Volunteers. How Ukrainian women fight for their country


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February 10, 2023

Volunteers. How Ukrainian women fight for their country

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

Half a year after the invasion began, Ukrainians continue to help their army, often putting up the last of their money and their remaining energy.

Photo: Paweł Pieniążek

More than half a year ago this was a fishing shop. Today, only mannequins and elements of decor are a reminder of its past. After February 24, the space was turned into a help center for soldiers. They can get all of their equipment here: from socks and underwear, uniforms, sleeping bags and mats to tactical vests and camping stoves. If necessary, volunteers will also organize the use of a car.

“There are no superfluous things, everything disappears right away,” says Tetiana Chimion, 43, a choreographer and owner of a dance studio. She is one of three women who dropped everything to support the military personnel who ended up in the vicinity of Slavyansk, a city in the Donetsk Oblast.

After half a year of full-scale war–after shelling, an approaching front and calls from the authorities to evacuate, the fishing shop is today the last organized support point in the city. Despite the difficulties, Chimion and her friends do not want to leave. “This is my country and home, I will be here until the end,” she states. “If we don’t help the guys at the front, the front will reach the civilians.”

Helping is however becoming more and more difficult, because volunteers all over the country are dealing with weakening support both from their countrymen and from abroad.

I’m going

When rocket explosions rocked the country on February 24, Slovyansk was quiet. Chimion and her husband got up around nine o’clock as usual. She was getting ready for work—like every day, she was supposed to conduct classes with children and teenagers. She usually started around 1 pm and finished at night. About 300 people came to her studio, some of whom took part in numerous competitions. They were preparing for a March trip to Białka Tatrzańska [a resort village in the Polish Tatra mountains], and Great Britain in April.

Tetiana and her husband turned on the TV with breakfast and realized that the invasion of their country had begun. Her husband shaved and said, “I’m going.”

“Are you sure?”


She didn’t ask anything else. Together they went to the draft commission. They conscripted him in the territorial defense, but not her. People with military experience were admitted first. She did not like this criterion. Chimion believes that conscripts should also be checked by the commission for combat readiness and endurance in extreme conditions. She felt that she could handle even the worst situation. “I don’t get hysterical, sometimes quite the opposite: in extreme conditions I become calmer,” she says.

Three categories

Besides this, Tetiana had been hardened by the events of eight years ago. The war in Donbas began precisely with Slovyansk: this small city became the base of the Russians and local separatists.

Chimion remembers that day in April 2014 as if it happened yesterday. Her dance studio is across from the building of the Security Service of Ukraine. Starting class, she went to the window to turn on the music. Outside, two men ran to the SBU headquarters, one lifted the other through the gate, and the other pulled him up. Maybe two minutes passed before an officer emerged with a portrait of fugitive president Viktor Yanukovych under one arm and a computer under the other. Chimion and the children watched him as he got into his car and drove away.

Fighting soon broke out around the city, and Chimion began to feel a strong connection to her country. “Before, we just lived in Ukraine, and it wouldn’t make a difference if it was Kazakhstan,” she admits.

Chimion stayed in Slovyansk for two months. When the city began to be shelled more often, she decided to leave—she was afraid for her sons, then thirteen and nine years old. Russian forces left the city in the summer and Slovyansk returned to Ukrainian control.

Chimion says there are three categories of people in this war. The first enjoys it. Others understand that it is necessary and has to be endured. The third just wants to survive.

In 2014, she belonged to the latter category but with time she moved to the second: the war is happening and everything must be done to win it. That is why,  soon after the Ukrainian army recaptured the city, she concerned herself with helping soldiers for the next few years.

Today, the intensity of events is incomparable to 2014. “If I stay here for a little while longer, I’ll wind up in the first group,” Tetiana jokes.

From morning to night

She was not disheartened by the refusal at the draft board. She wasn’t going to remain idle. She prodded her contacts and already on February 24 went to neighboring Kramatorsk to weave camouflage nets for the army. Two days later, she was at the fisherman’s shop in Slovyansk, because the soldiers there had no one to turn to.

The first days were difficult. Tetiana and the rest of the team wrote to friends asking everyone to bring what they could. The needs were enormous, because the Ukrainian army grew to an enormous size overnight.

Those who were stationed in the vicinity of Slovyansk could now count on being completely supplied at the fisherman’s shop. Unlike many support points, here soldiers could take necessary items in bulk, so that there was enough for the whole unit. About a hundred servicemen a day visited, and everyone needed something. Over time, the team at the fishing shop managed to find donors not only from Ukraine, but also from the Czech Republic, Germany and the United States.

