By Halyna Mokrushyna, New Cold War.org, Sept 1, 2015
I promised myself to write this extraordinary story upon my return from Donetsk in April of this year. The story strikes me as an example of the paradoxes of life –sometimes cruel and generous at the same time. So here it is.
I met her in Donetsk. A young girl with blue eyes, light brown hair, and a nice smile. Just like any other girl walking the streets of a Ukrainian or a Russian city. What sets Vlada apart is her extraordinary experience as a women-soldier, a member of the Donetsk rebel army.
She is 24 years old, but she has already seen a lot: treachery, brothers killing brothers, a sea of blood, eyes of Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner denying that they are shelling civilians in Donetsk.
She has carried from the battlefield two wounded comrades-in-arms with ammunition–her own and that of her comrades. Arms are sacred, you cannot leave them on the battlefield. Only after they were in a safe place did she realize that she was wounded herself – a 7-cm long splinter burned into her foot. She removed the splinter and blood burst from her foot.
She also has multiple tiny splinters in her legs from fragmentation grenades. The splinters pierce the skin like shards of glass. “How could you carry two men, you, a tiny, young girl?” people wondered afterward. Vlada’s answer: “Because I was afraid. Afraid that they, too, have mothers waiting for them. What if they were to never see their sons again?”
Vlada’s own mother did not know that her daughter had enrolled as a soldier in the Donetsk insurgency. Vlada told her that she would cook for the fighters. But she was ready to do anything. The day her best friend, who joined the insurgency before her, was killed, she decided that she could not bear to wait any longer.
Her land, Donbas, a part of eastern Ukraine, was invaded by the Ukrainian army because Donbas refused to accept the illegal, nationalist regime that came to power in Kyiv through a coup d’état in February 2014. This regime tried to impose its anti-Soviet, anti-Russian ideology on a Donbas region in which Soviet history and present-day cultural and economic ties with Russia are building blocks of their collective identity, essential factors of survival as a distinct cultural and social group. Instead of listening to the legitimate demands of Donbas residents, the Kyiv regime sent in its army. Hopes for a peaceful settlement of differences between Donbas and Kyiv were crashed by that act. Donbas had no alternative but to fight. The death of Vlada’s best friend was, for her, the last straw. She presented herself for enlistment at the office of the Union of Berkut Veterans.
They took her in as a soldier. The commander-in-chief asked her: “Do you understand what you are getting yourself into? This is war, people shoot. You can get killed”. She replied, “I know where I am going. My father is fighting, too. If I die, at least I will die with dignity, I will have made my part of history. I want my mother to be proud of me, to be proud that I did not hide or flee, like many men did – running in front of women, saving their hides”.
Her first combat mission was at the village of Mariinka, near Donetsk, in June of 2014. She spent eight hours in trenches under non-stop, heavy artillery shelling by the Ukrainian army. During 10-15 minute breaks, when the Ukrainian side was re-loading its shells and rockets, insurgents would jump out of their trenches and help the civilians–women, children and elders–to get to the bomb shelters. And then, back to the trenches. Vlada was scared, very scared. As she told me later, the probability that a shell could hit a trench was very high.
It took a long time to recover from that ordeal. After the retreat of the Donetsk insurgency from Mariinka, many days of training followed. The second combat mission was at Illovaisk, east of Donetsk city, in August 2014. Vlada got hit twice – she was picking up wounded soldiers and placing them on a tank when a 120-mm shell exploded right next to the tank. In the cauldron at Illovaisk, where the Ukrainian army eventually suffered a crushing military setback, she lost a combat friend, Valera. He was a young man who became like a brother to her during their time spent together in the insurgency. He was torn apart by a grenade. He had a wife and a small son.
Vlada returned recently to that place to lay flowers in memory of Valera. The Donbas insurgents do not forget their fallen comrades – they are one big family, Vlada told me.
It was during the intense fighting at the Illovaisk cauldron that she carried on her shoulders the two wounded soldiers with their ammunition, for five kilometers. Her comrades were telling her to get herself to a hospital for treatment of her own wounds. She refused. She stayed to help, to bandage the wounded. Many young men fled, said Vlada. But she stayed. Her mother had taught her from childhood that if you do something, do it well or do not do it at all. She was crying, she was scared, but she stayed, because she was at war and there are only two ways out of that if you do it well–you die or you stay and help out however you can.
After they succeeded in exiting the battlefield, Vlada phoned her mother and told her not to believe any notice that she would receive. The commandment thought that Vlada and her unit were dead and started sending out death certificates to their families and others. At that moment, Vlada’s mother came to realize that her daughter was not just cooking for the insurgency. When Vlada went home next to see her mother, on Vlada’s birthday, her mother, a doctor, was crying as she removed splinters from her daughter’s legs. Vlada’s father already knew what his daughter was up to – he was in the insurgency himself.
