Documenting the women warriors of Ukraine
In April, Emine Dzhaparova, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, became the first high-profile Ukrainian official to visit India since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. In a powerful appeal to India’s conscience, she argued that, just as India has a relationship with Russia, it could build one with Ukraine. A “better and deeper” relationship, Dzhaparova said, needed more “people-to-people contact.” Ukraine, she said, has “knocked on the door,” and now it was “up to the owner of the house to open the door.”
India has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, abstaining from voting on half a dozen resolutions at the United Nations General Assembly that called for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine and end the war. In a tightrope balancing act, India has stated that the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the countries involved must be respected while simultaneously maintaining close defense and economic ties with Russia. A recent report from a Finnish think tank named India one of five “laundromat” countries that have significantly increased their imports of Russian crude oil, which they go on to sell — in the form of refined oil products — to other countries, including those in Europe that have committed to helping restrict Russia’s revenue stream from fossil fuel sales.
This was the diplomatic backdrop against which a small Ukrainian cultural festival was held in the Indian capital Delhi last week — a tentative step toward the people-to-people contact Dzhaparova described. I met Masha Kondakova, a Ukrainian film director, at a screening of her 2020 documentary, “Inner Wars.” In 2017, Kondakova began to follow three Ukrainian women who served on the battlefield, two as combatants in the Donbas region, fighting against pro-Russian separatists, and one as a doctor in the Ukrainian army. The resulting film is a rare and urgent look at life as a woman on the front lines of war.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What prompted you to make a film about women soldiers?
I saw a lot of movies about war from the male gaze. I always saw the men as the main characters, and I thought, ‘no, wait a second,’ and I discovered that there are women fighters on the front lines in Ukraine. When I started to work on the movie in 2017, we had limited positions for women in the army.
For example, even if a woman was a sniper or working in a mortar squad, she would be registered as a kitchen worker or someone making clothes. This meant even if women were joining as fighters or combatants, we would not receive the same treatment as male soldiers. If you’re a veteran, the government helps you. It’s not the same if you’re registered as working in the kitchen. By 2018, things changed. The women that I filmed joined the army when there were no positions for them as combatants. So these rare women warriors had to be brave enough to fight at the front line and also brave enough to fight for their rights within the army. These women proved they had a place in the army.
I wanted to give these women their voices, to show their faces, to show that women too are war heroes.
You said things changed for women in the army in Ukraine in 2018. What specific challenges do women soldiers defending Ukraine from Russia’s invasion now face?
Women form about 23% of the army in Ukraine. It’s huge. Today we have more than 50,000 women who serve in the army. Around 7,000 are fighters on the front line. There are many more women now who are combatants in the war. This is voluntary. It’s not an obligation, it’s a choice. The army has never been adapted to suit women. But women are resilient. A friend of mine, an actress, learned how to be a first responder and give medical help on the battlefield. Also, there are a lot of women who have learned how to shoot. Until the beginning of 2022, before the invasion, even the uniform was not adapted for a woman’s body. All of that is changing now.
Are any of the women you filmed in 2017 on the front lines again? Have you been in touch with them?
Yes. One of the women I followed, Elena, was in Bakhmut. She is a senior sergeant in the mortar battery in the Donetsk region. When I spoke to her, she told me about this terrible moment when her 10-year-old son called her at 4 a.m. and said that he was scared. There were explosions in Kharkiv, where he lives. She was defending the country, she told me. But at that moment, she couldn’t protect her son.
You live in Paris now, but you still have family in Kyiv. When were you last able to visit them?
My father and mother are physicians. My sister is a pianist. They never talk too dramatically about the war. My mother and sister temporarily joined me in Paris, but my father didn’t want to leave Ukraine. He is 70 years old. He can’t fight but he said, “I will at least protect my house.” I last went to Ukraine in August. I heard the sirens. It was powerful and kind of scary. I visited places where buildings were destroyed, where it was horrible like in Hostomel and Bucha. But people were still walking around. People were still kissing on the street. Life is stronger than death, that’s what I learned.
On your visit to India, what sort of response have you received about the war in Ukraine?
I met two people who were very supportive, who told me they felt ‘very, very sorry.’ These people were young. I met one tuk-tuk driver who was around 60 years old and spoke Russian. He said, ‘I talked to Vladimir Putin and he said everything will be okay.’ I said, ‘Oh great, for which country?’ There is a war. We are free to take positions, and I respect that. But when he said, ‘Ukraine and Russia are together,’ I had to say, ‘no, it’s been a long time, almost a century.’
I don’t judge anyone. But if somebody believes Ukraine somehow belongs to Russia, please educate yourself. I know Russian propaganda is very strong. I also know that Russia and India have a long relationship. From my point of view, supporting Ukraine doesn’t mean you become an enemy of Russia. But when innocent people are dying in Ukraine, children, women, I don’t understand the tolerance. Ukrainians showed from the very beginning of the invasion that they wanted to remain sovereign. They don’t want to be the slaves of Russian imperialists.
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