Ukrainians in D.C. area filmed, prayed, lobbied as Kiev violence spurred them to action

Filmmaker Olha Onyshko is shedding light on the women leading protest efforts in Ukraine in her documentary, "Women of Maidan." (The Washington Post)
February 21

As bloody protests erupted in her native Ukraine this week, filmmaker Olha Onyshko worked frantically from her home in Bethesda to transport news footage out of the country and medical supplies in. She had already lost half a dozen friends to violence during months of unrest, and now her cameraman’s son had been badly beaten while filming the fierce clashes in Kiev’s Independence Square.

“The government didn’t want people to get medical help. They were stopping ambulances going to the square,” Onysh­ko said Friday, near tears after several nights of constant organizing and little sleep. “We even had a plane ready to send and pick up the wounded, and we had doctors ready to receive them, but the Russian news reported that American soldiers were going to land,” so the plan was aborted.

A few miles away at the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine in Northeast Washington, the Rev. Wasyl Kharuk undertook a quieter mission: praying round-the-clock that the bloodshed would end, and that Ukrainians would finally achieve the freedom and democracy they had dreamed would come with independence from the former Soviet Union after 1991.

“The church is not supposed to be involved in politics, but we have the right to pray with people who are suffering and persecuted,” said the priest, whose congregation is planning a prayer vigil outside the White House on Sunday. “The young Ukrainians are too young to know what communism was, but they are not satisfied with tyranny. God does not want people to be slaves.”

Ukraine, once the breadbasket of the Soviet empire, has struggled for years to establish a viable democracy on its own. It has veered between authoritarian impulses and rebellious unrest, between a pro-Western opposition movement and a traditional pro-Russian elite. In 2004 and 2005, a wave of protests known as the Orange Revolution followed charges of corruption and election fraud.

The latest crisis erupted in November after Ukraine’s P resident Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a trade pact with the European Union. After four days of increasingly violent clashes with security forces, scores of people were dead.

On Friday, news spread that Ukraine officials had reached an agreement to restore the 2004 constitution and hold early elections, calming the violence. But Washington area Ukrainian activists remain wary and say they are determined to keep the pressure on.

One activist, Michael Sawkiw of the Ukraine Congress Committee, said his advocacy group focused on persuading U.S. lawmakers and the State Department to impose sanctions on Yanukovych and other officials by denying them U.S. visas and seizing their U.S. assets. The administration has announced that it will deny some visas but has not named the targeted officials.

“This is a revolution for human dignity, and people have had enough,” said Sawkiw, whose parents emigrated from Ukraine before he was born. “We have all been working diligently to build democratic institutions in Ukraine. If Yanukovych and his government are taking away the privilege of democracy from Ukraine, why should they have the opportunity to come to America?”

Even after the accord was announced in Ukraine, Onyshko remained anxious and revved up. She said she had little confidence that the government would fulfill its pledge and that only continued international pressure will guarantee real change.

“Many of my friends have already died. This is our fight, but we need the world to stay with us,” she said, noting that the Yanukovych government has influential supporters and valuable investments in the United States and that his opponents have been branded as terrorists. “We are not terrorists. We are journalists and artists and people like me, who want to hope.”

Onyshko, 45, emigrated from Ukraine a decade ago. She said she has spent years working on documentary films, first about ethnic conflict in World War II and more recently about the widespread rape and abuse of women in Ukraine. In November, she returned to Kiev and filmed women bringing food and medical supplies to the protesters, including their own children. At home in Bethesda, she said her daughter raised money to help Ukraine by selling Girl Scout cookies.

“There is so much brutality and corruption there, but a lot of it has been invisible,” said Onyshko, describing how a number of her friends in Ukraine had been killed or beaten or had died under mysterious circumstances. After this week’s crackdown on protesters, she said, “the world can see what’s really going on, and the people are really angry. Nothing can stop them now.”

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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