How are women accepted in the Armed Forces? What can we do about gender bias and how to get in combat if you’re a female soldier? What are Ukrainian women fighting for?

In this material, you can read the conversation in text format. Also, you can watch the podcast with English subtitles on our YouTube.

In the sixth episode of the podcast ‘Feminists about the war’ our guests:

Anna Ivancyk — soldier of the 24th Mechanized Brigade named after King Danylo, combat medic, civil activist, mother
Anastasia Vinslavska — soldier, paramedic, activist
Daria — soldier, feminist activist

‘I knew what I had to do on February 24th’

Daria: I am 22 y. o., and these are my first six months in the armed forces. Before joining the army, I was a journalist engaged in feminist and LGBT activism. I mainly worked as a news correspondent and a PR manager for Kharkiv Pride. I was also involved in organizing Women’s Solidarity Week in Kharkiv. In February, we worked at the organization of the Women’s Solidarity Days in March along with the Sphere, and then everything started. 

The day after, I packed my stuff and went to the nearest military registration and enlistment office. Since then, I’ve been serving in the armed forces. I’m in logistics and that’s how my story about sexism begins, as on the very first day we were split up into groups: medics, drivers, mechanics, people with experience, and… women.

Anna Ivantsyk: I’m Anya, and on February 24 at 6 o’clock in the morning I woke up my friend by calling her and screaming on the phone: “Wake up! The war has begun!”. I had no combat experience, but I had experience as a paramedic (combat medic). I have studied it since the beginning of 2014, and I also worked as an instructor. So, on February 24 I didn’t hesitate to decide what to do. I thought about it for a long time.

Just before February 24, there were Crimea Days in Ukraine. My friend got sick and asked me to go for an interview instead of him. After the interview where I mentioned the annexation of Crimea in 2014, I called him and said: “Maksym, don’t you think that storm is brewing? I believe the war is imminent” and I said that literally a day or two before the full-scale invasion.

On February 24 I went to the military registration and enlistment office, where I was told: “You have no military identity card, nor combat experience. You should go to the territorial defense.” So, I went to the territorial defense. The doors were closed, and I was like “no-no-no”. I woke up my friend, and at noon we went there for a second time. She had a military identity card and combat experience, while I had none. We were told: “Come tomorrow, we’ll figure something out”. On February 25 I got my military identity card. At first, we went to the 24th brigade, named after King Danylo. From the very beginning, we planned to work as combat medics. That’s the only thing we know and can do, and that’s what we’re doing now.

I have been in my brigade since February. We went through the hot spots of Luhansk, my boys, and me. Before the full-scale invasion, I had been engaged in inclusive school education and activism and raised my son. I wouldn’t say that I lived a life of an ordinary person, but it was a life that I liked, that I was completely satisfied with, that was stable and interesting. However, I don’t regret joining the Armed Forces of Ukraine, because never before have I lived such a rich life and had so vivid experiences.

Anastasia Vinslavska: I am that one friend that Anya called at 6 AM to say: “Get up! Why the fuck are you sleeping, the war started!”. I instantly jumped to my feet: “What? Where?”. It was scary, terrifying, as I already had an experience: in 2017 I evacuated the wounded as a volunteer in ASAP Rescue, which wasn’t far from Horlivka, near Donetsk. 

But it is one thing when you know what to do, have a bulletproof vest and a helmet, and know that you have a shelter. You know what you can do, where you should go, and what to do there. But when you’re at home, when you are responsible for children, your cat, your bad-bound granny, and when that horrifying siren begins to howl for the first time… It’s not a drill anymore, it’s a real air-raid alarm — and you’re panicking and are confused.

I mean, I have a fully stocked paramedic backpack but… Like you know that there is a shelter, you go to the shelter, and it’s closed. It seems that you have your things packed, but still, you don’t pack the essentials, because you need them all the time. I mean your toothbrush or your lingerie. And something is always lacking. You begin searching for food, and your food supplies are not that large. 

You run to the supermarket, and here they are, a bunch of confused people just like you. It seemed that people were preparing, but it was impossible to prepare for what began. I’m from Lviv. There was nothing extraordinary there, nothing terrifying. Well, there were several missile strikes, and people died, but it can’t be compared with what people went through in Kharkiv, Mariupol, or Irpin.