“We were no longer ashamed because we didn’t have anything,” Chimion admits.

However, after a few months this support slowed down. Some volunteers got tired of the constant activity, while others ran out of funds because many people in Ukraine had lost their jobs and their source of income. In addition, aid became more centralized and formalized. Often this is no longer just spontaneous activity. Smaller support points which do not have extensive support structures, such as the former fisherman’s shop, are in dire straits.

Tetiana remains in the help center from morning to night. Sometimes she brings a computer with her to write applications for support to various institutions.

“I just open it, start searching or writing something, then someone enters. Two hours go by and I’m trying to remember what I was doing,” she says. “That’s why I write applications at night, and also ask my friends to help.”

Tetiana Chimion claims that a positive response comes for one of every twenty applications sent. Sometimes the fishing shop scares off other organizations with its wholesale orders, because they are used to smaller and more specific requests. In addition, many foundations—especially foreign ones—by definition do not support the military, only civilians.

The troupe in action

Kharkiv’s Culture Shock is quickly adapting to these changes. It is abbreviated as ShOK [шок] in Ukrainian, the letters derived from “General Staff of Oleg Kadanov”.

Kadanov is a musician, actor and poet—he has been helping soldiers for years. ShOK was created spontaneously, and became a formalized organization with time.

Tetiana Holubova, 24, has worked with Kadanov from the first days of the Russian invasion. She became responsible for raising funds for ShOK. When I met her in mid-March, her phone rang constantly after a local website published her number with a note that it was Kharkiv’s humanitarian headquarters.

“Back then, we didn’t think about what we were,” Holubova admits. “There was no structure, everything happened spontaneously.”

Culture ShOK  is a group of friends associated with the theater community. As occurs in such situations, everyone did what was necessary at the beginning. And after all, the regular shelling and bombing of Kharkiv, which previously had a population of one and a half million, did not provide many opportunities to systematically plan actions. They simply got up in the morning, had a quick breakfast, and rushed to do whatever they could before the evening curfew.

Kadanov and several others transported things to the military: scopes, drones, tactical glasses, walkie-talkies. Someone called Holubova and said that they had half a ton of buckwheat, and she looked for places where it could be delivered. Her friend searched for a generator. Someone else asked for immediate delivery of medicine, so they both looked for it; they then tried to find a driver ready to deliver it. They meanwhile answered endless calls and messages sent through all possible messaging platforms. It was like this all day.

Four thousand

It was clear that they would not last long in this routine, so they began to divide various duties between those who were on-site in Kharkiv and those who helped from a distance. Throughout this time their number fluctuated around ten people.

In the initial months, they helped up to four thousand people a day—the civilian population in Kharkiv, including internally displaced people, as well as the military. With time, as the situation in the city stabilized—though this stability includes Kharkiv being shelled almost every day—they also started to help the inhabitants of suburban villages liberated from Russian occupation.

“More shops in Kharkiv have begun to function since about June and public transport resumed, while humanitarian aid points & partner organizations continued to operate. We decided that in the city we would only help those we know, and know that they really need this support. Though we still deliver medicine,” says Tetiana Holubova. “In the villages near the front, on the other hand, practically nothing works and those who remain are usually elderly.”

Already in the first weeks of the invasion, Holubova and her co-worker created a Google form that they then made available to people asking for help. They also developed spreadsheets, based on which aid was distributed with greater precision.

Until “rusnia” disappears

Tetiana Holubova has meanwhile changed her phone number to finally be able to breathe a little. The pace of work has changed a bit: it is no longer a mad gallop now, but measuring energy for a long march. Because at some point those in ShOK realized that the war would not end soon. So Tetiana devotes part of her time to paid work. She has to make a living after all. She also writes grant applications for a theater company currently located in Lviv.

Additionally, until February 24, Tetiana worked at the Fake X Project , which aimed to fight against misinformation. Meeting in Kharkiv is currently impossible, so the Fake X team is preparing other ways to organize remotely.

Those in ShOK are now primarily looking for funding to continue their activities. They look wherever they can and submit applications. When it comes to supporting soldiers, Holubova admits—like Chimion—that it is more difficult today. They receive donations from private funds, from IT companies or friends living abroad. Holubova also notes that aid is no longer flowing as widely as at the beginning of the invasion, when fighting was taking place not only in the south and east of Ukraine, but also in its center, including around Kyiv.

