Andrii Kolesnyk and Kseniia Drahanyuk beam with excitement as they crouch over a box.
They are about to unbox Ukraine’s first-ever military uniform for pregnant women, which they recently ordered after a pregnant female sniper came into contact.
The young couple, both television journalists before the start of the war, now devote themselves entirely to their independent NGO, “Zemlyachki” or “Compatriots”, which provides vital items to women in the armed forces.
The initiative began when Andrii’s sister was sent to the front on February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine.
“She was given men’s uniforms, men’s underwear,” he says. “Everything that [was] designed for men.
It soon became clear that military women needed more than just uniforms. Everything from smaller boots to lighter plates to body armor to hygiene products is in demand.
So the couple turned to private corporate donations, charitable funds and crowdfunding to purchase assets independently of the military. Some custom gear, such as women’s fatigues, is produced under its own brand by a factory in Kharkiv, in the east of the country, including the new maternity uniform.
Other items, including body armor plates, helmets and boots, come from companies as far afield as Sweden, Macedonia and Turkey. But Kolesnyk and Drahanyuk say they are struggling to source winter items like sleeping bags and thermal clothing that will be important for comfort as winter sets in.
Kolesnyk says they have so far distributed materials worth $1 million and helped at least 3,000 women. If they’re on the front line firing rockets, they might as well do it “in minimal comfort,” he told CNN.
There are currently around 38,000 women in the armed forces, according to the country’s defense ministry.
“We are doing this to help our government,” says Kolesnyk, not to compete with it. Their hub is full of boxes full of kits, all funded through crowdfunding and grants.
A physical disability prevents Kolesnyk from joining his sister, father and brother-in-law on the front line, which saddens him.
“For a man, it’s hard to understand that you can’t go, and that your sister is there. So, I try to do my best here to help not only my family, but the whole army,” he says.
Roksolana, 21, who only gave his first name for security reasons, walks in to pick up a uniform and other gear before leaving for his next mission. An art school graduate, she joined the army in March and is now part of an intelligence unit.
“It’s so valuable to have these people who understand that we’re tired of wearing clothes that are three sizes too big,” she says. “We didn’t have helmets, we had old bulletproof vests, we wore tracksuits and trainers. Now we feel that we are human.
She giggles as she laces up her new boots with long neat nails. Before saying goodbye, Drahanyuk hands Roksolana a copy of “The Choice,” the best-selling memoir by Holocaust survivor and psychologist Edith Eger. The goal is that it can be a tool to help deal with trauma. Zemlyachki has also formed partnerships with military psychologists that female combatants can reach out to.
Other women, like Alina Panina, 25, receive psychological support from the Ukrainian army. A border guard with a canine unit, Panina spent five months in captivity at the infamous Olenivka prison in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region after leaving the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.
She was finally released on October 17 in a prisoner exchange with Russia and entered compulsory rehabilitation in a military hospital, in whose custody she remains.
Ukraine recently demanded that the International Committee of the Red Cross send a delegation to the Russian POW camp.
“I was not prepared [for captivity]and we discussed it a lot with other women prisoners that life has not prepared us for such [an] ordeal,” Panina said at a pizzeria run by veterans in downtown Kyiv.
She says prison guards “were unpredictable people” who sometimes verbally abused prisoners, but she was spared any physical harm.
Now her partner’s fate hangs in the balance. He is also a border guard who is still in captivity. “I know he’s alive but I don’t know what prison he’s in,” Panina said sadly as she scrolled through pictures of him.
When asked what gives her hope, she simply answers: “our men, our people”.