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Six female volunteers fighting against pro-Russian separatists (Russian terrorists and Russian regular troops – UA Today) talked to The Guardian about the decision to go to war for their country – and what they would like to do when it’s over.
The volunteer battalions fighting alongside Ukraine’s army are known for being fearless on the battlefield. They also have a reputation for fierce nationalism and far-right views. One of these units is the assault battalion Aidar, based in the town of Shchastya, whose members have been accused of human rights abuses by Amnesty International. What is less known is that the volunteers include several women among their ranks – some working as medics and support staff but others in active combat roles. Although none of these women is confident that the current ceasefire will hold, they are looking ahead to life after the war. Here are their stories:
Mama Tanya, who jokes about ‘liberating’ Georgia when hostilities in eastern Ukraine die down. Photograph: Jonathan Alpeyrie/Transterra Media
This is not Mama Tanya’s first war. In the 1990s she was living with her husband in Azerbaijan and served as a medic during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Her experience and committed nationalism has drawn her into yet another war in eastern Ukraine, where her task is to administer first aid and pull wounded soldiers out of battlefields during special operations.
“I fight for freedom and the territorial integrity of my country,” she says, dragging on a cigarette. “This is our land. We are not aggressors like Russia. We are protecting our territory.”
She says she has been injured on the battlefield, taken prisoner and beaten up by Chechen soldiers fighting with the separatists. Yet she is determined to remain on the frontline.
“It is so scary here during artillery fire,” she says. “I am the first one to run to the basement to hide – and I urge all the others to follow. It is stupid to die from a shell. To die on the battlefield when one can see the enemy is another thing.”
The most difficult part of the war is losing those she’s fought alongside.
“I love every one of the guys,” she says. “But most of all I love the young ones. I always wonder why, for God’s sake, they are coming here.”
Like many volunteers in the Aidar battalion, Mama Tanya does not believe in the recent cease-fire with pro-Russian separatists.
“The new humanitarian convoy from Russia has arrived,” she says. “We are waiting for ‘presents’ from the Luhansk People’s Republic. They will wish us a happy morning, afternoon and evening. We known their schedule for artillery strikes precisely.”
Though she dreams of peace, it will be difficult to leave life on the front.
“We are like a big family,” she says. “The war will end sooner or later. When we think what we’d do after it ends, I jokingly suggest going to fight in Iraq or to liberate Georgia.”
Vitaminka followed her boyfriend to the front, where she volunteered to join the Aidar battalion. Photograph: Jonathan Alpeyrie/Transterra Media
Despite living in a war zone, Vitaminka says her biggest problem is that her boyfriend is not speaking to her.
“That bastard went to the front without me,” she says. “He went to work and told me to wait for him in Kiev. I did for some time. Then he disappeared for two months and I found out he had volunteered to go the front.” Eventually, the 24-year-old went east to join him.
When the fighting with pro-Russian rebels escalated last summer, Vitaminka’s boyfriend told her to return home. But Ukrainian women are not to be intimated that easily, she says, and instead she joined the Aidar assault battalion as a fighter.
“The most difficult thing is that when my dear brothers are dying here, the rest of people don’t give a damn about it,” she says, recalling life in her native town of Zaporozhe. “They just drive fancy cars, buy expensive clothes, or sneakers for $200-300 per pair. That is why few fighters return from a vacation without getting in a scuffle with someone.”
Vitaminka says the battlefield does not scare her. “The most difficult is to wait for the unknown,” she says.
After the war, Vitaminka hopes to get married and have children. She also wants to work as a play therapist.
“How could I help people get over the psychological effects of war if I have never experienced it myself?” she asks. “What I like about being here is that life seems more vivid. There is a lot of grief. It comes very often. Because of that, one feels joy much more keenly. I cannot change my attitude towards events. It is easier to change the events instead.”
Anaconda says she is well treated by the men in her battalion, but is hoping that the war will end soon. Photograph: Jonathan Alpeyrie/Transterra Media
Anaconda was given her nickname by a unit commander, in a joking reference to her stature and power. The baby-faced 19-year-old says that her mother is very worried about her and phones several times a day, sometimes even during combat. She says it is better to always answer, as her mother will not stop calling until she picks up.
