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Women in war: A pregnant soldier contemplates front-line return

This article is part of a series telling the stories of women in the Russia-Ukraine war.

Lviv, Ukraine — Having served on the front line for eight years with the Ukrainian armed forces, 29-year-old Anna Tuyenova is used to having few possessions and moving around frequently. In some ways, today is no different: the bare necessities of her life are packed into one large black suitcase and a couple of small bags, which she’s brought as one of the first arrivals at a new purpose-built shelter for displaced pregnant women in Lviv in western Ukraine. These hold the remnants of her life in the city of Lysychansk in the country’s east, which she and her two-year-old daughter Milena fled in late May.

“I’m turning 30 tomorrow,” Anna says, beaming as Milena bounces up and down in a cot in their sun-drenched room on an afternoon in late July. The shelter, located on the outskirts of Lviv, is so new the walls still give off the faint scent of freshly-cut wood. Outside, it is tranquil and secluded. A smattering of trees surrounds the two complexes, which can house up to 100 mothers and their children. For now, Anna and Milena have the whole room to themselves but when the shelter begins filling up, another mother and child will occupy the second bunk bed. Anna has no big plans for her birthday but hopes to cook a simple meal. “I’ll share it with my friend — she’s also a woman soldier, and she has a day off tomorrow,” she explains.

Dressed in a light-blue checked shirt that is taut around her baby bump, and blue trousers, Anna smiles often. In particular, she lights up when talking about her experiences in the military, where she served until she found out she was pregnant, just two weeks before the Russian invasion began on February 24. She is currently seven months pregnant and on maternity leave.

“I don’t have relatives left except Milena and Ivan,” she says, referring to her unborn son. Anna has never met her father nor does she have any siblings. With the death of her mother three years ago, she was hit with the sudden realisation that she wanted to have a child. “I got pregnant nine months later, and he [Milena’s father] didn’t want to see me again, not even in the hospital. He didn’t want to be present in her life,” she says matter-of-factly.

Anna and other women soldiers in uniform and bullet-proof vests next to each other.
Anna (second from the left) and other women soldiers in February 2020 [Courtesy of Anna Tuyenova]

‘Nothing can shock me’

Anna calls her conscription into the military an accident. Before 2014, she had been employed in two separate jobs as a translator and accountant in Kyiv. Then she met Milena’s father, a soldier deployed to a battalion in the Luhansk province of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. At the time, armed conflict had just erupted there between pro-Russian separatist groups and Ukrainian government forces. With the surge in nationalism and a partner on the front, Anna decided it was the right moment for her to join the Ukrainian fight against Russian influence. Now, she says she can’t imagine working in any other setting.

“I followed him [her ex-partner] to Lysychansk, and got used to fighting very quickly. I’ve seen everything, and now nothing can shock me,” she says. Her first deployment was in the Luhansk I battalion in Lysychansk, fighting for months at a time in the trenches. She vividly remembers her hands shaking the first time she fired her rifle at enemy troops, even though she says she had been a very good shooter during her training. “When you’re in combat, you learn to differentiate between different kinds of sounds — whether its tanks, air raids or other vehicles — in the same way you learn to identify birdsong.”

Her relationship may not have lasted, but it sparked her deep, longstanding commitment to the army.

In 2019, even though she was heavily pregnant and just one month from giving birth to Milena, she remained at work. “I was serving as a telecommunications technician in Avdiivka [a front-line town in Donbas], and my commander just wouldn’t let me go on maternity leave,” she laughs, adding that the situation was critical at the time and that there were fears Avdiivka would be seized by Russian-backed forces.

She is safe in Lviv, but she often thinks about returning to the front line. She yearns for the strong sense of purpose and duty she felt in the army, though in the past it has meant having to relinquish her parenting duties to the state for extended periods of time. For the moment, she is preoccupied with finding a kindergarten for Milena, as none she has contacted in Lviv so far will accept a child as young as she is. Ivan is also starting to get bigger, causing her discomfort as she moves around. She rarely has time to cook or do anything else, as Milena is particularly demanding of her attention.

