Invisible Battalion: The Stories of Our Women at War

Invisible Battalion screening in OttawaWar veterans, filmmakers, and audience members sing the Ukrainian national anthem, The Glory and the Freedom of Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished, at the Ottawa screening of Invisible Battalion on 30 April 2018.

I wrote the following article for Radio Lemberg, originally published on 1 May 2018:

Invisible Battalion: The Stories of Our Women at War

Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 01.05.2018

“Every woman has the right to defend her country. I think it is our duty to fight and to get victory. That’s all.”

A right and a duty … with those words, Yulia Matvienko summed up what it is to be be a woman and a patriot in Ukraine being invaded by Russia. She is a sniper with the 92nd Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, and is one of six subjects of the documentary film, Invisible Battalion: The Stories of Our Women at War.

The documentary Invisible Battalion was shown in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, on Monday evening, April 30. A screening of the Ukrainian Canadian Film Festival, it was held across the street from Parliament Hill. James Bezan, Member of Parliament for Selkirk-Interlake, hosted the event. Many Members of Parliament who are friends of Ukraine were in attendance, as were members of the diplomatic community in Ottawa, military members from the Canadian and Ukrainian armed forces, and a sizeable turnout from the Ukrainian-Canadian community in the National Capital Region. Ottawa came out to see this film to hear the truth about Russia’s war against Ukraine and the role of women in that war.

Invisible Battalion started as a Department of Sociology research project at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, directed by Maria Berlinska. A sociological study was being conducted into the role of women in the Ukrainian armed forces, including discrimination against women in combat trades, post-traumatic stress disorder, and treatment of women veterans. Six stories stood out and became the subjects of Invisible Battalion. In her remarks introducing the film, Maria Berlinska said: “An invisible battalion has to become visible.” These are stories of Ukrainian women at war.

It is well known that in 2014, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian army was decrepit and corrupt. Most of its senior officers were not psychologically prepared to face up to Russia as an enemy that must be defeated in battle. What is less well known is that the Ukrainian army discriminated between women and men when it came to combat trades, and did not have a gender-neutral equal opportunity system like the Canadian army does. This is why Ukrainian women who wanted to serve their country in combat to stop the Russian invaders joined the volunteer battalions. Even then, they were not officially registered as combatants.

Andriana Susak told the audience in Ottawa: “I am a woman, I am a Ukrainian, and I am an assault trooper. Officially, I am a seamstress.” The absurdity of this bureaucratic lie is heightened during her segment in the film, when she gives commentary to a video of her unit, the Aydar Battalion, taking enemy fire at Metalist after liberating the town of Schastia from Russian invaders. Andriana Susak pointed out where she appeared in the video, and noted the call-signs of her comrades as they were wounded or killed all around her. “I lost 100 friends in three months … and that’s just me,” she said.

In the film and in the remarks to the audience, the veterans expressed a common theme: the year 2014 marked a turning point. There was the life they had before 2014 (which some of them can barely remember), and then came the Revolution of Dignity and the war of national salvation against Russia. Women stepped forward, in a way that sharply challenged the paternalistic and Soviet mind-set of the Ukrainian army as it was before Russia invaded Crimea and Donbas. Women had to be twice as good as men, the women veterans said, because they had two battles to fight. Andriana Susak put it like this: “We have two fronts: in the east of Ukraine, and in civil life.” Ukrainian women will fight, as equals to men, because they must: “We will fight … because we have children, and children must have a future,” she said.

In the question and answer session, the audience asked the panel of filmmakers and war veterans what Canada can do and what the Ukrainian diaspora can do to help Ukraine at war and to help women in combat. Yulia Matvienko, the sniper, gave a very telling answer. She responded: “Ukrainian-Canadians apologize for not being in Ukraine. But you are closer to us than some people, who may be traitors, living in Ukraine.” She said it is uncomfortable for her to be among traitors in her own country – to be among the people who invited the enemy in. Another of the protagonists in the documentary, Julia Payevska, a medic, spoke about how Ukraine doesn’t seem to be a country at war when one steps away from the front. Speaking to the camera, she said she didn’t expect every Ukrainian to fight. “But if people would just think about the war and remember it more often, that would be great,” Julia Paevska said.

