Women take up arms on both sides of conflict in east Ukraine

Women take up arms on both sides of conflict in east Ukraine
Irina, worker of a petrol station, now member of reconnaissance team of pro-Russian rebels' in the town of Makievka, eastern Ukraine, October 6, 2014.

DONETSK/DNIPROPETROVSK Ukraine - Before fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine, Irina was a croupier in a casino who never dreamt of taking up arms. Now she is gambling with her life.

Using the nom de guerre "Gaika", a cartoon character that translates as Gadget, she has joined an artillery unit in a pro-Russian separatist group fighting government forces.

"When your home is being destroyed, everything that is dear to you, friends, work ... It's about character. Girls who go into combat are real Russian women," she said in an interview, explaining why she joined up.

It has proved a tough experience but she has no regrets.

"Howitzers, large vehicles, the noise is what I will remember most," she said. "Painful memories go away. We try to focus on the positive, joyful, meeting friends. There are so many friends around now, the war is bringing people closer."

Her unit, based outside her hometown of Donetsk, the main rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine, is part of a rebel militia called Oplot and includes six women - herself, three medics, a fighter and a reconnaissance specialist.

"I had doubts before allowing women in," said their commander Yesaul, a Cossack from the nearby Luhansk region.

"But now I actually have more trust in them then in men. Women don't drink and I am sometimes seriously worried seeing my men's condition when they are relaxing after a mission."

Like the men in the conflict, the women come from all walks of life. A comrade in arms, who gave her name only as Irina for fear of retribution after the conflict, used to work at a petrol station in the town of Gorlovka.

"The fear is always there. But I was more afraid when I was sitting at home and hearing shells fly by. Then I got used to the sound," she said.

Irina has given up many home comforts, but not all.

"War is war but somehow I still need to wear makeup," she said, pointing to the cosmetics by the window of her room at a former factory that has been turned into a base.

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