“For the first few weeks or even months, it felt like everyone was doing something, then people gradually fell away. I think that people cannot constantly be focused on what is far away and does not concern them directly,” she admits.

She is not going to stop her work until the war is over.

“We all have one problem: ‘rusnia’ on our territory,” says Tetiana Holubova, using a contemptuous term for Russians that is often used since February 24. “If I can somehow contribute to ‘rusnia’ disappearing from here, I have to do it.”

Black belt

Even in cities far removed from the prospect of battle, many do not forget that the war is still going on.

There is little left in Kyiv today of the atmosphere of terror that was ubiquitous in the days when the Russian army stood at the city’s gates. Shops, cafes, restaurants, even some clubs have reopened, the streets have filled with people and become jammed with traffic.

However, for Bohdana Holub, war has become everything.

“I just think about this ending as soon as possible so our boys don’t have to continue dying. That’s why I consider how to provide them with the best equipment and where to get the money for it,” says Bohdana.

On February 24, her world turned upside down as well. Her father, a former serviceman, immediately joined the territorial defense. Bohdana lives with her family in the Obolon district of Kyiv, where clashes with the Russian army took place in the first days. She spent that time in a basement shared with other residents of her apartment block.

She completely forgot about the academy, the tatami (mat) and the gi (commonly called a kimono). Bohdana Holub has been practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu for nine years, in which she wins medals on the world stage. “I knew this was for me from the moment I took my first step on tatami,” she says.

This sport is mainly based on ground fighting and grappling. Thanks also to mixed martial arts—of which it is an element—Brazilian jiu-jitsu has been rising in popularity globally, including in Poland and Ukraine, for years. Bohdana Holub is the first Ukrainian woman in the senior category to receive a black belt. She has been representing her country in jiu-jitsu-newaza, as this sport is officially called, since 2019.

While in the basement, she tried to use her contacts by writing to all the famous athletes in her discipline, urging them to speak loudly about what was happening in Ukraine. Some shared her letter and published an appeal for support for Ukraine.

“Everyone should act on their own front. I am involved in sport, so I did everything to make the Brazilian jiu-jitsu community show the truth,” says Bohdana.

Pull-ups on a branch

Bohdana has been involved in sport all her life: first gymnastics, and then also crossfit. She is a player, coach and referee. Nevertheless, on that day, February 24, she lost interest in sports. “My life has been divided into periods ‘before’ and ‘after’ the Russian aggression,” she says.

Many of her friends from the gyms left to defend the country. She wanted to help them first and foremost. She asked them what they needed. The first thing she collected money for was walkie-talkies. Then for plates for bulletproof vests, for tactical glasses, helmets and hearing protection. She soon created her own organization. She called it: “Protect a soldier from a special forces group.”

“I have a financial cushion that I collected earlier. Thanks to this I can buy the necessary things and send them to soldiers. It is when they’re already in use that I organize a fundraiser. Then I buy more things,” she explains.

Many of them wear out, so sometimes she has to buy the same thing again and again. In the spring she bought hats for soldiers. Recently, one of them sent her a picture of a hat with a bullet hole in it. She immediately bought another one.

She also helps soldiers maintain physical fitness. As soon as they have time after returning from a rotation, those who once trained with her ask her for a workout plan. Bohdana adapts them to the environment in which they find themselves and the equipment they have. On my phone, she shows me a video of one of the servicemen doing pull-ups on a branch. When a weight was needed, they used tree trunks.

Next season

Bohdana Holub did not visit the gym or train for two months. She finally forced herself to because key international events were approaching. Only a different motivation drove her into the gym than before: it was no longer the desire to be the best, nor joy. She treated it as a job, the pay for which was to raise the spirits of the soldiers fighting at the front and to make her family proud.

“Sport no longer brings joy like it used to. In fact, it provides none at all,” says Bohdana.

Despite her thoughts focused on war, despite pauses in training and extreme stress, she first won a gold medal at the European Championships and then a silver medal at The World Games, held every four years. This event is colloquially referred to as the games of non-Olympic sport (the disciplines contested at them may be included in the program of the Olympic games over time).

After winning her medal, Bohdana immediately returned from abroad to Kyiv and again started helping servicemen. She is unable to think about a vacation when she knows that her relatives and friends are risking their lives every day. She brought back the medal for them.

“If it wasn’t for them, the soldiers, we wouldn’t be able to pursue sport,” she says.

She is now preparing for next season. And not only sports season. The war continues and in volunteer work, as in sports, there should be no breaks. That’s why Bohdana is already thinking about how to equip soldiers for wintertime.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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