While Ukrainian opposition leaders continued calls for ousting the country’s president, Yuri Onishchenko, the acting head of a huge protest camp in the heart of Kiev, had another pressing concern to keep demonstrations alive: wool socks.
As the West called for calm, the government issued threats and protest leaders frantically searched for a realistic plan of action, thousands of protesters have dug in on Kiev’s Independence Square, the site of the 2004 Orange Revolution protests.
A solution to Ukraine’s deepening political crisis appeared increasingly elusive, but the activists seemed to have everything they need to keep up the revolutionary flame: tents, field kitchens, portable toilets, a giant stage, army veterans at their defense and even the help of a psychologist.
The protests were sparked by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukvoych’s refusal to sign a key pact with the EU in favor of ties with Moscow and then the violent break-up of a peaceful rally in the middle of the night last month, which injured dozens. Since then, the Independence Square, known as Maidan, became the epicenter of protests for the second time in the past decade.
Dozens of tents decorated with Ukrainian and EU flags sprung up in the square, including some that were placed in giant fountains, which Kiev students love to dive into during the hot summer months.
One tent stood covered with the phrase “Ukraine without Yanukovych,” while another had a photograph showing him behind bars.
Some protesters warmed themselves up near fires burning inside big metal barrels, others lined up to receive hot tea with jam, passing between a cardboard box filled with lemons and heaps of firewood.
Besides seizing Maidan, the demonstrators also occupied the nearby city administration, 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 Kiev residents who sympathize with the protest.
Iryna Horda, 18, a journalism student from Kiev, rushed to Maidan as soon as her classes ended on 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 plate-full of buckwheat, with two pickles and a slice of yellow pepper on the side, complete with an open-face sandwich with ham.
“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 rangers’ trade school from the southern Mykolaiv region, stood vigil at the entrance to the camp, wearing a bright orange construction hat, to protect him from riot police truncheons, which he felt on his back and neck the previous weekend.
“They surrounded us and simply started beating us. We fled each his own way,” Yarmulsky said. “I want my country to enter the EU and not be ruled by the gang that is in power today.”
For those protesters feeling under the weather, Pavlo Vnesok, a 49-year-old physician, was giving out medicines 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 on end.
“In order to fight, one must be healthy,” Vnesok said.
Nearby, Father Yuriy, from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate 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 Vasyl Hryhorenko, 46, a beefy man clad in camouflage uniform, who spent two years in Afghanistan in the mid 1980s.
Finally, what protest goes on without entertainment and humor? Demonstrators swayed their hips to patriotic music blaring from loudspeakers while a never-ending flow of orators addressed them from a giant stage. One evening last week, activists mounted a suitcase on the stage and presented 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,” Horda said. “My parents and I will stand here until the very end.”