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When planning the “special military operation” in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin apparently did not count on fierce resistance, and six months into the war it is clear that this was a serious mistake. Among those defending their country at the front are women who had never held arms before. Breaking all stereotypes, they fight just as well as men, keeping their fighting spirit and fearlessly going to the front lines. The Insider talked to some of them and found out what helps them overcome fear, how they build relationships with men and what they had to endure during the first months of the war.

ALL CARDS
  • Eugenia, entrepreneur, sniper: At first, it's hard to shoot a person. But then you get used to it

  • Yarina, translator, paramedic: You have to prove to men that you are tough enough and motivated enough

  • Anastasia, psychotherapist: I saw in Bucha how dogs carried body parts

  • Maria Kosteniuk, economist: I took up arms because I want to see my children go to school

  • Svetlana, a biologist, medic, riflewoman: I wasn't scared, I was furious

  • Yarina Arieva, deputy, member of territorial defense: This is my land, and I will kill for it

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Eugenia, entrepreneur, sniper: At first, it's hard to shoot a person. But then you get used to it

Before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I led an ordinary life - I was a happy mother, daughter, friend and entrepreneur. I had been in business for about 12 years and was very successful, but the war changed everything.

Joining the army was not an emotional decision for me, I had been preparing for it for a long time. Ten years ago, I graduated from the military department, where I received the military rank of junior lieutenant, and it allowed me to take part in the war. In 2014, they did not enroll me because I had a child under three years old - I could not legally leave him behind, but now my daughter has grown up and nothing could stop me anymore.

I serve in the Safari Special Forces Regiment, that is, in spetsnaz. We have well-trained soldiers and a fairly powerful mobile unit. It was created at the very beginning of the war and it is task-oriented. We work exclusively in the hot spots, and within six months I’ve travelled half of Ukraine. I've been to the Kyiv region, Irpin, Zhytomyr region, Makarov district, Sumy, Kharkiv, Okhtyrka.

In our special unit, everyone has their own position. I hold the position of a sniper, I'm also considered a rifleman – everyone here is a rifleman by default. Accordingly, I have two weapons – a .38 sniper rifle and an American R15 assault rifle, which was donated by volunteers, because the Kalashnikov is a bit heavy for me. Modern weapons are much lighter and easier for a girl.

We perform different types of missions, but I cannot go into details, I can only say that a sniper’s task is to observe and give coordinates. The belief that a sniper has to shoot is absolutely wrong, sometimes you can give away your positions by doing so.

I am the only woman in the regiment, and at first, of course, there were misunderstandings about this, everyone thought why I was here - after all, a woman's place is in the kitchen, but now they say: “Zhenya, what would we do without you? We would be bored”. Everyone here calls me the Ukrainian Joan of Arc.

I don't like generalizations, I like to break stereotypes. I have proved through my own hard work and persistence that women are no different from men, that we are not their competitors. I didn't join the army to compete, I did it to be on an equal footing. When we moved into the barracks, the commander told me right away: “Zhenya, we can give you a separate accommodation, since you are a girl”. I answered that I was going to live with the guys. How would they treat me if I had better conditions? In every city we were in, I lived exclusively with men and slept with each of them in turn. It was difficult - smiling and saying good morning was already perceived as flirting. Then I realized I had to be tougher so that it wouldn't be perceived in a wrong way, because I have exclusively business relations with the guys, they are like brothers to me.

But one day they published an article about me in the press, which Ukrainians liked and started reposting on Instagram. My future fiancé saw this article, wrote to me and I wrote back. I was in the war zone, and so was he. After some time, he came to Kyiv for rotation, I was granted a leave by the command, and we finally met in person. Then we spent three days together and realized we were a perfect match.

Three months later he came to the regiment and asked my hand in marriage, as required by military law, after which he came down to my basement and proposed, though it was an absolute shock for me - it was hard to believe I would start a family under such conditions. But war is not only about death, it is also about life.

