September 17, 2018 / 10:53 AM / a month ago

Ukrainians relive bloodshed of Kiev's Maidan in virtual reality

KIEV (Reuters) - A volunteer medic and the man whose life he saved. A lawmaker whose Facebook post calling for protests in Kiev’s Maidan square helped bring down a president.

A visitor uses VR (Virtual Reality) glasses during the presentation of a simulator of virtual reality showing the 2013/2014 demonstration in Ukraine, when dozens of protesters were killed in the final moments of Viktor Yanukovich's rule, in Kiev, Ukraine September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

These are some of the characters featured in a virtual reality reconstruction of the bloodiest day in the 2013/2014 street demonstrations in Ukraine, when dozens of protesters were killed in the final moments of Viktor Yanukovich’s rule.

Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the protests, a group of fourteen journalists, designers and IT engineers developed a program allowing the user to walk through the area around Maidan square.

Videos of people who were there on February 20 - the bloodiest day of violence - pop up to relate their experiences and explain the significance of particular spots. A transparent blue wall marks where Yanukovich’s forces lined up to repel the protesters.

For Alexey Furman, co-founder of New Cave Media, who covered the protests as a photojournalist, the experience of recreating the event was cathartic.

“For me especially it was a very traumatic morning, as it was for hundreds of other people,” he said. “I saw people getting killed.”

“I think the project actually helped fight the PTSD that I had because I’d been on Maidan dozens of times in 2013 and 2014,” he said in an interview, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.

He used to avoid Instytutska street, which runs on a hill down to Maidan and was the scene of much of the bloodshed, because of the painful memories.

“But now to be honest, I come to Instytutska and go like ‘Oh, we still don’t have that 3D-model, we have to work on it.’”

The team says it took around 200,000 images to build the virtual reality model, a project which was part-funded with a $20,000 grant from Google Labs.

More than 100 people were killed during the protests, who came to be known locally as the ‘Heavenly Hundred”. A small strip of Instytutska was subsequently renamed after them.

From exile in Russia, Yanukovich has denied Ukrainians’ widespread belief that he ordered his special forces to open fire.

At the end of the experience, the user meets two people whom fate threw together on February 20 - a wounded protester and a medical volunteer who held his hand over the wound “for a good twenty minutes maybe even more,” said co-founder of New Cave Media Sergiy Polezhaka in an interview.

“Hiding in a tiny place under the tree ... waiting for danger to calm down a little bit, to save this protester’s life, this is the iconic image from that morning for me.”

The user will also meet the journalist turned MP Mustafa Nayyem, whose Facebook post in November 2013, calling for demonstrations against Yanukovich’s decision to pull out of a deal with the European Union, triggered the Maidan revolt.

The protests in turn lit the fuse for Russia seizing and annexing Crimea in March 2014 and the outbreak of Russian-backed separatist fighting in the Donbass region that has killed more than 10,000 despite a notional ceasefire.

Editing by Richard Balmforth

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