Ukrainian Women Play Crucial Roles in the War Against Russia

OMyroslava Bodakovksa cleared out her car’s trunk on a cold March evening to get ready for another night. She’d parked the car behind the main railway station in Lviv in western Ukraine, where women and children fleeing violence and horror were arriving in trains from all over the country. Bodakovska (38-year-old travel agent) wanted to meet as many people as she could. “I pick them up on the platform and take them to a shelter,” she says, estimating she makes about 20 such trips each night. “I go back and forth until the sun comes up. Then I go to bed.”

Over the last three weeks, this has been Bodakovska’s routine. Bodakovska had been in Poland for treatment of skin cancer when Russia invaded Ukraine. Although her doctors advised her to take a break, Bodakovska raced back to Ukraine in order to assist. “I am now fighting two wars: with cancer, and with Russia,” she says, arranging soft toys on her car’s backseat for children to play with when they arrive.

Bodakovska, one of millions of Ukrainian women mobilized in the country after war broke out. She provides vital logistical and support for non-combat operations. They describe themselves as the “rear front line,” a reference to the military term of back operations supporting those doing the fighting on the front lines.

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Women make up around 15% of Ukraine’s army, meaning there are around 30,000 women currently facing Russia on the battlefield. The fight for their families goes on far beyond: there is the businesswoman who stores medical supplies next to a refrigerator of fresh-baked cakes at her patisserie, and the wedding dressmaker swapping lace for camouflage. And the schoolteacher that runs a hotline which searches for family members in Mariupol.

Together, they pose an unanticipated challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin, becoming the other line of defense in a war where solidarity and high morale appear to be thwarting Russia’s plans for a swift victory. “He did not take us into account,” says Liliya Chyzh, a pulmonologist who recently returned to Ukraine after escorting her 84-year-old mother to safety in Poland. Now, she provides care in Lviv for internally displaced mothers and children.

It is a large and safe haven for many thousands of Ukrainians fleeing to Poland. Although the calm of Lviv was shaken by the attack on the airport by Russian cruise missiles, which sent plumes black smoke over the city’s skyline, it has since remained relatively secure.

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Even so, it’s jittery with war preparation. There is a curfew in place at night. Cultural treasures have been stored away, government offices have been sandbagged. The trams that run through the city are jammed with children and women, as well as potential refugees, who travel to West Africa in search of refugee status. They join more than 3,000,000 others who have fled. Techno clubs were converted to temporary refuges and soup pantries, and art museums and restaurants buzzed with men and women tapping on laptops while sorting through the many displaced persons in need of transport and accommodation.

All volunteers are volunteer. Most of these women make up the majority. This scene is reminiscent of World War II. The United States and Europe both, as well as the Soviet Union were fought in World War II. Women played an important role in war efforts, taking over clerical positions and working in weapon factories.

Although there’s no military conscription, Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country and can be expected to join the army. The country has one of Europe’s largest militaries, with over 195,000 active-duty personnel, and another 900,000 reservists and 100,000 territorial defense forces. Many more people are joining the ranks, and President Volodymyr Zelesky encouraged civils to do so.

Locals claim that Ukrainian fighters have the ability to find motivation in large, family-based efforts. For Russian soldiers, who are far from home and whose relatives are out of harm’s way in Russia, the war can feel “impersonal,” argues seamstress Natalia Domashovets. “Every Ukrainian family is involved, and that’s why we are strong, and that is also why we will win,” she says, after finishing sewing the hem of a grenade vest.

Ukraine’s incredible determination in fighting its much larger and more powerful neighbor has stunned the world, a feat made more impressive given that 10 millionAccording to U.N., about one-fourth of Ukrainians have fled their homes in the month since war broke out. Unarmed civilians in areas of Russian occupation have covered themselves with the Ukrainian flag. faced offRussian troops in tanks But as Russia’s military fails to significantly advance, it has switched tactics to targeting civilians over military infrastructure, Ukraine’s government has warned. This led to many West Americans, including Washington accusing Russia of war crime.

Such atrocities are being documented by a new collective of around 120 women volunteers, called Dattalion, who take photos and videos from the war’s hotspots. Images are reviewed in-house, put in an open database, and given to various Ukrainian government departments and media. “We are primarily women, as men are fighting or doing more dangerous stuff,” says Dattalion’s founder, a former Ukrainian government official and businesswoman who fled Ukraine for a European Union country just over a week ago. TIME spoke with her on the condition that she keep her anonymity, as she is concerned about the safety of family members and team members still living in Ukraine.

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Ukraine has seen women use their smartphone to record executions, air raid shelter bombings and even children getting their legs amputated. “I always knew how strong Ukrainian women were, but this has now been confirmed a thousand times over,” she says. Dattalion’s inception date of February 27th has seen around 1200 videos verified. They have been downloaded upwards to 7000 times per day.

Volunteer nurses and doctors provide care upstairs for children and women at Lviv’s railway station, March 9. Recent arrivals of women slept on an assortment of mattress on the floor, and they settled down to rest for the night. The baby was six days old when the Russian missiles bombarded Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. The fact that they fled with very little is evident in the neat piles of baby food and diapers donated by others. Below, young women hug and kiss their partners as they depart on trains that move closer to the front.

Natalia Koltarevska (55-year-old Odesa woman who is a laboratory technician at a maternity clinic) watches them. She is at the station preparing to return home to the Black Sea city after taking her two small grandchildren to the protection of the high hills of Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains.

“We are all suffering psychologically but I must go back,” she says, adding that she now works for free, handing over her monthly salary to the Ukrainian army. “Babies will not stop being born. It is important to continue. Together we can overcome this.”

Natalie Keyssar of TIMESoldiers said goodbye to their partners at Lviv’s train station, before they headed to the front lines in March 8

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