We all get scared, and I've had moments when I thought I wouldn't make it. The last time I had such thoughts was a couple of weeks ago during combat. I had been there for five days, and our position had been attacked and hit with GRADs. The guys and I hid in a cellar in a local village, the cellar was shaking as shells landed nearby. The most important thing was not to panic. If you panic, you get depressed, you lose your composure, but you can't change anything, death is always walking around as I often felt.

I felt it when I saw the guys I served with in the regiment die. Four months ago, there were the first casualties in Kharkiv, and three months ago four Russian rockets hit our base. There were a lot of killed and wounded, and among them was my mentor, who had trained me in military sniping. It was a great loss for me, it took me a month and a half to bounce back from it. It did not break me, but I thought it would break me. Even now thinking about it is very hard. I think I cried a whole Dnieper of tears. I wasn't ready for that.

When my mentor was killed, I cried a whole Dnieper of tears

Our days are completely different. If there are no combat operations, then there are duty shifts and guard details, and if there are no guard details, there are drills and firing range practice. Sometimes there is a day off when you can do your own thing, watch a movie or read. I try to get up early, but it’s impossible to keep time in this basement, and I constantly want to sleep. But there is no time to sleep, we have to keep ourselves in shape through regular exercises, shooting practice, advanced training and, when possible, obligatory rest, because sleep recharges, heals and restores the body.

I try to live an ordinary life as well - I continue to learn English, read the literature I liked to read before the war, and actively engage in social networking when I have time to do so. I am a happy woman, I am doing what I love, I have built a family and am living the life I like as much as possible. I even started to eat well - I was given a multicooker, a mini fridge, and I cook breakfast. A person can create any conditions for himself if he wants to, even in an abandoned basement.

I don't want to be blunt about how often I've killed. I'll tell you this - I've had to do my job, and more than once. How did that make you feel? I don't know if everyone has felt that way, but a lot of people I've talked to have said more or less the same thing. The first time you get shivers all over your body, you realize you're going to shoot someone, you get scared. This state lasts for thirty seconds, you don't understand what's going on, and then you collect yourself and it goes away. A person gets used to everything - eliminating targets, watching explosions, hearing sirens, GRADs. It was the same when I felt death very close - also a curious emotion, because at that moment you don't think about your mother or your child, you think only about how you're going to survive. The instinct of self-preservation gets activated - you realize how much you want to live. I will remember that feeling for a long time.

The first time you kill, you get the shivers, the shakes, but then it goes away

After that, of course, I had thoughts about leaving. I thought I couldn’t do it any longer, but then I wondered what I would do in civilian life. I had already given my word to the Ukrainian people that I would defend them to the end. If I chose this path, then I must have been up to it. Of course, I had doubts and mood swings. In the third month of the war there was a phase of realization, the adrenaline had passed, and many people got depressed, both military and civilians. Doubt and fear are the norm, thoughts of leaving will always arise in one's mind.

My relatives, of course, are worried. When I told them about military service, they were in shock. I still remember my mother's stare into the void - she just sat there and looked at nothing. When we talked later, they admitted that they thought I would “play around” for a week and come back home, but when a month had passed, they realized that they would have to wait until victory. I am very grateful for their support. But contemplating what life will be like when it's all over is difficult. A month ago, I said that the first thing I would do when the war was over was quit smoking and get married, but it just so happened that I gave up smoking last week, and I have already gotten a marriage proposal too.

Yarina, translator, paramedic: You have to prove to men that you are tough enough and motivated enough

I studied at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy at the department of literary studies, did artistic translations as well as various civic projects. I joined the army because I wanted to join the struggle of my people for my native land. I joined the military back in 2019 - as a paramedic in a volunteer battalion, and then I decided to sign a contract with the Marines.

I’m being periodically sent to the combat zone. Our rotation started in August 2021. On February 24, 2022, we were at Severodonetsk. Then we moved to Mariupol to hold back the advance of the Russian troops. Then we moved back to Donbas near Bakhmut. At the end of February, we went to Mariupol, to the village of Zachatovka. It was my company that engaged in heavy fighting with prevailing enemy forces. We were holding back a huge column of Russian tanks for a week in that village.

