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Ukrainian war: women fight on the front line

For more than a year, women fighting on the front lines of war in Ukraine have been doing so without proper equipment, according to a Ukrainian charity.

Since Feb. 24, 2022, about 60,000 women have joined the fight against Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the founders of Zemliachky, a charity that helps female soldiers on the front lines, told CTVNews.ca.

Their military uniforms don’t fit them properly, their helmets cover their eyes when they slip off their heads, and their boots are too big.

“The most important thing is a military uniform,” Karina, deputy commander on the Ukrainian front lines, said in an email to CTVNews.ca. “The uniform that is issued is not always the right size and as it gets colder you should dress in warm, high quality clothing.”

Access to menstruation products is another challenge these women face. Pads and tampons are hard to find and even harder to change when the bathroom is a hole in the floor.

For three women who emailed CTVNews.ca, the honor of serving their country in these trying times far outweighs the hardships of daily life on the front lines.

To protect their families, CTVNews.ca has agreed to keep the women’s last names confidential. The quotes below were taken from emails to CTVNews.ca, edited for clarity, and translated from Ukrainian.


“I got here by accident, but now I can’t even imagine myself anywhere else,” Veronika told CTVNews.ca (Contribution)

The moment war seemed real for Veronika was when she received a grenade after the Russians broke through the Ukrainian defensive line.

“It’s instead of captivity,” he was told.

The 26-year-old was born in Dnipro and was living in Kyiv when the war broke out. She had just completed an internship and was preparing to become an anesthesiologist.

Every morning, she started her day with a cappuccino at a “beautiful cafe,” she told CTVNews.ca. However, working on the front lines as a combat medic, Veronika’s morning ritual is very different.

“Instead of a coffee cappuccino in a nice cup, I have instant coffee, if I’m lucky, even with cream or milk,” she said.

Veronika works in the Azov division of an artillery unit in eastern Ukraine.

“I provide assistance to soldiers in the field and send them to the hospital if necessary, and I teach the basics of tactical medicine,” she said. “That’s why I went to study to become an anesthetist because I like situations where you have to make a quick decision.”

Her decision-making skills were needed when she was called to the battlefield to help an injured soldier with a suspected broken neck.

“I ran to him with a stretcher, put on a collar (neck brace) and he was quickly taken to hospital,” Veronika said. “I talked to him all the way. He asked me if he was moving his hand, and I said, ‘There’s a bit, come on, you can do it’, although there’s no had no movement.”

Every day is different for Veronika, but she says she tries to “find happiness in the little things”.

The young Ukrainian soldier is stationed outside the battlefield waiting to be called in for evacuation and treatment assistance. She is lucky to have an outdoor shower and a hot meal cooked by volunteers nearby.


Ukrainian war: women fight on the front line“The (Crimean) war in 2014 motivated me to join the ranks of the armed forces, because my house was on the demarcation line,” Karina said. (Contributed)

The reality of war for Karina is very different. She has been fighting in the Ukrainian army since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

“I’ve been here for a year with no rotation, I miss hot water and a normal toilet more than anything,” she told CTVNews.ca in an email.

Karina, 26, is the deputy commander of her unit, which moves a lot during the war. The battery, made up of 48 men and two women, built everything: showers, toilets and sleeping structures.

Each time the group moves, they abandon the structures and start again.

Karina said she got used to her new reality, but still struggled to take care of herself. Cystitis, the inflammation of the bladder often caused by a bladder infection or an untreated urinary tract infection, is common among her peers, she says.

The helmets given to women are “3 sizes larger”, she said, and the underwear they use is for men.

Karina joined the division at the age of 23. The unit commander left soon after, leaving her with about 50 men under her command.

“I was scared, but I succeeded. I am respected and obeyed,” she said.

Its main job is to tell relatives of soldiers when they have been killed.

“It’s difficult and I have to find strength, compassion and sensitivity,” she said.

