On December 5, Sumy and the whole Ukraine celebrated Volunteer Day. In his greeting to the community, Dmytro Zhyvytskyi, head of the local military administration, pointed out the aggressor’s major error: “Russians, going to Ukraine, probably forgot that we are descendants of glorious Cossacks and Cossack blood flows in our veins. 360 years ago Cossacks led by Ivan Vyhovsky defeated a larger Russian army near Konotop, and now Territorial Defense brigades, units of the AFU, National Guard, police, and border guards fought back together with our partisans, farmers, entrepreneurs, and doctors. Everyone who could pick up a weapon, build roadblocks, barrier structures, make a Molotov cocktail – all were involved from the first day of the full-scale invasion. I am proud to be Ukrainian, to work every day to preserve our territorial integrity, restore it, and support and help the military.”
The people in the hall, whom he addressed, say about themselves: we are ordinary people doing ordinary work. What do volunteers mean by extraordinary work, if collecting aid, daily search for necessary things, trips to hot spots and constant risk of coming under fire are commonplace for them?
– …Hello. I remember… No one can decide this… No, helmets will be provided by the ministry. When you arrive there, they’ll give you, no one has ever fought without a helmet… We don’t do that. It’s not what we do…
– Why Babsky? The guys called us so in 2014. Once, we came from the frontline and talked to them, and they say: “Think of a name for your unit. We call you Babsky battalion, but it doesn’t sound good.” I said to my people, “We have to come up with a name right away. Do you know how they call us?” Everyone: “Ha-ha! Let it be so!” That’s how the name stuck. The only thing we insisted upon during the official registration was to add “home front”, since we are defending on the home front. That’s why now it is “Babsky Battalion. Home front”.
They constantly criticize me for this name in social media: it isn’t our word, it sounds abusive. I don’t know, maybe for someone it’s a swear word, but for us it’s like a call to action, to do something urgently, grab something, run somewhere, help… I say: no, we’ve been called that since 2014, so be it…
I walk up the stairs to a seemingly empty floor. One door is open, I look in and hear: “Come in!”
The voice comes from behind the cabinets that divide a large room into two zones. The front one, with a sofa and pictures on the walls, is “our photo zone,” Valya will explain later. I find her at a table in the second zone, which is both a staff room and a dining room. There is a phone and papers on the table, cups and food have been moved aside. While we talk, people will come three times: haven’t you had tea yet? They’ll see that Valia is busy and nod: okay, we’ll be later.
She came here on February 24 at seven in the morning.
– …And I saw that I was not the only one, a lot of like-minded people came. First there were five or six, then ten, and then we couldn’t fit in the room… There were no “higher” authorities – what to do, how to act? We contacted the Territorial Defense. I think the first checkpoints were completely arranged by us. We hung threads in the corridor – to make nets. “Kikimoras” are needed – one room for that…
In those days, up to four hundred people gathered here. Although a Russian tank column already passed through the city on the first day of the war, luckily – in transit; although the occupiers were advancing from different sides, those who gathered here knew that the city would not surrender and they would not give it up, no matter what leadership was there.
Valentyna Andriyasheva was not a boss; she had not even had a job in recent years. “Housewife,” she laughs. The household wasn’t small, so she worked for her family. But then she realized: she had to do more, because the war had come. Maybe, someone thinks it began on February 24, but for Valia it began in 2014 and went on all those years without any self-deception, without any pretense of peaceful well-being, with the understanding that at this moment the enemy is shooting at our guys somewhere.
One thing is to understand and another – to do something. What exactly? What should she do? After Ilovaisk tragedy she often scrolled through Facebook and one day she saw that camouflage nets were needed. She consulted, visited various websites to understand how to make nets.
– That’s how we started working, and we haven’t stopped since then. My whole family volunteers – my husband and parents. My daughter has just left, she was also helping here.
– Did you inspire them?
– I rather put it point-blank. I told them: we must make camouflage nets. We’ll do something in the yard, I thought, we’ll do it at home. Dad immediately found a bar. But people kept coming…
On September 9, I met with Oleh Khibarnyi from the Entrepreneurship Support Fund. He said at once: we need premises. And they gave us a hangar. At first, when we started weaving, there was a thread of 13 meters, then two of 48 each… It was collective creativity and we were quick on the uptake. The first nets were very heavy, because we wove each square. That was the method of weaving we used for about a year and a half. But the expanse of materials was awful, and the net was too heavy. Then we made it a little lighter: we saw how people did it and added something on our own. Now the process is fine-tuned. We try to have as much material as possible. We take it from secondhand shops, and people bring scraps from everywhere – from Kyiv and from Okhtyrka, even though they also weave nets there. People bring them from all over Ukraine, because we weave for everyone.
