Sun, Apr 05, 2015 - Page 7 News List

FEATURE: Poetry-loving teacher becomes rebel Ukraine leader

AFP, GORLIVKA, Ukraine

Tatiana Diemtchenko, vice commander of a rebel unit, gives an interview at her office in Horlivka, Ukraine, on March 27.

Photo: AFP

Tatiana Demchenko, also known as “TT,” the initials of a semi-automatic pistol, outlines her role as deputy commander of a pro-Russian rebel unit with the steadiness of a seasoned fighter.

Sitting at her desk, the red-haired 45-year-old in military garb betrays little emotion as she explains that she also sits in the self-declared “parliament” of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic in east Ukraine.

Demchenko turned from teacher to combatant in less than a year. Now she is captain of an 80-strong unit fighting Ukraine’s army and a Kalashnikov is her weapon of choice.

However, flashing a steely glance of her brown eyes, she said lack of military experience was no hindrance.

“My commander is an architect,” she said. “No one in my unit has any experience.”

“I’m very brave, but my commander removes me from the front line when it’s too dangerous. He said I was needed for other work and mustn’t die,” she added.

Her unit is responsible for defending the small town of Gorlivka, about 50km from the rebel-held stronghold of Donetsk.

Women have become a key weapon in the struggle against Kiev, often outperforming their male counterparts, Demchenko said.

“There are many women engaged in battalions, and I can tell you that women learned weapons training faster than men,” she said.

“After the first round of battles some men left, but no woman has deserted. My men like me,” said Demchenko, whose husband is too sick to sign up. “They confide in me, I’m aware of family matters that my commander doesn’t even know about.”

“There’s a ceasefire at the moment so my men are taking a rest,” she said referring to the deal signed by both sides in February.

Gorlivka’s “resistance” movement sprang up during the bloody pro-European protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square that led to the fall of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February last year.

“I was part of a movement defending people’s rights,” Demchenko said. “When the Maidan started, I organized weekly demonstrations where we shouted: ‘Russia, please help us.’ I explained to people the good sides of federalism.”

“When Gorlivka was shelled in June, someone needed to coordinate the rebellion, so I came,” she said.

Her unit only started fighting with live weapons after rebels seized control of the police station in nearby Slavyansk, and with it a cache of arms.

Before that, they used baseball bats, Demchenko said. A photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin takes pride of place in her office, though crookedly hung between curtains.

“Ah Putin,” she said. “He speaks foreign languages, he’s sporty and I like his way of life. I like how he defends the interests of Russia and I regret that he is not the president of Ukraine. For us, he is an icon.”

Ukraine’s regular soldiers are not “our brothers,” she added, because “brothers do not shoot at each other.”

Demchenko said she does not suffer nightmares, partly because she sleeps very little, although the much-broken peace deal that came into force on Feb. 15 has given her some respite.

However, she said she does feel fear.

“When you’re on the front line, you’re not afraid, but in shelters, in the dark, yes, a little. To stop me thinking of all the dead and all the problems, I recite verses by Alexander Pushkin [a Russian Romantic poet],” she said.

“I love you, though I rage at it, though it is shame and toil misguided, and to my folly self-derided, here at your feet I will admit. It ill befits my years, my station. Good sense has long been overdue,” she said, quoting Pushkin.

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