«I don’t want Russian slaves to rule here.» Interview with a woman fighting in the Armed Forces

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Long-nurtured desire, self-training and the son who expects at home. A female territorial defender from Lviv narrates how she protects their big home in lines of a local military unit.

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Olya Bishchuk, together with her brother Victor, joined the ranks of the territorial defence (TrO) immediately after the Russian invasion. In the interview, she told us why she decided to take up arms, whether it’s difficult for a woman in war and what the situation is with territorial defence at the front.

First of all, could you please tell us what you did before the war?

Before the war, I worked in the media field, and also as a psychologist in an educational institution, because psychology is my profession. In general, I led a very active lifestyle, participated in various patriotic actions, projects aimed to foster changes and development of our country, the military, and veterans. I didn’t know how to stop the war that was going on in the east of Ukraine, and how to return Crimea. For me, it was something unattainable. It seemed to go on forever, and it was psychologically draining, especially when you realize there’s nothing you can do about it.

I often thought about going to war, even before February 24, but I have a son who was not yet old enough to leave him. Even now, I should be near my child, not here. However, life made its adjustments and turned in the other direction. I made my choice, which was supported by my son Vitalik. He will turn 18 in the winter.

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I didn’t have the skills to go to the front. But when the first explosions rang out on February 24, I was already on Baturynska [where the centre of military enlistment is located] on the 25th, and in the military unit on the 26th. The long queues in front of the Military Committee surprised and at the same time motivated me. Even now, there are many of those willing to fight. This is our Ukrainian people who always rally when trouble comes. It’s a pity that then we let everything go by itself, become a little indifferent when some improvement comes. This is our problem. We remove the acute phase, and then we return to our usual life, we do not go to the end.

This time, it won’t be like that. It is necessary to go to the last – to return all the lands that belong to Ukraine. Cut off the Kremlin’s bloody hand once and for all. I am talking about this and I am filled with even more hatred for Russia. And so are all our defenders. Hatred and anger are the driving force behind victory in any war. There is no forgiveness for what they are doing to our cities and children.

Why did you decide to join the military? Did you realize that you will be close to enemy fire?

In order to join ZSU (the Armed Forces), you had to have combat experience, at least that’s what it seemed to me at the time, and in the TrO, training was required before participating in combat operations. That’s why I went there. I knew what was waiting for me and I was ready for danger. I was well aware that it would be not only Lviv, but also other cities, including those in the zone of active hostilities. Why then go to defend Ukraine and sit at home? My home is Kherson, Crimea, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kyiv. Ukraine is my home!

I don’t want Russian slaves to rule here. Therefore, I was morally and psychologically ready for what would be difficult. I am very surprised by those people who thought that by going to territorial defence, they would defend only the territory on which they live. And what about other cities? So, is it not quite a home, or what? If in Kyiv or in Kharkiv during the active hostilities there were many casualties in the brigades of the TrO, why shouldn’t we support them? And what should Kherson do then, if they did not even give a chance to form a territorial defence there? I have a completely different opinion on this: where I will be useful, there I will serve.

Are there many women in your team?

I don’t know for sure in the brigade, it’s not enough. And in our unit there are two – me and one more.

Is it hard to learn to shoot? What do you need to know in war?

It is not difficult to learn to shoot, the main thing is to want to. Especially since I had the skills, since I often went to the shooting range, attended various combat training courses. When you know why you need a weapon, what functions it performs, you fall asleep and wake up with it, then it becomes like a family member. It is not only necessary to be able to shoot, cleaning weapons also requires skills and time. I didn’t know that. At first, I thought I would never learn how to clean a weapon. Every detail must be cleaned, polished to a shine, disassembled and assembled. But everything needs practice, and then the hands themselves will know what to do. Using weapons is a kind of art. You need to feel the weapon, then there will be no problems with the shots. And, of course, tactical training takes a lot of time. This is also very important. In addition, it is necessary to master other types of weapons, and this is entirely new for me.

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The first thing you should know when you go to war is what you are doing it for. The right internal motivation will help in various difficult situations because you have a goal – to protect your home. Here I learned well that there is a word «must» and there are no words «don’t want» and «can’t» at all.

Here, it’s not important what your status was in civilian life, how much money you have. There is a commander and there are orders. That’s all! It is extremely important to listen carefully to the commander and clearly carry out his orders, especially in combat, under fire. In my opinion, the most important thing here is psychological readiness for military operations, and the rest can be learned. By the way, when I was accepted into the service, the first three questions were: am I morally ready for war? Am I ready to see mutilated bodies? Will I be able to carry heavy armour?