I’ve been preparing as well: since 2014 I’ve been visiting tactical and medical training courses. In 2018, I entered the Medical Academy because I thought the courses, I took weren’t enough, and I needed to obtain medical expertise, a solid base I could use to provide medical care. Now I would be on the 4th grade. In the summer I was supposed to defend my thesis. But on February 24 Anya and I went to the military registration and enlistment office, we were drafted, and diplomas no longer were on our minds. If there is knowledge, an opportunity to help people, to save someone — you must use it.

But that was the problem that we faced: on February 25 we were already in our military unit. Every other day people were sent to the battlefront, but all we heard were constant excuses: “we’re not sending women yet, you are not needed there, you should stay in one place”.

And every day we were like: 

— Maybe tomorrow we’ll be sent?

— No, you’re not going.

— How about tomorrow?

— No, you’re not going.

It kept dragging on and on for I don’t know how long… 

Anna Ivantsyk: Up until March 9!

Anastasia Vinslavska: It lasted for two weeks, and then we transferred to another battalion. My friend was there, so we asked for the transfer and only then did they send us. Were it not for the transfer, we would probably still be sweeping the parade ground in our military unit. Because if you are a woman in the military unit, that’s what you do, sweeping the parade ground.

Gender bias isn’t only about the army, it’s about society

Anna Ivantsyk:  Recalling, for instance, how women in the first battalion are treated (we meet occasionally). They talk bad about women, like “you don’t belong here, all you do is whining, you are but a burden for men, we, the real men, are carrying out combat missions, and you’re only impeding us”. In the battalion where I am now, I feel comfortable. Even though there are jokes, they are the least of my worries. I’m just the kind of person that won’t let anyone push me. In fact, I can push someone around me, so that people are whining and complain to the company commander that I am mocking them.

Actually, it is quite peculiar, the way women are treated in the army — I guess, that depends on the collective and whether you know how to take a stand. I mean, if you take a stand and make it clear that, for instance, this is acceptable, and this is not, and you’d better refrain from doing that in my presence…

Anastasia Vinslavska: I’m not talking about the army as a whole, but regarding the war circumstances, the battlefront I mean, there are no opportunities to give women special treatment. If there is a shower, you already got lucky. If there is a barrack, a place to sleep — that’s great as well. So, if a woman asks for special treatment, she’ll be treated accordingly: she will be perceived as a weak person that is nothing but trouble, that is difficult to care for, and to foster a comfortable environment for her. However, if she is like everyone else, and doesn’t ask for special treatment, then she is usually treated well. 

And she will still be protected, you can’t escape this, all women are being protected. Psychologically it is really hard for men when something wrong happens to women, when women die, you can’t avoid it. Generally, women are treated in a sexist way when they ask for some special treatment — I speak from my experience, from what I saw, and from what I went through.

Daria: By the way, I would like to share an observation about how women and men perceive living conditions: if a woman asks for more or shows dissatisfaction with conditions, then men say “well, it’s a woman, it makes sense”. When the very same rhetoric is utilized by a man, they are like “he’s a fool”. So, they aren’t being sexist towards him. I noticed that to get men to treat her normally, a woman must try ten times harder than a man. Otherwise, you will constantly face some kind of condescension. That’s why sometimes you need to… I know women that were ought all but to eat sand to be seen as equals. 

Anna Ivantsyk: Men treat me with prejudice, that happens as well. We have combat losses, and when new people come, they see that I am a woman here, they are shaken up and go like: “what the hell does she…” And my boys immediately respond: “Hey, you just joined us, and she has been here since February. You never carried out such combat missions like the ones she does.” And once again, not only do these prejudices exist in the army, but it also affects our society as a whole. These bias emerged not in society, and not in the army. We change this attitude little by little. 

But I want to say that many people think of feminism as equal rights and equal responsibilities. As for me, for example, it’s difficult to dig trenches. I say: “I´ll stand on watch while you’ll be digging the trench”. I perfectly understand that one hour of my work with a shovel and one hour of a man’s work with a shovel will result in two completely different trenches.

Anastasia Vinslavska: Biologically, we are not suited for hard physical labor, right? Our testosterone level is not that high, our muscles and skeleton not that big, and there is nothing to be done about it. No matter how hard you prove that you’re equal, physical abilities will always be men’s advantage — it’s an objective reality.

