‘This is my land, I stay’: These Ukrainian women are among thousands choosing to fight, not flee
Gabriela Miranda, USA TODAY – March 25, 2022
Just last month, Olga Kovalenko moved into her first apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine, and got engaged to her longtime boyfriend. Now she spends mornings cleaning her rifles and pulling people out of bomb-stricken homes.
When Ukraine enacted martial law and banned men 18 to 60 years old from leaving the country after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, Kovalenko knew she’d never forgive herself if she left her homeland. She called her parents and volunteered to join Ukraine’s military forces.
“I wasn’t about to leave all the saving and defending to the men. I may be a woman, but I have no children, and I’m ready to fight,” Kovalenko told USA TODAY. “This is my land, I stay.”
Kovalenko is one of thousands of Ukrainian women refusing to flee as bombs have raged and cities have been bombarded, steadfast in their decision to defend their beloved home and extinguish Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hopes for a swift victory. Women make up about 15% of Ukraine’s army, according to the Ukrainian government.
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Each day Kovalenko said her unit goes to different cities that have been hit by Russia’s relentless attacks. They evaluate the damage, help evacuate civilians and are ready to fend off Russian forces. Fortunately, Kovalenko hasn’t encountered a Russian soldier yet but said she would “do what’s necessary” to win the war.
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Kovalenko was born in Kyiv to a Ukrainian mother and Russian father – she said both her parents are proud. Her father even said he stands with Ukraine and is “disappointed” with the invasion.
“I’m different, I’m half of each side in this war, but I choose to do what’s right. I choose to risk my life for my country; it’s what my Ukrainian blood tells me to do,” Kovalenko said.
Makeup artist now wields weapons
Alona Bushynska, an Odessa native who was once a makeup artist for 17 years, has traded in her brushes for medical supplies and weapons. A few months ago, her biggest worry was scheduling her next client. Today it’s protecting her unit and partners in a civilians task force in Ukraine.
Bushynska said she decided to join the war effort while she watched neighborhoods near Kyiv destroyed by Russian forces. Each morning, the task force wakes up to the sounds of bombs and brings medical supplies to soldiers and civilians.
The task force operates in units of two: One person provides medical assistance while the other is armed and ready to defend as needed. The task force is filled with dozens of women who chose to fight, Bushynska said. Among them: former journalists, paramedics and teachers.
“We’re not professional warriors, we are just civilians who stayed because we want to protect our houses. We want there to be homes and buildings for people to come back to,” Bushynska told USA TODAY. “If I die, I die. But I want to stay.”
Ukraine has a long history of female fighters
Women such as Kovalenko and Bushynska are no different than the thousands of female Ukrainian soldiers who fought in World War I, in the Austro-Hungarian army, and in World War II, in the Red Army, Ukrainian veteran Kateryna Pryimak said.
During Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine, Pryimak enlisted in the Ukrainian army and fought on the front lines to protect the region. Now eight years later, she’s defending her country in a new way – with medical supplies and volunteers.
Pryimak is the head of the Women’s Veteran Movement, an organization that provides support for veterans, and has set up a headquarters in Kyiv. Dozens of women, many like Pryimak, are paramedics. They provide food, clothes and medical resources.
“Guns are not the only thing needed. Food, medical attention and even a smile, that’s also what the women who have stayed behind provide to the soldiers and civilians,” Pryimak said.
She said she knows of thousands of women who have joined the fight against the Russian invasion – and she’s not surprised. Since 2014 and before, women have shown they are just as capable of bravery as their male counterparts, she said.
Bushynska said she will continue to fight with other civilians for as long as it takes. Kovalenko will defend Ukraine until her “last breaths.”
“Men don’t always have to fight and women don’t always have to sit at home and wait,” Kovalenko said. “We are here to help and we’ll stay here until the war is over, until my last breath if needed.”