a voice, albeit on email from Judith (67), who happens to be Joanne’s mother. Responding to my questions on how the media has commented on the referendum result since it was announced, she, too, is clearly not impressed, but in a very different way.

‘The UK press has commented more negatively than positively on the result,’ she explains, giving her the impression that they felt ‘the leave result was the wrong way to go’. This is a common refrain from those who voted in favour of leaving back in June 2016 and one which goes to the heart of their own frustration with the subsequent fallout.

Having been giving the opportunity to voice their opinion on such a critical decision, many “Leavers” I talk to feel that voice has been ridiculed by the establishment, implying in some way that they didn’t fully understand the consequences of their choice. Understandably, this has left them feeling alienated and, in many cases, strengthened their resolve to “Leave”. It’s unsurprising then that Judith feels ‘eventually the UK will be economically better outside of the EU,’ although she does concede that ‘it will take some time before the benefits show’.

When asked whether she thinks the EU referendum was all worth it, her response is telling. ‘Yes, I think so,’ she writes, going on to add that ‘hopefully one day we will exit the EU and be free to make our own laws once more.’

As my trip draws to a close, I catch up with an old family friend, John (73), one of the most down-to-Earth and straightforward blokes you could ever wish to meet. While taking in a local football match, I ask him his opinions on the whole Brexit saga. Taking a philosophical view, John explains his belief that “both sides misrepresented their arguments, as they always do in elections,” which strikes me as a very insightful response — there isn’t a lot of trust in politicians in this part of the world.

When asked if he thinks there should be another vote to help bring the country together, John is unequivocal in his response: “If another peoples’ vote is called then we will have lost our democracy”. So, no going back as far as he’s concerned, then. What should happen next, I ask finally? “Take the best deal on the table and get on with it,” is his answer. It doesn’t get more straight forward than that.

What has become clear during my time back “home” is that this debate hasn’t resolved anything; in fact, it has divided a community and there seems little appetite for compromise. Tellingly, not one person I spoke to would change their vote if a second referendum was called. It’s this point that lingers with me, as I sense these divisions may take a long time to heal and in a community as tight knit as this one, that is concerning.

Before heading off to the airport I chat briefly with an old journalist friend of mine, Mark (48), who lives in nearby Leeds. Not having time to delve too deeply into his opinions, I ask him to describe his overall impression of where the UK stands at this point. “It’s a national embarrassment,” he tells me, only half joking. Whether Mark reflects the more “city-centric” view or not, he has a point.

Whatever the outcome of the coming weeks before “B-Day” (as it’s now being referred to here) on 29 March 2019, I can’t help feeling that history will not look too kindly on the way the UK has handled this debate. More importantly for the people who live here, it’s clear to me and many others that this is far from a “United Kingdom”.

This article was published on http://www.independentaustralia.net in February 2019. A copy of this can be viewed here : https://independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/brexitland-opinions-from-the-ununited-kingdom,12351


Town like no other

The English Football Championship play-off final, played at Wembley in late May every year, is often referred to as the ‘richest game in football’, with the winner being guaranteed promotion to the glamour and riches of the English Premier League the following season. This year’s final pits Reading FC, a team from sixty miles West of London and last in the top tier in 2013, against Huddersfield Town, representing a small, provincial town in northern England, who have never been in the Premier League in their history. With Australian Aaron Mooy amongst the list of Huddersfield’s star players, local interest is sure to centre on the self-styled “Town like no other”, and their fairy-tale run to this years’ play-off final.

Premier League Dream

With entry to Premier League estimated by Deloitte to have been worth 170m pounds (A$300m) to the winner of last year’s play-off-final, it’s clear that this game can have a massive impact on a club’s fortunes. A share of the burgeoning television rights (last negotiated by the Premier League in 2015 for an astonishing 5.14bn pounds (A$9bn – http://www.bbc.com/news/business-31379128), and the associated marketing benefits of playing against the likes of  Manchester United and Chelsea amongst others, have understandably led to English Football’s top division being regarded as the “promised land” for all England’s 92 professional football clubs. For Huddersfield Town, with an average attendance of under fifteen thousand (until this year) and a limited target market outside their local area, it’s a chance to compete with the big boys.

Yet, for Huddersfield Town fans (and I am one for the record) who have grown up under the shadow of big city local rivals Leeds United for many years, it’s about much more than money. With their club not having been in the English Football’s top division for forty-five long years, most of the fans who populate the club’s John Smith Stadium every other weekend have never experienced away trips to football icons such as Old Trafford or Anfield that come with being in the Premier League. The chance to compete with such esteemed football royalty, particularly when their rivals Leeds United languish in the division below, is nothing short of a dream.

