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As Ukraine Watched the Party Line, She Took the Truth Into Her Hands

By Nora Boustany
Friday, April 29, 2005

N atalia Dmytruk did not have to learn sign language at school. Her first words had to be mimed. Both her parents are deaf.

The baby was crying. Big sister Natalia, then a 20-month-old toddler, alerted their mother by cradling an imaginary baby in her arms and tracing invisible tears down her cheeks. These were Natalia's first words, her mother would later tell her.

Her mother, a soft and loving woman, made the best Ukrainian cookies and the tastiest borscht. Her father bought his daughters a cheap record player so they could learn to appreciate classical folk songs. When Dmytruk was older and her parents needed medical care, she accompanied them to give them a voice. Her eyes talk when she expresses herself.

Dmytruk, 48, made sign language her vocation and today interprets for Ukraine's state-run television. Her face and hands appear in a little box at the bottom of the screen as she sends out the news on the mid-morning and early afternoon telecasts to the hearing-impaired.

During the tense days of Ukraine's presidential elections last year, Dmytruk staged a silent but bold protest, informing deaf Ukrainians that official results from the Nov. 21 runoff were fraudulent. Her act of courage further emboldened protests that grew until a new election was held and the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko , was declared the winner.

Dmytruk and three other Ukrainian women received the Fern Holland Award on Tuesday night at the Vital Voices Global Partnership's fifth annual ceremony honoring women from around the world who have made a difference.

Dmytruk's "courageous actions sparked the public outreach and ultimately new and fair elections on Dec. 26, 2004," said Melanne Verveer , chair of the board of Vital Voices.

Election monitors had reported widespread vote-rigging immediately after the runoff between Yushchenko and the Russian-backed prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych . With Yanukovych leading by a slim margin, the opposition urged Ukrainians to gather in Independence Square in front of the parliament building to protest the results.

Each time Dmytruk went to Independence Square with her 20-year-old son and teenage daughter and saw the thousands of protesters, she felt herself transformed .

"I was impressed by the expression on my children's faces. I was so fired up by other people I observed passionately voicing their discontent," she said in an interview this week. "It was that special spirit and energy of people coming together, uneasily at first, but looking in the same direction."

Dmytruk would then return to work and broadcast the state's version of events.

"I was observing it from both sides, and I had a very negative feeling," she said. "After every broadcast I had to render in sign language, I felt dirty. I wanted to wash my hands."

The opposition had no access to the state-run media, but Dmytruk was in a special position as a television interpreter to get their message out.

On Nov. 25, she walked into her studio for the 11 a.m. broadcast. "I was sure I would tell people the truth that day," she said. "I just felt this was the moment to do it."

Under her long silk sleeve, she had tied an orange ribbon to her wrist, the color of the opposition and a powerful symbol in what would become known as the Orange Revolution. She knew that when she raised her arm, the ribbon would show.

The newscaster was reading the officially scripted text about the results of the election, and Dmytruk was signing along. But then, "I was not listening anymore," she said.

In her own daring protest, she signed: "I am addressing everybody who is deaf in the Ukraine. Our president is Victor Yushchenko. Do not trust the results of the central election committee. They are all lies. . . . And I am very ashamed to translate such lies to you. Maybe you will see me again -- " she concluded, hinting at what fate might await her. She then continued signing the rest of officially scripted news.

"My legs became so heavy. I was terribly scared," she said.

Dmytruk's live silent signal helped spread the news, and more people began spilling into the streets to contest the vote. She returned to work to give the 3 p.m. news, but was not admonished by her superiors. When she finished, she went into the technicians' studio and told them what she had done. They hugged her all at once. "You are terrific, Natalia," she said they told her.

She showed up for work the next day, and still her manager did not utter a word about what she had done.

Slowly, she became confident that she had won. A rerun of the runoff was scheduled for December, and this time, Yushchenko was declared the winner.

In addition to Dmytruk, the other Ukrainian women honored by Vital Voices were Oksana Horbunova , a human rights pioneer in her country and the head of the International Organization of Migration's Ukraine office; Oksana Yarosh , a professor who was a leader in the Orange Revolution and helped organize students; and Lyudmila Merlyan , the founder of a nongovernmental organization who has helped draft legislation to bring about equality between men and women.

On Tuesday, Dmytruk will visit Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing, to lecture about her act of defiance.

In the days that she has been in the United States, Dmytruk said her inability to speak English has left her feeling isolated. "I know now what it must feel like to be deaf," she said. "When Ukrainian Americans addressed me in my own language, it was like someone had poured me fresh water."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company