Sisters in arms. Nadiia Haran

Nadiia Haran is a servicewoman, a simultaneous interpreter, a signaller.

Tell me about yourself, how did your military career begin?

University, Maidan, war. My parents pressured me to finish university, but I kept skipping philosophy department classes, spending time in the East instead attending charity events, working with children, and so on. Then I started taking delegations of foreign government agencies there as a translator. I studied at a university in America and still partially speak and think in English. It would take a very long time to officially register foreigners for a trip to the frontline at that time, and time was precious – we would drive trustworthy people that we knew to friendly units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and volunteer battalions, so that later foreigners could get the information first hand being there directly and not on their sofas and then spread the word about what Ukraine is going through and why it needs help at the international level. I helped IDPs and military personnel, did a lot of translation work: documents, events, films about the war, on a volunteer basis. Many friends went to the frontline and also turned to me for help with translations, and the requests kept growing. I often thought of quitting everything and going to serve. I was under pressure from my parents, although I got into both Ukrainian university and an exchange program in the States without their help and already had two part-time jobs.

I made my final decision to join the forces when my friends from the Special Operations Forces (SOF) told me during one of the first qualification courses that there was a severe shortage of translators. Foreign instructors were using online translators to translate medical tests. I will never forget that as a result of such “professional” translation, one of the questions sounded like “master sick leg,” and three answer options had a similar meaning. However, no one wanted to talk to the leadership about involving civilian translators, even for free, and there were simply not enough qualified military personnel. Instead, the guys photographed the answers correctly translated by Colonel Google and bravely copied them. I was so angry at the time and said that when I get enlisted and join the forces, everyone will have to learn the language, and there will be normal translators on the courses, and I’ll give everyone a hard time.

I never thought I would become a military person. My health was always an issue, and the army was still a brutal echo of the Soviet era.

No one supported my decision to serve except my sister. I wasn’t accepted for the translator or international specialist position, although that’s what I ended up doing eventually. As of 2017, there was still no law on equal service conditions for men and women. Higher education didn’t help either. “If you’re a woman, you can only get the lowest positions: either a clerk or a radio person.” So I learned to be a signaller – anything to avoid paperwork.

Only one person was able to attend my oath ceremony, and she’s no longer alive.

How was the attitude towards women in the army before February 24th and how has it changed since February 24th?

This is a paradox: on the one hand, girls in the military are criticized for some “indulgences,” on the other hand, expectations from you are much higher, incentives are rare, and your gender as a reason for nitpicking is universal.

Units can be different. In some of them the “climate” is tense, some are cozy, in some units the humiliation of women is cultivated at the level of officer-commanders, somewhere you are evaluated for your work and personal qualities, and gender is “erased” in such cases.

In short, I want to mention only two things. Double standards and attention.

Certainly, everyone who has served or is serving knows such a feature of the army: for the same thing, you can get either an incentive or a scolding. It all depends on the mood of those who evaluate you. Today, you can be told “women have no place in the army” (a phrase that has only one useful function: it causes a vomiting reflex), and tomorrow – “how good that a woman appeared in the team.” They say “you can’t curse, you’re a girl!” and in an hour they nitpick “we have equality, you unload the trailer with everyone – aren’t you happy?”, even though you went to help without any special invitation and don’t complain about anything. When a person wants to “fit” you into their stereotypical thinking, their statements will directly contradict each other. Don’t look for logical consistency there – it’s not there. You have to listen to both: “she is a delicate flower, how will she know what she wants?” and “behaving like a man, who will she attract?”

Another incomprehensible thing is the holy belief of male soldiers that you absolutely need their attention. When I worked as an advisor on gender issues for the commander of a separate type of armed forces after my contract ended, I heard something wonderful: “We don’t give you women daily duties, we ease up on you, where’s the equality in that, you don’t even want it yourselves!” I laughed for a long time. Firstly, women have their daily duties in their own units, secondly, not all men were on their duties at the ops mentioned before simply because in some functional units there were too few people to involve them in that at the ops specifically. But the funniest thing is that no one asked for it. No woman approached, say, the head of the ops and asked not to have a terrible and horrible daily duty at the ops. Someone just decided that women absolutely needed “special treatment”. Most of the “privileges” that women are criticized for in the military are decisions made for women without women. Simply because women have only recently begun to “break through” to higher ranks or at least some command positions.