However, it wasn’t always so for Huddersfield Town. Formed in the early part of the twentieth century, ‘Town’ (as they are affectionately referred to locally) were a force to be reckoned with in the 1920’s, winning the First Division (the forerunner to the Premier League) title three times in a row – the first team in England to do so – as well as the FA Cup. Even up until the 1960’s Huddersfield were regularly in the top flight, with legends such as Scotland and Manchester United striker Dennis Law starting his career with the club. Famously, iconic Liverpool manager Bill Shankly started his managerial career at Huddersfield, but left when Law was sold and joined Liverpool – the rest as they say is history. Yet for Town it was the start of a decline that saw them drop three divisions in four years in the 1970’s, never to return since.  It’s understandable then that a popular chant amongst Town fans to this day starts with the words “Those were the days my friend…”.

Wagner Revolution

So what changed to catapult this small club from the edge of West Yorkshire to the verge of the Premier League? Most locals will point to the appointment of local business Dean Hoyle as chairman in 2009 as the catalyst for Town’s renaissance. With a modest fortune made from building up and then selling greetings card business ‘The Card Factory”, local lad Hoyle – a lifelong Town supporter – set about making changes to the club to position them for growth, both on and off the pitch. New training facilities were invested in as was the youth team program, and within a few years the club rose from League One (confusingly the third tier of English football) to the Championship, just one step from the ‘promised land’ Hoyle had set his sights on when he took over. Yet for the subsequent four years, Huddersfield languished in the lower end of the Championship, regularly flirting with relegation back to League One and employing a succession of managers that seemed incapable of breaking that cycle.

David Wagner HTFC

Enter David Wagner, a little known German plucked from Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team manager’s role in 2015, and most famous at the time for his association with current Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp (he was his number two in Klopp’s previous role at Dortmund). In eighteen months since taking the helm at Huddersfield, Wagner has revolutionised training and overhauled the playing staff, bringing in five players from his native Germany as well as Welsh International goalkeeper Danny Ward on loan from Klopp’s Liverpool. However, many feel his key signing was bringing in Australian Aaron Mooy on loan from Manchester City in August 2016, who has been a revelation for the team this season.

With Mooy acting as playmaker in midfield and the defence built on German efficiency, Huddersfield have defied the critics (they were tipped for relegation by most pundits), finishing fifth to qualify for the play-offs, ahead of such household names as Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, QPR and of course Leeds United. This unexpected success – dubbed the “Wagner Revolution” by the club’s innovative marketing team – has resonated with the town that bears its name, with home attendances up 25% to over twenty thousand a game, and a special bond forming between the team and the fans that is the envy of the league. Never was this more evident than in the penalty shoot-out with local rivals Sheffield Wednesday in the semi-final recently, when goalkeeper Ward – having just saved the penalty to clinch the team’s place in the final – sprinted the length of the pitch to celebrate with the elated Town fans at the other end of the stadium, closely followed by the entire team and management. For a football lover, never mind a lifelong fan, it was a moment to treasure…


And so it now comes down to one game –which takes place at the iconic Wembley Stadium on Monday 29th May (a public holiday in the UK) – for a place in the Premier League.  Five days out from the big day, the club’s Marketing Director Sean Jarvis confirms to me that over 35,000 fans (more than 20% of the town’s entire population) have bought  tickets for the Huddersfield enclosure at the game (fans are still segregated in English Football), with a likely sell out all but confirmed. So what is the atmosphere like around the club and wider community in the run up to the game I ask him? “The Town is buzzing like it’s never buzzed before” he tells me, while recalling stories of people beeping their horns as he drives to work with a Town flag proudly displayed on his car.

Terrier Spirit

It is Sean and his team that came up with the marketing slogan “a Town like no other” to promote the club’s run to the play off final this year, and he explains to me how this came about.  “It’s about the incredible football heritage of this club, that we are a town not a city, and also about the incredible people that make up the community here,” Sean states proudly, before highlighting a story that epitomises the “Terrier Spirit” he is describing (the club’s official nickname is the Terriers). On the night of the play off semi-final – played away at Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday – the club arranged to show the game on a big screen at their training complex, for fans who couldn’t get to the game itself. One of his staff, on hearing a loyal fan was unable to travel to the event due to lack of transport, personally drove to pick up this fan and escorted them to the viewing, before driving them home afterwards.  It’s the type of community spirit often associated with the area, and one which indicates the passion in the town for its beloved football club.