On March 3, five of my comrades-in-arms and I were standing on a field road, waiting for encircled troops to exit. Suddenly, a huge column of Russian soldiers appeared - our vehicle was burned, and by some miracle we managed to retreat back to our positions while firing back at the enemy. I often recall that moment: as I launch my quadcopter into the sky I clearly see, literally 300 meters away from us, a huge column of Russian troops, led by a tank. I hear the reports, and as I raise my hand to catch the quadcopter, the vehicle we’ve just left explodes nearby, literally five meters away.

I was lucky it wasn’t a thermobaric shell, but some kind of an armor-piercing projectile which penetrated the vehicle, and therefore the explosion was not very strong - only a rumble in my ears. Then the shooting started, we started shooting back, retreating, one of us was wounded in the leg, but it was just a scratch. And we were able to retreat and join up with the others. Then we managed to repel the attack because of artillery support. But five days later the same column arrived at the same place from the other side, via a different road - to the place where our position was. This time, there was a lot of wounded, I remember having to rush from one to the other to bandage them up.

There were many wounded – I had to rush from one to the other to bandage them up

One of the soldiers was wounded in the head, but unfortunately, we were unable to rescue him. It still hurts a lot remembering that. But the others managed to escape and take better positions, where it was no longer difficult to hold off the Russians.

I was practically in every city: Mariupol, Bakhmut, Konstantinovka, Turets, Severodonetsk, Shchastia, Lysychansk, villages near Volnovakha. I managed to see almost the entire front line during my years of service, while I was in the volunteer battalion and in contact with the AFU - from Luhansk to Donetsk. But I haven’t yet been to Mykolaiv, Kherson or Kyiv, where there was also fighting.

For any woman, army service is not an easy choice. If you want to be in a combat unit, you have to go through a path of initiation, where you have to prove to the male collective that you are tough enough, motivated enough, that you want and can do all the hard work of a soldier that men do. If you succeed and do everything on a par with the others – at the base, at the range, and in the combat zone - you usually get respect and serve on a par with the others.

I have no illusions that this war will end quickly; I know that as long as Putin is alive and 95% of the Russian population is zombified by the propaganda being spread by the likes of Kiselyov and Skabeyeva, we will not be able to live in peace. I am rather inclined to believe that we will have to fight for our country for the rest of our lives.

Anastasia, psychotherapist: I saw in Bucha how dogs carried body parts

I am a practicing psychotherapist, and a year and a half ago I received accreditation with the right to teach gestalt therapy to others - in other words, to cultivate future specialists in this field. I had many plans, but the war changed everything.

On February 24, I woke up to my 13-year-old daughter coming into the room and saying that a war had started. I didn't understand anything, thought she had a bad dream, and then I saw the news on Telegram feeds myself. I called my ex-husband and told him the child should be taken to Western Ukraine; I, however, stayed in Kyiv.

Initially I was not planning to serve in the armed forces. I was in a relationship with a man who had elderly parents and we decided that he would join the army and I would follow him to look after the parents as the wife of a military man. We started by volunteering - delivering humanitarian aid, delivering everything we were asked for to the military, while keeping the idea of joining the army in mind.

On my birthday we were on a morning shopping trip, and as we were driving up to one of the military units, we came under fire. I was in the passenger seat, my boyfriend was outside, talking on the phone - we were waiting for a signal so we could drive into the military unit and bring food. And that's when the shooting started, I saw the eyes of one of the men as he was grabbing his rifle. I remember that look and the assault rifle pointed at our car. I couldn't believe then that someone like me could just shoot without thinking about the life of another. I could hear the car being shot at, the glass being shattered by the bullets, but I just sat there staring at that man. I didn't even have time to become scared or think that a bullet may hit me in the forehead, and I would be gone. The first thing I did was to cover myself with my hands, it seemed to me that if I covered myself, I wouldn't get hurt.

When it was over, the AFU soldiers took us to the unit, brought us to the commander, and my boyfriend said he wanted to join. Within a few hours we were mobilized, I also gave my consent. That’s how our military service started.

