'Fighting until the very end': Women of Ukraine keep calm and carry on despite Russian invasion

A woman carries her belongings saved from residential building destroyed by Russian attacks in Kyiv, Ukraine
9 min read
21 March, 2022
As the Russian army continues to entrap major Ukrainian cities, Ukrainian women are faced with the gut-wrenching choice of whether to flee or fight. For those that choose to stay, they have played a critical role in their nation's resistance efforts.

From fighting on the frontline to taking children to bomb shelters, continuing to do their usual jobs, taking care of their loved ones, to fleeing the war with their kids and elderly relatives, Ukrainian women hold the line in the face of the Russian military aggression

When 29-year-old Anastasia Burdeeva woke up in her apartment in Kharkiv’s residential area of Saltivka to the sound of explosions at dawn on 24 February, it took her a few moments to figure out what to do as Russia had launched its full assault on Ukraine.

"The Russian aggression has completely disrupted my life. It has destroyed everything I managed to build. It has taken away my future and that of my son"

She already had her backpack partially packed as warnings of war had grown louder in the previous days, with Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders.

The next day, she quickly prepared to leave with her boyfriend whose brother came to evacuate them with his car from the district they had been living in which was coming under intense bombardment, and drove them to Pervomaiskiy, a small town at 80 km from Ukraine’s second-largest city, to stay at the parents’ house of her fiancé.

A woman holds her child as they wait for the next train to Poland at the main station in Lviv, Ukraine . Over two million refugees have fled their towns after the Russians invaded.
A woman holds her child as they wait for the next train to Poland at the main station in Lviv, Ukraine. Over two million refugees have fled their towns after the Russians invaded [Getty Images]

Working as a software programmer, she was able to resume her job remotely last week. She considers herself lucky when comparing her situation to that of many others who have been displaced, lost their homes, employment or, worse, their family members due to the war.

“I’m really trying to hold on. There are times when I feel down, but then I tell myself that I can’t lose the spirit,” Burdeeva stressed while sharing her feelings with The New Arab. “They forced me to leave my hometown, even though temporarily, they won’t manage to make me leave my country,” she vowed resolute.

It wasn’t until more than a week after the 29-year-old fled to Pervomaiskiy that her mother also decided to take refuge there as the fighting was escalating and airstrikes caused her constant panic. She had been sitting with her grandmother in another part of Kharkiv, with electricity and gas cut for several days. 

“It was very hard to convince her at first. My grandma didn’t want to move out of her home, my mum was so afraid to leave her behind,” her daughter looked back on those terrifying days, “I was calling, urging her to go away from there, then putting the phone aside and crying."

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Currently staying with another four people, along with a couple who have found safety in the same house, the young woman is handling some essential daily tasks such as doing grocery shopping, buying necessary medicines with her mother, as well as splitting cooking and cleaning duties alongside her regular work.

Yet, she feels she wants to do more for her community and is eager to return to Kharkiv and volunteer to help rebuild it.

The centre of my city is now practically in ruins. I have this strong urge to go back and clean that mess with my own hands”, the IT specialist uttered, “my brain refuses to believe that life won’t be the same after this war."

Until then, Burdeeva is in an alert mode sleeping on a mattress on the kitchen’s floor, ready to respond to any emergency while waiting to see the end of the destructive conflict.

"Ukrainian women are paying a heavy price for Russian military assault, but at the same time they are great resisters fighting until the very end"

Ukrainian activist Olena Halushka, 33, was well prepared for the Russian attack against Ukraine as Putin had threatened a large-scale invasion with a major military build-up near Ukraine’s borders in recent months.

While following the events very closely in the past weeks, she had been actively advocating for air and missile defence systems to support her country and harsh sanctions against Russia before it began its military onslaught. 

Board member at the Anti-corruption Action Center in Ukraine, Halushka had dedicated her work to strengthening democracy and rule of law in the Eastern European state for the last 8 years.

“The Russian aggression has completely disrupted my life. It has destroyed everything I managed to build. It has taken away my future and that of my son”, the civil society activist told The New Arab with a shaky voice. “I wanted him to live in a prosperous, democratic Ukraine."

She also condemned the heavy shelling by Russian forces of the capital Kyiv, her native city, with its cultural heritage facing devastation in addition to their indiscriminate targeting of residential districts and the civilian population.   

 

In order to push her advocacy efforts for Ukraine and work more effectively with international partners – demanding air and missile defence to protect the Ukrainian sky – Halushka had to relocate with three colleagues to Poland.

Two weeks ago, she took her nearly two-year-old boy and said goodbye to her husband before provisionally moving to Warsaw. There, her organisation launched a new initiative called International Center for Ukraine Victory focusing on how to make the nation under attack win this war as soon as possible.

“I consider my relocation a very important, temporary step to maximise Ukrainian victory efforts, so I’m trying to look at the positive side of it,” the 33-year-old emphasised. “I don’t have the privilege to give up, I have to keep mobilised." 

