Sisters in arms. Yaryna Chornohuz

Yaryna Chornohuz is a Ukrainian poet and combat medic. Her story as a military began in 2014 when she joined the “Hospitallers” Medical Battalion. 

“Focus” magazine named Yaryna one of the 100 most influential people in Ukraine. And today she protects Ukrainian borders along with the strongest marines in hot war spots. 

Read more about the philosophy of war, femininity at the frontline, burnout, and military psychology.

In your opinion, is it better for the military to perceive their service simply as a job that has to be done? Or should they use more of a philosophical approach, first of all thinking about it as a mission?

I think it depends on the person, everybody finds some kind of combination of both. Personally, I am motivated by both. That is, I want to do my job professionally since I chose this path.

 But I never forget the significance of all this for Ukraine. This idea is always with me. Fighting on Ukraine’s side in this war, the defensive war for us,- it’s the right thing to do, an ethical choice. While joining the army as a professional soldier for professional reasons in the Russian Federation, for example, calls into question both ethics and morality.  Ukrainian soldiers have well-formed views and a deeper motivation than simply “I’m doing my job.”

When does emotional burnout occur for a military person? I have read that after 260-300 days of war, the psyche cannot withstand it anymore. Do you agree with this or not?

Indeed, life as a military in dugouts and trenches, especially during the cold season, is exhausting. But at the same time, we have to stay motivated, do our job, and put up with the loss of friends. At certain moments, it feels like burnout is coming.

In my experience, spending about five days in a more or less calm environment after hot war spots is enough. For example, at some point, our unit was withdrawn to a relatively calm zone of the frontline. And after spending only ten or fifteen days there, we gained an initial level of motivation and were ready to come back. At least that was my experience.

Personally, it is quite difficult for me to stay in a calmer area for a long time, because I get the feeling that I am not doing my job well enough. I feel that I am more needed in a place where there are more losses, more wounded! My husband makes fun of me because of it. He has been in the army longer than me and he says that if we get a moment to rest, we should be happy about it, not try and rush somewhere dangerous right away.

So, after spending a maximum of five days in a safer zone you already want to go back?

Then I want to go back, yes!

Generally speaking, it is a problem: entering some kind of a comfort zone at the frontline. Sometimes that’s what happens when you’re being moved. They try to do rotations so the soldiers get some rest from time to time. But it’s difficult for me, let’s just say.

What is the first thing you do when you return to a safer zone or to the rear area?

I sleep a lot. I basically switch to a mode of only sleeping, reading, and exercising for a couple of days. I do special exercises, a combination of cross-fit and yoga, it’s very relaxing and great for bringing me to my senses.

What do you read to distract yourself?

For the last six months, I could not read anything at all. Even when there was an opportunity to read and there were some books, it was difficult for me, my psyche could not perceive any fiction stories. At most, I could read professional literature, like a new publication from “Our Format” about emergency war surgery, about urban warfare.

But just recently, I managed to reread the book by Milan Kundera, a Czech and French author I have loved since my university days, who lived through the Russian invasion of Prague in 1967. He was very critical of totalitarianism. The texts are truly filled with such freedom, this free “The unbearable lightness of being”, as his most famous novel was called.

I love his book “Immortality” and I’m currently reading “Life is Elsewhere”. His books are incredible and allow you to be distracted, to immerse yourself in another world. There are such interesting allusions to the war. War does not disappear from the horizon in these novels. And it somehow helps to combine my reading with reality.

I recently ordered a Paul Eluard’s book to try to read poetry. I love European authors.

What are your personal, specific feelings or associations regarding the war? Say, if a European person, who did not see war and doesn’t know what it’s like, asked you about it, what would you say?

I would obviously start describing the end of February-beginning of March. It was a tough time. Yes, now there are extremely difficult points too, but, back then Russian troops were coming from six directions with huge, long convoys of equipment. Rockets flew in many directions. The war found us north of Mariupol. And we didn’t have much at the time, so had to stop those huge columns by sometimes ridiculous forces: two infantry rifle companies, and that was a real horror. Like the Second World War… It resembled the Second World War for sure!

And so, if a European asked me to describe the war, I would mention the cold. This unbearable cold that you can’t do anything about. When you need to dig a single trench in the ground, quickly. When you move to higher ground and you have to quickly dig in and start tracking. You are wearing two sets of thermal underwear, special clothes on top, an armor, and none of it can keep you warm.