It was particularly dangerous in March. We were in the second corridor. When there was fighting in Irpin and Bucha, 10-12 km away from us, we got the cream of the crop - Retroville, Antonov bombing, constant crossfire. It was scary. I am not a warrior, I do not live by the war and I miss the peaceful life very much.

On the second day after the Ukrainian armed forces cleared the area and the Russian military withdrew, I was in Bucha and Irpin. I saw everything with my own eyes, talked to the people who survived.

We saw dogs carrying parts of bodies that had not been buried, we heard people crying. We saw those large stretches of land with ditches where dead bodies of civilians and soldiers had piled up because there were so many of them and there were not enough vehicles to remove each of them separately.

Dogs carried body parts, there were piles of dead bodies in ditches

We were in the houses where the occupants had lived, and we saw what they had been doing there. I don't know how you can behave like this even when you are on someone else's territory. Say, you’ve occupied a house, it's already yours, as it were, so you can treat it with some respect, but, no, there's shit here and there, there's toilet paper with shit on it, there's a mattress here, food is scattered there, and clothes are lying around. The AFU soldiers try to keep even trenches clean, but here, in your house, where you get to spend a lot of time... As far as I know, the house was used by Russian army officers. If they behave like that, how do their soldiers behave? One of the houses half buried in shit had a mirror with the phrase “Thank you for your hospitality, sorry for the inconvenience” written on it. Together with the letters Z and V. It's just unimaginable.

When we were there, a small volunteer movement got together, a lot of people pulled up - about seventy people. Together we evacuated residents from those towns, tried to help with food when it was safe. I was more of a logistics person - I kept supplying everything the military unit needed.

We had losses among volunteers near Chernihiv and Popasna - two cars were shot up, we buried the people. It’s not talked about much, but a lot of volunteers did die. Praise to them and may they rest in peace - they are heroes. It’s a shame they are not buried on the Walk of Fame like the military.

Maria Kosteniuk, economist: I took up arms because I want to see my children go to school

Before the war, I led a completely ordinary life: I went to university, dreamed of going to Helsinki, and never thought that shelling and the sound of gunfire might one day become part of my reality. Like many Ukrainians, I woke up on February 24 to an explosion. In the first seconds, I didn't understand what was happening. My mother came over, cried and told me that a war had started. Everyone around me was just talking about it. I could see the smoke from the window. It was very scary, but at that time I had not yet thought about joining the military. For the first time this thought came to me when shells fell on the outskirts of our village - the windows blew out in the nearest houses and our neighbor’s son was killed. In an instant she lost everything she held dear, and I was truly frightened I might die too. Life cannot be compared to a scene from a film: when you are confronted with someone's death and bombings, when you see how people lose their loved ones in an instant, animal fear overwhelms you, and there is no talk of heroism, you just look at it all and you can't move an inch.

When I heard about the death of a fellow villager, I went numb. My mother took me to the basement, and she and I sat there and cried. It wasn't just fear or panic. It was despair. You realize the same could happen to you tomorrow. You can try your luck and evacuate, or you can stay and fight for your country. The choice is yours alone. I looked at my mother and knew I had to do something. That's when I decided to join the Territorial Defense Unit, where I now serve as a medic. There is only one difference: in addition to my medical duties, I can shoot, and I also help to find equipment and medicines for our company.

When I first picked up a weapon, I felt fear and rage - rage at the fact that my life could be cut short at any moment, and fear at the realization that the future of all my loved ones is no longer certain. Only war decides and will decide everything. Then I understood it was my duty, as a Ukrainian and as a girl who still wanted to see her children go to school, to bring the war to an end. When you hold a rifle, you forget about fear and do what you have to do.

It is my duty as a Ukrainian to bring the war to an end

I often remember the first time I helped a wounded soldier. I remember how frightened I was, especially because the soldier could not be removed from the battlefield. There was simply no way - he was hit by a shrapnel and could not be rescued straight away. Then, when everything had calmed down and the soldier was dragged away, there was practically no one near me and I had to help him alone. I can still remember the feeling of jubilation and fear: on the one hand you realize you are doing a very important thing, but on the other hand it is terrifying. Blood and fear for someone's life threw me off balance, I was confused at the time, but soon the girls from our company joined me, and we quickly did everything that needed to be done before the doctors arrived.

