KIEV, Ukraine — The woman who was Ukraine’s first female volunteer to get a full military contract wants the new recruits in her charge to drop all notions about the romance of war.
Iryna Sergeyeva was accepted as a reservist in the territorial defence forces when Ukraine was still trying to quash a Kremlin-backed insurgency across its industrial east in 2017.
Now, an all-out invasion by Russia on February 24 has turned the battle into an existential fight for Ukraine’s very survival as an independent state.
But the 39-year-old media relations professional turned army lieutenant is worried that other women — as well as many men — are rushing to enlist in Ukraine’s new volunteer army without appreciating the perils of war.
“In the first days, a lot of young women came wanting to get their hands on a rifle so that they could go out and fight,” Sergeyeva said at an underground garage that has been transformed into an impromptu military training base.
Chaotic scenes of men and women of all ages and professions urgently preparing to defend their besieged city unfolded around Sergeyeva as she spoke.
A group of silent men with exhausted expressions on their unshaven faces lounged in rows of bunk beds lining one of the cement walls.
A few older women in civilian clothes jotted down the personal details of new volunteers into their laptops.
A young man sat under a bleak neon light getting his mop of hair shaved off by a woman in a trendy beanie.
Sergeyeva stood in the middle of it all with a pensive expression and explained the sensitive nature of her job as chief volunteer forces organiser for her district of Kyiv.
“I understood that many of these young women were romanticising everything a little bit. Their heroic spirits were stirring,” she said.
“They were telling themselves they were about to go out and fight without really understanding how it all works. I had to nod my head while gently telling them no, you might not be suited for this.”
She paused and smiled.
“But then this was also true with some of the guys,” she said.
– Upside down world –
Russia’s offensive has pushed its forces to the very edge of Kyiv and created a sense of peril on the streets.
Parts of the capital’s outskirts have already been levelled by a punishing air assault that has pushed tens of thousands from their homes.
The bodies of Russian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians lay unattended on the debris-laden parks and streets of Kyiv’s northwestern suburbs.
Metal tank traps and sandbagged checkpoints honeycomb the hollowed-out city itself into segments that could be better defended in a guerrilla war.
Their city’s sudden transformation has had a profound effect on people such as aspiring artist Natalia Derevyanko.
The 24-year-old historian by training looked shyly at Sergeyeva and quietly defended her decision to try and fight.
“My mum praised me doing this,” the 24-year-old said on her second day of combat training at the garage.
“A lot of people are changing their professions because our entire world has turned upside down.”
– Disappearing fears –
The nose of Olena Maystrenko’s assault rifle swung around her knees as she awaited orders about her new deployment.
But the 22-year-old psychologist said she had overcome her initial reservation and was now girding for the possibility that she may have to shoot someone dead.
“It was frightening — especially at the start, when you first pick up a weapon and realise that you may have to kill someone,” she said.
“But then you overcome it. Life is full of nuances. Your fears disappear.”
Ukraine’s laws once made it difficult for women to become professional soldiers.
Sergeyeva said the military had to bend its laws to allow her to undergo two years of training and then sign a full contract.
She estimated that women represented only five percent of the country’s combat soldiers and military intelligence officers before the Russian assault began.
That number is quickly growing.
Small business owner Natalia Kuzmenko said she came down to the training centre to cook meals for the soldiers and make sure everyone had fresh uniforms.
“But I signed a contract,” said the 53-year-old. “That means that I must be ready to pick up a gun and fight.”