A girl is sitting under a tall old pear tree. Curly hair and leaves tremble from the wind, and the kid smiles. Here is her place of strength, where she forgets her sorrows. Here, she does not feel lonely after the divorce of her parents, arranging their personal life and having no time for her. Here is an island of unconditional love and care for her dearest grandparents. Pumpkin grows next to her; her grandfather plants it under the pear tree every year. And grandmother’s old radio plays “Starry Night”. Lyudmilka looks up at the sky; it’s starry indeed!
“Before the war, I lived the rosy, delicate life of a girl in short skirts and high heels,” says veteran and volunteer Lyudmila Demyanyk. She is now wearing military pants, a black T-shirt and military boots. It seemed this is the way she was always dressed, the uniform feeling like a second skin. The curls under her cap allowed my imagination to ‘see’ Lyudmila’s pre-war look.
I met Lyudmila Demyanyk on 24 August in Shevchenko Park right before the start of the Defenders March in Kyiv. She was responsible for the unit of the Women Veterans Movement. She coordinated organizational issues using a walkie-talkie, spoke a lot over the phone and hugged friends. During the walk, Lyudmila went in front of the female veterans. With her Hollywood smile, black cap and sunglasses, she resembled the heroine of military movies. And it is obvious that she felt good in this role. Here, she is not Lyudmila Demyanyk but “Katrusya Strila”.
Katrusya Strila coordinates the formation of the Women's Veterans Movement at the March of Defenders on Independence Day.
Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske
“They will fall in love with you. How could they fight?”
Lyudmila’s life on a pink cloud ended in 2014 after she met The Right Sector. After training, shootings and meeting patriots from a different social bubble, she—a mom and a wife—would change into a completely different person. She changed her name to Katrusya Strila, and her new acquaintances didn’t know her former name. When the soldiers came from the front line with stories about local events, there would be no doubt for her that she belonged at the front line.
“I went to the military registration and enlistment office and said, ‘Enlist me, there is a war.’ And I was told: ‘There is no war. We do not know what to do. Go home.’ I approached the National Guard, where they recruited volunteers. I still have not been enlisted. They said that if there was a need for women and civilians, they would enlist me. Then I began to ask the commanders. My gender was the main reason for the refusal. They said: ‘You are a woman and, let’s be frank, an attractive one. Men will be distracted by you. They will fall in love with you, so how could they fight in that case?’”
Lyudmila will never forget the expression on Dmytro Yarosh’s face at their first meeting, as well as his words: “What brought a woman like you to us?”
Katrusya Strila heads the formation of the Women's Veterans Movement at the March of Defenders for Independence Day. A woman with short blond hair and a boy in her arms behind her is another heroine of the hromadske series: veteran Lera Burlakova.
Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske
In August 2014, she went to the front line with three soldiers. They moved across Slovyansk city, already liberated back in those days. The war would show a different face than Lyudmila imagined. The city appeared to be scary, with its destroyed bridge and damaged houses, as if asking: “Is this exactly what you wanted? Maybe it’s not too late to go back.” And the commander would threaten, “If I find out about any romantic relationship, you will turn around and go home.”
“Men are allowed to fight for Ukraine, but women are not”
Lyudmila passed the test. She worked as a psychologist and communications officer, organized work with volunteers and fought for her right to be a fighter.
“For some reason, men are allowed to fight for Ukraine, but women are not. It was always emphasized, and it affected me badly. I came to take part in direct hostilities. I came with the same goal, with the same motivation as my fellow male soldiers. But they immediately went on combat missions and received weapons just because they were men. And I’m a woman, so I had to stay at the base. They didn’t take me on missions. This affected my psychological state dramatically.”
Katrusya Strila (center) together with her sisters in arms. Photo: Katrusya Strila / Facebook
Eventually, Katrusya Strila regained her right to combat. Between missions, she would call her daughter. In the morning, she called to say hello and wish her a nice day, and in the evening, they would do homework together. Wearing the military uniform, she didn’t cease to be a mother. And in two years, when the action would lessen, she understood that it was time to return home.