But everyone gives according to his ability: women can do the job that men can’t. If I have more expertise in medicine than a man, then I do medical tasks, and he doesn’t. And he gets the assignments that he’s capable of carrying out. It isn’t a big problem for me. The problem only exists in people’s minds. How can we eradicate it? By having more women in the armed forces. Not by dragging them here, like the recent public discussions about not even mobilizing women for war, but about making military registration for women obligatory. We need to shift the discourse from whether women should be recruited forcibly or voluntarily. They don’t recruit all men, and they shouldn’t recruit all women as well.

I met dozens of men that are seemingly OK on physical and mental levels, but morally and psychologically they are not ready to fight, and they are of no use in the army. Give them weapons, put them in a trench — they’ll be shaking and not fighting, and there’s nothing to be done with it. The same is true for women: it is clear that there will be no use from them in the trenches. But if they specialize in medicine, like if they work in a hospital, or somewhere in the home front, or in the logistics — here are just a few examples. You’re capable of anything if you really want it. It’s not like there are some physical or psychological barriers preventing women from going to the army. If a woman is ready, if she truly wants it, then I don’t see the problem.

Anna Ivantsyk: I also used to think that I have poor physical fitness. However, if my PE teacher saw me now, he would applaud. 

Anastasia Vinslavska: During air attacks, legs are literally crossing (laughs).

Needs of women in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and cooperation with volunteers

Daria: I have a funny story, which is actually not funny, but rather really sad. Once, our military unit formed a large list of needs and sent it to volunteers in the group chat. And there was that one volunteer that wrote: “Whoa, remove women’s underwear from the middle of the list. That’s unheard of – women’s underwear is on the military unit’s list of needs! What were you thinking? How can I send this list to honorable people?! Delete it. Or make another list.” And we responded: “Are Ukrainian female soldiers so tough that they don’t need underwear?”. 

The volunteer bailed on the conversation, and that was it, we stopped communicating with her. Even people that cover the needs of the military units since 2014 sometimes don’t understand what it’s like to be a woman in the army and write stuff like that. That’s because they can’t imagine a woman serving in the military.

Anastasia Vinslavska: Just recently, a couple of weeks ago I saw how a well-known volunteer, Diana Makarova (if I recall correctly) wrote that women need underwear: “PM me where you serve, and we’ll send you…” And I was like: “Huh, not bad”. That’s a common practice, women helping women. I got the underpants from the armed forces, I actually like them, but I was given only one pair. And what can you do with that one pair of yours? Especially when you can’t wash and dry them properly – in such conditions you need more. It is hard to stick a pad with wings on a pair of boxer briefs, so it’s not an option either.

Anna Ivantsyk: Oh, and another amusing story? If there are Cargo 300 [wounded soldiers], they’ll be evacuated, but their backpacks remain. And you make an unboxing: there is always clean underwear there.

Anastasia Vinslavska: Attagirl! I never doubted you. Another unboxing story, Anya is shy, so I will tell it myself… We actually have a lot of painful memories about Popasna, we had dozens of combat losses in this city. We paid a heavy price for its defense and prevented these morons from attacking other cities, yeah, but still, it was really hard in there. 

By then I was in the medical unit, in the rear, while Anya was in Popasna, and she saved many lives there… Many soldiers owe her their lives. At that time, I was really worried about her, as there was no mobile connection. Whenever I called her, there was no mobile connection. Once in a few days, she called me back, but the rest of the time I didn’t even know if she was alive or not? And I was asking the wounded boys that were coming to my medical unit: “How is Anya doing? 

Did you see my Anya? How is she?’. And they were like: “Nothing will happen to your Anya. She tells our boys to pull themselves together and fight instead of hiding in the trenches”. And I was like: “Phew, everything is OK with my Anya, her morale is high, everything is fine”. Another boy that came to my unit said: “Nothing can happen to her, we thought she was Cargo 200 [dead] three times already”.

He told about a soldier that came into a house… that’s the unboxing story for you: the house was bombed, and no one could have survived. So, he comes there to take a thermal imager, some night vision devices, anything worth taking. He goes inside, sees Anya lying on the floor, and so he thinks: “I will take her away, at least the relatives will have a body to bury”. So, he takes her and carries her on his shoulders. At some point, Anya regains consciousness and says: “Put me on the ground”, — and he throws her. I’ve been listening to the story with tears in my eyes. I thought: “Well, if she managed to survive this, she has nothing to be scared of”.

She left the city on April 24. That was Easter, and we met in Bakhmut. I was so happy that she survived and got out of the city (because really, people could get out of the city either as Cargo 300 or as Cargo 200 [wounded or dead]). And Anya was almost perfectly healthy. Shell-shocked, yeah, but everyone was shell-shocked, so perfectly healthy, that’s what I say.

Readiness to war doesn’t depend on gender

Daria: If a person, regardless of sex, is capable and can be helpful there, then why are people being sent back to safety, to their military unit, only because they are women? While people that are stereotypically perceived as born warriors are staying even though they feel bad or are lightly injured just because of their sex? Why do we make that choice? I think it is based on outdated, unjustified beliefs.

Anastasia Vinslavska: It’s assumed that women have children. It’s a bit different when there are children. But I don’t get this as well: why are mothers thought to be more important for children than fathers? Yet another question. Plus, many women that were sent at the points of permanent deployment don’t have children. So that can’t be explained by the fact that they’re mothers. I suppose that it’s frustrating for men as well, and they think it’s unfair. So, it’s a slippery topic for me.

And once again: only disabled men or fathers with three children under 18 can cross the border, while for women there are no restrictions. Only if women would be enlisted for military registration, and it may happen in four months only, then some restrictions may be imposed. I don’t support it or condemn it. I simply can’t find the arguments. Why does it happen this way? Is it right? Is it wrong? I don’t have any arguments; I simply take it as a given. But if I would need to engage in a discussion with a sexist, I simply wouldn’t know what to say.

Daria: Lots of women are sent away from the hot spots, regardless of their willingness to stay there. That’s a recently acquired bad habit that our society, including the military community, suffers from: it is thought that we need to protect women as if they won’t handle it. But actually, I know women that handled more than some men, on a physical level, I mean.

Anna Ivantsyk: You look at people and that’s enough to realize who’s ready and who understands where they are and what they should do. You also see who doesn’t understand where they came from and what happens. For me, it’s about how the person copes with fear: some people go catatonic or get hysterical, and some people pull themselves together and begin working, treating it like work.

In Popasna I really was… I mean, I didn’t fully realize it while I was going there. I understood that it was war, that I’m at war. Furthermore, I couldn’t estimate the scale of what was awaiting me. It was in Popasna where I understood that I must come to terms with death, that I can die at any given moment. And as I came to terms with death, it was much easier since then. But it is now very hard for me to leave the sector, to return to my family, to my child, to my friends, and to return later. When I was in the other position, I really spent two days freezing and sitting quietly. It took two days to overcome fear and return to my responsibilities that remained the same from February 24 up until today. That’s why now I try not to leave the battlefront.

Psychological support for the military: as it is now, as it should be

Anastasia Vinslavska: As people return to civil life, they return to normal life as well, and after a while, they get used to it, if they don’t suffer from PTSD. But people that came on vacation or came home for a few days, simply can’t get rid of that feeling. As Anya says, it’ll be tough to return to the battlefront. You get back in the habit. In civilian life, even if you are undergoing treatment or adaptation, still you get used to the feeling of safety, of normality. And then you return to these conditions…

It’s like you’ve been dragged out of ice-cold water, you had a chance to get warm, and then you’re thrown back in the water. And that is not a great feeling at all. So, it’s not that I don’t advise you to go home, but rather to keep your visits short. Because the adaptation processes start anew, yeah, and that is bad for your psyche. And that is quite a delicate matter, the psyche.

If you’re in a stressful situation for a limited amount of time, you only feel more energized. However, if you remain stressed for weeks, months, and years like our people… For instance, our 24th brigade. Anya currently serves here, and I served here earlier. They entered the war zone in May 2021. In February, they were supposed to have a rotation, and they were about to leave… Obviously, the rotation didn’t happen, as the war started, and people are staying in the war zone for more than a year. And that isn’t normal, that isn’t OK.

It’s hard to put into words how much they suffer on moral and psychological levels. After the war, psychological help and psychotherapists will be in great demand. Not only will the soldiers need them, but everybody will also: people that survived the occupation, air attacks, rape… The demand for psychotherapists and psychiatrists will be huge. That trauma is here for a long time. But our most important task, for now, is victory, we’ll work out the rest in due time.

Regarding the army of our future: I also think that psychological help needs to be at the highest level. We could avoid a lot of problems, if there were qualified psychologists and not just some random people that spent five years getting their diploma, still having not even the slightest idea how to work with people. If our psychologists were high-qualified, how many suicides, depression, and other things could be avoided.

