Sisters in arms. Kateryna Priymak “Zoya”

The story of Kateryna Pryimak is the story of a student of Drahomanov Pedagogical University, a cultural studies major, who in 2014 chose to join the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps of the Right Sector instead of a master’s degree. This is the path from a paramedic of the “Hospitaliers” in the hotspots of Piska, the Butivka mine, to a public activist, co-founder of the Women’s Veterans Movement, giving a speech at the UN headquarters. This is the story of a veteran who has successfully fought for equal rights and opportunities for women in the army for 8 years.

About the most pleasant thing in the war, why she chose the path of a volunteer, about the rotation in 2022 in Kherson. About shame and pride in oneself, how to change the system – read in a frank interview with Kateryna.

When did the war start for you?

For me, the war began in 2014 on the Donetsk-Dnipro train. We went to Donetsk with my late friend, a colleague from PinchukArtCentre,I worked there. We wanted to see what was there and at the same time go to the base of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps of the Right Sector, where my friends from the Maidan were. In Donetsk, we saw an empty city, beautiful roses in a flower bed. There was nobody for real, just some chechens and mercenaries. We were met by a drunkard and paid off him with a bottle of beer and two packs of cigarettes. I told my friend Natalka to pretend to be mute, as she was from Volyn and spoke Ukrainian. We entered the Lviv chocolate workshop and were answered in Ukrainian: “Nice too meet you!”. They told us that Girkin came to them to drink coffee yesterday. Then we went to the Kyiv district of Donetsk, closer to the airport, we saw shell casings there, empty shops, just a war. After that, they boarded the last train to free Ukraine, instead of three hours, all of them drove nine or ten to the Dnipro. Many people were sitting, no one slept, did not change clothes – everyone was busy, thinking about their life carrying the baggage and animals. 

We went to visit my wounded friend in Mechnikov hospital, then to the DUK base, after that I could not leave them. I said before the new exhibition at the PinchukArtCentre that I was going to war, everyone saw me off. In October 2014, I joined the “Hospitaliers” volunteer battalion.

The main motivation at the age of 21 to go to war?

After the Maidan, my life became the life of a revolutionary. Many of us were absorbed by the events on the Maidan, there was a feeling of elation. This is the same feeling at the beginning of the war – everything is burning around, you feel unity with all the people, a desire to change the future and the present. I wanted to be near my people, with my community, where history is taking place.

What should I say to my 21-year-old self now?

I would live my life in the same way. Apparently, i would say to practice more, read more and learn the protocol. I would say that there will be a war in 2022, so prepare better!

How did you mentally prepare to become a paramedic in addition to having completed professional courses in tactical medicine?

I was mentally stressed. I drew different pictures for myself: how will I react if I see blood, guts, dismemberment, will I be able to cope with all the emotions?! I even poked a dead dog with a stick to test myrself for change. I wasn’t so much afraid of being scared as of being disgusted somehow.

Why did you choose the path of a volunteer, and not officially join the ranks of the Armed Forces?

In 2014-2015, volunteers were an effective force, we cooperated with the army, we revitalized it, we were the driving force of this war. Of course, without the support of the Armed Forces, this would be impossible, possible only with cooperation. The volunteers became dangerous players for the system, apparently those who were not joined to the system went against it. Our DUK base was surrounded, literally kicked out from the front, forbidden to operate. Because of the Minsk agreements and the authorities of that time, we were forbidden to shoot when we were being shot at. This causes anger, frustration, cognitive dissonance. We were pushed out of the village of Pisky, in April 2015 we had to leave this position and move to other areas of the front. I am sure that it was possible to go to Luhansk already, this was not done because of the Minsk agreements. This is a betrayal of our interests, although perhaps then we would not have stood against the Russian regular army, anyway it happened as it happened. Perhaps it was a chance to bide time and learn to fight, so there are no unequivocal answers to what happened and what will happen. But I still believe that it was a real chance for the army, a total renewal for the better. My thoughts now, as a person who has lived through nine years of war. 

I became a volunteer because I do not accept the army by nature. I believe that the army is not a human institution, which is built on discrimination, rigid hierarchy, disrespect for human rights. Our army now is different, it is ordinary people who have undertaken to defend the country, people of different professions, with different competencies. This is a great chance for the army to be the one to kick Russia’s ass. But unfortunately, not all the army is reformed and for them the system needs to be changed for the better. I don’t like the American army either, but our army has a chance to become an army with a human face, we need to change the security architecture, this is important in the context of the world. An army should be about defense, not offense.I would like to live in a world without soldiers, women in the army fall into this very strong category.