“I remember we were out with my daughter. She was 3 or 4 years old. I was wearing a skirt—the can’t-be-shorter kind—and high heels, and she was all in pink and fluffy, and she said to me: ‘Mom, you see, you and me, we are beauties! People look at us!’”
Lyudmila smiles when she talks about her daughter and her former self. She went to the front line when Margarita was in elementary school. Today, her daughter is already a graduate. In 2014, Lyudmila’s family did not support her decision to go to the war. She did not tell them the whole truth, though. She just said that she was going to Kyiv to a station where volunteers helped to sort things.
Four years after her return from the war, Lyudmila kept her daughter’s notebook: from 10th grade, in the Ukrainian language, an essay titled ‘Going Abroad: Betrayal or Forced Emigration’. Her daughter wrote that she would never leave Ukraine because you had to live where you were born, defend the state and work for its benefit. Strila read that and cried. For her, it meant that her daughter understood it all and was not angry with her because of the war.
Even though she and her daughter do not live together all the time, moving to different cities, they have a close relationship. Her daughter’s friends are jealous: “Margot, you are lucky to have a cool mother.” Such praise flatters her. They talk about any topic. But there is one word that Margarita has never said out loud.
“She does not say the word ‘war’. She does not say, ‘My mother went to war.’ Margot says, ‘My mother went to the east.’ I understand that it will take her many years to recover psychologically from this.”
Katrusya looks out the window of the office-apartment of the Women's Veterans Movement in Kyiv, where she now lives. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske
A veteran living a civilian life
After the war, Strila settled in Kyiv. She changed apartments and looked for part-time jobs. She even worked for Ukroboronprom because it provided her with a room in a dorm. However, her salary has not been paid in months, so she had to quit.
All her pre-war stable life with a house, a husband and office hours remained in the past, half a thousand kilometres away in Ivano-Frankivsk. Only her daughter Margarita reminds Katrusya that she was once Lyudmila.
“I hit the jackpot. I had no place to return to. No one waited for me to come back from the war. I had nowhere to live. Since we, the volunteers, did not receive a salary, I came to this peaceful world with nothing. My brothers and sisters in arms supported me. They allowed me to stay in their homes.”
One day, she got on the #14 bus on the route “Troieshchyna-Railway Station”. There was a guy on the same bus. He showed the controllers the document confirming his combat status, but they doubted whether it was his document. A conflict started. Katrusya intervened and talked about the war, the defence of Ukraine, that people need to be grateful to the soldiers. She mentioned that she was actually a war volunteer. It triggered the following conversation.
“‘Oh, we know what you did there, especially the volunteers. You say you fought, but we know what you did there.’ The man was offensive, speaking Russian and cursing a lot. The controllers called the police ... And then I called my fellow soldiers. They arrived, got out of the car and suddenly began to hug one of the police officers. It turned out that he was also a veteran. And the tension dissolved immediately. The guy with the document told us a story from the war. The scandal transformed into something positive. The controllers apologized to the guy. And the man who said he knew exactly how I was fighting at the front line also apologized.”
An empty cartridge acts as a keychain for the keys to the office of the Women's Veterans Movement. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske
Today, Katrusya remembers those first months of peaceful life and the contempt of civilians towards her, a veteran, with a smile. It hurt back in those days. There were many cases when people blamed her instead of showing their gratitude. She heard everywhere that she went to the front not to defend the country but to look for a husband. And it was useless to explain that it was there when she actually lost him—he did not wait for her to return.
“For some reason, all people ‘know’ why women go to war. Everyone thinks that you can’t meet a man in civilian life, so you followed them to war. I want to say that was never the case—that I lacked the men’s attention back in civilian life. I did not look for any relationship. I had enough attention to me here, too. I had a husband, the father of my child. In this regard, everything was great for me.”
But Katrusya was most outraged not by these accusations but by the fact that people adapted to the occupation and accepted it as something natural. One day, she forced a woman to get off the same #14 bus. That woman was handing out religious booklets stating “Crimea, Russian Federation.” Strila lost it, and the woman she talked to didn’t understand what was wrong. The same thing happened at the rehearsals of the Independence Day parade.
“It was 2017 or 2018. One old woman said to another, ‘These people with their tanks ruin our Kiev asphalt.’ What does that mean? Thank God those are our Ukrainian tanks driving on your ‘Kiev’ asphalt, not Russian ones. So one thing led to another, and we argued.”
