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April 24, 2014

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In Kiev’s protest camp, determination strong

Updated Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 | 4:33 a.m.

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The clock over Kiev's protest encampment showed 4:40 a.m. and minus-19 C (minus-2 F). Despite the brutal conditions, Alexander Kravchuk laughed lightly about how he'd ended up standing guard at a first-aid point thrown together with tents and rough planks.

"I came here for a couple of days, and now it's two months," he said, his chin tucked into his thick coat's collar on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, the focal point and symbol of Ukraine's opposition protests.

The 20-something Kravchuk was one of hundreds of true believers manning the tent camp in the dead of night, both committed to keeping the anti-government protest going until their demands are met and gripped by a larger sense of belonging they can't quite articulate.

"It's like a drug," said Lolita Avetsiyan, who travels an hour from her home on Kiev's fringes every night to help out at a field kitchen.

Their firmness in the face of discomfort and constant worry of a violent police sweep have kept the protests going longer than many expected. Despite authorities' nominal concessions over the past week, the core protesters are unmoved.

Although the protests are rooted in the same issues as when they started in December, the mood is both darker and more determined.

In the early weeks, thousands came to the square nightly for a spirited round-the-clock show of stirring political speeches, performances by the country's best rock bands that rattled windows into the wee hours and a chance to see friends, flirt and hang out. When squadrons of riot police streamed to the edge of the square about 1 a.m. one night, apparently preparing to break up the camp, there were so many demonstrators still out that they stood firm en masse and the police backed off a few hours later.

The crowds started dwindling, though the square — the center of Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004-2005 — could still draw tens of thousands on weekends. President Viktor Yanukovych, either impatient with the demonstration's persistence or sensing that the resolve was eroding, rammed through harsh anti-protest laws in mid-January. Days later, demonstrators launched clashes with police, pelting them with firebombs and stones. Three demonstrators died, two of them from gunshots.

The violence may have scared some away and a fierce cold spell surely caused others to stay away. But the core protesters, the ones who work the camp during the night, found their resolve hardened.

"Those guys who were killed, they were killed for something," Avetsiyan said. "It's our one chance. If we give up now, we'll be slaves for the rest of our lives."

There's little live music on the square lately; often the only entertainment is old movies shown on a large screen next to the otherwise empty stage.

And since the clashes, there's an edge to the encampment. Many of its denizens walk around with clubs and wear protective gear — including one who strode around with football pads over his heavy coat — and the demonstrators' own security detail at the tall barricades built of ice and lumber and scrap materials give long looks to everyone passing through.

Yet it is as oddly comfortable as it is unsettling. Wood stoves churn out smoke with an aroma redolent of camp-out vacations. Several Christmas trees, complete with lights, stand outside some of the hundred-odd tents. Volunteers circulate with trays of open-face sandwiches. What started as flimsy improvisation in the heat of the moment now has a strange air of permanence.

It's a true community, said Mykhailo Havrilyuk, a protester seen in online video last week being stripped naked and abused by police in clashes.

"People here in Maidan meet more new people, make new friends, get together. Get married, and sleep around, so to speak," he said. "Life goes on, even here in these conditions."

For the committed, like Avetsiyan, it's almost as if life doesn't go on elsewhere.

"We go home in the morning and try to get some sleep, but you can't even sleep because you're always thinking you want to do something," she said. Maidan for her was the reason to break with an unsatisfactory former life working as a baby-sitter for wealthy people.

Those people, she said "they think 'she's not our class.' They think there are only stupid people here."

Kravchuk, the security guard at the first-aid station, wants to return to his hometown 200 kilometers (120 miles) southwest of Kiev.

"But only when there's victory," he said, shivering. "Maybe it can come today."

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Vitnija Saldava in Kiev contributed to this story.