Volunteers are a separate caste. This is not a regular army and not volunteering, but something in between: what are the advantages of a volunteer? Who provides and receives a salary: pros and cons for those who are deciding where to go now?

We had no salary. We were fully supported by volunteers:medical equipment, backpacks – we had all the best in terms of medical equipment and equipment. There were times when we ran out of food, but overall we were well supplied by the battalion thanks to the people and their support. The big advantage, after all, is that you are not subject to the army, or rather to some of its representatives.

Now it is better to go to the Armed Forces, but I would go to the Hospitallers again. But nevertheless, now we need to fill the army with ourselves, get a salary, and if we die, then get family support from the state. 

Share your emotions about the first rotation, about the first wounded

Our motto was: mental retardation and courage – we ironized it like that. On the first day, Kuba (paramedic Yulia Sidorova) and I drove to Pisky, I was frying potatoes, and the shelling began. It was not clear where it lies, as if far away, as if loud, steep. And it was really a neighboring yard and Kuba comes out, someone sent her after this madwoman to the street, after me. Kuba went to investigate the situation, also received from the command, in short, we were a little safe with her at first. Then they received an instruction, you are already starting to understand something. Especially when you see a local dude who was ripped apart, his meat stank terribly under our medical station. After such episodes, you understand that it is better to stay away and you understand sounds, whistling, and what. Many deaths occur due to human stupidity, without observing safety measures. Thinking with your head significantly extends your life. 

The first wounded person was immediately at the “Dwarf” position, with a shrapnel wound to the leg. A normal wound, just serious enough to apply skills quickly, according to the algorithm – not guts and not brains, which allows for a smooth entry into military reality. All my emotions are strongly influenced by smells, that is, now the smell of a bonfire, burzuiki for many is still barbecue, there are fewer and fewer people for whom it is not the smell of revolution and war. The smell of the wounded is very special – blood with gunpowder. Who knows will understand. 

Your nickname “Zoya” has a deep meaning, tell us about it

He appeared in the yard as a child, you know, as Zoya, Evkakiy and various names that children gave each other. And then, bang, it turned out that it is from the Greek “life”, such a turn from a carefree childhood to an adult life at war.

Why did you decide to return to civilian life?

It was the summer of 2015. We were very close to the enemy, almost two hundred meters. The worst thing is the road from the position, you are in the target, the roads are bad, there is also the possibility of an accident. We drive into the Butivka mine – there are no injured. It’s even surprising, there used to be so many. As soon as I go to the wedding of the deceased “Eva” (veteran Olena Zelinska), while I was there, “Dosh” died and Rodya “Trystan” received a serious wound in the face. I had the feeling that I had taken the luck with me, I began to think that we were in hell: the tank ran over me with “Rezhyk” (paramedic friend Yevhen Titarenko) and our friends “Frost” (Serhiy Moroz) and “Chachun” (Olexandr Moiseyenko), they have already died too. I was irritated and tired,switched to the role of an instructor, then I had a relationship, I left the war.

How was your return to civilian life?

Pretty smooth compared to others. For a week I lay and didn’t even take a shower, in apathy, watching everyone die in “Game of Thrones”. I was out of work for about three weeks, meeting with friends. I knew that I wanted to work in the media, they advised me about vacancies at STB, and I got a job there. Work for a veteran is very important, if you find what you like when you return from the war – this is a high percentage of success. Of course, if you don’t have an injury or severe health problems.

I had internal conflicts: I am a pacifist, I don’t like the army, now I know how to change the system to a more humane one and I am doing everything for that.Then it was a conflict, I was being harassed by the military, camouflage in the city, I thought, why are you bringing this here, I was young, stupid and depressed. It took three years to accept my experience, internal conflicts, I learned to cope, although there are problems from time to time, like everyone.

How to hold on when your comrade and friends die?

I don’t know how to hold on. I just live on with it, my closest people are still with me, but I live in fear. The way out is this: we live on or break down. I know how to grieve – this is a useful skill for me, because many people cannot cry, for example.

Your return to the war took place in 2022 – rotation to the Kherson region for 2 weeks. In the photo you glow with happiness, but what was in the soul?

My face was glowing because I changed the situation. Then I had a terrible depression – personal and certain dramas, I was excited to go on such a bright “vacation”. We worked, took risks, but we still had conditions with a plus: we spent the night in the village, because evacuating people across the river at this time is suicide. The conditions of our friends from the 46th brigade, who were left to spend the night in the trenches, are flying overhead, Russians are walking, everything is shooting. We brought them hot dogs, hot, at least somehow to brighten the conditions. The face will not light up if you go to the Armed Forces to fight, under the conditions that the 46th brigade works – this is everyday heroism, not a short “vacation”.