I associate war with sleeping in army boots and military equipment. And the ground is so cold, that your feet cannot be warmed by anything: no special clothes, no sleeping bag, and no hot water bottle can stop them from freezing. The armor is cold, so you will feel the cold. For example, while we wait for the departure of the BRDM column (literally “Combat Reconnaissance/Patrol Vehicle” – editor’s note), we have to sleep inside of it, all five of us, all wearing tight armor. In such a small machine, it doesn’t matter how you lie down, you feel bad, uncomfortable, cold, and irritated. You growl at each other because one moves a lot, and the other moves a lot. But all this must be done because no one else will do it. And at any time you may face a convoy and just fly into the air.

In such moments of physical discomfort and mental pressure, what keeps you afloat?

Two things. First, the landscapes in front of me. You would feel this too after being in the shoes of a soldier. I have to pay attention to everything that happens around me at all times, so it helps to form an existential connection with places, the land, roads, and landscapes. I believe it’s happening also because I am far from the place where I was born.

Most people grow up, work and live in one place all of their life.  It’s not the case for the military, especially in our warfare type. We are constantly working in very strange small villages and larger towns.  And when you constantly observe these landscapes, you let them become one with you. You feel an unprecedented connection to it and realize that the State starts and ends in your body.

That is when you go to the army for ideological reasons (some military personnel will surely understand what I mean), there’s a feeling of physical unity – of your life and the life of the country.

For example, when I slept in such a crowded place, I had a clear understanding that Ukraine moves back and forth with our bodies. That is, the State dies with the last military personnel who leave the territory of this State… And this physical feeling of unity gives strength to me personally.

I understand that where we are, our physical presence, there is Ukraine.

And the second thing is simply the will to survive. That is, war reduces people to such an “animal” state of mind, when you are cold and hungry, but you understand that you have to survive. For the sake of survival, you have to endure a lot more, and someday in the future, maybe you will rest a little. I remember in March I dreamed of having the possibility of having a shower. I even wrote a post about it: after having a lot of losses, we were taken out of one area and given three days to rest. I went under the hot water and almost passed out – I was so not used to it,  it was such a scary feeling.

Also, survival is motivating me.

I know that some people who serve in the army are annoyed by trivial questions from civilians. Like, for example, “how are you?” or “be careful”. Do you have any trigger words that could cause, if not aggression, then misunderstanding?

I am not annoyed by such questions, I am more annoyed by contempt and depreciation. Sometimes civilians, whose everyday work is not related to war, but they still show interest in the matter, ask me things like “how are you?” or “tell me something?”, – I treat it normally, without nitpicking. They worry about me, about us. 

When people feel gratitude and want to show it in some way, I notice it right away. I treat all such people with the same respect they treat me.

But there are those who do not understand that there is a war. They do not understand that there are people who pay a great price and sacrifice a lot for the peace of all cities. They prefer not to see it, to close their eyes. The presence of the military in civilian places evokes in such people some strange mixture of envy and a very weird contempt, which is designed to protect their ego or something.

I will explain by telling you about one situation. Not so long ago, we were released for three days for the funeral of our fallen comrade. We had to also visit the hospital in the same city where the funeral took place. And we went there in our jeep, it was all “scarred” by war: in bumps, partly without glass, covered in tape, with a camouflage net, etc. We drove into the territory of the civil hospital and just parked. I went to resolve some issues at the hospital and when I got back, I saw a lot of policemen around the car. I was in shock. It turned out that one of the civilians was frightened by our car and called the police because of our “suspicious” jeep. Although they saw me getting out of it, and actually going to the hospital earlier.

So, during the wartime, such vehicles still cause fear and misunderstanding in some people. Frankly, I am quite annoyed by this blindness to the fact of far, fear of the military, and tone-deaf behavior by some people. You see, after the funeral of a family friend, I had to give some explanations about my car. Of course, the police did not find any violation, because my machine gun was registered to me, I had all of my documents, and so on. But I had to deal with a ton of bureaucracy. Such situations do irritate me.

Which city did that situation take place in, can you tell?

In Kryvyi Rih.

So the city is not that far from the front line and still, this happened?

Exactly, it’s a war zone! And I literally felt like a criminal, although I had not committed any crime. I just parked such a “terrible” military jeep on the territory of the hospital, where I had some business to attend to.

I have to give credit to the police though. They saw that I was not transporting any illegal weapons, and all I had in the car was a uniform and all kinds of sweets and such from volunteers and good people who wanted to help. So policemen apologized and said that they understood that it was all stupid. But bureaucratic procedures force them to draw up 150 protocols in my name simply because somebody called them about my car. 

To sum up, if a civilian is simply interested in my situation and asks me about it – I’m happy! I’ve experienced situations that no one can be prepared for. And I was not mentally prepared for that. Any questions from civilians, who are simply interested and worried, could not upset me.

Nobody can be morally prepared for war, military serviceman or not. But six months have already passed. The situation you just described, when exactly did it take place?

