Ukrainian women on the front line struggle to find uniforms that fit. One couple aims to fix that


Kyiv, Ukraine
CNN

Andriy Kolesnik and Ksenia Drahanyuk both beam with excitement as they descend over the box.

They will be unpacking Ukraine’s first military uniform for pregnant women, which they recently ordered after a pregnant sniper got in touch.

The young couple, both TV journalists before the start of the war, are now fully committed to their independent NGO “Zemljacki” or “Compatriots”, which procures vital items for women in the armed forces.

The initiative began when Andrii’s sister was sent to the front on February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

“She got a men’s uniform, men’s underwear,” he says. “Everything [was] intended for men.”

It soon became clear that armed women needed much more than uniforms. Everything from smaller boots to lighter armor plates to hygiene products are in demand.

So the couple turned to donations from private companies, charitable trusts and crowdfunding to buy goods independent of the military. Some custom gear, such as women’s tires, is produced under its own brand from a factory in Kharkiv in the east of the country – including the new maternity uniform.

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Other items, including armor plates, helmets and boots, come from companies as far afield as Sweden, Macedonia and Turkey. But Kolesnik and Drahanjuk say they struggle with stocking up on winter items like sleeping bags and thermal clothing that will be important for comfort as winter approaches.

The NGO procures vital items for women in the armed forces.

Kolesnik says that so far they have distributed $1 million worth of equipment and helped at least 3,000 women. If they are on the front lines firing missiles, they may do so “with minimal comfort,” he told CNN.

There are currently about 38,000 women in the armed forces, according to the country’s Ministry of Defense.

“We’re doing this to help our government,” says Kolesnik, not to compete with it. Their center is overflowing with cardboard boxes full of kit, all paid for by crowdfunding and grants.

A physical disability prevents Kolesnik from joining his sister, father and brother-in-law on the front lines, a fact that saddens him.

“It’s hard for a man to understand that you can’t go there and your sister is there. So, I try to do my best here to help not only my family but also the entire army,” he says.

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Twenty-one-year-old Roksolana, who gave only her first name for security reasons, goes in to pick up a uniform and other gear before heading off to her next assignment. An art school graduate, she joined the military in March and is now part of an intelligence unit.

“It’s so valuable to have these people who understand that we’re tired of wearing three sizes of clothes,” she says. “We didn’t have helmets, we had old jackets, we wore trainers and sneakers. “Now we feel that we are human.”

She giggles as she laces up her new boots with flawless long nails. Before they embrace, Drahanjuk gives Roksolana a copy of The Choice, the best-selling memoir by Holocaust survivor and psychologist Edith Egger. The goal is for this to be a tool to help with the trauma process. Zemliacki has also formed partnerships with military psychologists that women in combat can reach out to.

Other women, like 25-year-old Alina Panina, receive psychological support through the Ukrainian military. A border guard with a canine unit, Panina spent five months in captivity at the notorious Olenivka prison in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region after leaving the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

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She was finally released on October 17 as part of an all-female prisoner exchange with Russia and went into mandatory rehabilitation at a military hospital, under whose care she remains.

Twenty-one-year-old Roksolana, left, tries on her new boots while Ksenia Drahanyuk, co-founder of the NGO Zemljachki, helps her fill a suitcase with all sorts of items.

Ukraine recently asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to send a delegation to the Russian prisoner of war camp.

“I wasn’t ready [for captivity]and we talked a lot about this with other female prisoners that life did not prepare us for such [an] ordeal,” says Panina at a veteran-run pizza bar in downtown Kyiv.

She says prison guards “were unpredictable people” who sometimes verbally abused inmates, but that she was spared any physical harm.

Now the fate of her partner is up in the air. He is also a border guard who is still in captivity. “I know he’s alive, but I don’t know which prison he’s in,” Panina says sadly as she flips through his pictures.

When asked what gives her hope, she simply says, “our people, our people.”

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