Krasny Luch, Ukraine - The line of cars slowly moved through obstacles made-up of piles of crushed coal and heaps of sand in the road. A young separatist wearing a camouflage vest and flip-flops stepped forward and motioned with a black and white striped wand for a minivan to stop. When the rebel asked to look in the back, the driver started to protest - a little too stridently. An older miner, armed with a new AK-47, aggressively stepped into the situation and loudly cocked his assault rifle on Monday.
The metallic sound is unmistakable and the young motorist instantly quieted - a scared look sweeping his face. The grim miner swaggered in closer. Quieter, more menacing words were exchanged. Suddenly, everyone stepped back as Olesya Gerasimenko waded into the fray. The driver started shouting again that they had no right to search his car, but he did not really have a chance against the authoritative checkpoint commander. Soon he was shamed into submission, searched and sent on his way.
As killings, rumors, battles and random attacks roil this swath of eastern Ukraine, checkpoints manned by untrained pro-Russia militiamen have sprouted up across Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. Ranging from jerry-rigged piles of tyres to sandbag and concrete fortifications, they are meant to stop everything from pro-Kiev provocateurs to the Ukrainian army. The posts are always intimidating - and often strange.
Possibly the strangest – at least in this part of the world - is a checkpoint on the edge of the town of Krasny Luch manned by a Women's Battalion headed by Gerasimenko. Though women held an honored place in the Soviet Union because they fought and died for the motherland, since independence fewer women serve in the Russian or Ukrainian militaries. Yet, here in this region dominated by tough but impoverished miners proud of their history, female fighters have also stepped up to the barricades in the struggle against Kiev.
Yelena Dustova would not have it any other way. Like Gerasimenko, she has been serving with the rebels from the very start, after protesters stormed government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv on April 6, sparking an internal conflict exacerbated by both the Ukrainian army's bungled "counter-terrorism" operations and revenge attacks by separatists that have caused the body count to grow increasingly upward
On the morning of April 7 she was asked to help bar the road to police. "By 7:15am I was standing here. We didn't have anything. No guns, no clubs, no uniforms even. Nothing," she said. "We stood shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand – six women," she said with a quiet and simple pride.
This is how the "battalion" - actually about 25 women from Krasny Luch - was formed. Today, about 25 men have joined them, making up a small defence force that is intent on protecting their town from what they see as aggression from Kiev - and could possibly attract further recruits.
On Monday hundreds of separatist fighters attacked a Ukrainian border patrol base on the outskirts of nearby Lugansk, leaving a handful of civilians and fighters on both sides dead and wounded. Later in the day, an airborne rocket or missile strike on the front of the rebel headquarters in the center of Lugansk killed yet more people. Violence continues to wrack the region.
Though gun battles have flared in the population centers around Donetsk and Lugansk, Krasny Luch - about halfway between the two cities - has been spared much of the violence. Even so, the people here are involved in the wider conflict.
"My brother is serving in Slovyansk [as a Pro-Russia separatist fighter]. It's horrible there. We pray to god," said Dustova, speaking of the town north of Donetsk that has suffered under random shelling by the Ukrainian army for weeks now.
The town has become an epicenter of violence, serving as a rallying cry for the rebels. Gerasimenko's husband is also in Slovyansk. "Why is it strange that a woman serves? Men serve. Look at the situation we're in. If our men protect us, we also have to help our men," she said.
Dustova stood at her post at the checkpoint with a new Kalashnikov at the ready, wearing a camouflage blouse and trousers and ballerina slippers – the silver of her nail polish incongruous against the matte black finish of the rifle barrel. Yet it was not what the female fighter had added to her uniform that was most interesting, but what she had taken away. She was not wearing a mask.
Looking to the future
Unlike nearly all of the fighters seen around the Donbas, the women here were not wearing masks, and they were far more forthright about their opinions and motivations – and they seemed to have more on the line. "What, should I allow them to shoot at me in my town? No. I will stand here so that they won't be allowed to pass. I have my mom and my kids in there," Dustova said, motioning towards the center of Krasny Luch – a Soviet name meaning "red sunray".
The 39-year-old mother of three has worked as an operator at a coalmine, on construction sites and she manages a shop in the front of her house to make ends meet. "I do whatever work is to be had," she said, and added that her 18-year-old daughter is studying computers and is not allowed to come serve alongside her mother. "It doesn't suit a woman to walk around with assault rifles, but we are doing what we have to right now."
I wish we had more men out here who are as good as these women.
Though going off and serving at an armed checkpoint may sound un-motherly, Dustova feels that she is serving the greater cause of a vaguely defined Lugansk People's Republic. "I'm thinking of the future. If we had peace and calm, then I would never have taken this weapon in my hands. You think it is comfortable for us to walk around carrying this? No. It would be better to have a manicure," she said, half joking, though she did acknowledge that seeing a woman with an assault rifle scares and confuses some people in this small town.
Then, in a serious tone, she added, "If I have to shoot, I would shoot. No problem. I am standing for my people in Krasny Luch." she said. "If you come here peacefully, please, come in, but if you come here with a weapon, then why not?"
Unlike many of their masked male counterparts, the women at the rebel roadblock seemed to feel freer to talk about the politics that have brought Ukraine to the predicament it is in today. "We didn't want this war and we didn't bring that government [in Kiev] to power. We have only decided to be independent," said Gerasimenko, "but no one is allowing us," she said, referring to the newly elected government of Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch opposed by the separatists.
After taking yet another phone call from her worried, 62-year-old mother back in town, Dustova said, "I don't see any leaders amongst our politicians, male or female. We just have oligarch after oligarch. We're just regular miners that know the price of labour and know that we can't live on the money we get paid. This is now a miner's republic."
Though Al Jazeera journalists were encouraged to leave suddenly after the checkpoint was warned that a nearby post had just been attacked by a Ukrainian army helicopter - soon after missiles or rockets had hit the separatist headquarters in Lugansk - Pavl, a foul-mouthed rebel leaning against a sandbagged fighting position said, "I wish we had more men out here who are as good as these women."
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