Ukraine, covid mandate protesters compete for attention in NZ’s capital

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People in Wellington's Civic Square protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine
People in Wellington's Civic Square protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Image: Jake McKee/RNZ

By Jake McKee, RNZ News reporter

Ukrainians and their supporters at a protest on the New Zealand capital Wellington say it’s agonising not being able to help those at home, but are unimpressed at a request to merge protests with supporters of the Parliament grounds occupation.

The presence of two different protest groups at Wellington’s Civic Square yesterday produced an uncomfortable situation, as supporters of Ukraine and the Destiny Church-backed anti-covid-19 mandate Freedom and Rights Coalition group found their timing had clashed.

Some of the Ukrainian protest supporters were offended when asked to merge protests with the much smaller coalition group and march to Parliament together.

It was the group’s second protest in the capital in as many days, as they oppose Russia’s invasion of the eastern European nation.

Only about 100 people were at the anti-vaccine coalition’s protest yesterday, despite more than 1000 people attending their previous two marches in the capital late last year.

This march had been planned to start at the square at 11am, and the Ukrainian protest was advertised for midday, but the coalition march did not vacate until about 12.15pm.

Tetiana Zhubar
Tetiana Zhubar was offended when the Freedom and Rights Coalition asked to merge protests and march to Parliament together. Image: Jake McKee/RNZ

One of the Ukrainian protest coordinators, Tetiana Zhurba, said it would not be right to mix their protests. She came dressed in a yellow dress, with blue ribbon in her hair, to match the Ukrainian flag she was carrying.

‘It’s real war’
“We are here to support our families who are dying now and it’s terrible. It’s war — it’s real war — and this one [the Freedom and Rights Coalition march] is just batshit, I’m sorry.”

Zhurba, who is from Ukraine, said they decided to protest at Civic Square because it was a more public space than the Russian Embassy in Karori and Ukrainians were wanting to share stories with New Zealanders about what was happening to their family members in their home country.

Tanya Harper had lived in New Zealand about 20 years but her mum, brother and two nephews are still in Ukraine.

Harper had to beg her 74-year-old mother to flee her house in Kyiv.

“I said you don’t have a choice, none of us want to go. I said think of my kids, this is the only way you’re going to get through it; you can’t just lie down and decide you’re not going,” she said.

“It’s awful, awful telling your mother to do that.”

The last time Harper heard from any of them was Friday night, but she trusted her brother and nephews were still alive by checking the “last active” timestamp of messaging platforms Whatsapp and Viber.

‘He’s still alive’
“So you know an hour ago he’s still alive but you don’t know if he’s going to be alive by morning.”

Like Harper, Olena Pokydko felt “helpless” being in New Zealand. Both were wearing traditional Ukrainian shirts — vyshyvanka — and Pokydko explained the embroidery traditionally represented different regions of the country.

Pokydko was worried about her family, but particularly her sister who was a doctor at a hospital in Kyiv.

“All I can do is talk to them on the phone when they’re scared,” she said. Her sister rang her on Thursday while at work and could hear bombs.

“She needs to be thinking about how to rescue people, not about what to do and how to hide, and where to find the nearest bomb shelter … she doesn’t know what’s going to happen to her any second.”

Pokydko felt protesting was “the best we can do while living in New Zealand”.

However, she hoped the government would recognise the support they were receiving and put tighter sanctions in place against Russia.

The Ukrainian protest group planned to move to the Russian embassy, where they also protested on Friday.

Zhurba said this was to communicate their anger to Russia.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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