«I have one profession — I am an actress. I had a lot of different trades though».
During the Euromaidan protests, not only men were on the barricades, but also women. The same is true for volunteers fighting in Eastern Ukraine, among whom there are many women. Usually, women in the army serve as doctors, cooks, or other rearward staff. But there is another task that ensures communication between different units and hence is under high demand – to be a signalman. Well, a signalwoman in this case.
The problem of women’s integration into the front lines, traditionally dominated by men, is taking place, despite that the life on a front line is the same as outside of war, often depending on the normal relationship between people – coaching, friendship and respect.
After serving as a communications operator in the “Iron Rod” – the coded name of the communications centre of the second battalion of the 54-th brigade, Alla Bovt wanted to try something different. At the time, scouts had just received upgraded surveillance equipment called Kashtan (ukr. “chestnut”), and Bonzai – the deputy commander of the battalion, suggested Alla should try working with it.
Alla joined scouts’ unit stationed in one of the abandoned houses between the stronghold and the front. Located in a village in Donetsk region, in the grey zone between the Ukrainian army and the separatists, this was effectively no man’s land. It was here that Alla was sent to work as a signalwoman with scouts. The outpost was called simply — Cat.
She finished degree in Arts, and then played parts in young Kharkiv theatres and in movies, did some modelling work. The events of 2013 could not leave Alla indifferent, and she spent two weeks in the tents of Euromaidan protestors in Kyiv. In the following two years, Alla participated in various protests in Kharkiv when finally enlisting as a volunteer in 2017. She was sent to Shyrokino, and after two months decided to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
«I have not changed, I am what I am. It is the circumstances that reveal previously unknown parts of me.»
Getting to the Cat was not so easy. Driving through the still inhabited part of the village, reaching the abandoned outskirts, leaving the vehicle at the position of the 4th company, and then – dashing through the backyards. Alla had to be on guard – enemy sniper was operating in the area.
Steelmaker and Greek met her when she was dismounting the transport together with Bonzai who accompanied her here and now introduced the new signalwoman to the team. Men were astonished by the amount of baggage. It included Kashtan. At the gates of Cat, three other scouts were waiting – German, Spiky and Ten. Then, another member appeared – a tiny girl with fiery red head. This was Anya – eighteen years old and talking about school, she was serving as a signalwoman too. Only week later, girls would be spending nights reading poems in the kitchen, bringing some normality and aesthetics to their war life.
The house was relatively small inside: three rooms, kitchen and bathroom. Now it was home for eight people. Alla and Anya stayed in the commander’s room. They shared a bunk bed. Customarily, a nail had to be hammered into the wall next to bed – for Kalashnikov assault rifles to be at hand at any moment. Alla hammered the nail.
Scouts taught Alla a lot. One sunny winter day German was heading to practice his sniping skills. Alla persuaded him to take her with him. Steelmaker allowed it, but only under condition of his presence. Alla was instructed to lay down, relax and make herself comfortable in the shooting position. “Breath in and out, concentrate, do not touch the trigger until you are ready. When you are, breath out and gently squeeze the trigger”. Alla could hear her own heartbeat and breathing. Cross in the scope met the target on the plastic plate, she breathed out and made a shot. The bullet hit the very center of the target.
«You can run for cover barefoot and naked, but you have to have your rifle with you at all times»
Shellings were so frequent, they became almost a routine – sometimes more intense, sometimes less, sometimes landing very close to the outpost, and sometimes further afield. But the one before Alla’s departure was the scariest. Enemy was most likely aware of the soldiers’ rotation, and decided to make that day especially memorable. The Cat was bombarded the day before, and after spending all day in the shelter tired troops had now returned to the house. Some fell asleep in their uniforms, only taking their shoes off. Alla was lying tired on her bunk thinking about all the things she had to sort: to pack things, roll the mattress, not to forget her grey plush cat...
Her train of thoughts was interrupted by the sound of the incoming shell. You cannot confuse this sound with anything in the world: a disgusting high-pitched whistle. The sound was followed by an explosion, scattering shrapnel all over the yard. Alla looked at Steelmaker.“Cover” — he said calmly. She slipped into her boots, grabbed her Kalashnikov rifle and ran in the yard. “Run for cover!” — Steelmaker switched to shouting somewhere behind her back. She was running for cellar. The house and yard were illuminated by nearby explosions. Flying into the cellar, she could hear shrapnel hit the fence. Spiky was following, they sat in the most secure corner of the shelter and hugged.
What comes to peoples’ mind when they are facing death? Alla thoughts were of how she does not want her face mutilated, what underwear she was wearing (not to embarrass medics examining bodies), how dying slow and agonizing death is much worse than dying quickly, and that if she was to lose extremities, she would rather lose legs over arms…
Shelling lasted for about thirty minutes. Alla could not feel time. When shelling stopped, Alla and Spiky climbed out of shelter. “Spiky!”, “Alla!”, “Spiky, we’re alive!” — everyone was safe inside the house.
The next day Steelmaker and Greek helped carry Alla’s gear to the company’s positions. Owl showed up at dusk to pick her up. This was the end of Alla’s duty at the Cat. As a reminder, Steelmaker nicknamed his rifle the diminutive “Allusya”.
Alla served as a signalwoman for six months. Some people she meets today while buying soldier concession tickets on the bus do not believe she served in the army. Just as some do not realize that war takes place some 200 km away from Kharkiv.
«I always remain myself. I was myself at the “Cat” and I returned from ATO myself. I have not changed, I just walk my way and carry my baggage with me. All the baggage I gathered for 33 years».