In Ukraine, voluntary help has been common since the first days of the country’s founding. Looking back, we can point to toloka, which according to the ancient Ukrainian tradition, is a one-time large-scale joint work performed freely by community members. They traditionally harvested a widow’s field, helped the weak and infirm, elderly and childless people. However, the very word “volunteer” has become a part of Ukrainians’ lexicon quite recently. And at full strength, it has heralded its unbreakable power since the Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent events of the Russian-Ukrainian War.
Ukrainian men and women have been actively involved in volunteering since 2014. Kharkiv Observer correspondent talked to volunteer Diana Makarova from Kyiv, head of Diana Makarova’s Fund. The woman became volunteer due to certain circumstances making her conscious choice to help Ukrainian patriots who stood up for our country when the enemy was at the gates. Thousands of civilians had to leave their homes, often under enemy fire, and Ukrainian combatants in cooperation with volunteers organized their evacuation. When they arrived at various regions of Ukraine, it was volunteers who provided those people with food and hot drinks, found temporary shelter for them and gave them psychological assistance.
Diana Makarova still actively supports the Ukrainian army with aid, disproving the stereotype that the frontline is no place for a woman.
When were you engaged in volunteering, why did you come to this decision?
I consciously reached this decision at Maidan after Serhiy Nigoyan’s death who I personally knew. As I’m not young enough anymore to take up arms, I’ll help those who can do it. If we hadn’t done it, the war would have come to Kyiv.
How did your family react to your decision?
My family joined me, all adult family members including my husband, three children and my brother have gone to the east to help the army. Even my grandchildren understand what I’m doing and often ask me if I saved people.
How did volunteering change your life, Diana?
Before the war, I worked as a journalist, was a loving mum and grandma, organized kids’ festivals and was leading a bohemian way of life. Supporting the defending army and innocent is currently the highest priority of my life’s agenda. My family and friends know it. Those people who shared the pain of war are still our friends but some friends who were not touched by war aren’t our friends anymore. Now, we live for those who fight for us. We are patriots! We have this invaluable experience of volunteering that we have gained within five and a half years: we can make split-second decisions, look for a way out of a desperate situation. Volunteers don’t only deliver aid to the frontline but they also provide legal and health care assistance.
Who and where do you usually provide help?
We provide assistance not only to the army but to civilians, who suffer from war. Together with Andriy Halushchenko, nicknamed Andrew, volunteer and combatant, who was killed in September 2015, Natalia Voronkova, founder of Dobra Volya volunteer hundred, and our volunteers’ team, we arranged the evacuation operations and moved about 1,500 people from Debaltseve, often under enemy fire, in January-February 2015. We also relocated civilians from other villages such as Mironivska, Svitlodarsk, Krasniy Pakhar and moved them to Svyatohirsk where our first task was to feed them. We gave them a leg up in their lives for a long period of time. Many people returned back to Debaltseve after the active phase of hostilities was over.
Have you ever felt gender discrimination, Diana?
I often feel it. People don’t usually take me seriously. For example, when I go to the frontline with a male driver, combatants turn to that driver to sort out this or that situation thinking that he is in charge here. Then the driver tells them to appeal to me as it’s me who makes a decision. First, they can’t understand why the woman should make that decision. But communicating with the woman who has such a feature of character as a determination, they usually change their mind.
Do all women who join the army have determination?
There are different types of women in the war zone. Some of them go there to look for a husband but others become unit commanders. These very women proved their equality. But to be honest, if a man has to show his professional skills once, a woman should demonstrate her professionalism every day. Ukraine is still a patriarchal society.
Have you ever felt over-protected by men? Do you consider a man should back up a woman in a dangerous situation?
Men always try to protect women in the war zone. There are lots of women at the frontline nowadays but a number of men is still much greater. That is why women are protected by men unwittingly. A woman has been considered weak for centuries and she is mostly physically weaker that’s why men provide protection to women. There is another matter and when a man faces a woman who is strong enough, then he won’t rush to lessen the burden and lets her perform the task which could be dangerous.
As for me, there were many occasions when I together with a male military made a decision to go to a tough spot or not and he wasn’t going to dissuade me and back me up as he respected my decision because he could see that this is a decision of a strong personality and we went there as partners. And such an attitude is very much appreciated by women as it’s all about gender equality.