After that, Vlada was assigned to the hellish fighting around the Donetsk airport. She was injured again. This time, she fell from a tank and her leg became pinned by its heavy, covering lid. It was cold, she was not dressed warmly and she caught pneumonia and was hospitalized. Vlada told me that Donbas insurgents, at least last year, when she was participating in combat, were equipped very badly or not equipped at all. They were “running”, to use Vlada’s expression, in sandals or running shoes, sometimes even barefoot. These were volunteers without money to buy uniforms or equipment.
While in hospital, Vlada was asked by her father and by her commander to stay behind and let others fight while she would help out with training, documentation or medical assistance.
Vlada said to me that if the Russian army was with the Donbas insurgency, they would have chased away the Ukrainian army a long time ago. As for the weapons, tanks more specifically, the insurgents took old Soviet tanks from pedestals in public squares, repaired what could be repaired and put them on the road. The insurgents also picked up weapons and tanks abandoned by retreating Ukrainian troops. “From three broken machines, one can assemble one new one,” Vlada told me. “So we assemble these and roll with them.”
Whenever Ukrainian troops retreat, insurgents comb the ground they occupied for the presence of trip-wire mines, because they install many of them. In spite of the warnings, locals stumble over them occasionally. There are many dead dogs around Donbas because of these mines. Once, Vlada recalled, they were driving to one of the locations to check for trip mines and did not arrive on time. They found a child’s leg where one of the Ukrainian mines was installed.
Insurgents also find packaging paper from dry food rations printed in German or in English. Sometimes they even find letters written to foreign soldiers by their families. Sometimes when the insurgents steal up close to the ranks of the enemy, they can see the faces of Black Americans.
Vlada has also seen into the eyes of many Ukrainian prisoners. When she asks them: “Why do you shell schools and kindergarten? Why do you shell civilians?”, they answer, “I didn’t do it”. One after another. If no one does it, Vlada wonders, how come the shelling continues?
When I asked her how she can explain this hatred, this madness of Ukrainian soldiers firing at their own people, Vlada replied that the majority of prisoners which she had seen were under the influence of some kinds of drugs. She remembers one case when they captured a tank driver and his gunner. The insurgents had to bring the gunner to his senses using glucose and saline solution because he was so intoxicated. When he came to his senses, he asked: “Where am I?” He did not remember how he got there. His body, as with the bodies of many Ukrainian soldiers, was discolored from excessive consumption of drugs or alcohol.
Another example that Vlada gave me in answer to my question about the hatred of Ukrainian soldiers was the story of a 16-year old girl who was killing insurgents at roadblocks. She would come there pretending to be a local girl who was beaten and raped by Ukrainian soldiers. The insurgents would take pity on her–such a young girl, almost a child–would invite her to sit down, cover her with warm clothes and promise to take care of everything. She would kill the insurgents by poisoning them or knifing them.. When the insurgents caught her, her body was also all discoloured. She said that her grandfather taught her that Donbas insurgency and Donbas people are all colorados, that they are ruining our lives”. “I will kill you all” – promised that 16-year old girl to insurgents.
Vlada’s recollections are more than anecdotal. Human rights organizations in the West as well as Western journalists have reported on the widespread practice of abduction, torture and murder by units of the Ukrainian armed forces, particularly the extreme-right battalions which are affiliated with extremist political parties. Not to speak of the widespread shelling of civilians which continues even as I write these lines. Much more substantial human rights reports have been published by non-governmental organizations in Russia and eastern Ukraine, but these are utterly ignored by Western media and governments.
When I asked Vlada how it feels to be a woman-soldier among male soldiers, she told me that her comrades-in-arms have always treated her with a great respect. She had a sister-in-arms, a young, 30-year old woman from Mariupol, who came to Donetsk to join the insurgency because her house had been burned to the ground by Ukrainian nationalists. They had told her to go back to Russia, as she was born in Russia.
When in combat and insurgents have to retreat, women soldiers are always the first to leave and the men cover for them. Men are even a little afraid of their female colleagues because of their “female force” – women are capable at the same time of firing weapons and bandaging the wounded. Women are universal soldiers. They do not complain. When asked how they endure heat and dirt and not being able to wash themselves for days, Vlada answers: “I know where I was going. I was going to war, not to an all-inclusive hotel. I went to the front lines where you sleep on God-knows-what, where there is mud and bugs, where you do not have time to eat or to drink”. Women soldiers endured the same hardships as their male counterparts.
