March 8 is not celebrated. It is marked. In particular, by telling stories of women, who can be an example of struggle not only for women’s rights but also for the rights of Ukraine as a whole. Every day, for a few years in a row these women prove the fact that there are no problems that can’t be handled – you just need the desire to do it. After learning how to hold a weapon and save lives at the front line during the undeclared war, now some of them are trying to return to peaceful life without shooting and explosions, they learn how to get used to life after losses, fight with the PTSD, organize veteran movements, including women ones. Someone admires them. Some people look at them like at crazy people who decided to become a hero and therefore went to war – “It would be better for them to give birth to children”. At the same time, they continue their struggle, shifting from the battlefield at the forefront to the sphere of veteran diplomacy at the highest levels. I must say that in comparison with office-based politicians in suits, frontline-girls in the uniform look and sound more convincingly. It is because they know the true price of this war; know everyone who hadn’t been saved; they know the path from times when there was nothing to eat and to put on, when people were going into a battle with machete hoping to get a gun, straight to this day.
When in Ukraine there were armchair battles because of Eurovision, six ATO veterans went to NATO headquarters in Brussels with the veteran mission Ambassador – Veteran Diplomacy. It is a new direction of The Invisible Battalion project by Maria Berlinska, which aim is to tell the truth about the war in Ukraine. The way it can be told only by veterans – living witnesses of events, simple, authentic, intelligent and sincere. To accomplish this, the girls have covered thousands of miles. Unfortunately, the event unprecedented for the history of Ukrainian diplomacy remained almost unnoticed by the general Ukrainian public. So after coming back, during the event “Mission Complete: Female Veterans of the ATO in NATO “, which was held on March 5 in Kyivan Veteran Hub, the girls told those who were present about the mission of their trip, its results; about how they were met at NATO headquarters, whether they believe in Russian aggression in Ukraine and whether there is a chance to establish a partnership.
A documentary about women at war The Invisible Battalion was presented to the European community at NATO headquarters by film’s heroines – volunteer of Aidar Battalion People’s Hero of Ukraine Andriana Susak; volunteer of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army, and now the officer of the Armed Forces Oksana Bilozerska; paramedic, volunteer at Hospitalliers Medical Battalion and now servicewoman at Ukrainian Army Darya Zubenko. There were also commander of Hospitalliers Medical Battalion, People’s Hero of Ukraine Yana Zinkevych, a volunteer of battalion named after Kulchytsky and the unit “Harpun”, the gold medallist of Invictus Games Maria Moskvych and member of the Right Sector Volunteer Battalion, the air reconnaissance specialist and soldier of Ukrainian Armed Forces Halyna Klempouz. At the meeting at Veteran Hub, there were three of them – Andriana Susak, Yana Zinkevych, and Halyna Klempouz.
Andriana Susak told how the idea of the Ambassador – Veteran Diplomacy project came up: “Series of important meetings took place during the tour of the film The Invisible Battalion in North America and Canada. The film was shown in the Canadian Parliament, in the US Congress, then it went to China and Europe. So Maria Berlinska noticed that people were listening to us.
There was also a story with a representative of the Russian Federation at the UN. Having heard his performance, we couldn’t restrain our own statements. However, there was no support from the diplomatic mission. We were told that the headquarters of the United Nations is not an arena for fights of the military personnel in the uniform. So, upon our arrival to Ukraine, we decided to make the project Ambassador – Veteran Diplomacy, because veterans and servicemen are people who want to tell the truth, they don’t feel comfortable playing diplomacy of ‘deeply concerned’ people in expensive suits.
The first visit of the veteran diplomacy was to the NATO headquarters. We hope it wasn’t the last one. Our mission is to transfer the informational warfare to another level and to establish contacts as well. We also have other projects, including Veterans’ journeys.”
“Even representatives of Ukrainian overseas diplomatic missions are rarely able to get in touch with those who participated in hostilities,” continues Halyna Klempouz. “Each of us has a higher degree. However, we dropped everything and went to defend Ukraine at the frontline. After talking to us, diplomats understand that all these are stories of real people. We inspire them and awaken increased responsibility in them for their actions.”
“It was planned that at the NATO headquarters, after the NATO representatives’ speeches, there will be ours,” says Yana Zinkevych. “We prepared for it in advance. An important thing for us was the absence of any kind of censorship. It is very good that we managed to adjust it to the topic ‘Women. Peace. Security’. A simple veteran mission might be not so interesting. However, it was possible to make it as effective as it can be through the problems of women in the army.
After all the speeches, there should be a screening of the film and a panel discussion. Then – informal conversation. However, a few minutes before the start, we were told that our speeches were not planned. Only the talks of the NATO representatives, the film and, possibly, a few questions to us.
We realized that we had to act urgently. We discussed the most common questions that may arise, split them among us in order to avoid repeating. The film provoked emotions in usually restrained people, so the questions that were asked were quite interesting. Four speakers managed to expand their topics. I was able to tell everything that was planned at the beginning – about re-socialization, rehabilitation, the return of veterans, suicides, and PTSD. The things that NATO can help us to handle. I told how it happened to me, what difficulties I faced. I showed the results of a small survey that said that 95% of veterans didn’t receive sufficient psychological support. In addition, if a person retires from the army and commits suicide after returning to civilian life, he or she won’t be in statistics as a veteran. There is no such statistics. A person remains alone with his own problems. It was important for me to voice it.