Invisible Battalion was a sensation in Ottawa, and received a long standing ovation. By telling six stories about Ukrainian women at war, the documentary convincingly established what the producers were saying in their introductions. Co-director and renowned writer Iryna Tsilyk said at the screening that “Russia is a very dangerous enemy, especially in the information war.” Russia will be defeated in that war not by better propaganda, but by telling the truth effectively. Invisible Battalion does that.

This is the fifth year of Russia’s war against Ukraine. To date in Putin’s War, 21,363 Ukrainian women have served as combatants in Donbas. Changes to the law mean that 63 combat trades are now open to women. But this is not enough. The urgency of war must push the Ukrainian army to full gender-neutral equal opportunity. The full participation of women in combat is not an abstract question of equality of the sexes: it is a matter of life-and-death for Ukraine in a war of national salvation against Russia. The two women veterans present at the screening of Invisible Battalion in Ottawa agreed that the highest ranks of the Ukrainian armed forces must be open to women. But they both said that it is far more important that fighting officers, with experience in combat against enemy Russia, rise in the ranks to take the top positions, and usurp the places that are wrongly held by the Soviet-trained and Russia-compromised officer corps.

”Ukraine, as Russia’s neighbour, cannot afford being weak,” said Invisible Battalion project director Maria Berlinska. The film the project spawned illustrated her observation to an audience of Canadians: “We have a common enemy, the Russian Federation.” But that common enemy, Russia, will in the end be defeated primarily by Ukraine – with whatever help it can get from friendly countries. “We ask that the whole civilized world come together to help Ukraine, by sanctions and by effective support to the Ukrainian army.”

Russia at war with Ukraine is the common enemy of the whole civilized world. Invisible Battalion is a powerful statement for all of us to do what we can and fight. Speaking about the Russian enemy, Yulia Matvienko says in the film: “You know another reason I hate them? I can’t even cry properly.” Another sniper, Olena Bilozerska, leaves her mother and father to go to war, as countless soldiers have done before her. It is an emotional parting. But at the front there is no time for tears. As she cleans her weapon, shellfire heard in the distance, she says: “In wartime, one just needs a rifle. Faultless. Beautiful.”

Invisible Battalion poster

Road to Independence 1918-2018 Шлях до Незалежності

Road to Independence concertUkrainian-Canadian choirs sang in Ottawa to commemorate 100 years of Ukrainian independence. A “Road to Independence 1918-2018 Шлях до Незалежності” concert was held in Dominion-Chalmers Church on April 22. The performers were the Vesnivka Choir, a Toronto-based Ukrainian women’s choir; the Canadian Bandurist Capella, a Toronto-based Ukrainian male choir accompanied by the unique harp-like sound of the sixty-five string bandura; and the Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir. “Road to Independence 1918-2018” was a presentation of Ottawa Chamberfest in partnership with the Capital Ukrainian Festival and Dominion-Chalmers United Church.

The photo shows the Canadian Bandurist Capella performing “Hetmany” (music by Mykola Lysenko; lyrics by Ukraine’s national poet Taras Shevchenko). The soloist is Pavlo Fondera. The concert featured 17 songs, ranging from traditional songs of hundreds of years ago to insurgent songs of the Ukrainian National Republic from a century ago. Instantly recognizable was “Shchedryk” by Mykola Leontovych, a song which was translated into English by Peter Wilhousky to become the immensely popular “Carol of the Bells.”

The Ukrainian National Republic was proclaimed on 22 January 1918, but did not exist past 1920 and the invasion-occupation by the Bolshevik Russians (which would persist for the subsequent 71 years). Much of Ukrainian music has a haunting, greatness-denied quality about it. It’s Romantic, in the Byronesque sense of the word. The depth of history is felt in every note and in every musical phrasing. The three choirs, made up of Canadians from the Ukrainian diaspora, did a magnificent job through their music of conveying that felt and shared history to an appreciative audience.