After a while, I became more relaxed about what was going on, and the blood stopped triggering a panic reaction in me. When you begin to realize your actions are helping the army and thereby bringing victory closer, your fears recede. You stop thinking about yourself and concentrate more on others - on their safety and health. In war, you can't succumb to fear, especially if you're a woman. You have to make an effort and go on fighting, both mentally and physically.

In a war, you have to fight and forget about fear, especially if you're a woman

I don't regret for a second that I joined the military, and I haven’t had any thoughts of leaving either at the beginning or now. People have lost their mothers, fathers, brothers, sons, husbands simply because they live on Ukrainian soil, and there can be no forgiveness for that. And it is our duty not to stand aside. Even if I had to die, I would do it. This is our land, and it should be free.

Svetlana, a biologist, medic, riflewoman: I wasn't scared, I was furious

I am originally from Odessa, I lived there for 17 years. In 2017 I graduated from the Mariinskaya Gymnasium and entered the Faculty of Biology at the Lviv National University. In the third year I chose Biochemistry as my specialty. Last year I got my bachelor's degree, and I entered the master's program this year. After a while, I moved to Kyiv and got a job as an assistant biologist in the clinical and theoretical section of a private laboratory and worked there all this time.

On the morning of February 24, sirens started wailing, the whole city was gridlocked, and people started leaving Kyiv in droves. I walked to work, and it was then that I thought about joining the army. I wanted to do something straight away. I quickly found an ally - another colleague at work took a similar decision. We quickly packed our backpacks with everything we needed and headed off to join the army “as the sirens wailed”. We arrived and filled out forms indicating only essential information: passport details, ID number and phone number. We were called up that same evening and immediately taken to the base.

I saw explosions, open flames, the smoking airport. I remember how they tried to reassure us online saying it was only a provocation, no one was going to bomb residential areas. As it turned out later, it was a blatant lie. And I was enraged by how brazenly, unprecedentedly, and completely without justification the enemy opened fire on civilians, my fellow countrymen. I love Ukraine very much, love the people, and I was embittered and hurt by what I saw. It was chilling, but after that there was no place for fear in my heart anymore.

We joined the territorial defense with complete confidence – without hesitation. I knew for sure that people who knew human physiology and anatomy were needed on the battlefield. We had a combat medic in our company, and another one has recently joined – both are volunteers who care for their country. We are certainly needed, because we train people in first aid, telling them what they need to do before the medics arrive, and explaining how to provide emergency aid.

People with knowledge of human physiology and anatomy are needed on the battlefield

We were trained in using weapons straight away, but as time went by we began studying the matter in more detail: how to disassemble a rifle, what stance to take, etc. A lot of us had never held an assault rifle - most of the battalion consisted of volunteers. Those were the guys who simply could not stand aside when they heard about the declaration of martial law. They were given weapons and permits to use them, and they got some training. After that they started practicing at the place we call firing range on a regular basis. It is the place where we shoot at targets from various positions, so everyone who is here now has already practiced shooting more than once.

Soldiers in the company are very friendly and help us in everything. There are only six girls in the battalion. Recently the guys taught us how to manage recoil when holding a gun in different positions: crouching, standing and lying down. Then they showed us how to throw Molotov cocktails.

We're medics/riflewomen. We are not allowed on the battlefield under enemy fire, because a dead medic is worth less than a living one. If there is a wounded soldier, he has to be dragged to a safer place by the stronger guys, and we provide first aid there.

We are not allowed on the battlefield under enemy fire, because a dead medic is worth less than a living one

In my experience, there was such a case: at night, past curfew, a man driving a car with a “Z” symbol on the hood, without stopping after numerous warnings, hit our roadblock and threw a grenade. Shots were fired at him, and he was wounded. When the shootout ended, we went out and gave him first aid, although he was not on our side, he was a looter.