Her plan is to return to her country, rebuild its infrastructure, buildings, and restart the work on Ukrainian democracy.

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Without her spouse to share childcare responsibilities, Halushka is fully engaged with her kid’s activities on top of her increased workload all day long. Her co-workers are helping out by watching over the child when she has meetings or other work commitments.

Still, juggling so much at once takes up all of her time. “I’m now operating 24/7 since at my NGO we’ve ramped up our advocacy work, and I’m looking after my son from the very early morning when he wakes up until his night bedtime."

Kharkiv resident Elena Rebezyuk, aged 32, did not hesitate to escape from her house in Saltivka neighbourhood, in the north-eastern part of the city, when the first round of bombing came by 5 am on 24 February.

“Our windows were shaking, I was so scared. I just picked up a few essential belongings with my passport, ran away and reached my boyfriend in town," the young woman recalled talking to The New Arab. “It took us five hours to drive out of the city in the midst of sound of bombs and gunfire,” she continued.

A woman tends to her newborn baby while sheltering in the basement of a maternity hospital that was damaged in a recent Russian attack on March 20, 2022 in Zhytomyr
A woman tends to her new-born baby while sheltering in the basement of a maternity hospital that was damaged in a recent Russian attack in Zhytomyr [Getty Images]

Rebezyuk resorted to finding refuge in a small vacation home in Merefa, a village located 40 km away, where she would normally spend summertime with her family.

Her parents stayed behind as they initially didn’t think it was a war and imagined it would be all over soon. Later, they too left Kharkiv opting to stay all together in their family holiday home.

Working in a small HR agency, she has seen day-to-day business decreasing drastically since the hostilities started on Ukrainian soil as several companies employing professionals supplied by the firm have been destroyed and the staff evacuated.

“I have no idea what my future will look like. I’m just thinking about basic stuff for us to live,” the woman in her early 30s said expressing concern for family, friends and vulnerable people in need of food, medicines or other necessities.

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Worried about co-residents trapped in Kharkiv, especially in hard-hit housing areas like Alekseevka and Saltovka, she is striving to offer assistance with finding contacts of volunteers, coordinating logistics to send drivers and rescuing those who are still seeking to flee.

In the Merefa village, where she is temporarily staying with her parents, women are supporting each other and other families in any way they can. “They are giving out food staples, taking care of their neighbours’ children when needed, hosting those who don’t have a place to stay," Rebezyuk said.

“We’ve also accommodated a friend of mine with her mother and sister for a short period, now a friend of my mum’s with her two girls are staying with us, and we would do the same for others," she added.

“I didn’t want to believe this was a real war in the first days, it seemed like a political game to me,” 38-year-old Yevgenia Konashenko, who recently set up a support group for single mothers in the city of Odessa, remembered speaking to The New Arab, “I was relatively calm trying to hang in, helping other women."

"A lot of Ukrainian men are now volunteering to join Ukraine's army, but people don’t realise that many wives of those combating are alone with their children, without food, appealing to us for help"

She was gradually eating and sleeping less, stopped her yoga practice and, instead, was constantly checking the news and interacting on social media.

She then started engaging in discussions in her network of family and friends and with social media users, warning against state propaganda from both the Russian and Ukrainian sides, discussing how to deal with anger and fear and opening up to peace, love and acceptance.

Soon, Konashenko raised some funds and decided to establish with another four team members a group targeting single mothers who are being affected by the ongoing conflict through the distribution of food and hygiene kits, medical supplies, and referral to therapists for psychological support.

“A lot of Ukrainian men are now volunteering to join Ukraine's army, but people don’t realise that many wives of those combating are alone with their children, without food, appealing to us for help,” the support worker argued adding that several among these women haven’t heard from their partners since they signed up to fight.

Konashenko together with her husband, two kids, and mother in law left Odessa one week after the hostilities erupted to move into her brother’s flat in her hometown Belgorod-Dnestrovsky, 40 km from the south-western city. Her mother fled to Bulgaria while her brother and his family relocated to the Czech Republic

Alongside her work with single mums, she has been spending more time with her small kids and keeping their minds away from the war raging at home. “I’ve taught my children how to hide very well in the car in case bombs or bullets reach us while we are moving around," the Ukrainian woman said. "Until today, they’re not aware of what’s happening."

Three weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, women in the Eastern European war-ravaged nation are enormously determined to resist by engaging in multiple ways to support their homeland while dealing with life as heavy fighting rages on.

Ukrainian women are enrolling in the Territorial Defence Forces, the volunteer military unit of the country's armed forces, to combat or support soldiers on the frontlines.

They are joining medical units, living in bomb shelters in order to stay safe and save their children, some are giving birth in these basements. Many are delivering supplies and rescuing families.

Many others are bearing the responsibility of getting their children and elderly relatives out of the country, and crossing borders in the hope of reaching safety while Ukrainian men of fighting age (18-60) are banned from leaving.

“Ukrainian women are paying a heavy price for Russian military assault, but at the same time, they are great resisters fighting until the very end," Halushka affirmed with pride.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec