Ukrainian women volunteer to fight, continuing a tradition: NPR

Tanya Kobzar stands in front of the Taras Shevchenko monument in Lviv. When Ukraine entered the war last month, Kobzar, a 49-year-old mother of two, decided to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and enlist in the army.

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Tanya Kobzar stands in front of the Taras Shevchenko monument in Lviv. When Ukraine entered the war last month, Kobzar, a 49-year-old mother of two, decided to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and enlist in the army.

Ryan Kellman/NPR

LVIV, Ukraine – Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Tanya Kobzar had nightmares.

“I woke up in the middle of the night, terrified. I was looking at a black and white photo of my grandmother, which I had framed on a table,” she recalls. “She reminds me how brave a person can be.”

Kobzar’s late grandmother was a military doctor during World War II. It’s now part of the family tradition – how brave she was, dealing with soldiers on the front line. So when Ukraine went to war again last month, Kobzar, a 49-year-old mother of two, decided to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps. She quit her desk job in healthcare supply chains and joined the military.

Tanya Kobzar’s late grandmother was a military doctor during World War II. It’s part of the family tradition how brave she was, dealing with soldiers on the front lines.

Tanya Kobzar


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Tanya Kobzar

“I did this for my children and for my country,” says Kobzar, who uses her military nickname in this interview with NPR, rather than her full last name, because she does not have permission from her commanding officer to speak. to the media.

Her first stop was boot camp, where she learned to shoot a gun. She found it surprisingly easy. “Easier than making borscht!” she said and laughed.

Today, Kobzar is deployed to a military academy in the western city of Lviv, where she teaches soldiers how to set up field hospitals. It is a training role. But many other Ukrainian women are on the front line.

Under martial law, Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are banned from leaving the country and encouraged to fight. Women are not under such a mandate. Yet many of them nevertheless took up arms against the Russians – in this war and in past wars.

Ukrainian women have actually served in combat nearly a century longer than American women. There were female Ukrainian officers in World War I, in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and in World War II, in the Red Army.

“The Bolsheviks and the Communist parties, they declared equality between men and women in all spheres, including the army,” explains feminist historian Oksana Kis.

Despite this history, it was only after Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014 that women here enlisted in the Ukrainian Armed Forces in large numbers – and were officially recognized as combat veterans, with full military pensions. Before conscription, almost a quarter of the Ukrainian army was female.

Some of the iconic images of the current war – on propaganda posters and on social media – are of female combatants. They are reminiscent of women who fought in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, Tamil Tiger women in Sri Lanka in the early 2000s – and Kurdish women fighting in Syria.

“It’s very familiar iconography, when it comes to imagining a nation protecting itself – fighting for its independence and freedom,” Kis says.

Alina Mykhailova, 27, is a veteran of the 2014 war in eastern Ukraine who now sits on the Kyiv city council. Earlier this year she re-enlisted in the army and says she is witnessing heavy fighting.

Alina Mykhailova


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Alina Mykhailova


Alina Mykhailova, 27, is a veteran of the 2014 war in eastern Ukraine who now sits on the Kyiv city council. Earlier this year she re-enlisted in the army and says she is witnessing heavy fighting.

Alina Mykhailova

That’s what Alina Mykhailova was doing when NPR reached her by phone on the front lines somewhere in central Ukraine. She could not reveal her exact location. But his commanding officer had given him permission to speak to the media – and to post images of the war on social media. She had recently posted a video on Instagram of incoming artillery.

Mykhailova, 27, is a veteran of the 2014 war in eastern Ukraine who now sits on the Kyiv city council. Earlier this year, she re-enlisted in the military. And she says she sees heavy fighting.

“We just burned a Russian tank. In fact, not one! We have wiped out their entire position! she told NPR. “Their tanks were directly hit by our shells.”

Her mother is particularly worried: Mykhailova and her father are both in the same combat unit.

“I’m the only woman in our unit, and it’s difficult. Some of the soldiers we lost are my friends, my brothers in arms,” ​​says Mykhailova. “But as a woman, I’m careful not to show too much emotion. I don’t want to hurt the morale of our unit – the fighting spirit of the guys.”

The fighting spirit in Ukraine currently seems quite robust. Only men risk conscription. But many of them have not even been called up yet, because the army has already been flooded with volunteers – of all sexes.

“They said, ‘OK, you’ll be online. But now we have too many people,'” says Olga Limarenko, of her experience as a volunteer at her local branch of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Force in Kyiv. .

She and her girlfriends went together, but were turned away. Officials said they don’t need anyone else at this time. So Limarenko, a 36-year-old architect who has since moved to Lviv, decided to contribute in another way: by making Molotov cocktails to deliver to Ukrainian cities under Russian occupation.

“Over the past week, we’ve made about 1,000,” she says.

NPR caught up with Limarenko at a library in Lviv that had been transformed into a bustling command center for volunteers — mostly women — making Molotov cocktails and camouflage netting. She says she would fight in combat if asked. But for now, she says, make no mistake about Ukrainian women’s involvement in this war.

“We are not weak. We are just waiting,” Limarenko said.

Waiting for a place to become available in the Ukrainian army, she says, so they can fight.

Producer Olena Lysenko also contributed to this report.

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