I am ashamed to call myself a veteran when I sit in the headquarters. Yes, I plow – it’s a fact: working with brains, communications, it’s nerve-wracking, but it will never compare to what people on the front are doing now. You can say a hundred times that it is more useful elsewhere, but it is more useful for the country now to take a shovel and dig trenches. It is more useful to take a barrel and kill a Russian, but I cannot abandon the organization. But I am ready to go to support our friend “Bald”, “Guru” and the girls. “Bald” and his partner carried about 55 people on foot for 6-7 km there and back in one two-week rotation, because there was not enough armor and armored vehicles. We arrived in an armored Defender with paramedic “Rezhik” to help, and we did a good job. Then they collected it for their car. I plan to go again in the spring, to strengthen the counteroffensive.

What was the nicest thing that happened to you in the war?

There were many pleasant episodes, it’s nice when they care about you, bring in the poor, and recognize you. Once we had terrible conditions, I felt really capable of management, a moment of pride for myself. It was in Piske, when several positions were bombed. After the tank ran over me, there were cracks in the ribs, bruises, and here we have to leave as an additional crew. I helped the wounded at the same time, I commanded many people, despite the fact that I was in a terrible physical condition, I took care of my wounded.

The saddest thing is when you talk to a person and then close them in a bag, it’s pretty sad.

How did you get into the company of the participants of the “Invisible Battalion”, and then became a co-founder of WVM? What triggered you for the first time on the topic of sexism in the army? Was there a specific point of no return situation?

Maria Berlinska invited me to the “Invisible Battalion” team. I knew Maria from the Maidan, even before the students were beaten, she in her pink ski suit on an armored car is a symbol of my Maidan. Then I met Andriana Arekhta, for which I am very grateful. She is my soulmate, a person I can completely trust, my friend, my colleague, my partner. They started creating the Women’s Veteran Movement, worked hard, I showed myself as a leader and became a co-founder.

I am a lifelong feminist, since university, before the war. My specialty is a professional woman (laughs). I was triggered by discrimination itself. I personally encountered domestic sexism. Once the group commander wanted to leave me in a safe place and go on a combat mission. It’s trash, I replied that it’s brand new, and I’m the commander. When she first came to the war, my friend said: “Oh, you are as frivolous as you came to the war!” I was outraged by this approach, a person can be cheerful, make jokes, but be professional about it. I had relatively more or less situations. The girls tell a lot of things that do not come to mind: depreciation, insults, cases of violence, threats,cases of violence, threats and simply contempt.

You devote all your time to the movement, what does the Women’s Veterans Movement mean to you today?

Movement is my life! That is, this is not my work, this is really my life, because my views on people are formed in my personal life. Every girl in the movement, every person is more than just a person for me. This makes me more vulnerable, helps me feel the trend of the organization’s development. I want there to be even more girls, so that the movement is such a platform where people can realize themselves in various professions

Someone is doing a photo project for us right now and highlighting topics important to them, someone is entering the legal field and advocating for changes, someone wants to realize themselves in local self-government. We must be ready to work hard and bear responsibility, learn, share, knock, learn to ask even. It hurts me when girls are shy to contact the organization, for example, because they are afraid of the appearance that they will suddenly not be heard.

Eight years of successfully defending gender equality in the army: what else needs to be done to finally eliminate the concept of “sexism” in the army?

Yes, 8 years have passed since the creation of the “Invisible Battalion”, but we still have a lot of work to do. It is necessary to burn this corrupt rotten system of the army with new people, values, cool men and women. Professional selection is the first thing, so that no one ever says: “How did you come, why did you come to the war?!” Let’s take quality, technology, not meat and a primitive approach. At least another fifty years must be thrown in order to get changes. Antonio Guterres (UN Secretary General) said that at this rate we will achieve gender equality in 300 years. This is the global framework, we still have a very good situation with equality, compared to many countries, the approach is more humane or something. But we must remember that ideologically we have defenders, veterans, the best girls. Although in practice there are still many cases where there is enough trash and gender discrimination.

What is your dream nowadays?

I dream about the series that I wanted even before the full scale. I was filling out a grant application for script development, the girls and I had already briefed the heroine, all images were written from our lives. The world has changed, reality has changed, but I still dream that we will make a series about female veterans. About all our doubles, because we live such a life as if we were watching a movie about ourselves. This is a real dramedy.

Olena Brutska