So what about heavy gear?

It was difficult in the early days to wear «armour», a helmet and a weapon. The main thing is that they are correctly selected. By the way, I will say that the bulletproof vest I was given was the smallest of those that were in stock. I «fitted» it for a long time to make it comfortable. Now, I’m used to everything. If you choose your size, you quickly get used to everything.

What do you think about most often?

Like most of us, about home, relatives, son. I imagine my native Lviv, how I meet with my friends, walk with my dog, how Vitalik and I cook something, watch funny videos. And I also think a lot about the service: how I will behave in this or that situation, how to do it better, more correctly. I mentally work out different strategies in different situations.

What is the most difficult for you? What was the scariest moment?

The hardest part is waiting. At one point, we were waiting for the Russians to break through. We stood, watched, waited for a day, a second, third day. I already wanted them to break through sooner. We worked it out and it was all over. Therefore, the most difficult thing, I repeat, is waiting for a change of location, new tasks. I can’t say that it’s fear, it’s probably the unknown, which gives rise to anxiety in me about whether I’ll be able to cope, or whether I’ll be able to figure out how it will turn out.

It is very important for me in life to have a clear understanding of the set goals, as well as time for preparation. There is no such luxury here, because no one knows from where and in what direction it will «fly», from where and when the Muscovites will come and what awaits us later. Everything is done very quickly. It is probably also the most difficult.

And the scariest moment is close missile strikes, this sound, shouts of «Air!», «Everyone take cover!» You seem to understand everything, but not only your hands are shaking, but your whole body.

And it is still scary to read about the missile attacks on Lviv. I am very worried about my son when they announce an air alert.

What is the current situation at the front?

Well, it’s probably better to comment on the general situation at the front to the official spokesmen of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the General Staff, because they have the full picture. I can only say for my brothers, for my unit, what I see around me. Today, in the fifth month of the acute phase of the war, we, territorial defenders, are already full-fledged servicemen with combat experience, with an understanding of our tasks and our place. There is no fear or panic against the enemy. We are ready to meet the invaders. After all, a lot of ground defence units, including our 103rd brigade, have already had combat encounters with the Russians and withstood them with dignity.

I will tell you about my own feelings: the Armed Forces of Ukraine are decently holding a blow along the entire line of contact with the supposedly second army of the world. We are much more mobile, more professional, more motivated. Even, I would say, angrier. We know exactly what we are protecting, what we are fighting for, and we will not back down.

In your opinion, has the anti-terrorist operation become an effective unit within the Armed Forces?

As I know, discussions are still ongoing regarding the use of territorial defence forces at the front. But thank you for asking the question in this way, because not everyone understands that since the beginning of the creation of the territorial defence, it has been a separate type of troops in the Armed Forces. Because we often have to hear: «Are you ZSU or TrO?»

I cannot tell you the details, but I assure you that our brigade and battalions are successfully performing their tasks here, on the contact line, on a par with other regular units of the Armed Forces. We have cooperation with other military units, our units helped neutralize the enemy, go on reconnaissance, and hold areas of the front. And here, I will say frankly, no one gives any concessions to the ground defence fighters – we are the same soldiers and defenders, as others.

Earlier, there was talk of raising the level of training of the territorial defenders, providing them with the necessary weapons. Is there a solution to this problem?

Let’s start with where there are no problems. There are no problems with food thanks to the military supply and our dear volunteers. Soldiers of the Ukrainian army are definitely not starving. There are also no problems with ammunition, protection, again thanks to the state and volunteers.

But we feel the need for automotive technology. We would like to be more mobile, but it is unlikely that this can be solved centrally. Hope again for volunteers. Like all military personnel, we see a shortage of large-caliber weapons and ammunition. So far, we can respond to every dozen «arrivals» with one shot or volley. But I believe that thanks to the support of the West, we will solve this problem as well.

I want to emphasize that TrO is the light infantry in the Armed Forces. Accordingly, our weapons are light: anti-tank, mortars, machine guns. We are not motorized brigades or Air Assault Forces, therefore, with the weapons that we have, we simply have to interact with other types of troops that have artillery, tanks, and aviation. This is the essence of the art of war.

As for training, we are constantly learning. The forces of the entire brigade or separate units undergo shooting training, learn new types of weapons. My adviceis the following: don’t wait for someone to come and teach you something, train it yourself! There are many manuals, videos, and instructions on the Internet. Each division has experienced fighters who can teach a lot. In fact, the lion’s share of knowledge was given to me by my comrades who already have combat experience.

By Khrystyna Hogol, translated by Vitalii Holich

Photo provided by Olya Bishchuk

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