‘It’s personal’: Ukrainians reveal why they take up arms as volunteer forces swell to fight Russia

Iydia signed up because the nightmare that has unfolded across Ukraine over the past two weeks felt horribly familiar.

The mother-of-four – now part of the country’s growing civil defense force – fled her hometown in Crimea when Russia invaded and then annexed the region in 2014.

In the chaos around eight years ago, the 40-year-old was separated from one of her children – who to this day remains in Crimea and cannot see.

Among more than a million Ukrainians who were internally displaced during the 2014 conflict, Lydia eventually found refuge in the central city of Vinnytsia, nearly 800 km north of her hometown.

Now the tables have turned. She became the chairwoman of a local wing of Ukraine’s sprawling civil defense force, responsible for the safety of those who have been uprooted by the conflict – now in its fifteenth day – and ended up in Vinnytsia.

Like Lydia many years ago, the newcomers come from war-torn cities with little more than the clothes they wear.

‘These people are in the exact same position I was in 2014, and that’s why I’m doing this job,’ she says, dressed in her police uniform, as she stands guard at a mall-turned-camp temporary. for the displaced.

Against the haunting howl of the air raid siren, Lydia helps two families, including two elderly women, who fled Kharkiv last week. With nowhere to go, they have been living in the mall for a week.

Lydia on security duty at a shopping center in Vinnytsia where she is the president of the local civil defense force

(Bel Trew)

“I have friends and family members who are missing in areas currently occupied by Russian forces. Helping these people is my way of giving back,” she says. the independent, her voice breaking with tears.

“I’m not alone, we see more and more women signing up,” adds Lydia, explaining how she brings her children to the shelter when it’s safe to do so because daycare centers are non-existent in times of war.

On the other side of town, another recent recruit, Yulia, explains how she is part of the Territorial Defense, which is actively fighting and is officially affiliated with the Ministry of Defense.

In army fatigues, clutching a rifle, the mother-of-two talks about the extensive military training she’s had – and how many other friends are willing to join her.

Civilians are collaborating with the army, doing all they can

Yulia, volunteer for the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces

Her husband is also in the army, so the couple juggle between defending the city and looking after the children, which has become much more difficult and dangerous in times of war.

“Women hold different types of positions in the military, snipers, intelligence gathering, tank driving, just like men,” she said, standing in the snow.

“Before the start of the war, no one could believe that Ukraine could withstand the onslaught. Everyone said we had 48 hours before laying down our arms.

“But the civilians are working with the military, doing whatever they can. From registration to the manufacture of military supplies,” she adds.

File photo: Members of the territorial defense forces learn first aid during a training session held in a public park in Kiev, March 9, 2022

(Getty Images)

In preparation for the Russian invasion, Ukraine launched an extraordinary campaign to mobilize its citizens, knowing that it was dangerously outgunned in terms of troops and military firepower.

Prior to the conflict, Russia had approximately 900,000 military personnel in its forces, of which up to 190,000 were stationed on the Ukrainian border prior to the invasion, while Ukraine had just under 200,000 troops.

Thus, the mobilization of Ukrainian volunteers accelerated further as the country quickly became the battleground of the largest ground war in Europe since World War II.

This map shows the extent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

(Images from the Press Association)

The Department of Defense said The Independent that the country’s territorial defense has increased tenfold in the past two weeks and now has up to 100,000 members, both men and women. Additionally, around 20,000 foreigners from 52 countries have volunteered to fight with Ukraine, the government said this week, although it is unclear how many actually arrived.

Combined with those who signed up for civil defence, like Lydia, there are now 1.5 million people in the two forces, according to the ministry.

Most of the volunteers have undergone military training, many of them are armed.

“It’s an important message to send to the enemy that no matter where they are in Ukraine, it won’t be an easy march,” said Markian Lubkivskyi, adviser to the defense minister. The Independent.

“It shows that Ukrainians are ready to protect their homes, their families and their country, with everything they have.”

File photo: A member of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces stands guard next to anti-tank structures blocking streets in central Kiev, March 6, 2022

(AFP via Getty Images)

About 120 km west of Khmelnitsky, this is taken over by the civilians who registered there.

Like Vinnytsia, it is also a strategically important city as it is on the main refugee trail and an important gateway to the relative safety of Western and foreign borders.

The UN says that since Russia unleashed its fierce assault, more than 2.3 million people have fled the country, with more escaping every minute.

He verified up to 1,335 civilian casualties in Ukraine, including 474 killed and 861 injured, but says the true numbers are likely considerably higher.

In Khmelnitsky, local authorities and residents say there is now a 24-hour wait to register to help the war effort. At the start of the conflict, there were queues around several blocks.

“The line of people willing to engage in Home Defense is so huge that there aren’t even any positions available to accommodate them. But people keep coming,” says Leonid, an army veteran who joined Home Defense right after the invasion of Russia.

Army veteran and Territorial Defense member Leonid trains new recruits in Khmelnitsky

(Bel Trew)

He says he served for years as a staff sergeant in a special forces regiment that fought in Ukraine, and was also deployed twice to a peacekeeping force in Iraq.

Leonid retired six years ago due to injury but came out of retirement to join the home defense and train young recruits.

“I am here to prepare the youngest, who have never participated in a war, who have never had arms in their hands,” he adds.

Among them is a father of three known only by his codename Calm, who ran a chainsaw business before the war. He is equipped with full tactical gear, but until recently he had never held a weapon. Calm describes how he helps checkpoints and city security.

“I don’t have any military training and I can’t serve in the military due to health issues, but that’s personal,” he said. The Independent.

“It is our duty to protect our homes and our families.”

Members of the Territorial Defense Forces guard a checkpoint in eastern Kiev on March 6, 2022.


Groups like Calm, Leonid, Yulia and Lydia are supported by volunteer groups who have provided supplies – from military camouflage nets to Molotov cocktails and anti-tank obstacles – to send to the front lines.

Back at the shelter-turned mall in Vinnytsia, as the air raid siren sounds once more, Lydia helps serve tea and food for the men, women, elderly and children, who live on mattresses scattered around the main shopping yard.

Many families here are stuck indefinitely because their homes have been bombed and men of military age are not allowed to leave the country.

Their lifeline is the shelter Lydia helps provide at the mall – and she’s determined to keep doing her part.

“I am proud to be a citizen of this country and proud to serve for this country,” she said.

“I will do what I can.”

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Martin E. Berry