They patched up the roof in the hangar, installed the heating, and made necessary improvements. But they were “asked” out of there and sent to one of the schools. There were a lot of disputes. Valia was afraid whether there would be enough room in the new premises. But the hot 2014 passed, the number of helpers gradually became smaller, as if there was no war. Meanwhile, Valentyna and her team kept getting requests and knew: they had to work.
Eventually, the volunteers were given a place in the premises they are now. Not repaired for a long time, unsightly, it became a place of active battles of the home front battalion – in order to provide soldiers with everything they need.
– … Hello, good afternoon. Can we do it later? – Valia turns to a man who has entered and is boiling water. – It’s about camouflage nets – to Kharkiv. Can you talk?
Vitaliy waved his hand negatively: you talk!
- That’s how we live, – Valia smiles at me.
– Hi! Have you had tea yet? – an elderly man enters the “office” behind the cabinets.
– Wait a little, we’ll have a drink. This is a journalist.
– Well, people should know about us…
– We get a lot of calls. There were so many calls after the 24th… There was nothing, people went to war in rubber boots… My husband and I went around the checkpoints delivering shoes. It’s good that we have such people. Those who have shops just opened and gave away everything they had for men…
Her family was always with her. Dad and mom went to the first important meetings. Her husband Vitaliy, who had a shop, closed it and works only for the volunteer center. Their daughter is also a battalion member.
– … We earn enough money to live on, – explains Valia, – we have a farm and we sell chickens and fruit…
– So no one in the family resisted your plans to volunteer? – I ask. – Never! – Valia only waves her hand.
In 2014, her daughter kept running to the local Maidan and wanted to go to the Kyiv Maidan. Valia could barely hold her back. When spring came with the annexation of Crimea and Donbas, the family gathered again.
– …Imagine, my dad, an elderly man with a lot of diseases, and my daughter wanted to sign up to fight! Luckily, they were refused. They said they didn’t need such soldiers. I say to my daughter: you can’t go there, you’ll only get in the way! She answers me: I won’t.
At that time, my father Ivan, was 67 and my daughter was 18. This year, when there was a checkpoint in Tymiryazivka, not far from their place, we had to keep an eye on my father all the time. As soon as shooting started, we almost had to tie him up, otherwise he would have run to fight; we took him away from the checkpoint several times.
– You know, there is a feeling that you are Ukrainian. And you owe it to the country, and first of all, you owe it to yourself. And you have to make sure that you live peacefully, that you can go wherever you want, that you can talk the language you always talk!
We always used surzhyk (Ukrainian-Russian mixed language) at home. When my grandfather switched to Russian, he sometimes used very strange expressions, and sometimes we couldn’t understand him.
They are natives. Her mother is from Tymiryazivka and her father – from the farmstead behind it. Her grandmother was from Kursk, and her grandfather was from Nyzy. So they used a mixed language. Her father’s parents are from the same village, they both spoke mostly Ukrainian.
Valia remembers her school, the first grades well, when they didn’t have Ukrainian at all. The teacher came from Alma-Ata, and immediately explained to them that “we are not going to learn this bird language.” “She was so… interesting,” Valia describes her tolerantly. But when they came to the professional teacher in the fourth grade, it turned out that the level of their knowledge of the language fell into the “horror” category – the children did not know Ukrainian letters…
– Valia, – a man who came in greeted her loudly and leaned towards her; he is obviously her regular client, and as it turns out from the conversation, he is from the Territorial Defense, – we need a hydrogel patch.
– I don’t know what it is. I’ll note it down and we’ll look for it.
… So we go on a tour. There are elderly men in this room, one is weaving a net, the other is making details for a “kikimora”.
– How do you do it?
Learning to weave is not difficult, Valia is sure, “three seconds, and a person will already be weaving.” But first we need to control a person, because if we get distracted, an inexperienced volunteer may weave a red thread into a net and we will have to cut it and weave a new one.
The color is chosen to match the season and the local terrain. In summer – bright green, in autumn – yellow and gray, in winter – white. However, experts emphasize that nets must be dull white rather than pure white in color.
– Before you start to weave camouflage nets, you should at least read something about it on the Internet. Because there are different color variations. For example, maroon color, in my opinion, is a kind of pink, and it is widely used in camouflage. And if the soil is sandy, then the tanks are painted maroon to match the local terrain. It is believed that the best colors for camouflage are maroon and olive, light and dark.
We go to a warehouse of finished products. Fabric scraps are kept in another room. And what’s in here?
– Here are our “kikimoras”!
Four respectable women just smile – they’re used to it!
– Since 2014, we have been doing this, weaving both nets and “kikimoras,” says Natalia Panina and introduces her friends. Olia – since 2014, and another Olia has come recently. Our Zhenia – also since 2014. We are helping the army.
Mostly retired women work here in daytime. Although Ms. Natalia works at “Khimprom,” she weaves nets in her free time. Teachers from the three nearby kindergartens, as well as about 50 students also come regularly… In March, there were so many people that the nets were made in an instant.
