KIEV, Ukraine — While thousands of demonstrators call for ousting Ukraine’s leaders, Yuri Onishchenko is also worrying about matters more pedestrian, such as where to find wool socks to help the demonstrators keep warm in snowy December weather.
As the acting head of the sizeable protest tent camp in Kiev’s central square, Onishchenko takes the lead in making sure the demonstrators have what they need to keep the flame of their passions burning.
The camp on Independence Square is both makeshift and sophisticated. Barricades of wooden pallets, fence sections and other scavenged material give the perimeter a rough appearance, and wood fires in large barrels add a primitive touch inside the barricades. But there’s also a large stage with first-class lighting and sound system, and even a vast video screen to show the proceedings. Demonstrators can feed at field kitchens, dance to bands and even consult a volunteer psychologist.
The protests were sparked by President Vitkor Yanukvoych’s refusal to sign a key pact with the European Union in favor of ties with Moscow and the violent police breakup of a peaceful rally protesting that decision.
Dozens of tents decorated with Ukrainian and EU flags sprung up in the square, some placed in the dry basins of the large fountains that young people love to jump into during the summer. The tents are covered with slogans denouncing Yanukovych and the police.
On Friday, as a light snow fell, some protesters warmed themselves up at the barrel fires and others lined up to receive hot tea with jam, part of the provisions that Ukrainians are donating to the camp.
Besides seizing the square, demonstrators also occupied the nearby city administration building, a concert hall and a labor union building, where most of the protesters sleep and use the bathrooms. Some shower in hotel rooms rented by opposition lawmakers, others are welcomed by sympathetic Kiev residents.
While the government demanded that the buildings be vacated, the protesters disagreed.
“The Kiev City administration represents the population of Kiev. Therefore, this building is ours, it belongs to the people,” Onischenko said, just after getting off the phone with someone he hoped could find socks to donate.
Iryna Horda, and 18-year-old student, rushed to the square as soon as her classes ended Friday afternoon, hours after her father had completed his overnight shift at the camp. Bundled in a winter jacket and a scarf, Horda lined up to receive a plateful of buckwheat, with two pickles and a slice of yellow pepper on the side, along with an open-face ham sandwich.
“I don’t like how we live in this country. I don’t like to be under the grip of Yanukovych,” said Horda, who works in the camp’s field kitchen, slicing bread, cheese and delivering food to organizers. “The future of our country is being decided now.”
Nearby, 17-year-old Kostya Yarmulsky, a student at a forest rangers’ school from the southern Mykolaiv region, stood vigil at the entrance to the camp, wearing a bright orange hardhat to protect him from riot police truncheons, which he felt on his back and neck last Saturday. “They surrounded us and simply started beating us. We fled, each his own way,” Yarmulsky recalled.
For those protesters feeling under the weather Dr. Pavlo Vnesok, 49, was giving out medicine from a large beige tent labeled with a big red cross and sending out “mobile brigades” to disinfect the protesters’ hands to avoid the spread of infection. The most common complaints were sore throats, runny noses and wet feet — all from standing out in the cold for hours at a time. “In order to fight, one must be healthy,” Vnesok said.
Nearby, Father Yuriy, from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate, which broke away from the Moscow church after the Soviet collapse, was leading prayers that called for peace and love near a large wooden cross.
“We are supporting these people in their fight for liberty and freedom, which God granted to each man,” Father Yuri said.
As fears of yet another break-up of the demonstrations persisted, hundreds of retired military men, including those who fought during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, descended on the protest camp to protect the activists.
“We have become a live shield between the authorities, riot police and the people, so that blood, the blood of our children, is not spilled,” said veteran Vasyl Hryhorenko, 46, a beefy man clad in camouflage uniform.
There’s a good amount of fun available to the demonstrators. Music blasts from loudspeakers, bands alternate with orators on the stage, and the huge video screen hanging on the side of the trade unions building shows everything at super-size, having come under the control of demonstrators when they seized the building.
Humor also plays a big role. One evening this week, activists mounted a suitcase on the stage and demonstrated to the crowd a giant train ticket to Russia written out to Yanukovych. The joke hit home well.
How long can the protests go on, in freezing temperatures and Spartan conditions?
“Until New Year, until spring, until summer, until next fall,” said Horda, the kitchen volunteer. “My parents and I will stand here until the very end.”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.