From the train conductors helping refugees to the border, to paramedics responding after airstrikes, to war crimes investigators, women have held together the fabric of Ukraine at war and have been targeted for some of the worst atrocities perpetuated by Russian troops.
This was the story told in Oh Sister!, a documentary highlighting the role of women in wartime Ukraine, which had its European premiere on Thursday at an event jointly hosted in Brussels by the Irish and Ukrainian permanent representations to the European Union.
Oleksandra Matviichuk, who features in the film and attended the event on her way back to Kyiv after collecting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, could not hold back her sobs as she saw the documentary for the first time.
The stories it shared made evident the profound personal toll of the invasion on ordinary people, but also the mammoth efforts of civil society in Ukraine to respond to the destruction. It told of the babies born amid the violence, helping people’s faith that life will go on.
“Women, they are at the very front of this battle for freedom and our democratic choice,” Matviichuk said in a panel discussion following the screening.
“Women took people out of the ruined cities. Women rescued people trapped under the rubble of residential buildings, women break encirclement to deliver humanitarian aid, women join the army and territorial defence.”
“Bravery has no gender,” she said.
The documentary features Alla Melnychuk, whose response when the bombardment of Ukrainian cities started in February was to organise the evacuation of the wounded children, to get them to medical care.
At some point, she began counting the children affected. By June, when her interview was filmed, this number had reached almost 400.
“They have terrible psychological trauma, because most of them saw with their own eyes how their mothers, brothers, sisters were torn apart,” she told the filmmakers.
In one scene, Melnychuk receives a call from the mother of one of the children she helped to get to an operating room. The cheerful voice of the little girl is audible over the line, as her mother tells Melnychuk that the child, who she feared would never walk again, is at that moment celebrating her fifth birthday.
Two train conductors describe how they managed 40-seat carriages filled with up to 130 evacuating refugees. Volunteers distributed food, water, and nappies.
Fathers loaded their children on to the trains, knowing they may not see them again, Natalia Kudrych recalls. She describes “the last moments, when the train starts to move little by little, and he touches the window where the child’s palm is, and cries.”
There is self-filmed footage of a paramedic on the front lines, named by her military call sign Lastvika, who identifies by sound the nearby falling artillery as she shelters in a trench.
Those who say they are not scared are either “lying”, “crazy”, or have “never been under shelling”, she says. “There are no atheists in the trench.”
Matviichuk, a human rights lawyer, leads the Centre for Civil Liberties, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last weekend jointly with the Belarusian lawyer Ales Bialiatski and the Russian civil rights organisation Memorial.
She told the event that the number of war crimes that her organisation has recorded in its database has reached 27,000.
She described some of the crimes documented, including the torture of civilians, giving details of an almost unimaginable cruelty.
Some of the sexual assaults that victims have told her about lead her believe the war “has a genocidal character”, Matviichuk said, because the nature of the violence seems aimed to stop Ukrainian women having children.
“They do it purposefully because they attempt to break people’s resistance, and occupy Ukraine by a tool I call immense pain,” she told the event.
Her organisation continues its work regardless, “because we believe that sooner or later all Russians have committed these atrocities ... will be brought to justice.”
In her concluding remarks, the human rights lawyer described the profound importance of international expressions of support to the Ukrainian people.
“People abroad can stop this video, or turn their channel, or close the article, and avoid looking at these horrible things now going on in Ukraine but millions of Ukrainians can’t,” Matviichuk said. “This horror has become part of our daily life.”
Messages of solidarity from abroad tell Ukrainians “that the whole world are watching,” she said. “For that moment, we know that we are not alone.”