David Guttenfelder  /  AP
An elderly supporter of Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko raises her walking stick as she and fellow protesters march in front of the parliament building in Kiev on Tuesday.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/7/2004 3:33:58 PM ET 2004-12-07T20:33:58
REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

Only hours before Ukraine's Supreme Court on Friday threw out the results of the disputed presidential election, the night chill had already fallen on some 2,500 tents and over 8,000 people, camped out in downtown Kiev. 

As groups of ''Orange Revolutionaries'' tried to keep warm over wood-burning barrels and ancient stoves, rumors spread that the Supreme Court judges were getting cold feet, and with so much at stake, it might take weeks to decide the political fate of the nation.

The protestors, it seemed, were — literally — getting cold feet, too. The unrelentingly freezing temperatures and a diet of soup and tea had started to take a toll. There was word that meningitis had struck within the tent city that, for almost two weeks, had been the epicenter of Ukraine's pro-democracy movement.

So it wasn't a surprise to see two protestors — a lanky young man with a megaphone, accompanied by a young woman wearing a protective face mask — walking through the sprawl of tents and wood fires and sleeping bags.

The young man was calling out some kind of message for "Maxim." Perhaps, this was a first-aid team giving precautionary advice.

''Are you a medical team? We understand the situation is deteriorating here.''

Gale, 19, burst out with laughter. ''No, not at all. We're looking for my fiancé, Maxim. We're getting married tomorrow, right here on the square, and he went off to look for an orange dress. Isn't that nice? But...I've lost him!''

People power' has kept things peaceful
An "orange wedding" is about as radical as it gets inside the balloon-festooned camp. Unlike past "people power" demonstrations -- in Manila, Belgrade, Prague or Moscow — it is hard to imagine that violence, even death, is just a provocation away.

Gostia, 34, began protesting on Day 2. He, too, was surprised there had been no violence, despite crowds that exceeded 100,000 at times. And he admitted to fatigue, due largely to getting no more than fours hours of sleep a night.

Slideshow: Election protest But he felt part of a special spirit reminiscent of the ''vibe'' that 1960's anti-war protestors shared, fueled by a belief that he was truly witnessing historic change.

''Ukraine has been waiting for this month for years,'' he said. ''[Presidential candidate Viktor] Yushchenko is more than a man — he is our moment. He is our window to a new life. It's the end of the Soviet-like days, the [outgoing President Leonid] Kuchma era, and the beginning of Ukraine as a European nation.''

Real or ephemeral, that special spirit may explain why these hard-core protestors take pride in prohibiting any alcohol in their ''zone.”  There is little sign of the police. The protestors, in fact, use their own guards to patrol their areas, keeping out any rowdy, or drunken, wannabe converts.

''Everyone is demonstrating his patriotism in his own way,'' explained Vycheslav, 34, a former Special Forces soldier who helped organize construction and security inside the urban camp. ''Some people camp out, others help those who are camped out.''

Organization in chaos
The "tent city" is well organized, despite the chaotic swath of makeshift accommodations, piles of debris, and dirty slush that greets the untrained eye.

If you are hungry, you go to five separate soup kitchens. If you need ''to go'' elsewhere, you stand in line for one of dozens of portable toilets. If you feel sick, there are three free clinics.

''It's not pleasant, ''said Yvgeny, a volunteer medic as he gave a protestor a plastic spoonful of cough medicine. (The protestor kept the spoon.) 

''It's hard to help people who are outdoors all the time. But so far it's been mostly minor ailments — colds, stomach pains. But morale is great. We are still here!''

The tents, reinforced by sheets of plastic and pieces of old clothing, hold four to six protestors each. Inside, there is only room for sleeping bags. Outside, seemingly every kind of musical group — from Ukrainian rap to nationalist folk — play at short intervals to lighten spirits.

How long can high spirits last?
But these protestors are only human — and spirits, no matter how adrenalin-charged are likely to wane over time under such raw conditions. How long will this politically-inspired street fest continue?

Yushchenko has asked his supporters to stay in the streets until three demands have been met: Kuchma fires the current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the man who claimed victory in the election, and his government; the Election Comission that sanctioned the fraudulent vote is replaced; and reforms that prevent more fraud in the next ballot on Dec. 26 are put into place.

As both sides, led by Yushchenko and Yanukovych, set their battle lines inside parliament, the protestors at ''Camp Orange'' know it is their numbers -- blocking key government buildings and keeping pressure on Ukraine's Old Guard, like Kuchma -- that set the daily agenda.

Even if Yushchenko wins those difficult concessions, protestors like Vycheslav are not likely to pack it in.

''We don’t trust the authorities,'' said Vycheslav, while jumping constantly to keep warm. ''They have been sucking the blood of Ukraine for years. They will fight for their survival, using all of the tricks. So I will stay here until Yushchenko is inaugurated president.''

Others said they expect to be braving the elements — it's likely to drop way below freezing again soon — for at least another week or two, by which time they hoped to see a new government of ''national trust'' replace the Yanukovych cabinet, tainted by the rigged election.

Andrei, 29 and a graphic artist, said he and his friends weren’t going anywhere just yet. ''When we came out this place, freedom begins,'' he explained in clear if broken English. ''We'll stay until Yushchenko is president.''

But perhaps Vycheslav, the ex-Special Forces soldier, no longer in a uniform but wrapped up, instead, in a Youth for Free Ukraine banner, summed up best why, 13 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, these camped-out Ukrainians were seizing the moment, no matter how physically daunting that might be.

''It's a great feeling to be united," he said, his breath turning into vapor. ''We're getting drunk without liquor.''

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London. He has covered the Ukraine since its independence in 1991.

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