In the fifth month! (laughs) In the fifth month of full-scale war! It’s just about the level of people’s understanding of the situation – some still perceive the military as… Do you remember those news reports that the veterans of ATO (“Anti-Terrorist Operation” – the name of the conflict and all military action between the Ukrainian army and Russian military forces with pro-Russian separatists that temporarily occupied part of Ukrainian territory in the East in 2014. – editor’s note) accidentally killed someone… Well, they didn’t accentuate on the news about a plumber who killed someone?!

This thing, about the military background of a person, was emphasized constantly. I think that this is one of the instruments of russian propaganda in our media: to create a negatively painted discourse regarding the Ukrainian military. And it’s really demoralizing. Because while we hold back the borders of the Ukrainian state here, there…

Therefore, our best gratitude is to reform the country so that it is truly European. So that all institutions work properly, so that there is no such stupid, immoral bureaucracy anymore.

Do you believe the reformation process has already begun?

To be honest, I’m not sure that it has. Of course, some things have changed. But I do not have a full understanding of what happens with the labor and anti-corruption reforms… I see that people are quick to forget and forgive the dealings of the ones who hold the power, some of them still have high ratings. Although they are not the ones protecting Ukrainians from the Russian occupation.

It seems to me that almost no one has drawn conclusions. Being so quick to forget is our problem.

How would you compare the Ukrainian army in 2014 and in 2022 as a parallel to Ukrainian society? Has it somehow changed?

Yes, it has changed, of course! I would say that there are a lot more people with combat experience. A lot of people found their calling in battle and war.

The army has become more modern. Let’s recall the year 2014. At that time, the reputation of the army was different: people who didn’t do so well in school, who had no bright future, and maybe even some troubles with the law. 

After 2014, all of that changed. More and more experienced, intellectual people joined the army. Serving in the military forces has become more prestigious. And it all paid off – in 2022, we managed to contain this big invasion. Precisely because there were so many brave people in the army.

Let’s talk about how war changes people: personality and character. Do you think most will carry these changes throughout their lives after returning? Do you think there will be problems in the society?

Ours is a defensive war (defensive war is an ethical war), so we protect our cities, our homes, literally our families. So the horrors of experience in combat are easier to live through. It seems to me that many who will return after this war will be able to block a lot of pain out, at least for a certain time period.

But of course sometimes, after pressing on the pain points, this experience will spill out and “flood” everything around it. But I don’t agree with people who say that all the veterans will come back as uncontrollable aggressive people who bring the war with them. Most veterans are people who have gone through a harsh experience in the war and seek to return to a peaceful life.

And I will even go on to state that for many, surviving the war means to start really enjoying living. If life seemed meaningless to someone, then after surviving the war they may start to enjoy any sunny day or a minute spent with a loved one. Everyday peaceful life will be so precious to the military person.

Let’s move on to gender issues. Many women now have the courage to go list into the army. I would like you to name 2-3 characteristics of a woman, who can be effective on the frontline? What should a woman be ready for?

The first thing I would say: you need to stock up on anger. Have a large reserve of rage, fury, courage, and ability to resist.

Kindness and sincerity are seen as your weakness here, those are not perceived in the same way as in a peaceful life. Men with such a Soviet background unconsciously begin to try and break such a girl, to underestimate her. They may say: “what can you do?”, “you’re a woman, a mother,” “you will have to give birth someday!”, “why did you join the army?”, “did you come here to earn money or find a husband?”

Did you personally experience this?

No one dared to talk to me that way! (smiles). The thing is, when I joined the army, I had a certain background as an activist who stood up for what I believed in quite fiercely.

I can be quite aggressive in communication and behavior. This is what, by the way, saved me from many unpleasant situations.

It is very difficult for a girl to be in the army. You have to be lucky. If you are kind, sincere and tend to avoid conflicts, you might be broken very quickly.

Were you like that before the war? Was it in your character or did any transformations take place during the war?

When I was still in the “Hospitallers” Medical Battalion, especially during my first experience of being in a position as a military medic, I was exactly the type of girl I am describing: kind, nice, sincere. She who helped everyone, loved everyone. That is, was ready to fight for everyone. I dug up the dead bodies from the dugouts,  helped to cook, ran for positions. And then it turned very, very painful.

I don’t want to dive into this situation, but those whom I trusted so much showed that if there is an opportunity to make a scapegoat out of a woman – they will make one out of her.

So, there is no special treatment for women in the army? It’s the other way around: If you show weakness, they pressure you?

If they feel your weakness, they squeeze you! And make you work five times more than all the men put together. Unfortunately, there is such a thing in the military psychology. You have to be cold, distant, but at the same time take your training, your duties very seriously. Do your job as well as others. And then you will have an equal place in any team with the men and you will gain their respect.