We see two nets that are partially turned into camouflage in the corridor, and a group of women in the room. They’re weaving another net along the wall, and cut fabric at the tables.
– Did you see it? – Valentyna asks from the doorway. – Ruscists posted on their social media that they borrow our weaving methods because our nets are better!
– Of course, they are better, – confirm the women.
This brigade is headed by Svitlana Revyakina. She has been weaving nets since 2014. This spring, their team split up, because there was no transport, and it was difficult to get to the headquarters. So they started working in the neighborhoods, and then it turned out that there were very few specialists who knew the whole manufacturing process from start to finish.
– Somebody had to supervise the work there, – Valia comments. – Because it had to be quickly and properly organized. And our girls were busy delivering boxes of sandwiches and finished nets to the guys…
– Do you have managerial experience? – I ask Svitlana Pavlivna.
– Of course, – she laughs. – First, I am a teacher, and second, I have three children and six grandchildren.
Well, as they say, if you have learned to manage three people, you will be able to manage three thousand. And what did you teach?
– The russian language and literature.
I am surprised by her excellent Ukrainian, which is unusual for a teacher of russian philology.
“I live here, it’s my home, – Svitlana says. – When I lived in Kazakhstan for several years, I spoke russian. Besides, I also manage the Memorial organization.”
Babsky Battalion today is a whole enterprise that makes more than 40 products: nets, “kikimoras”, camouflage suits “bunnies”, uniforms, thermal underwear, fleece socks… And also – flags. Now they have started weaving products for Luhansk and Donetsk sectors. They have already organized themselves; there is no uncertainty of the first days. Ukrainian net weavers have created their own website, through which they verify orders and oversee the production. Now it is very difficult, the defense line is extensive, and all our defenders, as well as guys at our checkpoints must be provided with nets.
Therefore, they also have a large group of women working from home. Everything is cut here, distributed to seamstresses, and then the finished products are taken away.
In general, the team is amazing in its diversity. We agree with Valia that we will not call any names without women’s consent.
– …You may give my name, – she smiles. – I’ve been referred to as a “supporter of the fascists” on russian websites since 2014. Our team is very diverse. There are teachers, there is a pole-dancer. Alyona is a dancer, she organizes the second shift here. Svitlana Pavlivna is responsible for the daytime shift. Vitaliya is a lawyer (a bailiff). Victoria is responsible for accounting and paperwork. Vitaliy and Gena make potbelly stoves, which is new for us, because the women’s battalion wasn’t interested in it before.
Nelia Yakivna is very active; she is engaged in Nordic walking and was first in competitions. Unfortunately, she has suffered a heart attack…
Tetiana Dmytrivna is the head of the sewing shop; she has been doing tailoring all these years. With a 50-meter roll of fabric, some people make 80 or 90 underpants, whereas she makes 113.That is, not a single piece of fabric is lost. She is retired, and she used to have her own sewing studio. Moreover, she used to be a military seamstress when she served in the GDR…
All these months they work without days off, only recently they can afford not to go to work on Sundays. A battalion is a battalion indeed.
– Valia, which tins can I take for candles? – somebody asks.
– There are tins on the first floor, where finished candles are stacked! Take the cat food tins, they are more convenient – you don’t need to cut them!
We will win!!
– …I tell them: take a piece of a white brick, and insert it between a track and “idler,” says the elderly Territorial Defense member. Because people come and go, meet, remember something, they start telling stories – the center is the center.
– …And they ask me – the man continues. – Well, we know what a track is. And what is an “idler”? And I say: well, take a brick piece, climb onto a russian tank and knock on the armor; a ruscist gets out of his tank, and you ask him where their “idler” is. Here they started to laugh, they finally understood that I was making fun of them…
– … On the 24th we decided to spend a night in the village; we left with a dog in the car, and suddenly a huge russian convoy appeared! We drove away backwards…
– Now the main problems are with logistics. Our Ministry of Defense reports that everyone is already dressed, but in fact they get cold. It’s dirty and wet there, and they were given one set of clothes each. They fight for half an hour and get wet to the skin. Besides the clothes get torn… It is especially hard for volunteer battalions… They called from Mohrytsia: we have nothing, give us everything, because we have neither food nor shoes.
– But everything depends on a commander. Some say “give”, while others say “we have enough”…
An ordinary day of the Babsky battalion…
We continue the conversation at the door. Valentyna Andriyasheva and Svitlana Revyakina recall more details of their volunteer work and some corporate humorous stories…
– …What could have happened? Arestovych said that Sumy was not taken into account at all, that the defense line was planned to be along Romny, that is, we should have remained in the russian rear. But thanks to such abnormal people as we, everything turned out differently…
And indeed, looking at them, I recall a banal phrase: who did those russians decide to fight? Is it possible to overcome that Ukrainian energy that lives in such people, in these fragile ladies, not for show, not declaratively, but in the very heart?