Mariupol, Ukraine – Valentyna Konstantinovska, 79, is ready to take up arms and fight Russian soldiers mano a mano to protect her city if President Vladimir Putin orders an invasion of Ukraine.
Having volunteered since conflict broke out in the country in 2014, Konstantinovska and an army of “babushkas”, older women, have dug trenches, provided supplies, made nets, offered medical care and even built a lookout tower.
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As tensions with Russia enter a critical week and the US warns troops could wage a bloody campaign to take the country within days, some women are ready to do anything it takes to help the war effort – even launch a babushka battalion.
“I love my city, I am not leaving. Putin can’t scare us off. Yes, it’s terrifying, but we will stand for our Ukraine until the very end,” Konstantinovska said during an event to teach the city’s residents how to prepare and defend themselves.
Organised by far-right movement Azov, the training offered basic lessons in first response medical care, survival and evacuation, weapons safety and how to shoot a weapon. Residents said it is the only safety or awareness training they have received in almost eight years of conflict.
“I’ve been dreaming since 2014 to learn to use a gun, but was told ‘babushka, you are too old for that. You will be knocked off your feet with the recoil’,” said Konstantinovska, lying on a yoga mat in a silky lemon-coloured coat to practice aiming a model AK-47 assault rifle.
‘Like your children dying’
The Azov movement, a far-right all-volunteer infantry military unit, are ultra nationalists who are accused of harbouring neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology. A political wing based in Kyiv gets little support – they failed to win any seats in parliament at the most recent elections in 2019.
However, in Mariupol, Azov’s military arm are often seen as defenders of the city after they reclaimed it from a brief occupation by Russian-backed separatists in 2014. With their base 40km (18 miles) from the strategic port city, they are the first line of defence in the event of an attack.
Since Azov was banned from Facebook in 2019 over hate speech, the event was advertised via Instagram with no mention of Azov’s involvement and not all of the 300 or so attendees knew who had organised it.
For Konstantinovska, who does not share Azov’s political views, the only ideology she cares for is “defending their motherland”, which she agrees with wholeheartedly and does what she can to help.
Liudmyla Smahlenko, 65, lost a relative who was killed while fighting separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2015. She said after years of volunteering for the war effort, she has developed strong feelings for the young men who fight.
“We are already a babushka battalion. In 2014, we dug trenches, set up field bases and since we donate our pillows and blankets, plates, mugs – we bring them everything we can,” said Smahlenko, dressed head-to-toe in dusky pink.
“You try to help the soldiers and they become like your kids. Then one of them dies. A lot have gone now and it’s like your children dying every single time.”
She, too, is ready to do anything needed to protect Mariupol and to show gratitude for the young men who showed up in 2014 and were “the first ones among the wounded from shelling”.
“I am ready to fight if Russia does invade, even if I have to get into a fistfight with them. They are not our brothers,” she said.
While the Ukrainian government has downplayed the threat of an attack, which the US has warned could come any day now, the Azov movement said the crisis is now at its highest peak and has become “very dangerous”.
Government precautions doubted
Questions have been asked of government preparations with bomb shelters lying in disrepair and no digital alert system in place, although one is planned. A civilian territorial defence team was set up at the start of the year to train military reservists, but little hostile-environment training has been offered to the public.
Members of Azov said they organised training, which they plan to now offer regularly to help prepare the population so they can be more self-sufficient in the event of an attack, allowing soldiers to concentrate on military matters.
“We can’t stick our head in the sand because it’s irresponsible at best, so we organised this event today specifically to take responsibility on our own shoulders. The civilans here are our responsibility and they need to know we will stand here to the last drop of blood,” an Azov commander, who asked for anonymity, told Al Jazeera.
“We will stand by our land until we die.”
‘Everything was burning’
For Liudmyla Halbay, 72, who runs free Ukrainian-language classes in a region that is predominantly Russian-speaking, the training made her feel safer amid apocalyptic predictions led by Western media.
No matter how high the threat level gets, however, for her leaving is not an option.
“I didn’t have an evacuation bag in 2014 and I don’t have one now. When everything was burning and collapsing all around me, all I did was watch for how I could help,” Halbay said, dressed in all black with the fur of her hat softly blowing in the winter breeze.
“We have to hold on somehow and this helps subside the fear. We also hope the whole world will help us out and the war won’t happen.”