As I end the conversation with Sean, wishing him and the team the best of luck for the following Monday, he sums up what it means to club and fans to achieve what just 9 months ago seemed impossible. “To play in the elite of British football is what we all strive for, and it would be a dream come true for the team and club as a whole” Sean explains. One senses that for this small northern town with a rich footballing history, it’s an opportunity to put their town back on the map and relive the golden years of a century ago. It really would be a fairy-tale ending for the “Town like no other”, and it has been a long time in the making….

Editor’s note: This article was originally written in May 2017, prior to Huddersfield’s victory and subsequent promotion to the Premier League. After two successive season’s playing with the ‘big boys’, they were relegated back to the Championship in May 2019. David Wagner left the club in Jan 2019, and is now manager of Schalke in Germany’s Bundesliga.   

After Maidan

Young Ukrainians were at the forefront of the recent protests in Kiev that brought down a government and led to the unrest still raging in the East of the country. After such a momentous event in their country’s history, what do these young people think now about the future for Ukraine?

It was the night of 21st November 2013, and a group of students and activists had gathered on Kyiv’s Independence Square (or ‘Maidan’ as it is known locally) to protest at then President Yanukovych’s decision to suspend preparations for Ukraine to sign an association agreement with the European Union. They were angry at the perceived influence of Russia on their government’s decision, particularly given Russian President Putin was pushing ahead with his plans for a customs union between former Soviet satellite states (Belarus and Kazakhstan had already joined). Ukraine was seen as key to the success of this  fledgling Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) as it had become known, and closer ties between the EU and one of Moscow’s primary economic and political allies was seen by some in the Kremlin as a significant threat to Russian interests in the region.

After 9 days of noisy but peaceful protest, Maidan erupted into violence as protesters escalated their demonstration in response to Yanukovych’s failure to sign the EU agreement at a summit in Vilnius the day before as initially promised. What followed next would change the mood of a nation, who watched in horror with the rest of the world as the Kyiv authorities attempted to crush the rebellion with water cannon, stun grenades and rubber bullets. Significantly, the protesters held their ground through that fateful night – encircling the protest camp with burning barricades of tyres, furniture and debris – and with it brought the world’s attention to their plight. This was no longer a student protest about government policy – revolution was now in the air and the weight of public opinion was firmly in their corner.

Although the subsequent 3 months of demonstrations – culminating in the overthrowing of Yanukovych’s government on 21st February 2014 –   encompassed a much wider cross section of the population (including political opposition parties and powerful business interests), the seed of discontent was sown predominantly by younger Ukrainians. Many were students, young professionals and, significantly, largely under 30 years of age. All of them unified by having no significant memory of life under the Soviet regime which collapsed in the early 1990’s, and determined to maintain (and preferably increase) the degree of independence from Moscow that their country has enjoyed in the subsequent two decades

My introduction to Ukraine is in Lviv, a city of 700,000 in the far west of Ukraine, close to the Polish border and a hot bed of Ukrainian nationalism since falling under Soviet control after the Second World War. Given this history, it’s not surprising that the first person I talk to, a young journalist born and educated in the city, is very pro-independence. Like many young people in Lviv, she spent time at the “Maidan” protests in Kyiv (some 9 hours away by train), travelling down at the weekends to join the protest camp and lending her voice to the call for action against her own government. So what was so important about being in the EU I ask, that makes it worth fighting for?

She informs me that many young Ukrainians, particularly in Lviv, look west for their inspiration and see their future as part of Europe rather than in Russia’s sphere of influence. Having seen their close neighbours in Poland (which Lviv was a part of as recently as 1946) enjoy the benefits of European integration since becoming full members in 2004, the politically aware youth of Ukraine seem determined to seize the opportunity to expand their horizons both culturally and economically. But listening to this quietly confident, articulate young woman speak, you sense their is something deeper than European integration driving her rationale.

The conversation turns to life in present day Lviv, which has returned to relative normality after significant activism in the city during the months of “Maidan” (Lviv was just one of numerous cities around Ukraine that staged demonstrations during the early part of 2014). Having recently graduated from the prestigious Ivan Franko University in the city, the journalist explains how corruption is rife in Ukraine’s education system. It is common to “pay for grades” when completing your degree apparently, even if you don’t agree with the principal behind it. This seems to be endemic in Ukrainian life at many level – a fireman I meet later explains he has earned up to five times his salary in bribes – but “things have started to improve” in recent months she tells me. It transpires that the desire to be free from this level of corruption – a remnant of latter day communism – is a far more powerful emotion for this young woman than joining the European Union.

