By Christiane Amanpour, Maddie Araujo and Christian Streib, CNN
Andrii Kolesnyk and Kseniia Drahanyuk both beam with excitement as they crouch over a box.
They are about to unpack Ukraine’s first ever military uniform for pregnant women, which they recently commissioned after a pregnant sniper got in touch.
The young couple, both TV journalists before the war started, are now fully dedicated to their independent NGO, “Zemlyachki,” or “Compatriots,” which procures vital items for women in the armed forces.
The initiative started when Andrii’s sister was sent to the front on February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine.
“She received men’s uniform, men’s underwear,” he says. “Everything that [was] designed for men.”
It soon became clear that servicewomen needed a lot more than uniforms. Everything from smaller boots to lighter plates for bulletproof vests to hygiene products is in demand.
So, the couple turned to private company donations, charity funds and crowdfunding to purchase goods independently of the military. Some customized gear such as women’s fatigues is produced under their own brand by a factory in Kharkiv in the country’s east — including the new pregnancy 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 with the procurement of winter items like sleeping bags and thermal clothing that will be important for comfort as winter sets in.
Kolesnyk says they have distributed equipment worth $1 million so far and helped at least 3,000 women. If they’re on the front-line shooting rockets they might as well do it “in minimum comfort,” he tells CNN.
There are currently about 38,000 women in the armed forces, according to the country’s Ministry of Defense.
“We are doing this to help our government,” Kolesnyk says, not to compete with it. Their hub is overflowing with cardboard boxes full of kit, all paid for from crowdfunding and grants.
A physical disability prevents Kolesnyk from joining his sister, father and brother-in-law on the front lines, a fact that saddens him.
“For a man, it’s hard to understand that you can’t go there, and your sister is there. So, I’m trying to do my best here to help not only my family, but the whole army,” he says.
Twenty-one-year-old Roksolana, who gave only her first name for security reasons, walks in to pick up a uniform and other gear before heading out on her next assignment. 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 are tired of wearing clothes that are three sizes too big,” she says. “We had no helmets, we had old flak jackets, wore tracksuits and sneakers. Now we feel that we are humans.”
She giggles as she laces up her new boots with impeccable long fingernails. Before they hug goodbye, Drahanyuk hands Roksolana a copy of “The Choice,” the best-selling memoir by Holocaust survivor and psychologist Edith Eger. The aim is that this can be a tool to help process trauma. Zemlyachki has also formed partnerships with military psychologists to whom women in combat can reach out.
Other women, such as 25-year-old Alina Panina, are receiving psychological support through the Ukrainian military. 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 steel plant in Mariupol.
She was finally released on October 17 as part of an all-female prisoner exchange with Russia and went into mandatory rehabilitation at a military hospital, under whose care she remains.
Ukraine recently demanded that the International Committee of the Red Cross send a delegation to the Russian prisoner of war camp.
“I was not prepared [for captivity], and we discussed this a lot with other women prisoners that life hasn’t prepared us for such [an] ordeal,” Panina says at a pizza bar run by veterans in downtown Kyiv.
She says prison guards “were unpredictable people” who sometimes abused prisoners verbally, but that she was spared any physical harm.
Now her partner’s fate is up in the air. He is also a border guard who is still in captivity. “I know he is alive but don’t know in which prison he is,” Panina says sadly as she scrolls through pictures of him.
When asked what gives her hope, she simply says, “our men, our people.”
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Journalists Victoria Butenko and Svitlana Vlasova contributed to this report.