Daria: It’s difficult to find a skilled specialist. Psychotherapists that understand the specifics of military life may not understand some specific topics like the life of LGBT people or women in the army. They are used to working with the soldiers, and there are more men than women in our army. When I got myself a therapist that otherwise met my requirements, I realized that she doesn’t fully understand the military context. So, there is a dilemma: either they understand what war is, or they understand what it’s like to be a woman, in particular at war.

That is also an issue in the training of psychologists: at first, we need to ensure that experts working with the soldiers possess such certificates. Secondly, psychologists need to broaden their specialization: to be more versatile, they need to understand different contexts. I don’t know if there are many military psychologists assigned to military units, but my guess is no.

Anna Ivantsyk: For instance, there is a psychologist in our battalion. You understand that he’s a psychologist that simply graduated in Psychology, but he knows nothing about the military context. Regarding our universities, I should say that they don’t even offer, they didn’t even announce the enrollment for the needed specialties and don’t teach the students. We lack the specialists that will teach people who will work after the war. And we lack people that may work during the war, with soldiers, with their family members. 

That’s a huge problem in our country. Like, OK, we have the time to prepare this and work with this, but for some reason, it doesn’t work on the state level. I still remember 2014 when psychologists read something here and there, learned it from somewhere, and began to run a practice. They were doing it voluntarily, and that’s not a stable work basis at all. People burn out, they don’t have money, and they can’t work for an indefinite period. From my experience, I can say that I am exhausted. Six months passed, and of course, I got exhausted. I want to lie down and sleep somewhere, but I understand that I need to hold on for just a little bit. If there is some energy left, that means we need to keep fighting.

Trainings for combat medics were held recently. I asked people: “Please go there, learn at least something”. No one is bursting with enthusiasm, because even psychologically, it is tough to look at the wounds. I had some idea what the wounds may look like, but seeing it with your own eyes is really difficult.

The toughest for me is accepting the deaths of other soldiers. If you are always together with the boy, you eat from one plate, drink from one cup, and then someone dies, then it’s difficult to accept his death, his loss… I always say that Cargo 200 [soldiers’ corpses] returns home to mothers, and if you’re Cargo 300 [wounded soldiers], then lie here for a bit, we’ll take you away later. It was important for me that the body was taken from the battlefield and sent home to the mother. For instance, there are some people that I still… Even though I know they’re gone, and there were no opportunities to get them away…

But still, I can’t move on. They say that something is gnawing at me, making me ask myself why it happened.

Who can I talk to? To the psychologist who’s just a psychologist? Well, I don’t know, he’ll be shocked by that. Our psychologist – he listened to us for a while, and his eyes bugged out, he didn’t expect to hear what we told him.

Anastasia Vinslavska: A psychologist can’t understand a soldier. Soldiers went through certain experiences, and psychologists have their civilian experiences. There is that rad initiative when a psychologist trains people with combat experience, and they become psychologists of sorts, psychotherapists, and trainers for other soldiers. And that soldier, he won’t say: “You don’t know what I went through”, because he’s talking to the ex-soldier that went through it as well, that coped with it, marked as “Archive”, and put it somewhere in a box in his mind. I mean, he survived it, got the experience, and now can move on and keep on living. And that is important.

Another thing to implement for people that were wounded and are discharged (that means they won’t be able to serve in the army) or the veterans that won’t be conscripted. It would be great for them to work like that and help people that are currently serving to cope with difficult psychological situations. But once again, people in the army that are currently on the battlefront, with whom can they talk? With the closest friend, maybe. 

The problem is, when people start listening to each other, they tend to speak out of turn. Each one wants to speak up. I also have a degree in Psychology, but I don’t practice it. I remember that in our first year we were taught that the main task of a psychologist is listening and asking the right questions. 

Not giving advice or conceptualizing a roadmap showing what a person should do but posing the right questions that will let your client speak. When you speak and structure your thoughts, articulating them, these very thoughts and ideas take shape in your head and are placed in the right order. A person should find the right decision for themselves, they just need a listener.

Compared with 2014 the army is more modernized and bigger, we get more supplies, and we have more experience and better training, but there are no positive dynamics with women serving in the armed forces. Even though there are 35 thousand women in the army, you can’t say the dynamics are positive. If a man is in the army, he is regarded as a soldier by default. It is only when he behaves as a moron, he is regarded as a moron. For you, it’s the other way round. You must prove that you’re normal, and only then you’ll be treated accordingly.