On the subject of the raging insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, there is more reticence, as well as a genuine sympathy for everyday people caught up in the fighting. She understands that many in the East feel threatened by the independence movement, and feel more comfortable under the security blanket of “Mother Russia” (the population of Donetsk in the east for example is made up of over 40% ethnics Russians, compared to under 10% in Lviv). However, as we make our way through the streets around the University, I am shown bags of old clothes donated by the residents of Lviv, which will be distributed to those fleeing the violence in the East and making their way to a safer environment in the West. The feeling of unity with her countrymen is tangible.

Having been inspired by the quiet determination of this young woman, I move on to my next encounter with a group of IT professionals, bound by a love of travel (they are all members of a popular travel club in the city). After an initial hesitancy to discuss such an emotive subject – “so what do you know about our situation?” asks one inquisitively – they slowly echo the theme of freedom from Moscow. There is a more practical air to this conversation, with the desire to be part of Europe being intrinsically linked to their thirst for travel and the opportunities this would create culturally as well as professionally. However, once again the issue of corruption, along with a desire to be free to make their own choices as a nation, is a strong undercurrent to their motivations. They too travelled to Maidan during the protests, again to show their support but also to feel part of the “revolutionary” atmosphere that enveloped their country in the preceding months. You get the feeling that these intelligent, fun loving young Ukrainians enjoyed the opportunity to sample the anarchic side of the protests, without ever doubting their commitment to the underlying message the movement was portraying.

As the evening progresses, we discuss more jovial subjects like football (the World Cup is a constant background to the trip, with most I meet understandably supporting anyone but Russia), and they recount an amusing tale of a group of football fans – supporters of Metallist Kharkiv in Eastern Ukraine – who spontaneously started chanting an anti-Putin song at one of their games. This song, the contents of which are far too vulgar to repeat in this article, has apparently been adopted by large swathes of the population in protest at recent Russian aggression in Crimea (which was annexed by Russia shortly after the change of power in Kyiv).

In order to prove their point, we head through the picturesque cobbled streets of Lviv’s old town, searching for another venue to watch the Algeria versus Russia game (I am encouraged to be Algerian for the night). There, within the stoned clad walls of an atmospheric subterranean bar, we perch around wooden tables in front of a large screen to watch the drama unfold. With large Ukrainian flags draped from the walls, the boisterous crowd leave no one in any doubt where their allegiances lie. During the game, a drummer appears at the back of the bar and whips the crowd into a frenzy by leading a chorus of the aforementioned song, which is enthusiastically sung by EVERYONE present. Algeria are successful in achieving the draw they require to progress – thus eliminating Russia – and the party is in full swing. Making my excuses, I leave Lviv with a sense of  what these enthusiastic young Ukrainians are really after, and even in times of fun and frivolity, their message is clear…

After 9 hours on an overnight train – the preferred mode of long distance transport for most in this vast country, and a true Ukrainian experience – I arrive in Kyiv with a heightened sense of curiosity and a slight degree of trepidation. The nation’s capital, a sprawling metropolis of close to 3 million people, was the epicentre of the protests, and feels a lot closer to the current insurgency in the East than laid back Lviv. Geographically it is – 500km further East, although it’s as least as far again before reaching the boundaries of the Donetsk region currently experiencing the worst of the fighting.

Emboldened by the assurances I have received from local contacts about security in the city, I head straight for Independence Square to see for myself the scene of the events that captivated the world just a few months earlier. What I find is truly astonishing.The camp is still there (albeit not to the scale it was at its peak), manned by an assortment of activists in battle fatigues, surrounded by barricades of tyres and makeshift wooden fences on all corners of the square. A stage used to communicate their message during the heights of the protest is not just still standing, but actively in use apparently – with a rally due to take place the following day I am reliably informed. With curious tourists mingling with locals going about their everyday business, just a few hundred yards from one of Kyiv’s main pedestrian shopping precincts (complete with McDonalds), it’s a strange and slightly surreal scene.

It is here that I meet a young lawyer who has agreed to meet with me to discuss his part in the protests. Despite his affable and unassuming manner, it is clear early in our conversation that this young Ukrainian – who studied and lives locally but hails from recently annexed Crimea – has a story to tell. He proceeds to describe how he came to Maidan every night after work during the peak of the protests, often staying all night singing songs, and even making a speech on the aforementioned stage at one point. With grim honesty he also describes the infamous night in mid February that the protest camp came under fire – allegedly from secret police snipers atop the adjacent Hotel Ukraine – and how he helped drag the bodies of those indiscriminately shot, back across the square. It’s a startling revelation,  a first brush with death that you sense he is still coming to terms with on some level.