When asked how she juggles motherhood and being at war, she says she believes in just getting on with things. “I think I got my strength from my mother,” she adds, explaining her mother was the sole carer for her grandmother after a debilitating brain disorder that left her unable to move or speak. Through sheer grit, and defying medical prognosis, her mother taught her grandmother to talk again. The experience left a deep impression on Anna, who feels she is following in her mother’s footsteps by dealing calmly with the huge responsibilities upon her shoulders.

Anna holding her daughter Milena, who is wearing a pink hat, and kissing her cheek.
Anna and her daughter Milena in December 2021 [Courtesy of Anna Tuyenova]

Safe in Lviv

Anna pauses the conversation intermittently to play with Milena, who totters around the room and enjoys hiding in the wardrobe, which is still almost completely empty. Their interactions are tender and full of humour, and Anna says she is just trying to make up for lost time. Since Milena was born, she hasn’t been able to be by her mother’s side often.

Months after giving birth, Anna returned to the front line in Avdiivka. “I could only see her once a month,” she says. The rest of the time, Milena was at a crèche in Severodonetsk, a city approximately two hours from Avdiivka by car. Though she missed her daughter immensely, she says she “got very used to it”. There was no alternative arrangement and she feels she was lucky compared to other soldiers of both sexes, who only saw their families twice a year at most.

In February this year, after discovering she was pregnant, Anna decided to take Milena and returned to their home in Lysychansk. “I knew that war was coming, and with my second pregnancy, I thought it was my one chance to try and lead a peaceful life,” she says. For the first week, Milena was reticent and shy around her mother, not having spent much time with her. “Now she’s always sticking to me,” Anna says.

Anna was reluctant to leave for months despite the persistent shelling, holding out hope “normal life” would resume. Then a bomb blast in late May blew the windows and a door in her house to smithereens, though neither she nor Milena was hurt. That was the day she decided to head for Lviv. More than a month later, on July 3, Lysychansk fell to the Russian army.

It took three tries for Anna to find a safe and comfortable place for her and Milena to stay when they arrived in Lviv. Their first stop had been a temporary shelter, but they barely stayed for a day as the water pipes burst and caused a huge stench. Next, they found a room at a university dormitory where the shower wasn’t working properly, but they still put up with it for a few weeks. It was a gynaecologist she had visited for a check-up who told her about the shelter.

Despite the upheaval of the past few months, Anna feels she has a lot to be optimistic about. “I was surprised to find out from the gynaecologist that my child is completely fine, I thought that the stress from everything going on might have affected his development,” she says. “And Milena is also a healthy girl.” When the time comes, arrangements will be made for Ivan to be delivered at a hospital close by.

Anna in army uniform and cap, saluting.
Anna relishes the strong sense of purpose and duty she gets from being in the army [Courtesy of Anna Tuyenova]

‘Back to the frontline’

Anna’s life in Lviv has been stressful without support as she tries to settle into a routine with Milena while waiting to give birth. The father of her son is still on the front line near Kramatorsk, in the Donetsk region, but she hopes to be able to rejoin him soon, saying she wants to “cover his back, and to fight together”.

“Right now I just want to devote all my time to my children,” she says. “But once Ivan can be weaned off breastfeeding, my wish is to go back to the front line.”

Anna is saddened by the prospect of again being separated for long periods from her children. With the couple being in combat simultaneously, she expects both children will once again be placed in the care of a state-run school for military families. But the irresistible draw of the battlefield comes from the sense of camaraderie and the urgency of going through thick and thin with her battalion, which she believes is hard to replicate anywhere else. She says that in the initial days when she joined the army in 2014, she felt subject to the “strict subordination” of women, even by well-intentioned men.

“The men wouldn’t let me go [to the frontline] when the fighting was severe, they wanted to cover us women,” she recalls. But once she had proven she was just as skilled at operating weaponry, she was out in the trenches with them. “In other things, we are completely equal. Out there we have one shower and one toilet. Basically, you go there, and everybody implements the skills they learned from training. We’re all in one trench, digging together.”

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