Katrusya Strila poses next to the flag of the Women's Veterans Movement. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske
Women’s Veteran Movement: Birds of a feather flock together
“I stayed with my fellow soldiers and then with volunteers, anywhere. Last year, I returned to Ivano-Frankivsk during the lockdown. I had no money, no job. The sisters in arms helped me; they sent me several hundred hryvnias so that my child and I wouldn’t just starve to death. It was an enormous support.”
Everything is good in her life now. Lyudmila works in the Kyiv Rescue Service. She has a place to stay. She lives in the office apartment of the Women’s Veteran Movement. Here they host meetings. They provide meals, bedding and support. Strila and her team are developing activities and vocational training for veterans, and they are looking for psychologists. Katrusya found the meaning of life in helping people like herself.
“I want every girl returning from the war to know that she is not alone. It is very important. I want every girl who died to be remembered. And her memory will live on as long as it stays with us. I want people to remember and to know at what cost we have peace in the country.”
Her eyes filled with tears. The silence floods the room. The time seemed to have stopped. In a moment, Katrusya continued.
“Sometimes girls are in despair, but we don’t know much about anyone. Sometimes a person comes in and says, ‘You came into my life just in time, thank you so much.’ It inspires and motivates us to unite.”
Blue and yellow flag on the balcony of the office-apartment of the Women's Veterans Movement. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske
A blue and yellow flag hangs on the balcony of the office apartment. The vases with flowers she takes care of are on the windowsill. A picture painted by her daughter is at the bedside. Strila appears to be soft and gentle. She is wearing pink, almost like she did before the war.
Her “military skin”—a favourite uniform—hangs in the closet next to her dresses. Katrusya would put it on again and return to the front line, if necessary. Now she is no longer a girl wearing high heels asking to enlist for war, but a junior lieutenant and reserve officer of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
In her home, two stories about women at war—“Girls Cut Braids” and “How to Get Married as Many Times as You Want”—stand next to each other on the bookshelf. The war and her civilian life coexist in her life just as these books do on her shelf.
Next to the dresses in Katrusya's closet hangs her favorite military uniform. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske
Katrusya is looking for photos of her family on her phone—her daughter and grandparents.
“Your grandparents are your family? Not your mom and dad?” I ask in surprise.
“Yes. Grandpa and grandma,” Strila confirms.
Her parents divorced when she was a teenager in the 1990s. Her mother was left with two children. She was in a constant search for money. She tried many times to arrange her personal life. The responsibility for Lyudmila’s younger sister passed on to her.
“Of course, I love my mother too. And my father is far away, in another country, with which we are at war now. We haven’t had a relationship for a long time. But… my grandparents are my bright path. I am so glad that I have them.”
She will not mention her father again. Instead, when she finds a photo of her dearest couple, she will smile, and it seems that the tenderness and warmth of the whole world appear on her face at that moment.
“My grandfather was called the Generalissimo of the Railway Station because we lived in the valley near the railway station. He never rode a car, only a bicycle. He is very strict and polite. He always told me, ‘You have to be able to do everything, but you have to be smart enough not to do everything you can.’ I can dig, plow, mow, paint, repair. But now, I do not do it. My grandfather taught me everything. He said, ‘Without teamwork, the army dies!’”
Time for a short break. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske
I ask Katrusya Strila whether she has fully returned from the war—and whether she has found her place under the sun.
“The war will stay with me forever. And I’m comfortable living with it. After all, all of my current acquaintances, all of the friends I’ve met are because of the war.”
And yet, Strila knows where her place of power is. She would take a train to Ivano-Frankivsk, and from there to the valley. An old pear tree and her family—a 93-year-old grandfather and an 88-year-old grandmother—are waiting for her in the yard. Here, pumpkin grows under the tree, and she waits for a starry night, just as she used to do in her childhood. And on this island, veteran Katrusya would once again become a girl, Lyudmilka. She would spend at least a few hours apart from the war.
/ The project was implemented with the support of UN Women Ukraine, the Government of Sweden and the Ministry of Veterans Affairs of Ukraine.