The Hotel Ukraine has seen a lot of action lately. It has been a press center, a hospital and a mortuary during protests on Kyiv's Maidan Square. Memories of the dramatic events bring tears to the eyes of hotel staff.
Nadija Kuzewol sits in her office and is fighting back tears. "It was hardest when the first victims came in," she says, her voice quivering.. "They laid them in rows on the floor and covered them with white blankets," she says, recalling the corpses of demonstrators brought into the hotel, a mere 100 meters from the vortex of protests on Maidan Square. Her colleague Natalia remembers offering water to an injured man, who then turned pale and died. She also has to pull herself together to keep from crying.
This happened just two weeks ago and the women have the scene burned into their minds. The drama unfolded in front of the reception desk of the Hotel Ukraine. On February 20, the hotel lobby was turned into a hospital and a mortuary. It was the morning when dozens of opposition demonstrators were killed by snipers. This was the bloodiest day of the protests and later led to the ouster of President Yanukovych.
First "Moscow," then "Ukraine"
Nadija Kuzewol and her colleague Natalie still have to fight back tears when they remember Februaray 20
Most of the victims died from gunshot wounds on Instytuska Street, just outside the hotel. Nearly one hundred people were killed. On the way to the hotel, two weeks later, you still think you are walking through pools of blood. Every day, thousands of people in Kyiv come here to mourn. There are mountains of fresh flowers – carnations, tulips, roses – marking the spots were people died. The street has been – unofficially – renamed "Street of the Heavenly Hundred"
The four-star Ukraine Hotel was built in the 1950s and was originally called Hotel Moscow until 2001. It was renamed on the10th anniversary of Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union. From the outside, the hotel looks like the Russian foreign ministry in Moscow and it was built in the Stalinist architectural style. It is state-owned and operated by the country's presidential administration. For that reason, not only tourists stay here, but also members of parliament who have no other housing in Kyiv.
Journalists as guardian angels
The hotel was in the middle of things from the very beginning of the protests against President Viktor Yanukovych. The 15-story building is located on Petcherski Hill. A couple of minutes down the hill is Independence Square, the Maidan, where tens of thousands of Ukrainians held their protests. In the other direction, up the hill, is the government quarter, where the president was holed up protected by special police forces until he fled the capital.
The hotel is popular with journalists because of its central location. Reporters from DW, BBC, CNN and other media outlets were standing on the balconies to report live on the events unfolding on Maidan Square. Two thirds of the 360 rooms are occupied at the moment, according to Nadija Kuzewol, who heads the reception desk. "Most of the guests are journalists," she said.
"The journalists saved us," said her colleague Natalia. "We thought as long as the international media are here the police won't storm the hotel." That's why she felt relatively safe, she said.
Scenes like a war movie
In the meantime, the hotel has become home to a press center. Before that, opposition leaders and other activists held their press conferences in the trade union headquarters on Independence Square. But then, police set the house on fire and it completely burned down. Kuzewol and her colleagues watched the fire in the middle of the night from the hotel. "We were not afraid," said both of them. "I thought I'm in the middle of a war movie," said Kuzewol, "but in times of peace that's impossible."
There were rumors that police snipers shot from the hotel. "No, that's not true," said Roman, a man in military uniform. Nadija Kuzewol agrees with him. Roman introduces himself as the leader of a protection unit, which is guarding the Hotel Ukraine on behalf of the informal Maidan Self-Defense Squad. His people are located at the entrance of the hotel and the entrance of the press center. "At the time, we searched the entire hotel and found no snipers," said the young man, who is also a member of the right-wing Svoboda party.
It is unclear if snipers from the opposition shot at police from the hotel. Roman doesn't want to talk about it. It is definite that on February 20, the bloodiest day of the protests, the police shot at the hotel. "In around 18 rooms and along the stairway there are bullet holes in the windows," said Kuzewol. Nobody was injured. "We called the staff together and told them that only volunteers should stay." Most of them went home. But Nadija Kuzewol stayed.
Only once was there no breakfast in the hotel – on February 21, says Kuzewol, a bit embarrassed. It was the morning after the hotel lobby was turned into a mortuary. "But," she said, "we always tried to make the guests feel comfortable."