The call came around midnight. There was a suspicious man poking around a rundown complex of garages and workshops, police had heard a gunshot and so they wanted backup.
The men of the Maidan group rolled out of the bodyshop that served as their headquarters, into a couple of vans with personalised Maidan numberplates and their own ambulance, and set off into the eerie quiet of curfew-hours Kyiv.
The alarms this late were usually just for drunks so steeped in booze they had lost track of time and forgotten to go home, said “Sheriff”, who asked to go by his call sign.
But the ad hoc group of paramilitaries, who work closely with a police force diminished by war – on call for the local stations and monitoring their radios – are always prepared for something more violent.
Far from the frontlines, the war is straining society. There has been extraordinary solidarity across Ukraine, with ordinary people risking, and often giving, their lives to help others simply make it through the day, taking food and fuel to vulnerable and elderly people, or driving evacuation vehicles to pick up those stranded at the frontline.
But a minority have taken advantage of the chaos of fighting, the flight of many neighbours into exile, and authorities distracted by an existential threat.
There is constant fear of Russian agents, even far beyond the frontline. Security forces say they have arrested more than 4,000 “collaborators” and 140 people planning military sabotage since the war began.
And cities are awash with guns, after the government started handing them out to almost anyone who promised to fight, during the early days of the war.
“In Kyiv we are mostly seeing solidarity, but the dark side is more visible, too, now. When you have everyone cohesive, the little that is not sticks out,” Sheriff said.
In over two months since the first missiles hit Kyiv, Maidan patrols have picked up opportunists on looting raids, desperate residents driven to steal as the economy collapsed, and Russian spies trying to scope potential targets, gather information or just prepare for orders to come.
“We have to defend the whole country, the guys at the frontlines are the professionals, and we keep their backs,” said Sheriff, who said he tried to sign up for the military after the first bombs fell, but like many in the city was turned away from overwhelmed recruitment offices. “We want local people to see we are here, so there isn’t panic.”
Four days earlier, they had picked up a Russian security service (FSB) agent using a fake Ukrainian passport, he said, because the man was acting like a bad spy from a B-list film, driving around slowly, taking photos of sensitive sites and then calling numbers in Russia.
In a country filled with rumours and paranoia about saboteurs, it sounded like just another tall tale. But he flipped open his photo roll to show pictures of the man’s arrest, his fake Ukrainian passport, stamps in a concealed Russian passport showing multiple entries to parts of Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, and even a picture of an FSB ID card, stored on the man’s phone.
“At first I was sad they didn’t take me for the frontline but then I realised. It takes six months training in boot camp to fight, but it takes 18 years training to know how to catch insurgents,” said Sheriff, who spent nearly two decades in the police, finishing up as a colonel in the division fighting organised crime. “It gives you a feeling for people (acting suspiciously),” he added.
People they catch, like the Russian agent, often underestimate the group because they aren’t in uniform.
“He tried to threaten me that I was the criminal for stopping him. He thought I was just the usual territorial defence who just picked up a weapon. But I was in the police before, so I can eat him for breakfast (when it comes to the law).”
The group was formed after the 2014 protests that ousted a pro-Russian president when he suspended plans to sign an association agreement with the European Union. They have been practising since then for a war that others never thought would come. “Everyone laughed at us ‘what the fuck are you doing, there isn’t going to be a war’.”
They have their own telegram group with 20,000 subscribers so residents of their neighbourhood can reach out directly when they can’t get through to authorities.
Some policemen from the area fled with their families in the first days of the war, and have not come back, the group said, making it harder to enforce order. And the new demographics of this largely working-class neighbourhood in eastern Kyiv, across the Dnieper River, have also made crime more of a risk.
“Many of the people who left (when the war started) were people with money to get away, and the ability to manage. The people who stayed are the poorest, those with no work.” They include addicts and alcoholics, like the man found stumbling around the garages.
He was obviously inebriated, and claimed his home was nearby and he had been drinking for hours and simply missed the curfew. The men called up a local, who confirmed the man’s wife would be waiting with a fury that would probably be more of a deterrent than any formal punishment, and sent him on his way.
Sheriff’s second-in-command goes by “Kypish”, a word for intense action or combat, because he enjoys being part of the action.
“My job is guarding a big shop because in the first day (of the war) it was all looted. It has electronic and construction materials,” he says.
The problem is not restricted to the big city. Elsewhere, including the suburban town of Irpin, badly shelled then occupied by Russians and now infamous for atrocities, the invading troops were mocked for a rampage of theft. But in their wake, some Ukrainians took advantage of the abandoned houses.
“At the beginning we were catching 10 a day, now they are very few in number. They are all local, now they are waiting for trial,” said policeman Andrei Suhdolsky.
Cars that have been recovered are kept at the police station for owners to collect; for other items it can be hard to prove ownership. However, no one is under suspicion for taking food, he added, because during the occupation people were starving.
Back in the empty streets of night-time Kyiv, where the curfew runs from 10pm to 5am, there are also teenagers who don’t want to be stuck at home, and some people who simply don’t care about the rules and wander out after curfew for fresh air.
“There was a guy out, he said he wanted a walk. We made him do press-ups. One guy is maybe just a mistake, but if there are a lot of them, you have a problem. People here think curfew is just a joke the government made up.”
After getting coffee at one of the few petrol stations that stays open all night for emergency workers, and wondering aloud why they hadn’t had more call outs, they ran into a problem that has been growing since February – hedgehogs.
Not the anti-tank defences set up to stop invading forces, but the small prickly animals. They have taken advantage of the suddenly empty streets to roam more widely than they used to, forcing the animal-loving patrol car drivers to swerve wildly or slam on the brakes, if they want to avoid squashing the little curfew breakers.
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( Information from theguardian.com was used in this report. To Read More, click here )