“In the very beginning my mother kept saying that the war is not for girls,” Anaconda says. “But now she has to put up with my choice. My dad would have come to the front himself, but his health does not allow him to move. He is proud of me now.”
She used to serve near Debaltseve but decided to move to the Aidar volunteer battalion to join some of her friends.
“I used to work in Kiev’s military hospital as a nurse,” Anaconda says. “I understood that I could not keep watching our men dying and sit on the fence anymore. That was it. This is my country and my people. It hurts to see how fighters and civilians die on both sides of the conflict. I want this war to end faster,” she says.
There are not many women in the corps, but the men treat her well. “People are good,” she said. “The only problem is to find a room to change.”
Viktoria is responsible for organising the burial of soldiers killed in battle. Photograph: Jonathan Alpeyrie/Transterra Media
In a small cemetery on the outskirts of Starobilsk there are about 30 graves with markers reading “Temporarily unidentified hero of Ukraine”.
Walking along the graves, Viktoria has a story to tell about each of the unknown soldiers – although she never met any of them. The 22-year-old says she was sent to Starobilsk after being wounded in combat while fighting pro-Russia separatists.
While recuperating, Viktoria took over responsibility for the burial of dead fighters. Now she delivers the bodies to the local morgue, where those that are unrecognisable undergo DNA testing. She fills in the necessary paper work and sends the DNA sample back to Kiev, in the hope of finding a matching family. Then she orders the coffins. If relatives are identified, she liaises with them to organise reburial.
“I talked with a wife of one soldiers buried in this cemetery,” Viktoria says. “I told her that other fighters had seen her husband [severely injured]. It is unlikely that he survived. After the DNA analysis confirmed his identity, I called her again. But she did not believe me. She said that her husband was alive and she would not rebury him.”
Viktoria says that she takes regular breaks from the morgue – by going to the frontline.
“If I do not go to the front at least once a week I simply go nuts,” she says. “I used to be in a combat unit, always on the frontline. I need to sit in a trench for a minute at least or deliver food there and see the boys. My commanders do not allow me to go to the front very often. They are scared that I will stay there.
“We have buried so many decent people,” she adds. “Some of the boys were 18 to 19 years old. This land is not worth the lives of our soldiers. There are some deserving people here. But they are few,” she adds, criticising the Ukrainians who flee the region instead of staying to fight.
She used to believe that she was protecting her country but now she is not so sure anymore. Yet she cannot leave.
“Where can I go to get away from them?” she asks. “They are helpless. Once I took a vacation. For the first time in a year, I put on a fancy dress and went to a nightclub. At five in the morning, I got a call in the nightclub. They said that there was a dead fighter. I had to give them instructions all the day on the phone.”
Lesya, centre, and Dasha, right, outside the heavily shelled hospital in Shchastya on the frontline in Ukraine. Photograph: Jonathan Alpeyrie/Transterra Media
Lesya and Dasha
The two volunteer nurses live and work in the only field hospital still functioning in Shchastya. The town has seen regular shelling by Grad rockets and artillery fire from separatist forces camped about a mile away. Though a Red Cross flag floats on the hospital roof, it has not been spared.
“A shell hit the building just two days ago, smashing out all the windows. Thank God the floor where the nurse usually sleeps was empty that night,” Dasha says. “Otherwise she would have been killed.”
She describes how the shelling got so bad a few days before the cease-fire was declared on Feb. 15 that the doctors evacuated the patients. Though most of the hospital’s staff left to nearby cities further away from the frontline, Lesya and Dasha remained behind to stabilise casualties before they are sent to hospitals in safer towns.
The incessant shelling has destroyed the city’s electrical grid, forcing locals to cut trees for firewood. The lack of electricity is a recurrent problem for the nurses, who need to keep the hospital warm..
“The silence is the most frightening,” Lesya says. “When we are bombed, we know what to expect; what to do. We hide in the room in the far corner of the building. It used to be the safest place until the windows were knocked out by artillery strikes. When it is quiet we are more afraid.”
Both nurses come from the Luhansk region, and are fiercely opposed to the idea of a divided Ukraine.
Both have children at home, but have refused all opportunities to leave the front.
“The people from Aidar are my friends,” Dasha says. “My boyfriend serves in this battalion. I am also completing documents to join the unit.”