The Foreign Women Joining Ukraine’s Fight Against Russia

Sandra Anderson Eira doesn’t go short of appreciation. The 35-year old, who is fighting on the frontline in Ukraine, says that locals have gifted her chocolates, roses and pairs of socks.

“There have also been gifts of hugs and tears, happy tears,” she says. Her native Norway-born mother was an ex-member of the Sami Parliament. She spent 10 years at the helme of a fishing boat. Since March, she’s been fighting Russian troops.

One week after the invasion, President Vladimir Putin had ordered her to arrive. She’d never previously visited Ukraine, and made her way to Kyiv, signing up as a combat medic to the International Legion, established by President Volodymyr Zelensky in a bid to garner foreign support on the ground. An almost all-male unit of American and British soldiers called themselves the “International Legion” comprised her. “dirty dozen.”The soldiers were sent to the southern front and now they are on their way again. Anderson Eira is unable to disclose the location for security reasons.

Continue reading: Meet the Foreign Volunteers Risking Their Lives to Defend Ukraine—and Europe

One of many foreign women have come to Ukraine in order to fight or provide vital assistance. While the government is unable to verify the exact number, there are believed be many thousand serving overseas, including those in the International Legion or other units.

Now in its third month of existence, the conflict is challenging traditional gender stereotypes and strengthening them. The Ukrainian martial law prohibits combat-age men from leaving Ukraine, and it is widely believed that women will care for the elderly and children. However, as Kyiv’s female parliamentarians struggle with mass rape and Ukrainian women mobilise to fight the war effort for their country, these perceptions are shifting.

Around 15% of the regular Ukrainian army is female—about 30,000 personnel. The number of foreign women is much lower. A spokesman for the legion says “a couple dozen” of its members are women, from the U.S., U.K., Australia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Hungary, Israel, Georgia and elsewhere.

“The last time there was a big war on this continent, it was my country in need of aid,” Anderson Eira says, referring to Norway’s occupation under Nazi Germany, “so I see this as a moral obligation.”

In its third month, the war in Ukraine is being described as a battle of light and dark. Foreign women describe how their missions go beyond Ukraine in order to preserve freedom-loving country everywhere.

“Putin is insane and unstable,” says Hannah Jarvis, a 39-year-old British army veteran who will soon depart for Ukraine in a donated four-wheel drive with medical aid. “He’s got his hand on the nuclear button and we’re allowing him to act with impunity. We have got to stand up to bullies,” she says from Abergavenny in Wales, where she is a local councilor and office manager for the Welsh parliament.

Continue reading: Ukrainian women mobilize beyond the battlefield to defend their country

Jarvis, who was in Iraq 15 years ago when she last served in a warzone, is now retired. She has been bringing medical supplies to Poland since the beginning of the current war with Bridge to Unity charity. In mid-May, she will cross the Ukrainian border for the first time. She will fill her vehicle with supplies—syringe drivers, monitors, tourniquets, defibrillators and trauma kits—for the bombed Zhytomyr maternity hospital in the western part of the country. After that, she will travel back to the U.K. to meet a Ukrainian woman and her child who have been granted British visas.

Jarvis, a single mom to two children, a boy (6 years old) and an 8-year-old girl (8 years), has said that her family is limited to Poland. “I get criticized by people online who say I’m not looking after my family,” she says, with frustration. “But this is precisely why I am going. I can’t say no to other mothers in need. I can be a good role model.”

Foreign women often travel to Ukraine as they aren’t convinced that men must fight. Nana Tomaradze, a 31-year old Georgian woman, was in Tbilisi with her son, 8 years, when war broke out. Her Ukrainian husband was in his homeland, working with the country’s security services.

“I thought, what kind of wife am I to be sitting here? There he could be dead. Am I to just watch this all from afar?” Tomaradze dropped her son off at his grandfather’s and jumped in a bus “full of upset Georgians” bound for Ukraine. They reached their destination five days later.

“There were former soldiers, bartenders, painters, and some poets. We know what it feels like to be at war with Russia,” she says from Kyiv, referring to Moscow’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and continued occupation of some of its territories.

Continue reading: Inside Zelensky’s World

Tomaradze, upon arriving in Ukraine, joined the International Legion. Here she was given a crash course on how to use a gun. Her husband met her two months later. They began to work together, and they cleared out Russian landmines near the capital of Ukraine. “The fight against Russia involves everyone,” says Tomaradze. “We should at least use our energy for something good in the world, to make it a better place.”

Georgia, with a population of nearly 4 million, “understands Ukrainians more than anyone else in the world,” says Mariam Geguchadze, founder of the Shame Movement—a pro-European protest group in Tbilisi. Geguchadze claims to know of 10 Georgian women who are fighting for Ukraine.

Darejan Maisuradze is a 63-year old man who immigrated to Ukraine from Georgia in 2008. He opened a spa in Chernivtsi (a town of approximately 250,000 people in the south-west part of Ukraine) in order to offer massage services.

Maisuradze, a former Soviet Union teen, was trained as a sniper and served in the military. She says she decided to take up arms again, some decades later, when she saw children who had been evacuated from Bucha—the site of some of the war’s worst atrocities. “Their eyes looked like they were made of glass,” she says. “Putin ruined their childhoods, so I must now fight.”

Continue reading: It’s impossible to stop being a child of war

As part of the territorial defense forces, she now guards Chernivtsi’s checkpoints. “Russia is the empire of evil,” she says, late one night in her apartment, over the din of her pet cockatoos. “And evil must be eliminated.”

Traditional gender roles have been rendered meaningless on the frontlines. “You live on top of each other, you breathe down each other’s necks,” says Anderson Eira, describing how she shares “hopes and dreams and also bathroom breaks” with her fellow male legionnaires, in conditions that are reminiscent of her time at sea, where women make up only 1% of Norway’s fishing crews. Anderson Eira admits to that, but she also acknowledges the possibility of being captured and made a prisoner by war. “There will be sexual violence,” she says, describing how she has seen firsthand how Russian soldiers have raped Ukrainian women and targeted town squares and evacuation buses of civilians. “It’s also a big motivation that keeps me going.”

Many women believe they can make a greater impact. “There should be more of us,” says Maisuradze, wryly. “We’re better shooters, more precise. Men even envy us.”

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