“What Does Never Again Really Mean?”

Genocide Awareness Month reception, Parliament Hill, OttawaApril is Genocide Awareness, Condemnation and Prevention Month in Canada. A panel discussion was held on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on the topic: What Does “Never Again” Really Mean? The Importance of Genocide Education in Fighting Hate. The event was endorsed and sponsored by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide and other Crimes against Humanity and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

The weather on the evening of April 16 was miserable, with freezing rain, and that kept attendance low. But the panel discussion in the Confederation Room of the Centre Block was lively and engaging, and at times heart-wrenching. Toronto-area MP Ali Ehsassi, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide and other Crimes against Humanity, introduced the panel. Dr. John Young, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, moderated the discussion. Speakers were Marta Baziuk, executive director of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (a member organization of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress), as well as representatives from the Humura Association, the Armenian National Committee of Canada, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. Canada officially recognizes as genocides the Holodomor of 1932-33 (the forced-famine genocide committed by the Stalin regime of state terror against the Ukrainian people), the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, the genocide of 1915-23 of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire/Turkey, and the Holocaust of 1933-45 (the genocide committed by the Nazi regime of state terror against the Jewish people).

A conclusion of the panel was that education about genocide is essential, especially given pervasive ignorance about these overwhelming crimes against humanity. With education comes the possibility of prediction. We can say, for example, that a nation with a history of committing genocide – and of never acknowledging guilt or shame in it – is most likely to commit crimes against humanity again. Russia condemns Canada for recognizing the Holodomor as a genocide and Turkey condemns Canada for recognizing the Armenian Genocide as a genocide. When it comes to genocide and crimes against humanity, the Russian nation and the Turkish nation cannot be a part of “never again” until they acknowledge the past, across the generations, as the German nation has done with respect to the Holocaust.

Each genocide is an almost-unimaginable horror in its own particular way. We know what the Russian occupation regime did to the Ukrainian people in the Holodomor of 1932-33, and what it did to the Crimean Tatar people in the Deportations of 1944. But this does not help us prevent the crimes against humanity unfolding today in Russian-occupied Crimea and Donbas against Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. Education, in itself, does not stop genocide and crimes against humanity. Genocide Awareness, Condemnation and Prevention Month got the first two elements right. The third – prevention – demands urgent action, for the sake of humanity.

Kourion

Kourion was an ancient city-state on the south coast of Cyprus. It’s an acropolis, situated on a promontory overlooking Episkopi Bay. Today, the site lies within the sovereign British base of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, and it’s managed by the Cyprus Department of Antiquities.

Most of the ruins you see are from the time of the Roman Empire. I took a photo of a mosaic showing two gladiators in combat in the “House of the Gladiators.” The Agora is extensive, and the ruins of it are overlaid with small houses from the early Christian era and the Byzantine Empire.

Paphos Arcæological Park

Paphos is a town in the south-west corner of Cyprus, and the site of a remarkable complex of building remains from prehistoric times to the Middle Ages. Most of what has been revealed at the still largely unexcavated site dates from the period of the Roman Empire. Pafos (Kato Pafos) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, having been incribed on the list in 1980.

This mosaic is in a ruin called House of Theseus. It depicts the Greek hero Theseus, brandishing a club, slaying the Minotaur. The House of Theseus was a large villa, built in the second half of the 2nd century A.D., and was the home of the Roman proconsul or governor. It is remarkable that a mosaic so large has survived largely intact for so long. We’re lucky that the life and artistry of Paphos from two millenia ago can be revealed to us through a lost and found mosaic.

St. Hilarion Castle

St. Hilarion Castle seems to grow out of the rock of the Kyrenian Mountains in northern Cyprus. A monastery and a church was first built here in the 10th century. What you see today is mostly the castle built to defend the coast from Arab pirates, as improvided by the Lusignan rulers of Cyprus. The prominent tower in the middle of the photo is Prince John’s Tower, named after a Lusignan ruler who fought a four year war against the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II for control of Cyprus. In the end, Prince John lost and Cyprus was annexed by the Kingdom of Venice.