A striking example is men in high positions who develop and determine women’s uniforms. Do you remember the infamous high-heeled shoes for the parade march? No man would have determined heels as the uniform for military marching if he had tried to march in them himself.

And even requests, nitpicking based on gender, and bullying often provoke aggression when a woman defends her boundaries and professionalism as if she should be happy because she is just getting attention! From some old-fashioned Soviet officers, this idea was ingrained in the heads of both themselves and the younger generation of military personnel that a woman does everything in life for male attention. I don’t need your excessive attention. I need you to treat me as a unit commander, the rest is informal communication, which is different in every team. My guys and girls joke, tease each other, someone in the unit even falls in love. The main thing is that no one is offended, no one is bullied, and everyone is taken seriously when needed.

Unfortunately, in Ukraine, it is still difficult to accept the need for a healthy, balanced climate in military teams. But there are undoubtedly positive changes.

I have worked with military units from NATO countries for many years and have something to compare. But, again, unfortunately, NATO won’t win this war for us. We must change our attitude towards women in the military on our own. Yes, sometimes you feel discouraged and unmotivated, sometimes you want to get as far away from all of this as possible, but sometimes you see the results of your work, sometimes you receive recognition from your fellow soldiers for your efforts, sometimes you just come back from a mission alive and unharmed, and then you find the strength to keep going.

I hope there will be enough strength to continue talking about this.

The dignity which we have fought for so hard must apply to women who continue this fight.

You are talking about a team. Have you had good relationships in teams from the beginning?

Unfortunately, no. The first training platoon was an aggressive environment, which was further encouraged by the sergeants and officers. In another platoon in the same training, the team was just wonderful, and we are still in touch since 2018.

It depends a lot on leadership. If leadership encourages unhealthy competition, gossip, and humiliation, the team is more likely to get used to it and perceive it as a norm with pride in “this is the army.” But in the same army, even in the neighboring squad, platoon, battalion, it can be completely different: fair, humane, friendly, warm. Fortunately, I’ve also served in such teams.

Is there a universal formula?

With my university education in ethics, I believe that the same formula of morality applies to individuals as it does to society as a whole: treat others as you would like to be treated. Surely, no one wishes to be treated poorly.

But what if you are being bullied?

Oh, I have been through this several times. The best thing to do is to leave a toxic environment. If leaving temporarily is not possible, it can be very difficult. What saved me most of the time was that I spoke English fluently and quickly learned to use technology, so most people would come to me for help, notes, or exam hints. That’s how I survived. The management also needed someone to do their job, so there may be a kind of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” logic. But if this logic doesn’t work, it’s best to leave no matter what the cost. In fact, I worked for several years in international cooperation, where I didn’t have any position or rank. I was simply rescued from a toxic environment by a separate decision, and that was my greatest reward and motivation.

Do you think that “serving as a woman in the army” was worth it?

Serving as a woman in the forces is definitely worth it. The army has taught me so many things that I was afraid to do because since my childhood I was told “you don’t need/can’t do that, you’re a girl”. In an emergency situation with an injured girl, an elderly woman, and a child in the car, I had to drive for the first time in my life, and then change into a uniform with a beret and confidently disperse an aggressive crowd at the border under fire from border guards. I have taken over the command of the battle having no sleep for two to three days because there was no one else left. I have advised a foreign C-130 pilot over the phone at 6 in the morning in a sunflower field, who was unsure if the overloaded plane would withstand a takeoff and landing on a Ukrainian military airfield. I have worked in the NATO headquarters on historical military memorandums as the only soldier for the entire existence of the headquarters. And then comes the moment when male soldiers, instead of mocking you, begin to look at you with excitement and respect. Nothing in civilian life during my years as a simultaneous interpreter has compared to the feeling of reporting from the NATO ops to my own one: “all aircraft have landed, all crews are intact,” or when the order to fold the radio station has come already, and at the last moment you hear a whisper from a group which has already been considered dead.

