Ukrainian women on the front lines struggle to find a uniform that suits them. One spouse aims to fix that


Kyiv, Ukraine
CNN

Andrey Kolesnik and Ksenia Drhanyuk both radiate excitement as they lean over a box.

They are about to decipher the first Ukrainian military uniform for pregnant women, which they were recently commissioned after a pregnant sniper contact.

The young couple, both television journalists before the war began, are now fully dedicated to their independent NGO, “Zemlyachki,” or “Citizens,” which procures vital items for women in the armed forces.

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

“I received the men’s uniform, the men’s underwear,” he says. “everything [was] Designed for men.

It soon became clear that female workers needed much more than uniforms. Everything from small shoes to lighter plates for flak jackets to hygiene products is needed.

Therefore, the spouses resorted to private corporate donations, charitable funds and crowdfunding to purchase goods independently of the military. Some custom equipment such as women’s clothing under its own brand is produced by a factory in Kharkiv in the east of the country – including the new maternity uniform.

Other items, including body armor, helmets, and boots, come from companies as far afield as Sweden, Macedonia and Turkey. But Kolesnyk and Drahanyuk say they struggle to buy winter essentials such as sleeping bags and thermal clothing that will be important for comfort as winter approaches.

Kolesnyk says they have distributed $1 million worth of equipment so far and have helped at least 3,000 women. If they were on the front lines firing missiles, they could 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 are doing this to help our government,” Kolesnik says, not to compete with it. Their center is filled with cardboard boxes full of gear, all propelled by crowdfunding and grants.

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

“For a man, it is hard to understand that you cannot go there, your sister is there. So, I am trying to do my best here to not only help my family, but the entire army.

21-year-old Roxolana, who only gave her first name for security reasons, entered to pick up a uniform and other equipment before heading off on her next mission. She graduated from art school, joined the army in March and is now part of an intelligence unit.

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

She laughs as she wears her new shoes with flawless long nails. Before they said goodbye, Drahanyuk handed Roksolana a copy of “The Choice,” the bestselling memoir of Holocaust survivor and psychologist Edith Egger. The goal is for this to be a tool to help treat the trauma. Zemlyachki has also established partnerships with military psychologists that women in combat have access to.

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

She was finally released on October 17 as part of a prisoner-only exchange with Russia and entered mandatory rehabilitation in a military hospital, where she remains under her care.

21-year-old Roksolana, left, tries on her new shoes while Ksenia Drahanyuk, co-founder of the non-governmental organization Zemlyachki, helps her fill a bag with all kinds of things.

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

I wasn’t ready [for captivity]We discussed this a lot with the other prisoners, and that life did not prepare us for such a matter [an] Panina says at a pizzeria run by veterans in downtown Kyiv.

She says the prison guards were “unpredictable people” who sometimes verbally abused prisoners, but she escaped any physical harm.

Now the fate of her partner is in the air. He is also a border guard and is still in captivity. “I know he’s alive but I don’t know what prison he is in,” Panina says wistfully as she browses his photos.

When asked what gives her hope, she simply said, “Our men, our people.”

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