For half an hour of our communication, the phrase ‘war with Russia’ sounded, something around twenty times. We need to help Europeans to hear the truth. They live in civilized diplomatic countries, do not understand the level of our problems, therefore it is easier for them to turn a blind eye to it, they don’t want to look at it at a deeper level. There’s also a lot of people who haven’t moved away from the Second World War yet, and they don’t want to hear about a war at all. But it is very important to remind them about it. Thanks to such informal talks, we have a chance to show to the diplomatic world that Ukraine wants to join NATO, that we are ready for this, that we are progressive.
After the discussion panel, we had informal communication when we could convey to the Alliance’s leadership all the messages that came with us – about the war, about the role of Russia in it, that we are now protecting the free world from it, and asking for weapons, ammunition and strengthening anti-Russian sanctions. We were listened to attentively and, as it seemed to me, with understanding and affection.
Personally, I was surprised by the level of their awareness of our internal problems. Sometimes it was much better than we imagined. There was a large scope of questions from the Eurovision, what’s going on here, gender equality in the army, to how we treat the possibility of peace at any price – the theses voiced by some presidential candidates. It was very important to explain that this is a capitulation, which is impossible for us. We can negotiate, but none of us can accept the surrender.
All those who were present in the room were very worried whether we were from the state and whether we weren’t censored. They are tired of general diplomacy, sentences learned by heart and dry statistics. It was important for them to hear the voices of witnesses of events. Probably, in comparison with office-based politicians in suits, frontline-girls in the uniform looked and sound more convincingly.
We also succeeded in explaining to NATO representatives that unfortunately, now there are certain levels of priority for us. The biggest one is the war and the need to maintain an adequate level of security. Only then foreign policy and reforms go. We are expected to make rapid changes, but joining NATO is a long-term program. And if we really want it, then we need to be actively involved in various state and representative structures. In the same manner, veterans should be involved in the Ambassador mission because this is an opportunity to convey the truth, the opportunity to organize some kind of partnership or donor program. In 2014-2015 many countries were helping us. However, after seeing that money disappear in nowhere that programs are not implemented or not effective, they began to treat us more cautiously.”
“We are not career military, we see problems in the army as they really are, it’s because we all felt them personally because we are volunteers who did not choose the army as a profession,” says Halyna Klempouz. “We have an understanding of what the army should be. We need to interact with NATO. We have a real battlefield experience and they can show us what a really powerful professional army is, the one without remnants of the USSR. They have modern technologies, they work to improve themselves, which coincides our progress.
After the film was shown, a man who previously was a NATO representative to Ukraine approached us. Unfortunately, I don’t remember his surname. He thanked us, bowed and said that he understands the extent of what we have just done right now.
After the film, everyone who had been present applauded us for a long time. Although diplomats and military are not too sentimental, it seems that something was touched in them because even for a short time the expressions of their faces had changed.”
“The same day we went to a meeting with the Ukrainian community,” writes Olena Bilozirska on her Facebook. “The hall was overpacked, many people were watching the film standing on their feet. It is difficult to convey our emotions. Before I became an official military officer, I had been writing a lot on my blog. So I got used to the fact that strangers were recognizing me at the streets, they approached, thanked me… But hardly any of us had experienced such warmth, respect, and frank enthusiasm, as in the ‘Ukrainian house’ in Brussels. They gave us presents, shook our hands, hugged us, were surprised by our courage. Almost every woman, for some reason, said that she wouldn’t be able to go at the front, as we did. I replied that it only seems to them that way. I know it for sure because before the war I had the same feeling.
Here, in the Ukrainian community of Belgium, new projects were born. A lot of people have invited our girls to Veterans’ journeys. This is already an existing project, and soon new ones will be started…
At the same time, we talked with Ukrainian generals from the diplomatic mission about new educational programs, in particular, English courses for veterans and, above all, for active military personnel.
Passersby, even wearing civilian clothes, from time to time saluted us and, as they do it in the West, thanked us for our service. And the last thing: when we were flying back home, in the airport, I rushed to buy souvenirs, and two officers in the uniform approached me in the queue. I couldn’t see from which country they were because I was in a hurry and there was a little time left before the departure. One asked me in English whether I was from Belgium. Before I managed to answer, the second one laughed and said to the first guy, pointing at the identifier on my shoulder: ‘What a foolish question you ask? She is from Ukraine. Look at colors, here is a trident.’ The face of the first one was stretched out, as if he saw a very respectable person: ‘Oh, Ukraine! Thank you for your service!’.”
Perhaps when we will learn how to honor our own heroes in the same way, all of us will be more honored around the world…
The visit of veterans to the NATO headquarters was paid. Is the mission complete? No, it’s only the beginning. There’s a lot of work ahead: “It seems we’ve managed to lay the foundation for future diplomatic missions of Ukrainian veterans to different countries of the world,” says Andriana Susak. “Contacts, business cards, meetings, when talks during a coffee break turn into plans, proposals, cooperation…
Perhaps something from what we have discussed won’t work out. But I know that some projects from this diplomatic mission will definitely work. There will be cooperation for sure.”
By Hanna Drozd