Daven Karp ’12 was evacuated from Ukraine on February 23 after protests throughout the country turned violent and the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych threatened further destabilization. Karp had been in Ukraine with the Peace Corps since September 2012, teaching English in Voznesensk, a small Russian-speaking city in the south of the country.
Protests began in Ukraine on November 21, when the president announced the government’s decision to abandon a plan to strengthen its connection to the European Union and instead ally itself more closely with Russia. The largest protests took place in Kiev’s Independence Square, and grew rapidly in the face of a severe government crackdown.
The evacuation process for the Peace Corps began on Thursday, February 20, a day when government security forces shot and killed dozens of protestors in Kiev, and violence spread throughout the city, according to The New York Times.
“All the volunteers went to one point where we waited in a safe house for a couple days,” said Karp. “On Sunday, we all drove actually to Crimea, a few days before it got taken over.”
Crimea, a peninsula on the southern coast of Ukraine, is currently occupied by thousands of armed men in unmarked uniforms, widely believed to be working for Russia. The uniformed men first appeared in Crimea on February 27 at Simferopol International Airport, where Karp had boarded a flight only four days earlier.
Karp said that since returning to the U.S. he has noticed that media coverage of the conflict does not reflect his experiences.
“In the American media you get one picture of the protest,” he said. “The conception is that Ukrainians wanted to go toward Europe and the president and his allies sort of steered away from that, and that was what sparked the uprising, but in my experience that has almost nothing to do with it.”
Karp said the real spark for the upheaval was the violent crackdown that began on November 30. The original protest was relatively small, according to Karp, until Ukrainians began to see the government as oppressive.
“It immediately turned into a protest against the regime, rather than in favor of Russia or Europe,” Karp said.
Karp said this was especially true in his city, Voznesensk, where demonstrations were originally in support of the government and its move to strengthen ties with Russia, but eventually changed into anti-government protests.
“The violence was the real trigger, and public opinion where I lived switched over the course of a week, as soon as the police and the interior ministry…started to crack down on the protests,” Karp said.
On Febraury 20, as Kiev descended into bloody chaos, protestors in Voznesensk took over the city’s administration building and pulled down a statue of Lenin, according to Karp. Despite the upheaval, he never felt endangered.
The other misconception Karp identified was the notion that Russian-speaking Ukrainian soldiers in the east and south would defect and side with Russia. One of Karp’s good friends is a major in the Ukrainian army, and the two spoke over the phone on Monday.
“He said he was with his unit and they were on the move, and he said, ‘We’re ready; we’re ready for war,’” Karp said. “This is coming from Russian-speaking Ukrainians from where I live…all of these Ukrainians—many of them even are ethnic Russians—they are firmly behind Ukraine and are willing to die for their country, for the Ukrainian flag.”
The Peace Corps has established a 45-day window in which volunteers will be able to return to Ukraine if the situation stabilizes. At the end of that window, if the situation is still considered unsafe, the volunteers’ commitments to the Peace Corps will be over.
“I’ll be back in Ukraine whether with the Peace Corps, or on day 46 as soon as Peace Corps would theoretically be disbanded,” Karp said.
Karp said his life is still in Ukraine, and he promised his friends, students and colleagues that he would return.
“I looked them in the eye and I promised them, I will be back as soon as I possibly can, whether it’s with the Peace Corps or just as a normal American civilian,” Karp said.