Take, for instance, the pixel uniform of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I have a big ass. The problem is that the way these pants are tailored doesn’t suit me. The length is OK, and the waist size is OK, but I simply can’t fit them on my ass. The bulletproof vest doesn’t fit the chest…

Anna Ivantsyk: At the beginning of the war, I was running around with Corsar [a portable missile]. For some reason, I thought that it weighs 8 kilos, but it weighs 12. I have a plate carrier now, but I serve in the infantry, and we don’t use plate carriers, only bulletproof vests. I’m a combat medic. Our boys are carrying assault rifles, and in addition to that, I carry an extra backpack that weighs up to 10-13 kilos. That’s what I have: a backpack, body armor, a helmet, an assault rifle, and it’s really hard to run with all this. And even if you are searching for women’s clothes that will fit you (and there are huge problems with providing those). It is hard for a woman to find comfortable military clothing and equipment. There is that one nice initiative called Zemlyachky you can contact to get the things you need. 

Anastasia Vinslavska: By the way, did you get yours?

Anna Ivantsyk:  Not yet, since we changed our location.

Anastasia Vinslavska: I’ve got mine; I ordered soldier boots. I didn’t ask for body armor and helmet because I already had them, and I also received dozens of cool things like pads, tampons, shower gel, sponges, genital thrush medications, and probiotics. They took good care of me. 

War has always been the engine of change

Daria: Military registration of women beginning in October is an important step toward systematization and a shift in attitude towards women in the army. Legally, we as a population group are getting involved in it more. I think that in 10 years things will probably change for the better.

Anastasia Vinslavska: I don’t know if you noticed or not, you had to notice! Since the beginning of the war, huge changes have happened. Istanbul’s convention! I don’t even know how many years it took to write about it and discuss it, and then boom! It got ratified! The use of firearms for self-defense will become legal, what else, legalization of medical marijuana is amazing. Finally, medical marijuana is legalized. In some time, I am sure, recreational marijuana will be legalized as well.

I mean the war is bad, that’s a fact, but throughout history, it was a driving force of changes, rapid and breakthrough changes. Were it not for war, we would be still going on protests, etc… But without the powerful catalyst, nothing will work. And now positive changes are happening. It’s not that I am idealizing Israel’s experience. But still, I like the idea of obligatory military service. If we want to survive next to our insane neighbor, we need to make every effort.

Daria: I regret that I didn’t begin preparing for the army earlier. I was a teenager when the war started. I was 14, and I got used to it, learned to live with it, and continued to live the life of a child that grew up during the war. 

The invasion in February was expected. Psychologically I was ready, but physically, theoretically, and practically, I wasn’t fully ready yet. And that’s where I screwed up because I needed to think about it much earlier. I really hope that people who aren’t currently serving in the military understand that if they are not enlisted, yet, it simply means that they have extra time to prepare themselves. I think that we need to constantly remind people about psychologists, and laws about women, because people tend to forget horrifying things, and oftentimes they forget about the war. I mean, they get used to it, become accustomed to it, and learn to live with it. 

But I guess that war isn’t something you should learn to live with, but rather something you should fight. And the sooner you put all your effort into fighting it, the sooner it will be over for everybody.

Anastasia Vinslavska: About people getting adapted to war… I remember 2014, right after Ilovaisk. We began to get ready, and tactical training began. In Lviv, there were 80 people in the beginning. I mean, we were divided into groups of 20, and together we went to 4 different instructors teaching tactics, recon, tactical medicine, and so on… no more than two or three months had passed, and people got used to it. In 8 years, everyone relaxed completely, honestly, me included. I still went to the East of Ukraine as a volunteer, yeah, but I didn’t pay much attention to military training. I thought I didn’t need it. 

I saw my future in medicine. I planned to work in the hospital or as an EMT. I thought I would do it. I mean, I underwent certain training and revised things from time to time. But on February 24 I realized that I wasn’t ready psychologically. Undergoing training is one thing, but it’s totally different to put your skills and knowledge into practice. And it’s not the easiest thing to realize that you really can pass away, you can be killed. That’s not a game, it’s impossible to save the file, you can’t simply press “restart”… 

‘We are fighting for life to continue’

Anna Ivantsyk: Sometimes I think that I got trapped in a dream over the last six months – I will wake up, and everything will get back to normal. Actually, it will never get back to normal. In my previous life, I made plans, accomplished something, studied, and aspired to be better. For instance, I am a primary school teacher in my most recent education. 