Having been transfixed by this eloquent and humbling young man, I begin to question his thoughts on the current situation. It transpires he is of Crimean Tatar descent – a Turkic ethnic group native to Crimea, who were persecuted by the Soviets – and this background clearly colours his thoughts on the matter. Unsurprisingly he is concerned about further Russian intervention in Ukraine, and with his “homeland” already under Moscow’s control, he is determined to see his country repel any further encroachment on its sovereign territory. Independence has been hard fought for this young Ukrainian and his people, and he for one is willing to fight to keep it. Would it be worth leaving Crimea in Russian hands if it meant an end to the current violence in the east, I ask? After careful deliberation, his answer is unequivocal – “No”.

It is clear that the scars of this conflict are closer to the surface in Kyiv, and after being shown the symbolic New Years Tree –  a cylindrical metal tower in the centre of the Square, erected by students at the start of the protests – I retire to reflect on a memorable few hours at “Maidan”. Inspired  by the my previous conversation, I am eager to learn more and return the next day to meet with another young Ukrainian – a local journalist also involved in the protests.

I begin by asking her about the “Euromaidan” press centre I have noticed on one corner of the square. She explains that once the protests gained more wide spread support in early December, the movement became much more organised, with professional people volunteering their skills to establish a media centre, primarily to counter the “anti-Maidan propaganda” being broadcast by the authorities. I discover that she was responsible for the movement’s Facebook page – which allowed the protesters to broadcast updates under the banner of anonymity – and it’s clear from her enthusiastic narrative that she was inspired by events at “Maidan”. There is an almost evangelical zeal in this young woman’s voice as she guides me around the streets close to the Square, pointing out in great detail where the running battles with police occurred at the height of the violence. When I ask if she ever felt that the protests were hijacked by political extremists (as has been alleged by Moscow), she concedes they were present towards the end, but were only a minority voice in a much wider movement – a marriage of convenience between a collection of people desperate to enact real change in their country.

As we return to the Square she is eager to discuss the way the press has been used in the months after the overthrow of the government, and how “Russian propaganda” has coloured the view of Russian speaking residents, firstly in Crimea and more recently in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk where the current insurgency continues. It is true that the Russian media has been savagely anti-Kyiv during this period – some of their own journalists even resigned in protest. But as I look around the square, the presence of the red and black emblem of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA)  – a resistance movement founded during the Second World War, who briefly sided with Nazi Germany to repel the Soviets – casts a disconcerting shadow across the sea of blue and yellow Ukrainian flags fluttering around “Maidan”. This conflict is far more complicated than a popular uprising against a repressive regime I conclude, and history is playing a part as well as being made here.

I have been educated and inspired in equal part by these young Ukrainians, whose passion for change in their country is undeniable. Too much has been sacrificed for them to turn back now, and as I leave the Square for the last time I am reminded of this, as the rally promised yesterday is now in full swing. What is the rally for I ask innocently? “The people want to end the ceasefire in the East” is the reply. There is still war being waged in this country – little more than a few hours drive from where I am standing – and the population seems in no mood for compromise.

The question of what happens next is a complicated one, and something that it would be unfair to answer without an alternate view from those in the East seeking closer ties with Russia – unfortunately the current situation doesn’t lend itself to safe travel in these areas. However, it is apparent as I prepare my departure from this fascinating country that Ukraine will not be the same place it was prior to the events of 2013/14, and the younger generation of Ukrainians wouldn’t have it any other way. Russian influence will be harder to maintain over these independent young people, and although one feels that the issue of corruption may take a generation to resolve, the desire to be free to make their own choices – whether inside or outside of the EU – seems likely to triumph in the long term.

Before leaving Kyiv, I am contacted by the young lawyer – would I like to come along to see his band play this evening? It’s a welcome relief from a fairly intense few days and I gladly accept, keen to experience these people in more convivial surroundings. Joining them at a low key bar on the other side of town, I am introduced to the band – our lawyer friend is the drummer – and proceed to be entertained by this eclectic bunch as they blast out their own take on indie rock. Afterwards, the charismatic singer approaches me, keen to get my opinion on the performance and my experience of Ukraine. When I explain the journalistic motive for visit, we inevitability discuss “Maidan” and his take on what has transpired. His summary is remarkably succinct and insightful – “it’s only real change if we know the solution – and I’m not sure we do yet” he comments. I head to the airport with those words still ringing in the ears, thankful for the opportunity to have met such an amazing, yet grounded group of people. And the name of the band I witnessed the previous night? “Give me the Light!”. Exactly.

#Ukraine #Maidan