You often write that you need certain parts, wires, and devices. How do you coordinate these public requests with the command, and do you feel pressure about it?

I don’t coordinate anything with the command. I have more wires and spare parts than the command does because I care. The command helps me quickly with some things like small generators, so I have nothing to complain about. But with other kinds of equipment they usually don’t. Our request for radio equipment has been waiting in the big fund for three months now, and I don’t have that much time, so I have to get everything myself. The brigade’s command encourages girls to dry their hair for 40 minutes with a 2-kilowatt hairdryer, wear three layers of makeup, and not have critical thinking. If you’re a specialist, you might get some support somewhere in purchasing equipment, sometimes they might “forget” or be lazy, but you still hear things like “all women in the army are dimwits,” “don’t smoke, you’re a girl,” “you’re all stupid women, I’ve already sent three of you to the permanent base, and you’re next”… Only later, when it’s necessary to urgently go into danger and quickly listen to and “turn off” the lost radio station, the same bosses send their personal driver for the only signalwoman. You’re a stupid woman, but you’re the one who flashes the equipment under fire. I don’t know the logic of such leadership. It’s easier not to go and ask for anything.

Tell me about Starlink, because everyone knows that it is something super magical, but few understand how it works or breaks down and how it contributes to victory.

Starlink is an incredibly useful thing. Honestly, I can’t imagine how we would be fighting without it right now. To “burn” it, you have to fly a drone close enough, so it’s usually safe unless you call the network by the call sign of a surveillance post, you also have to use passwords, camouflage, and bury it. The dish usually breaks down because it is more often subjected to shelling. The terminal itself can be underground and “distribute” the signal from there. I was lucky to meet a sergeant who can make one working Starlink out of the remnants of three broken ones. It is through the Starlink network that our drones can stream flyovers of the terrain, so we can move forward, identify enemy positions, adjust firing, and evacuate the wounded and dead. Recently, such a flyover saved the driver-mechanic who had lain wounded on the cold ground for a day. He waved at the copter and signaled that he was alive and showed where he was injured. Thanks to the fact that this data was promptly received by scouts and medics, he was rescued in time. In conditions where the radio network does not always work due to the peculiarities of the terrain, Starlink is simply a salvation. It also allows you not to use mobile internet where it is available, in order to protect personnel from detection – GSM signal spreads well, and it’s easier to “catch” it.

Do you consider yourself spoiled?

If someone thinks so, let them say who spoiled me! Maybe they will even give me some extra money for the vhf repeater. I’ve been a soldier for four years, I wouldn’t call it protectorship.

Who do you have to be to be a perfect soldier and how do you prepare for the unpredictable nature of military life?

I don’t think there are perfect soldiers. There are no perfect people in general. When I started working as an instructor, I realized that the most important thing for me is that a person wants to learn new things and can work at least minimally in a team.

I heard that to prepare for apprehending a criminal, you have to think like one. In the process of preparing for crap, the main thing is not to become crap. In the beginning, in “training,” they often encourage meanness, slyness and subservience. I saw this in Poltava at the communication college, where they seem to send sergeants and officers who have committed the most offenses to command units (on the other hand, the departments have very educated and humane professionals). You shouldn’t get involved in this because you might be the next victim of collective bullying. It was hard for me to get used to the fact that nothing can be planned in the army, tasks constantly change or are fundamentally absurd. I learned for years and it cost me a lot of nerves. But when I learned, this skill became useful in my life outside the service almost every day. I would have recommended “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb on this issue, but I didn’t like that he uses the phenomenon of prostitution as a positive example of resilience to change, it seems that he has never worked with victims of sexual violence, so eventually I wouldn’t recomment the book. Overall, it seems to me that first there were the Armed Forces, and then the famous saying of Heraclitus: “Everything flows, everything changes.”

How do you imagine the path of an artist?

It’s not “usual”. Talent often borders on what society likes to call a mental disorder. But as our mythology teacher used to say: “talent loses to the iron ass”; it doesn’t develop without improvement and endurance. This is definitely a path that will involve a lot of condemnation and misunderstanding. But at the same time, there will be truth that cannot be kept inside.