A year before the war, I completed my studies and changed the area of my work. I was also engaged in human rights activism in Lviv, protesting illegal construction. I lived a rich and full life. It’s not that I was torn between different spheres of my life: I wanted to change society, that’s why I was engaged in activism, I also spent time with my family and had a stable job. I did what I liked. I worked on self-improvement, attended courses, and traveled a lot. I built plans and dreams… For now, I don’t have any dreams or plans left. I simply want everything to be over. 

Sometimes I catch myself thinking: “OK, imagine tomorrow everything will be over, but what next?”. What are you going to do? Get back to your work? That’s not on my plans anymore. For some reason, I think that it will be difficult to return. I have another job now, but what to do in the future, I don’t know, it is hard to understand and articulate it. But there is one dream I want to fulfill — I want to go to the seaside for a month!

Daria: When I feel overcome with nostalgia, I think: “Oh, I’m about to get all sentimental, longing to return back, in peacetime…”. What really helped me was the thought that the rules of the game were slightly changed. We are playing for another family in Sims 3, everything’s fine. We were journalists, and now we are doing slightly different things. And that helped me to break this cycle. My mind can do so many things at once: it reshaped my personality, my character even. For real, my mind has done a good job.

Back in my 14-is, when everything started, I lived in Luhansk oblast. At that time, I couldn’t imagine that in 8 years I will serve in the army. I originally come from Severodonetsk, I lived there until I turned 17, and then I moved to another city to study there.

Anastasia Vinslavska:  I am sorry that your city is under occupation, but I hope that we will liberate everything. Yes, you can’t return everyone, but at least Ukraine will be back in these cities. Plus, people are professing pro-Ukrainian views that stayed, but not all of them had left. According to the dominant opinion, all the normal people went away, and the only ones staying there are the traitors waiting for Pax Russica. That’s not true. I know dozens of people that stayed that now are sharing the locations of Russians’ positions, so we can blow up their barracks and ammunition depots. But once again, I’m sorry for you.

Daria: In 2014 we were occupied. It lasted for a month, and I hope that this time we won’t be late. I plan to spend some time at home. I hope that everything will be OK. At least, I am motivated to get better and get stronger. 

Anna Ivantsyk: And people will return, even those who fled abroad. There is something I want to tell you about people who are currently abroad. Loud voices are condemning them like “you went away, poor you, how hard it can be, sympathizing with Ukrainians from abroad”. In no way do I condemn them, especially those with babies or children of any age. Children don’t need to experience war; they don’t have to see this.

My child stays in Lviv. My son went to the cinema with my brother, and there was an air raid alarm, there were missile attacks. My brother called me to say: “Markiyan experienced severe stress, he had a strong panic attack”. Even though our city is relatively safe. It is not being shelled like other cities. Because of that, I hope that people currently living in different cities abroad will return. We will rebuild demolished cities and will make them even better.

Anastasia Vinslavska: There are dozens of boys and girls writing that they are not fighting so that people on the home front would cry in the corner, hysterical or depressed. We are fighting so that life can go on: children being born, new buildings being erected, and our civil society changing for the better. Even though now we don’t have the right to go on the protests, still, we can create flash mobs on social media, and voice our concerns if there is something we don’t like. And the way to voice it, either through articulating concerns or showing support, is important as well.

We are a civil society, and these democratic institutions need to stay. We can’t say that we don’t have the right to criticize something due to the war. I’m not a fan of searching for traitors, that’s what I don’t like. But still, constructive, and relevant criticism needs to exist, right? So as it is in normal life. We can’t return to prewar life, but we need to put effort into creating an environment that will help people to go through it, whenever it’s possible. We need to help people obtain this knowledge.

And I really want more people to undergo the trainings, like the ones that were organized before: on tactics, tactical medicine. They were offered, but there was no demand for them… People got accustomed to it: “What do I need these for? I don’t need these, everything’s OK”, “Rashists are somewhere far away, on the occupied territories, armed forces are fighting for us and here I am, sitting deep in the rear and feeling great, so why do I need to spend my time and resources learning all that stuff…?” There are plenty of such people, and I guess that now they regret that they didn’t get ready earlier.

I hope that we’ll exchange contacts and stay in touch. I hope that we’ll meet again to celebrate our victory, and then we’ll share our experiences — positive, negative, any kind. But it will happen after our victory, which is imminent and fast approaching.

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