Andriy Kolesnik and Ksenia Drhanyuk both beam with excitement as they lean over a box.
She is about to take off Ukraine’s first military uniform for pregnant women, which she recently issued after she came into contact with a pregnant sniper.
The young couple, who were both TV journalists before the war broke out, are now fully devoted to their independent NGO “Zemlyachki” or “Compatriots”, which buys essential 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.
“He got men’s uniforms, men’s underwear,” he says. “All of that [was] Designed for men.”
It soon became clear that serving women needed more than a uniform. Everything from small boots to light plates are in demand for bulletproof vests.
So, the couple turned to private company donations, charitable funds and crowdfunding to buy equipment independently of the military. Some custom gear such as women’s fatigues is produced under their own brand by a factory in Kharkiv in the east of the country – including new maternity uniforms.
Other items, including body armor plates, helmets and boots, come from companies in Sweden, Macedonia and Turkey. But Kolesnyk and Drahanyuk say they struggle to purchase winter items like sleeping bags and thermal clothing that will be critical to comfort as winter sets in.
Kolesnyk says they’ve distributed $1 million worth of supplies so far and helped at least 3,000 women. He tells CNN that if he’s on the front line shooting rockets, he might as well do it “at least comfortably.”
According to the country’s defense ministry, there are currently about 38,000 women in the armed forces.
“We’re doing this to help our government,” Kolesnik says, not to fight it. Their center is filled with cardboard boxes full of kit, all paid for by crowdfunding and grants.
A physical disability prevents Kolesnyk from joining his sister, father and brother-in-law in the front lines, a fact that saddens him.
“For a man, it’s hard to understand that you can’t go there, and your sister is there. So, I’m here trying my best to support not only my family, but the entire Army,” he said. say
Twenty-one-year-old Roksolana, who gave only her first name for security reasons, went inside to get a uniform and other supplies before heading to her next assignment. An art school graduate, she joined the army in March and is now part of an intelligence unit.
“It’s so valuable to have people who understand that we’re tired of wearing clothes that are three sizes too big,” she says. “We had no helmets, we had old flak jackets, wearing tracksuits and boots. Now we feel like we’re human.”
She giggles as she laces up her new boots with impeccably long nails. Before hugging goodbye, Drahniuk handed Roksolana a copy of “The Choice,” the best-selling memoir by Holocaust survivor and psychologist Edith Egger. The goal is that it can be a tool to help process trauma. Zimliachki has also established partnerships with military psychologists that women in combat can reach out to.
Other women, such as 25-year-old Alina Panina, are receiving psychological support from the Ukrainian military. A border guard with a canine unit, Panina spent five months incarcerated in the notorious Olenyuka prison in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region after leaving the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.
She was eventually released on October 17 as part of an all-female prisoner exchange with Russia and went into mandatory rehabilitation at a military hospital, under whose care she remains.
Ukraine recently asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to send a delegation to a Russian prisoner of war camp.
“I wasn’t ready. [for captivity]and we discussed it a lot with the other female prisoners that life had not prepared us for. [an] says Panina at a pizza bar run by ex-servicemen in central Kyiv.
She says prison guards were “unpredictable people” who sometimes verbally abused inmates, but avoided any physical harm.
Now his partner’s fate is up in the air. He is also a border guard who is still in prison. “I know she’s alive but don’t know which prison she’s in,” says Panina sadly as she scrolls through his pictures.
When asked what she hopes for, she simply says, “Our men, our people.”