In August, Karina had to make a difficult phone call to the family of a 23-year-old soldier.

“I called his dad – he didn’t believe me at first,” Karina said. “There’s a deep pause and it hurts a lot, it’s scary. Because you understand how the person on the other end is feeling.”

Karina finds her motivation in her unit which she calls her second family. The soldiers who work with her are all very different, she says, but always sincere, friendly, bright and cheerful.

She looks to the future and imagines after the war how she will buy a new house since hers was destroyed on March 15, 2022.


Ukrainian war: women fight on the front line“I worked, studied, traveled the city with friends and enjoyed life. And from February 24 (2022), I immediately started helping, first the civilians in his area, I looked in the basements and bought food,” Lisa said. (Contributed)

In another unit, Lisa, a 21-year-old gunner, says she’s lucky when she has hot water.

“(There is) a lack of light, water, heat, internet,” Lisa told CTVNews.ca in an email. “The toilet is a dug hole and the shower is water heated over a fire. Often there is no place to wash.”

When she is in the field, she packs pads, tampons and painkillers in case she is away from camp for a while.

“At first, my mates would offer me something sweet during my period, but I said I don’t eat sweets, so now they bring me pickles and tomatoes,” she said.

The winter was very cold. Lisa wears four pairs of socks and sleeps under four summer sleeping bags at night.

She lived in the eastern district of Mariupol, one of the first areas in Ukraine to be bombed. On February 24, 2022, Lisa was awakened at 5 a.m. by an explosion and immediately contacted her boyfriend who works in the military.

By April, she had joined the force and knew she wanted to work with mortars, following in her boyfriend’s footsteps. She finds her motivation in her friends from Azov (a small town north of Mariupol), who instilled in her a love of their country and of books.

“Now many of them have died defending my hometown,” Lisa said. “The Russians destroyed my hometown, killed many civilians, ruined my life until now. Every day they kill children, women (and) make a genocide of my nation.”

“And who, if not us, should stop them?” she says.


Zemliachky formed a month after the outbreak of war and posted her first Instagram story featuring a female soldier.

“Mental health is actually so important because we communicate with 7,000 female soldiers, and it was pretty clear to us that all of them need that mental support,” said Andrey Kolesnyk, co-founder of Zemliachky. “It’s not like you join the army and train somewhere. It’s actually war, and all the tragic and horrible things that you will surely encounter, you will feel and all these deaths, all these murders… It leaves a scar on your sanity.”

The organization was started by Kolesnyk and Ksenia Draganyuk who both have ties to helping women, particularly in the military. Kolesnyk’s younger sister and her husband joined the army just before war broke out.

Draganyuk was a television journalist who covered stories of women across Ukraine who were employed in male-dominated fields such as firefighters, police or pilots.

“So we decided to combine the idea of ​​helping and the idea of ​​her (Draganyuk’s) show before the war, and we wanted to tell stories about women at the front,” Kolesnyk said.

Through short questionnaires, the duo was able to understand who the women on the front lines are and what they need. The organization began sending parcels of items the soldiers needed, such as menstruation products, food, and messages of encouragement.

At first, Zelmiachky sent about 40 parcels a month. Today, it has increased to 50 to 100 packages per day.

“We don’t send equipment just based on our thoughts, in each box there are specific items that we know that specific person needs,” Draganyuk said in Ukrainian. “We also send them little things to keep their spirits up so they know there are people out there who care about them.”

As the charity grew, the demand for women-specific equipment and uniforms increased. The organization manages thousands of female soldiers and their needs with a team of 11 people. The demand is constant as the war drags on.

With the help of partners around the world, Zemlyachky began in July sending female soldiers suitable equipment.

“Not only (society) didn’t expect so many women to join the army (but) the government also didn’t expect so many women to join the army, that’s why it just had no opportunity to prepare with women’s uniforms, smaller boot sizes with lighter gear,” Kolesnyk said. “That’s why we exist.

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