KIEV, Ukraine — Disabled since birth, Liza Shaposhnik, 27, came to the capital city two months ago from the depressed mining region of Donetsk in search of work. What she found instead is a community that needs and cherishes her — fellow protesters occupying the Trade Unions building in downtown Kiev.

Smiling warmly, Shaposhnik, who has cerebral palsy, cuts lemons and sorts tea bags in the kitchen of the opposition headquarters, which feeds the thousands of people staging a sit-in to press for closer bonds with the European Union and protest President Viktor Yanukovich's preference for continued ties with traditional ally Russia.

“I have never felt so needed, so useful,” Shaposhnik said Saturday, her voice trembling. “Maybe it is this air of freedom, or maybe it is this cause that unites all of us here, but I feel as if I had been reborn to a new life.”

Protesters are occupying the building, as well as a tent camp in nearby Independence Square, even after riot police tried to sweep them from the streets late last month and again last week.

“The revolution of 2004 was a peaceful festival compared with what is going on here today,” said Andriy Parubiy, 42, who heads the tent camp. “Today things are much more tense and dangerous, as we are lingering a few steps from a civil war we are desperately trying to prevent.”

A historian and archaeologist from the western city of Lviv, Parubiy oversees a square filled with a motley army of thousands of people from across the country.

The camp is guarded by about 1,000 military, police and security veterans, some with combat experience in Afghanistan. They are ready to contain any further attacks, Parubiy said.

Late last month, Parubiy was struck on the head with a police club and suffered a concussion.

“Our men have not yet responded to police attacks with all the force they can muster,” Parubiy said. “But I warned the Interior Ministry and the city administration that if there is a new attack we will demonstrate all the power we can muster without much restraint.”

As Parubiy strolled through the camp Saturday, a cold but rare sunny late-autumn day, some demonstrators were keeping warm around wood fires burning in oil barrels. Others listened to speeches, sang songs or sipped hot soup turned out by smoking army-style field kitchens set up in the square or brought from the main kitchen in the Trade Unions building.

Medical teams, meanwhile, made the rounds, inquiring about protesters' health and distributing medicine.

“For health reasons, winter is an ideal time for continued protests,” said sanitary expert Lyubov Lavrinenko, 56, who inspects food donated to the protest camp. “There are no flies, there is less dirt, less danger of food spoiling and much less danger of an epidemic.”

Shaposhnik, the volunteer from Donetsk, sleeps on a mattress on the floor of the Trade Unions building, along with dozens of other volunteers. A Kiev family invited her to stay with them, but she goes to their apartment only once every three days to shower.

“I barely sleep a few hours a day and wake up with a renewed urge to work for our cause,” she said. “This revolution may help topple this corrupt government, and I may have a chance to go to a nice hospital for treatment or a resort place without paying a bribe, which I can't afford now.” Her disability pension amounts to less than $200 a month.

A couple of hundred yards away from the protest tent camp, past a heavy police cordon, people were being brought in by the busload Saturday from across eastern Ukraine for a pro-Yanukovich rally in European Square. Among the attendees were two friends of Shaposhnik from back home in Donetsk.

“They don't care about Yanukovich or his party and came here only because they were offered [$20] for standing there with a flag for five hours,” Shaposhnik said. “There are no jobs in Donetsk, and those who have a job get a pittance that they can't support their families on. They support Yanukovich because they were always fed this lie that Ukraine will die without Russia.”

Shaposhnik said that her parents continue to support Yanukovich and refuse to believe that she is not being paid for her work with the opposition.

As she spoke, speeches boomed from a podium in Independence Square.

“Today the entire world is looking at Ukraine,” Oleg Tyagnybok, an opposition leader, told the crowd of protesters. “What they see is a nation of people who can come out in the rain and cold and stand up for their rights.”

Over in European Square, about 7,000 people stood with blue-and-white ruling party flags.

“I was brought here to simply stand here with a flag until 5 p.m.,” said unemployed Vitaly Bondarenko, 40, from the industrial town of Novomoskovsk in the eastern Dnepropetrovsk region, as he listened to a lawmaker telling the crowd that the opposition protesters are “fascists who are attempting a state coup we need to prevent.”

“We don't like it when people build barricades in the center of our capital, beat up policemen and capture administrative buildings,” another parliament member, Oleg Tsaryov, echoed in his speech.

Some attending the rally seemed enthused.

“There is nothing good for me in Europe,” said Volodimir Fomenko, a 22-year-old carpenter from the northeastern city of Chernigov who said he had never traveled farther than Kiev. “I like my life and I don't want any change, as I don't speak [foreign] languages and I don't like capitalism.”

But as the speakers continued, mostly in Russian, some in the crowd sat on the pavement hugging one another to keep warm, and displayed little interest in the program. A group of young men on the sidelines played soccer with a soda can, also attempting to keep warm.

sergei.loiko@latimes.com