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Ukraine’s Fire Woman, Lyudmyla Yankina: “I had to help”

28 March 2023

It has been a year since we last spoke to Lyudmyla Yankina from ZMINA Human Rights Centre – one week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the past year, she has organised volunteer projects, humanitarian aid distribution, and coordinated civil society in helping civilians and soldiers in need. For her extraordinary efforts, she has fondly been dubbed as the ‘fire woman.’ We sat down with her to hear about how the past year has been for her and her team.

Can you tell me a bit more about your volunteering work since the outbreak of the war?

I stayed in Ukraine because I wanted to be useful in some way – I had to help. Our social services stopped operating and no one was taking care of the sick, the elderly, or people with disabilities. My first profession was nursing. As this is a particularly useful profession during wartime, I stayed in Kyiv to use my education and training to help people.

After the liberation of the occupied areas, I was one of the first female humanitarian volunteers going to the heavily injured cities that had been occupied for a long time.

Documenting cases of killed activists, human rights defenders, journalists, was one of the most difficult things that I had to do.

What is civil society losing because of the war?

Throughout the war I feel like we, as Ukrainians, have come closer together. We have become more helpful towards one and other. Every second person became a representative of civil society as many people started to volunteer. There are a lot of different volunteering movements and we collaborate together when necessary to be more effective by for example, sharing information.

Since the outbreak of the war you have been nicknamed the fire woman. How does that make you feel?

I appreciate that people see and share my work. I hope that people find inspiration in my actions. People might think that you need lots of money to help, but you do not. I started with a small amount of money. Just organise people to work together, offer the skills that you have, and unite people.

But it is not only me. Many others do what I do. It is about trying to survive during this war and help people. Wherever you are, you try to do something for those around you: for your army, for your people, for your fellow citizens.

How do you keep your fighting spirit alive?

It is very hard to keep moving forward with the same amount of power, because I am exhausted. But we find a strong motivation in simply surviving. People stayed and helped because we know that if we stop fighting, we will lose our cities, our country and many more people will lose their lives.

What can be done to help?

First, remember that Ukrainian human rights defenders who have enlisted as combatants are still human rights defenders. We do not want the international community to exclude them from human rights society. They remain human rights defenders – just in another form.

Second, since we are human rights defenders it is not usual for us to speak about weapons, but we need all the international organizations to advocate that tanks, aircrafts, and the like be given to protect Ukraine. We are trying our best but we do not have enough heavy weaponry.

“Otherwise, it could be that after one year, you will not have a subject with whom to speak about the human rights situation in Ukraine, because they will not exist anymore.”

The third thing that we need is emergency support. The people from my project and were really grateful that the European Union gave us money to help people with emergency support, to relocate, to pay for food. But, it is a project for over two years and we spent the full budget in the first nine or seven months. So we need more, much more.

This is the third installation of our interview series with female #catalystsofchange to celebrate International Women’s Day. Our other interviews celebrate ZMINA’s Head of Board, Tetiana Pechonchyk and the NHC’s first female director, Kirsten Meijer.