I will give you another example where men try to over-protect women. We were moving to the east in rainy weather, our driver lost control of the vehicle and we went into a ditch. A Ural military truck stopped and combatants helped us to get out of there. Among the military men, there was a petit looking young woman. When male soldiers started jumping out of the truck, a few men lent her a helping hand to get out. She frowned and got out of the vehicle herself. I noticed her self-reliance carefully and she didn’t ask for extra assistance for herself. After they helped us and returned back into their truck, and the men helped each other to get inside, then she accepted their help. They respected her decision that she wanted to be responsible for herself and she insisted that her decision had to be respected.
Is the presence of women required for men at the frontline?
On one hand, women are needed at the front, on the other hand, they sometimes discourage. The front determines who is needed or who is being treated leniently. It’s also true for men. So, it doesn’t matter if it’s all about a man or a woman.
Should female volunteers look like women or they should wear camouflage resembling men’s clothes?
That’s our thing, we don’t wear camouflage. Since the first year of the war, even if we wore a jacket or other warm clothes, we always gave these away to those in need as our militaries were not provided with enough combat clothes. So, we took out our jumpers from rucksacks and returned back in civilian clothing.
There is one more reason: we have no right to wear all those military clothes as we don’t fight and we always highlight that we are civilian people and it is honest to dress and act as civilians. It’s a morality question.
One more important point: it’s safer to wear civilian clothes as according to statistics people in camouflage could be shot at more often. Ukrainian militaries always try to protect civilians and not even pro-Russian gunmen often take a shot at people in civilian clothes.
Once, a German female journalist went with us to the frontline. She pointed out that all our female volunteers had a manicure. I answered that we always do manicure and use makeup before we go to the front. We do it as we respect those fighters who we provide with supplies and we show them our respect in that way. For me, when you bring aid to the war zone you should be dressed as if you were going to a very important business meeting with a male partner.
Must one feel sorry for militaries?
Firstly, before joining the army they understand all the risks, difficulties and hardships. So, we don’t have to feel sorry for them but can lend a helping hand. If a combatant has non-standard clothes size or they don’t have warm underwear, we’ll deliver everything as fast as we can. But in 2014, when fighters wore what they had and felt cold in winter and being a woman, I felt sorry for them but I never showed it to anyone. You also must hide your pity in front of the injured. War taught me to act like this.
When did you last cry, Diana?
I cried right after Maidan, but not since. It was on February 20-22, 2014 and I was still running. As no one believed everything was finished yet. They were still carrying gasoline, were still welding barricades. They even carried body armor to the patriots. And I went through all this. I was running, running and then suddenly stopped. I saw that I was standing on Maidan, which with tears and with pain still celebrated the victory. And I suddenly realized that I’m no longer needed. And I cried.
But we did not cry for long! I cried out in the evening, and in a few days, I went to the hospitals. Then the Russian-Ukrainian war started and I have never cried since then.
It was very painful for me when my best friend was killed but I did not cry. Something obviously happened with my mental state as I cannot cry.
Have you ever felt burnout?
I have never felt burnout but I often feel physical exhaustion when I can’t even raise my hand or leg especially after long trips to the frontline.
Do all those problems you keep to yourself impact on your health?
Physiological and physical moments affect one’s health such as concussion, fatigue, the resurgence of previous diseases and infrequent meals. For example, one of our drivers went into the hospital with acute pancreatitis due to this problem. Also, moral tension was huge after Ilovaisk because of despair as I could do nothing. It was the final point and I could not get up in the morning and I was taken to the hospital. I have worked to fight against my physiology and disease for a long time. Most volunteers who work under pressure are seriously ill sooner or later. It’s a severe test for the heart, psychology and physiology. The cases of oncological diseases, peptic ulcers and heart attacks are very common among volunteers and military personnel for a reason.
Have you ever had a rest since 2014?
