Like thousands of her compatriots, this 28-year-old lawyer joined the “territorial defense” units from the start of the Russian invasion, a support force for the regular army open to all Ukrainians in the only condition is that they are between 18 and 60 years old.
Some of them already had military experience, gained after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and during the conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the East that began the same year, and immediately took part in the fighting.
Many others, like Iryna, did not know how to handle a weapon or apply a tourniquet and, during the siege of the capital, mainly helped to build barricades or distribute humanitarian aid.
Russian soldiers have now withdrawn to the South and East but, anticipating a dragging conflict, the kyiv authorities are training these new recruits at an accelerated rate so that they can, if necessary, leave to confront the enemy.
“We have training every week and since March, we have seen between 1,000 and 1,500 people pass,” Mikhaïlo Chtcherbina, deputy director of the municipality’s security services, told AFP. “It would be a crime to send untrained people to the front line, you need a minimum.”
This is all the more important, as after “having mainly carried out defense operations, we are starting to attack”, he continues, referring to the territory nibbled away around Kharkiv in the northeast. “We have to teach them to liberate cities.”
– “A chance” –
Lost in the forest, away from the capital, a former colony of “pioneers”, the Soviet version of scouting, is home to their training.
In five days, mechanics, construction workers, hairdressers… learn how to move in a minefield, to evacuate a wounded person under the bullets, to shoot with an automatic weapon or to exfiltrate by the window of a storey building.
It was this last exercise that put Iryna Gorobiovska in difficulty. “It was scary, because I didn’t understand what I had to do,” explains the young woman afterwards, whose fingernails are painted khaki like her fatigues. “I want to defend my country, but I hope I don’t have to come down from a high building to do it!”
Another exercise involves retaking a site from enemy hands. In single file, their weapons pointed at each opening, a small group enters an abandoned building. “Contact”, “contact”, shouts one of them, in the crackle of weapons, loaded with small white plastic balls.
“We have to teach them how to fight properly in an urban environment”, comments an instructor, who does not wish to give his name. “You have to teach them to clear the area, annihilate the enemy. And stay alive.”
Konstantin, a 27-year-old municipal employee, is well aware of what is at stake.
In March, fighting took place near his house. “I couldn’t stand idly by, so I joined the territorial defense, to protect my town, my country”, but “if I had gone straight to the front line, I would not have survived”, he acknowledges.
After his training, he thinks he “has a chance”. The chubby-faced young man still wonders how he will react in a real situation. “Training is training, but when you see real blood, it’s different. Will it paralyze me or give me an adrenaline rush?”
Demian Popov, a 53-year-old doctor, tries to deliver “methods” to these new recruits to overcome “the stress of battle”. Despite “their great motivation”, he recognizes that “there is no way of knowing if a person will be able to fight before they are on the field”.