Is it difficult to be a girl in a war? Frankly speaking, not as difficult as one might imagine. The soldiers in the battalion try to take care of us, they often say: “Girls, don't go where bullets fly. If anything happens, you should stay at the base. You are our most important asset.” This is both moving and upsetting at the same time because we didn’t expect we would be cherished and pampered here. We expected to become full-fledged fighters without any special treatment, but this turned out not to be the case.

But a girl remains a girl even in a war, so at first we tried to make the place we were in as nice as possible, we tried to make sure that the boys always had hot drinks and food. We tried to cheer them up by talking to them, because we understood they were left without family and friends, and it was especially difficult and lonely for them now. The main thing for us was to show that we were all as one, so that no one in the company felt like a stranger.

I can safely say that psychological support is no less important than physical support; lots of people want to talk or just listen and forget for a while that there is a war in the country, cities are collapsing, and people are dying. Even those with rich military experience talk about this. When everyone is walking around sad, dejected and gloomy, it’s hard to win the war. Only a person with a healthy spirit, sound mind, straight thinking and the confidence that we will overcome all the difficulties, can contribute to a speedy victory and the defeat of the enemy.

At first gunshots were very scary. We were constantly wondering whether they were incoming or outgoing, but then it became easier. Of course, it was very scary to hear the sounds of a real gunfight for the first time and to observe it literally from five meters away, but now there is fear anymore, there is no time to be afraid - we have to defend our country.

Yarina Arieva, deputy, member of territorial defense: This is my land, and I will kill for it

Before the war I was a deputy of the Kyiv City Council, I was receiving citizens, preparing for the wedding, making repairs at my apartment. I was calm and safe, but then everything collapsed literally in one second. At first it was like a nightmare: I woke up at 6 am to a phone call from my boyfriend, who said that a war had started. Strangely enough, the shock passed very quickly - I had long felt that this could happen one day. Many of my ancestors had suffered greatly from the Russian authorities, and I was expecting the same fate.

Then the first thing I did was to think about my fellow countrymen, a desire to fight and become part of something bigger - to join in. I am sure that almost every Ukrainian felt the same at the beginning of the war. At some point there was a feeling of unity in the air - very similar to what I experienced during the Maidan. It was the driving force for me that prompted me to join the territorial defense the day after the war began.

My work priorities changed immediately - now most of the time I’m trying to help people who have problems with buying food and medicines, and to support the city defense, which is now the focus of the local Council’s activity.

If I‘m ordered to go into battle and fight under crossfire, I will not hesitate. This is my land, and I will kill for it if necessary. Those who have invaded us are doing terrible things: raping women, killing children, wiping out entire neighborhoods, destroying everything they can. They don't deserve the right to live, and I don't deserve the right to be scared.

I was scared only once: when my husband was at the front line and I was waiting for him to return, not knowing if he was alright. That was probably the most frightening thing for me - my own life does not cause me anxiety. I stopped fearing for myself back in the early days of the war - I suddenly realized that there was nothing scarier than losing someone close to you.

If I’m ordered to go into battle, I won't hesitate

Sounds of gunfire and explosions have become a regular backdrop, to which we are gradually becoming accustomed. I remember finding myself at the site of an explosion after one of those air raids, or rather on a piece of land where there was still something left. A house completely burnt out, windows blown out and people who had recently lived there - wounded, frightened, many unable to leave. After the explosion, they moved to nearby shelters, but some of them kept returning to the house to sit on the benches in front of the entrance. The house still stands, but it is as if it no longer exists.

In our battalion, the duties of men and women differ considerably: we work in the warehouse, in the kitchen, at the headquarters. Those of us who have more experience perform combat tasks – guard checkpoints or patrol the streets, and we are always ready to do battle.

Those who serve with us were deputies, singers, artists before the war, but now they fight for their freedom on a par with professional soldiers, like real soldiers. In the evenings, when there is time, they tell stories and share their experiences which seem so strange and nonsensical in war conditions. I’m happy that this horrible war united us. People of different views and professions rose up overnight and went to defend their country, which had been unscrupulously and ruthlessly attacked.

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