I was forced to have a vacation. In 2017, after receiving a few contusions, I could not walk and I was sent to the Carpathian resort for treatment and rehabilitation. The battalion we assist with aid, funded my trip and my friends-volunteers organized it. Then I had one more vacation in the Carpathians. We work without days off as the war has never stopped and it doesn’t matter if it’s Sunday. After my second vacation, my friends and I understood that it’s great to have a rest at least for a very short period of time. So, we went camping with tents to Lakes of Shatsk in the Volyn region for a week and it was a great pleasure for us. At the same time, we continued working. Being in the Carpathians, we managed to buy two vehicles for the army.
Is mindless heroism inherent for women?
In a critical situation, a military woman could risk their lives to save their sisters and brothers in arms. Senior soldier Kateryna Noskova rushed to take the injured from the battlefield under heavy fire and was killed. She understood the risk but she performed the heroic act to save injured soldiers. She left behind a son who is being raised by her mother.
Which military women do you remember the most?
I would like to recall female machine gunner Olha Simonova. She acted as a real Valkyrie and didn’t let men help her. Another girl who I’m proud of as if she was my daughter, is a volunteer paramedic Olha Bashey nicknamed Krokha (Little Baby in English). She is really petite but took hundreds of wounded and killed soldiers out of the frontline. She currently works at the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine and she still goes to the front to help the military.
Diana, which civilian women left an imprint on you?
There is one close encounter that I still remember. In Debaltseve, in January-February 2015, we were taking people from a bomb shelter when the shelling started. We hardly had time to move people from one bomb shelter to another. The shelling was still incoming and we already knew that we had no vehicles to evacuate people because only one bus left and it had been fired on and hit previously, all the windows were blown out. Two of our drivers were injured and I had just bandaged them. A minibus was damaged and a car was completely destroyed. More than 30 people, plus our team, and even people from this bomb shelter in Debaltseve had to be evacuated. We had no idea as to what vehicles could we use to take them away. We could count on help from nowhere as phones didn’t work because there was no mobile connection back then.
We were thinking hard about what to do. I went to the bomb shelter to find out who still wanted to go after that heavy shelling because some people may have changed their mind. I asked who was ready to go, people raised their hands and I could not count how many children and adults were there. And then a woman small in stature came to me and suggested help. In ten minutes, she gave me a list of people who were going to move, how many bags they had and the number of children and wounded.
It turned out that woman was a psychologist. Later, I found out that her husband was among the injured and her daughter was in that bomb shelter too. They were the last being taken inside the bus.
We were fortunate to meet religious protestants who helped us evacuate some of the people. Others we evacuated by two half-broken buses without windows that had been blown out and it was in terribly frosty weather in winter.
Soon after, our volunteers together with the community helped that woman’s family to move to the Kyiv region and we still keep in touch. The inner strength of that petite lady hugely impressed me.
How many people work in Diana Makarova’s Fund?
Voluntary work is divided into purely volunteer work and work of charity organizations. It means that people who started working as volunteers now have charity funds, however working for a public organization they get a salary. Our fund is completely volunteer-based and is financed through voluntary donations so the members don’t get any salary and have a full-time job. That’s why I can’t predict the exact number of our volunteers. One day it could be three people and next week there are 40 of them. It depends on the task they have to perform.
Where and whom does your Fund cooperate with and obtain contributions from?
It depends on the situation. We have worked with Dobra Volya volunteer hundred in Debaltseve. We constantly cooperate with ASAP Rescue. The organization is involved in the evacuation and provision of medical assistance to victims in the east of Ukraine, as well as conducting other humanitarian activities at the frontline. We also collaborated with Ivan Didenko, co-organizer of Public Self-Defense civic entity. We had been friends before the war started and we helped those people who we personally knew.
Currently, we work with Oleksiy Sikharulidze, National Home Front civic organization and SOS Army. Combat.ua is repairing optical instruments for the sixth year already.
If we are in need, somebody comes to help us and we are also ready to help our colleagues in need.
What would you like to tell our readers?
Don’t forget about the war. While it’s on, you should always remember it, otherwise, it might come to your doorstep.
Anyone should open up one’s heart to a sense of duty, empathy and sympathy when you feel somebody else’s pain like your own.
Text: Natalia Ivanova
Photo: Diana Makarova’s Fund
The material was prepared as a part of Gender Sensitive Space of Modern Journalism, implemented by the Volyn Press Club in partnership with the Volyn Gender Center, supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by Internews international organization.