Ruins of the Ancient City of Salamis

Salamis dates from the 11th century B.C.. The ruins that can be seen today date mostly from the period of the Roman Empire. These are the remains of the theatre, that once was able to seat 15,000 people.

Salamis is near Famagusta on the east coast of Cyprus. It is now in territory of the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

The theatre and the complex of the gymasium and baths are the most well-preserved ruins at Salamis. In this photo you see a courtyard with columns, with the sweating rooms and cooling rooms beyond. Swimming pools are to either side. The Romans were living better two thousand years ago than many people are today.

Larnaca, Cyprus

It’s the off-season in Cyprus. That means the tourist hoardes haven’t yet arrived, and more of the place itself and its people show their true character. So far, Larnaca, Cyprus lives up to its reputation as a laid-back small city.

This is the Church of Saint Lazarus in Larnaca. It’s a Greek Orthodox church, founded in the 9th century. The reputed burial place of Lazarus – his second burial, of course! – was discovered on this spot in 890, and the church built over it. Most of the relics of Lazarus were removed to Constantinople, but some remain in the church in Larnaca. The church architecture is a mix of Byzantine, Gothic, Baroque, and Rococo style, as befits an edifice constructed over a period of a thousand years.

Winterlude 2018

Riduau Canal Skateway 2018The Winterlude festival is on now in Ottawa. The 2018 edition is the 40th. I used to think that Winterlude was just about the canal ice conditions getting very good for my skate to and from Carleton University, when I was a student there. Now, it’s a whole lot more. It has become a tradition to check out the ice sculptures in Confederation Park, and now Winterlude has become a stop on the international ice sculpture competition circuit.

Here’s a view of the canal, which is called the Rideau Canal Skateway when it’s flooded and maintained for skating along its length from the Rideau Locks near the Parliament Buildings to Hartwell’s Locks near Carleton University. That’s 7.8 kilometres of skating in one direction (more, if you skate around Dow’s Lake). The tourist bumf calls it the world’s largest skating rink. I took this picture from the Mackenzie King Bridge. The hut on the ice where people are queuing and lacing up skates is where you can rent skates and sleds. Skate rental is for folks “from away” – whether they use them or not, every Ottawan owns a pair of skates! Farther along, spanning the canal, is the Laurier Avenue Bridge, which opened in 1900. It’s been modernized this century, but the original iron arches are distinctive in green. The Cartier Square Drill Hall is unmistakable beyond and to the right of the Laurier Avenue Bridge. It was built in 1879. Ottawa men signed up for Canadian expeditionary forces fighting in the Boer War, the First World War, and the Second World War from this drill hall. The Governor General’s Foot Guards and the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa are based at the Cartier Square Drill Hall. During the summer, they march from here to Parliament Hill in their red tunics and bearskin caps. Taking pictures of the changing of the guard ceremony is a highlight of the trip for visitors.

The Rideau Canal Skateway is a big part of Ottawa life in the winter. All Canadians talk about the weather – probably too much – but when Ottawans do we include a canal ice conditions report. On my skating commute to work in the morning, when I walk to the office carrying my skates I’m often asked, “How’s the canal?” Skating on the canal is a small town aspect to city life. Have fun at Winterlude!

Canada 150 Rink

Canada 150 rinkThe Canada 150 celebrations are over – the end of 2017 marked the end of the sesquicentennial year. But the Canada 150 Rink on Parliament Hill in Ottawa is still going strong, while the cold weather lasts. I always do the traditional Ottawa thing, which is to skate on the Rideau Canal. I even skate to work when I can. The rink on Parliament Hill is unprecedented, though, and I had to make a point of getting a skate in, before it’s dismantled and gone for good.

Skating at the Canada 150 Rink is free, but you have to get a ticket – online, of course. I picked a beautiful, sunny, cold day for my skate. I don’t usually skate on ice surfaced with a Zamboni – I’m used to the rough surface of the canal. What a pleasure it was to skate around and around, looking at the East Block and the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings. The music was a mix of English and French songs. The whole experience of skating on the Canada 150 Rink said: “Canada!”