I know from experience: you have to be ready to aggressively defend yourself and your place. But at the same time, as in my case, as a combat medic, be caring. Never refuse to help. Perform your duties perfectly. And then you can serve.

Of course, saying things like “I’m a girl, and I won’t do that” is a direct road to never being respected in this predominately male environment.

Also, I encountered another interesting thing. When the men see that you come with such enthusiasm, try to take part in everything: loading the equipment, carrying boxes, running cross-country with them around the stadium in all this mud… They start asking to see a little femininity in you. I’ve experienced that. That is, when they began to say things like: “Let me carry that for you?” or “Why aren’t you smiling? Why are you behaving so “unfemininely”? So the complete opposite began.

And all this must be rejected by a woman soldier if she wants to serve on the front line, receive important tasks.

Many of the girls were pitied. Since the beginning of the war, some brigade commanders have sent them back, further to the rear, so that nothing would threaten them. On the other hand, I was easily pushed into the “best” spots. That is, there was no pity or sympathy for me, for which I am very grateful.

Aren’t you afraid to develop such a harsh character? Do you think it will affect your peaceful life, your personal life? Won’t you be too (in simple words) cruel? Aren’t you afraid that it will somehow affect relations with the opposite sex in peaceful life?

An important point here is that my husband serves with me. And he likes these traits in my character. He himself is quite tough. And we have already lived through a lot with him. He and I feel as great together in peaceful life as on the front line. We fit together.

So this background you share is more unifying than the clichéd saying “opposites attract”. And the notion that a woman has to be softer and more feminine. And a man has to be tougher. Here, in such an unusual situation other systems take place.

I do not know. This is our experience and I even can’t compare like that: who is tougher, who is softer: me or my husband. In general, our relationship is measured in some other categories. Just mutual understanding, and we went through a lot of difficult moments together. In a way, it feels like he and I are one person.

I have read your previous interviews, you often talked about the “war circle”, about the fact that we were and always will be at war with Russia. Now many people say that Russia as a state is in great danger of disintegration. If this happens, do you believe that there can be a way out of this “war circle” and that one day we all could finally relax? And if so, what actions could lead to this?

Many people tell me that I am pessimistic about this, but I still believe that I am realistic. By accepting the situation as it is, I make it easier on myself. I believe that we have a chance to get out of this “war circle”, but it will not happen in our lifetime. Not even in our children’s lifetime. Perhaps it will happen in the lifetime of our grandchildren. If we and our children work well on it well enough.

Any empire falls apart sooner or later. Of course, Russian Federation is not an exception. But it is important to understand that the Russian Federation is inhabited by the type of people, who gravitate towards the authoritarian society, the totalitarian type of the state. A thousand-year-old history confirmed it. They aspire to it. Maybe it will change, but as this war shows, technology has given them the opportunity to wrap totalitarianism in a false simulacrum. The attempt to hide it simply gave rise to double standards and a tendency to pathological lying.

I believe that our generation of Ukrainians must accept that war is our destiny. It’s going to be here for the rest of our life. Most likely, for this entire century. And we will be able to preserve the borders of our state only if we build a very strong system of self-defense. If we all remember the war is here. And remember all the war crimes. Remember why this happened, why we weren’t ready. No one analyzed this yet. It is very important to analyze!

We have to accept that people will continue to go to war. One generation will fight and be replaced by another generation. New people.

Even some people who’ve been in hot war spots did not come to understand this. We have to be ready. The question is whether we will have fewer losses, but whether we will fight or not – it is not the question. We will fight!

It is clear that a military victory will not be a complete victory. Do you see a danger in the fact that after a military victory, our society will fall into a kind of euphoria, forgetting about the danger that has been around for the past 300-400 years?

Forgetting and relaxing is something our society loves to do. It relaxes in moments that are not suitable for this at all.

This could actually lead to the disappearance of Ukraine.

Many already think that the war is over because their city was not bombed for a couple of months.

This is a thing of our era. Kaleidoscope thinking. Short tape memory, that is, you do not remember what happened three or seven days ago.

We need civil society to make a big effort. So that people do not forget about the war and the fact that we are in a “war circle”. As soon as we forget that we have to learn to fight, we lose our cities and our homes are turned into bombed-out ruins.

I just hope that many people will come to realize this.

It’s just that the majority of people should understand. And not only the minority that was conscious all that time.

Exactly! We can only hope for that. The right things come to a person very slowly and take a long time. And sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Ukrainians have such a problem that we always wait for good news, and after good news, we fall into amnesia regarding all the negative things that happened before.