IIn the long, narrow basement below Litsey 20, a school in Ivano-Frankivsk, western Ukraine, Serhiy Korneliyevych Hamchuk stands in front of a line of women and places a Kalashnikov assault rifle on the desk in front of him.
The 10 women, ages 18 to 51, watch intently as Hamchuk demonstrates how to load ammunition into the gun’s magazine, sliding bullets into place one after another with his thumb. “Good,” he says. “Well. Who wants to try?
The concrete walls of Litsey 20, one of the largest schools in Ivano-Frankivsk, are regularly filled with the chatter of more than 1,200 students between the ages of six and 18. But with face-to-face teaching banned in Ukraine due to the war, the school is providing a different kind of education.
At the end of March, the mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk, one of the largest cities in western Ukraine, announced that shooting ranges would be reopened in five schools in the city, which are normally used by students of the Ukrainian equivalent of the Combined Force. of Cadets. to teach civilians to use firearms. Although open to all, the courses are aimed primarily at women.
“There are other institutions where men can get training, but these are special courses organized for women,” says Ruslan Martsinkiv, the city’s mayor. “Women have to be ready to protect themselves and their families.”
The first lesson was held on March 31, the day Ukrainian forces liberated Bucha, a northwestern suburb of the capital kyiv. In the following days, while reports circulated in the media and on Telegram channels about war crimes committed by Russian soldiers, about the killing of civilians with their hands tied behind their backs, about rape, torture and looting, thousands of women rushed to sign up. During the first weekend, more than 3,700 women signed up, and 800 men also registered their interest. In the weeks since, thousands more have signed up and there is now a waiting list of more than 6,300 women who want to learn how to shoot.
For Natalia Anoshina, 51, the idea of wanting to know how to handle a rifle had never occurred to her. But after hearing about the atrocities in Bucha, when her 18-year-old daughter suggested they sign up, she agreed. “It’s a nightmare, it’s horrible. My mind cannot process this information, this fear, ”she says of the events outside kyiv.
Dressed in a gray hoodie, jeans and purple crocs, Natalia watches as her daughter, Anya, lies propped up on her elbows at the shooting range, cocking the air rifle she carries on her shoulder to load it with a pellet. “It makes you see things from a different perspective,” he says. “These are the things that lead you to some unexpected decisions. Now, anything could help you, like this shooting course.
Hamchuk, a former colonel in the Ukrainian army, is more direct. “Given what is happening in kyiv, I think everyone should take up a gun and defend our country,” he says as he disassembles the Kalashnikov with a bang.
The shooting lessons, available every day of the week at Litsey 20 and the other four schools in the city, are divided into two parts: the basics of handling a Kalashnikov and shooting practice at the shooting range with a compressed air rifle. Attendees aren’t given weapons afterward, but, says Martsinkiv, “the main point is to learn how to use them, so they’re ready to use them,” when the time comes.
“There is no fighting in Ivano-Frankivsk at the moment, but if war comes here, it will be a different situation – we have seen what happened in Bucha and Irpin,” adds Martsinkiv. “Women must be prepared, it is the task of the present, the task of war.”
As they take turns knocking a cup off a chair, the women chat and laugh. But they turn somber when they discuss what motivated them to attend. Galina, a plumbing salesperson from Ivano-Frankivsk, signed up for the sessions as soon as they were announced because she believes knowing how to handle a gun is a useful skill in times of war. Bucha’s events, she says, were a painful confirmation that she had made the right decision.
“You need to know these skills and be able to defend yourself in the future. I have a son and a husband who are in the military. But I need it for myself, in case of an emergency,” she says.
“It would be better if I never needed it, but at least I’ll know how to use it. What else can we do? It’s just the state of life now.”
Sign up for Her Stage to hear directly from amazing women in the developing world on the issues that matter to them, delivered to your inbox on a monthly basis: