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Lending a hand at Maidan

Mareike Aden, Kyiv / sstDecember 18, 2013

A German pastor tries to ease tensions between riot police and protesters who have clashed just outside his church in Kyiv's government quarter. He and his flock are there to help with prayers, soup and sandwiches.

Pastor Ralf Haska and riot police
Image: Reuters

It's loud and busy on Kyiv's Independence Square, familiarly known as Maidan. Thousands of demonstrators are waving yellow-blue Ukrainian flags, listening to what the people on the big stage have to say. Others have gathered around improvised campfires to discuss the last four weeks of protests, talking about their hopes and fears.

In the middle of it all stands a grey-haired, bespectacled man in a black and beige sport jacket: Pastor Ralf Haska, who hails from the eastern German state of Brandenburg, heads a Protestant congregation in Kyiv.

"I have come to know Ukrainians as very patient people, who are willing to put up with a lot," he says. "People in my congregation have told me many times that they are disappointed with the outcome of the Orange Revolution and that they feel betrayed - also by [jailed opposition leader] Yulia Tymoshenko, who gets so much publicity in Germany."

Haska says the demonstrations have been a surprise; he felt that Ukrainians had come to terms with the grim reality.

Lending a hand

Haska and members of his flock come to Maidan almost every day, carrying boxes of sandwiches and tureens of soup. They hand them over to the volunteers at one of the prayer tents on Maidan. Here people of different confessions distribute free snacks and hot beverages to protesters. Those who have come to Kyiv from other parts of the country and spend all day on Maidan rely on such donations.

Ralf Haska
Pastor Haska has successfully eased tensions between riot police and protestersImage: DW/M. Aden

Given Haska's own experiences in communist East Germany, he is full of sympathy for the protesters here and their demands.

"It reminds me of the mass demonstrations in East Germany in 1989.

We were peaceful back then, and the great majority of people here is peaceful too. They are united by their wish to live in a country without corruption, where everyone has the same chances and is free," he says.

"Their wish to belong to Europe is only one of their demands. What they want most is for the authorities to respect the rule of law, but instead they have been beaten up by policemen. Now they mistrust their government."

Portable heaters have been set up around the prayer tent and the food stand. One of those sticking it out day and night is Elena Bulgakova. She says it's not easy to stay put. "Sometimes I get scared that the police will move in on us again. It means a lot to us that people from outside are joining us, bringing their love and their warmth. It keeps us going and raises our spirits," she says.

Clashes between protesters and riot police

Pastor Haska's yellow-tinted church is situated just a couple of hundred meters off Maidan in the so-called government quarter. The presidential administration is close by, and several times there have been clashes between protesters and riot police just outside the church.

Once, as hundreds of young and angry protesters were on the verge of a fracas with riot police, Pastor Haska positioned himself between the two sides, determined to try to calm them down. And it worked. There were skirmishes, but a major escalation was avoided. Those with minor injuries were treated in the church.

Now things at least seem calm - but for how long, Haska wonders.

Maidan protests
Kyiv's Maidan has been the scene of the biggest mass protest since the Orange RevolutionImage: picture-alliance/AP

"It's very tense. All the time I feel tense, especially during the night. We never expected that the riot police would try to storm Maidan the night after the clashes here in front of our church," he says. "I woke up from the light and the sound of flashbangs and tear-gas cartridges. And that's not just me - everyone in my congregation and those helping out feel the same way."

Even when Haska holds a church service inside the typical Lutheran church, with its white-washed walls and simple wooden benches, it's impossible to forget what's happening just outside this refuge of calm and contemplation.

Haska doesn't say it out loud, but he's obviously proud that his little flock has been standing side-by-side with the protesters these past weeks. He thanks them for their help.

Road blocks

Outside the church, meanwhile, riot police are on duty day and night, blocking the road that leads from Maidan to the presidential administration.

Church in Kyiv (photo: DW/K.Grischko)
"Our church is open for both sides - the police and the protesters," Haska saidImage: DW/K. Grischko

"Our church is open to both sides - the police and the protesters. I have invited the police standing guard outside many times to come and have a tea or coffee, but they come very rarely. They probably have orders not to."

Haska hopes for a peaceful solution to the conflict in Ukraine and is calling on both the protesters and the government to compromise and to refrain from violence. In the meantime, the German pastor and his congregation continue to support the people on Maidan with prayers, soup and sandwiches.

Follow reporter Mareike Aden on Twitter @MareikeAden.