By Digital Content Producer Amani Hughes
As the world celebrates International Women's Day, the women of Ukraine are fighting for their country.
From training to bear arms, helping those on the frontline, or just resisting Russian forces by staying put, five women spoke to ITV News of their experience of the war, what they are doing to help and how all just want the nightmare to be over.
“It’s hard to describe this feeling in which everything you had does not exist any more,” Olesia explains, before her voice breaks.
The 27-year-old lawyer is unable to verbalise what is now her former life. Her hometown was Kyiv, she lived and worked there as a qualified lawyer. But she fled, she left all she had known and what she had worked towards, to head somewhere safer.
Although safe is a relative word for Ukrainians. In the Lviv region where she now lives, air raid sirens still go off, and Olesia has to head quickly to a bomb shelter.
But despite this now on-edge existence, Olesia is doing what she can to help those in need.
She helped set up a website to provide help and information for foreigners to evacuate Ukraine. The website has information in English on emergency hotlines, how to leave Ukraine, how to find a safe place in the country, and information on organisations that will help once you cross the border.
Not only this, but she is resourcing military equipment from abroad to help in the fight against Russian forces and is collating information, videos and images from social media, to submit to the Ministry of Justice in Ukraine, as evidence of war crimes Russia is committing.
But she wants more to be done by the world: “Ukrainians really need Nato and EU support, in particular some means to protect us from Russian bombings. We need Nato either to close our sky or to provide us with fighter jets, so that we could control our sky by ourselves. This will save the lives of many innocent people.”
Despite all her work, Olesia still feels guilty she is not doing more.
“I’m very sorry that I am not there [in Kyiv], and I don’t have enough strength to fight or to stop an invasion, but I’m trying to help in any way I can.”
Alina, a lawyer, uses her time now to bake bread for those on Ukraine’s territorial defence – the volunteer branch of the Armed Forces. She does it every day, using the ovens in her family’s café, ovens that used to cook pizza for the people in her village, but are now used to feed those on the frontline.
Her family also deliver the bread to elderly people in the village, free of charge.
Other women in her village cook hot meals for the soldiers and they provide hot drinks and water. Alina, her family and the people in her village, know that a nourishing meal is key to the fight, it acts as fuel for those defending Ukraine.
“It’s not only food, it’s a form of support from their people,” Alina explains.
But Alina is unable to comprehend the reality that is unfolding in front of her.
“We couldn’t imagine such a situation, we couldn’t imagine that it’s possible in this modern democratic world that normal people can be attacked, that women and children might easily be attacked, they attack kindergartens, they attack hospitals,” she says.
“I know a few families tried to leave in their cars, and they were shot, there were children in these cars, they don’t give a damn who they’re killing.
“One man has the desire to spread his territory and to just shoot all the population, he doesn’t care who he’s shooting. It’s horrifying because you just live your normal life, you go to work, you have some hobbies and then someday all this is taken away from you.”
Alina wants the world to do more. She, like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wants a no-fly zone over Ukraine and wants complete economic sanctions against Russia, as she explains the measures that have already been taken “have not ended this horrible war”.
“We are defending the democratic principle of the world, we are defending Europe, we are defending the world, it’s not only our war, it’s more than the war of Russia against Ukraine,” Alina explains.
But she will not be leaving Ukraine, as she says it’s in her blood to defend her country.
“Of course, I had the option to leave, but I have this Ukrainian spirit, it’s very hard to resist,” Alina explains.
“My dad is very patriotic, he said he would never leave his country. We are very united in my family. If my dad doesn’t live, I wouldn’t live. Personally I am ready to defend my country. If I’m needed, I shall defend, it’s probably in my blood, but I don’t feel like leaving, my whole life is here.”
Iryna lives in a town about 70km south of Kyiv – in Bila Tserkva - with her family. On Sunday, a residential area in the town was hit by an airstrike, destroying homes and injuring residents. Remarkably no-one died.
Bila Tserkva’s location is key to Putin, it would choke off the capital Kyiv, and cut off a key route in and out of the capital, but at the moment its residents are not playing into the Russian war. Instead, they have rallied round and are doing all they can as a community to keep their city as their own.
Iryna explains she is helping to coordinate that effort – women in the area cook hot food to hand out to the men from Ukraine’s territorial defence force, residents fill sandbags to form barricades to Russian advances and women make camouflage nets for military vehicles. This is the stoic resistance that has defined Ukraine since the invasion.
Her family are also deeply embedded in the community effort, her daughters help to stock the shelves of the local supermarket and her husband helps to transport goods – last week he helped to take injured people to the hospital after a missile strike.
Iryna explains if it wasn’t for her five-month-old son, she would be more active as a volunteer, but she is doing all she can. However, she is afraid that at some point Russia will overwhelm Ukraine.
“Our resources are incomparable to Russia, they are 20 times bigger than Ukraine, we don’t know how much longer we will be able to face the Russian bear. We’re not afraid, but sooner or later we will just run out of people,” Iryna said.
“All the humanitarian help that many countries provide, it’s very important, because we have a lot of injured and destroyed maternity wards, hospitals and blocks of flats, so people really need this help, but unfortunately humanitarian help, it’s not the thing that can help to win this war.”
The burnt-out shell of a car now stands in the same place where Anastasia once stood with her parents in Freedom Square.
The picture provides an insight into a different Kharkiv - a summer’s day, blue skies, the sun lights up the cobbled stones of the square, fuchsia flowers adorn the pavements and lush green trees line the street, people and cars go about their normal life, just like in any other European square.
But the square at the heart of Ukraine’s second largest city no longer looks like any other European city, it has faced a sustained assault from Russian forces. Freedom Square has been decimated, its opera house, concert hall and government building now stand in ruins.
Air raid sirens now punctuate life in Kharkiv. People rush to Metro stations or underground shelters. Anastasia hides in a vestibule area between two walls, “it’s the best we have”.
She says people panicked bought food, but the residents of Kharkiv are helping each other out, using group chats if they cannot find a particular item or medicine.
The 28-year-old now spends her time scrolling through her phone, monitoring the news, reading group chats. She’s afraid if she falls asleep, she will not hear the planes approaching in time.
There is one simple message she has for the Russian forces: “I don’t want to leave, this is my place, this is my city, Russians can f*** off, dead or alive I really don’t care, just get the f*** out.
“We are not moving, if they by any chance, I hope not, but if they occupy Kharkiv then we will go to the streets and we will stop them, we’ll do everything we can.”
Like many women across Ukraine, Kira Rudik has taken up arms and is prepared to fight for her country.
She has been training since the invasion began on February 24. Before the war started, she had never used a gun, but “she didn’t want Putin to tell me what I can and cannot do”.
“This is why I decided to get a gun and train and protect myself, my city and my country,” Kira told ITV News from Kyiv.
The Ukrainian MP and leader of the Holos Party believes “nobody is born knowing how to handle war, but people can be trained and people can grow into it”.
She posted a picture of herself on Twitter holding a Kalashnikov rifle the day after the invasion.
Kira wrote online: “I planned to plant tulips and daffodils on my backyard today. Instead, I learn to fire arms and get ready for the next night of attacks on Kyiv. We are not going anywhere.”
This act of defiance is mirrored across the Eastern Europe country by Ukrainian women but as Kira says, “courage doesn’t have a gender”.
“I’m very proud of my fellow women of Ukraine who are bearing arms and who are making sure that they are able to fight the same way as the men.”