I asked Vlada whether she was not afraid to take a weapon in her hands. She said that of course she was. She said she even asked her commander: “I am very scared. Is it normal?” He replied: “Only the dead are not afraid. If you are afraid, it means you are a human, because you have feelings. The moment you stop feeling anything you will turn into an animal”.
“I was always afraid”, Vlada told me. “There were moments I wanted to drop everything and shout: ‘Lord, has the whole world gone crazy when I see what is happening?'”
“I pray to the Lord: save the children! Save the old people, save everybody! I am a human being, I am against war, I want everyone to live.”
Vlada continues, “I did a lot of soul-searching lately. Many of us did. War “helped” a lot in that regard. Before, people were cruel. They valued things such as gold, diamonds, expensive cars, mink fur coats. Now, and I talk as a woman, I do not need diamonds, I do not need a mink fur coat. I need peace. I want my baby to be healthy and to be with me. I want my husband to love me and to be with me. I want my mother to smile more often, I want my father who has many wounds to recover and never suffer again. The most precious thing is a smile from your child or the gratitude of your mother.”
“We all did a lot of soul-searching. We have united; we have become one big family – brothers and sisters. It does not matter who was who before the war. I was a florist, I prepared bouquets for weddings, banquets.”
“You went from one extreme to another”, I tell Vlada. She smiles. “That is what my mother tells me. I always worked hard so that my mother could be proud of me. She raised me and my brother, by herself. She was rarely content with me, she was afraid of praising me too much.
“One day, my mom told me, ‘You are the best that could happen to me. I look at you and you know that I did not live in vain.’ These words of my mother are more precious than anything: more precious than my trip to Maldives and more precious than gold, diamonds, mink fur coats or expensive cars.
“When my child comes into this world and tells me one day: ‘Mummy! I am proud of you because you defended us’, this will be true gold. The most precious golden bullion in the world is your baby on your breasts. Children are our future. When they are killing our children, they are killing our future. It pains me a lot that children suffer the most in this war. They are defenceless. This pains me the most.”
The war for Vlada is over because she is expecting a baby. The war changed her life forever. The war made her re-evaluate her whole life. The war taught her how to fight and to endure, how to fire a gun and how to bandage a wound. It took away lives of her friends, but it also brought an unexpected happiness – she got married. She now has now someone especially close and dear to protect – her child.
I sincerely hope that this war will end for Vlada and her family, and soon. I feel privileged to have met this extraordinary young woman, braver than many men, and at the same time caring and tender, as a true woman. May your child, Vlada, bring you all the happiness that you deserve. May your child live in peace and never know war as you did. May peace come to Donbas and to Ukraine.
Notes: Russian media has reported on the use of drugs by many members of the so-called “volunteer battalions”, such as here. The battalions (or “territorial defence detachments”) were created by volunteers in mid-2014 by volunteers because of patriotic conviction that the Ukrainian army was fighting “pro-Russian separatists” and because there were frequent cases of regular army soldiers refusing orders to fire on civilians in eastern Ukraine. Most recently, the battalions are coming under the command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine or the National Guard.  Vlada provided several other examples of the brutality of Ukrainian fighters. She did not specify whether these were members of the regular army or members of “volunteer battalions”. There have been frequent reports of violent crimes, including torture, rape, and killing, committed not only by the so-called “volunteer” battalions but also by the Ukrainian army. See, for instance, the May 2015 report by Amnesty International which reports war crimes on both sides of the conflict. The most recent example of the violence of the “volunteer battalions” is the case of the ‘Tornado Battalion’, in which it was revealed that 43 members were convicted criminals, including the commander. The Ukrainian Military Prosecutor Anatoliy Matios has stated that his office has proof that the battalion organized a torture chamber in one of the schools of Lisichansk, a city in Lugansk region. The Russian ‘Foundation for the Study of Democracy’ (headed by M. Grigoriev) and the Russian Public Council for International Cooperation and Public Diplomacy (presided by S. Ordzhonikidze) published in early 2015 a report on the extensive practice of torture of Donbas residents by the members of the Armed Forces and the Security Forces of Ukraine.  ‘Colorado’ is a disparaging term for Russians or Russian-language speakers used by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists. It refers to the black and orange color of the Colorado beetle, the same color as the St. George’s ribbon, the most common WW2 memorial ribbon worn in Russia. In Ukraine, the St. George’s ribbon is associated with pro-Russian views and some people who wore these ribbons on Victory Day this year (May 9) were assaulted by Ukrainian ultra-nationalist vigilantes.