Ukraine 15 Feb 2015 00:00
On the front lines in Eastern Ukraine, the town of Schachtya, situated 16 KM North of the rebel held side of Luhangsk, is home to numerous Ukrainian army units fighting to keep control of this strategic town. One of these units, the volunteer assault battalion Aydar has many women amongst its ranks. While some hold more conservative positions, such as medics, doctors, and burial specialists; a few women have made the choice to become snipers, or to fight on the front lines along side their male counterparts. Here are their stories:
Lesia and Dasha, two nurses who live and work in the only field hospital still functioning in the front line town of Shchastya. The town has seen regular shelling by Grad rockets and artillery fire from separatist forces camped only two kilometers away. Though a Red Cross flag floats on the building’s rooftop, many separatist shells have found their target, destroying the entire room inside the large brick building and destroying ambulances, walls, ceilings, and even the office used by the staff.
"A shell hit the building just two days before, smashing out all the windows. Thank God the floor where the nurse usually sleeps was empty that night," Dashia said. “Otherwise she would have been killed."
She describes how the shelling got so bad that the doctors decided to evacuate any wounded civilians or soldiers still getting treatment within the hospital’s walls. Though most of the hospital’s staff left to nearby cities further away from the front line, Lesya and Dashia and a few volunteers like her have remained behind to treat the injured still inside the city in need of being stabilized before being sent off to other hospitals in safer towns.
The incessant shelling has destroyed the city's electrical grid, forcing locals to seek heat by cutting down the city's trees for firewood. The lack of electricity is a recurrent problem for the nurses who are charged with making sure the hospital stays warm, for themselves, but also for the patients who need treatment in their facilities.
"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 in it were knocked out by artillery strikes. When it is quiet we are more afraid."
However, the shelling and harsh living conditions have not frightened them. The nurses decided to come and help the Ukrainian soldiers suffering at the front. Both come from the restive Luhansk region in the east of the Ukraine, where for four hundred years locals have been heavily influenced by their big neighbor: Russia. Nonetheless, Lesya and Dasha refuse the very idea of a divided Ukraine.
Both have children. They had an opportunity to leave but they chose to stay.
"The people from Aydar (a volunteer army battalion with strict nationalistic views) are my friends," Dasha explains. "My boyfriend serves in this battalion. I am also completing documents to join the unit."
This is not the first war for Mama Tanya. After college she was a medic in Baku, Azerbaijan, during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the 1990’s. Her experience and her incessant will to save young men’s lives has brought her into yet another war in Eastern Ukraine where more soldiers need her help. Her task is to give first aid and pull wounded soldiers out of battle fields during special operations, heading to the front lines, picking up injured men and bringing them back to a nearby hospital for treatment.
"I fight for freedom and the territorial integrity of my country," she said, lighting up a cigarette. "This is our land. We are not aggressors like Russia. We are protecting our territory."
In this war alone she was injured on the battlefield, taken prisoner, and beaten up by Chechen soldiers. Yet she continues to stay on the frontlines.
"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 battle field when one can see the enemy is another thing." She shows a certain tenderness for the young men fighting as she speaks.
The most difficult part of this war for her is not staying in wet dark trenches for days, without being able to look out or pee normally. She is sick and tired of losing people.
"I love everyone of the guys," she said. "I am ready to give up my soul for any of them. But most of all I love the kids, the young ones. I always wonder. Why, for God's sake, are they coming here?"
Mama Tanya, like many volunteers serving in the Aydar battalion, does not believe in the new cease-fire.
"The new humanitarian convoy from Russia has arrived," she explains. "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 lines.
"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's biggest concern is that her boyfriend does not speak to her.
"That bastard went to the front without me," she recalls. "He went to work and told me to wait for him in Kiev, and I did for some time. Then he disappeared somewhere for two months. I later found out that he volunteered to go the front." Eventually, the 24 year-old girl also went east.
When the fighting with pro-Russian rebels grew more violent during mid-summer 2014 her boyfriend asked Vitaminka to return to a peaceful life and adopt a more traditional role, but Ukrainian women are not to be intimated easily. She joined the Aydar assault battalion as a fighter. As much as staying amongst civilians seemed intolerable for Vitaminka, her sense of patriotism towards her country has never been stronger.
"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. Everything is clear. She says her instincts take control of the body, as her will to kill remains sharp at all times. However, what really scares her is the anticipation in the run-up to an assault on enemy positions: "The most difficult is to wait for the unknown," she said.
Despite her unorthodox profession, Vitaminka has very conservative plans for the future, and plans to get married and have kids. She also wants to work as a recreation therapist.
"How could I help people get over the psychological effects of war if I have never experienced it myself?" she says. "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,' is young and willing to fight to keep Ukraine a unified nation. She got her name from a unit commander who jokingly referred to the young woman as powerful, yet a little slow due to her large size. The baby-faced 19-year-old says that her mother is very worried about her and calls her many times a day, sometimes even during combat. She says it is better to always pick up the phone, as her mother will not stop calling up she picks up.
"In the very beginning my mom kept saying that the war is not for girls," Anaconda recalls. "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 Aydar volunteer battalion to join some of her friends who were already in the unit. As a medic, she never liked violence, however being a passive observer was not for her either.
"I used to work in Kiev's military hospital as a nurse," Anaconda explains. "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 said.
There are only two girls in the corps, but the men treat her well. "People are good," she said. "The only problem is to find a room to change."
Some 30 graves with grave markers reading “Temporarily Unidentified Hero of Ukraine” were hastily dug in a small cemetery on the outskirts of Starobilsk, in eastern Ukraine. Walking along the graves, Viktoria had something to say about each of the unknown soldiers. Though she had never met any of them while they were alive, she had kind words for each of these young men who fell defending the unity of Ukraine. After the 22-year-old was wounded in combat while fighting pro-Russia separatists, she was sent to Starobilsk to rest. Her will to help in the war effort did not diminish, and she felt she could do more while recuperating from her injuries.
Viktoria now takes care of the dead fighters. She delivers the bodies to the local morgue for DNA analysis, as many of the corpses who come in are in such poor shape that they are unrecognizable. She fills in the necessary paper work sends the DNA sample back to Kiev for testing, and hopefully finds a match with a family. Once this is done, she orders the coffins. She also has to deal with relatives of the dead.
"I talked with a wife of one soldiers buried in this cemetery," Viktoria said. "I told her that other fighters saw her husband crawling after them without two legs. It is unlikely that he survived. After the DNA analysis confirmed his identity, I called her again to find out the approximate date of the exhumation. But she did not believe me. She said that her husband was alive, and she would not rebury him."
Viktoria says that men are not able do her job. They go mad after a week of it, she explains. However, she too needs breaks from this rather morbid activity. Her solution is simple. Make regular trips to the front lines to feel the winds of battle upon her face, to remind herself that she is alive, and not dead like the many soldiers she helped bury.
"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 front line. 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."
Viktoria refers to all of the dead fighters from the Aydar volunteer battalion only as 'her boys'. She feels obliged to pay them her last respects.
"We have buried so many decent people," Viktoria says. "Some of the boys had several university degrees, were very smart. Some were 18-19 years old. This land is not worth the lives of our soldiers. There are some deserving people here. But they are few," she continues, adding that most people in the region prefer to flee and become refugees, who talk of the 'crazy people fighting in the east'.
She used to believe that she was protecting her country, but now she is not so sure anymore. Yet, she cannot leave.
"Where I can go to get away from them?" she smiles. "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 via phone."