In the long, narrow basement under Litsey 20, a school in Ivano-Frankivsk, western Ukraine, Serhiy Korneliyevych Hamchuk stands in front of a row of women and places a Kalashnikov assault rifle on the desk in front him.
The 10 women, aged 18 to 51, watch intently as Hamchuk demonstrates how to load ammunition into the gun’s magazine, sliding bullet after bullet with his thumb. “Dobre,” he said. “Good. Who wants to try?
The concrete walls of Litsey 20, one of the largest schools in Ivano-Frankivsk, are normally filled with the chatter of more than 1,200 students aged 6 to 18. But with in-person education banned across Ukraine because of the war, the school offers a different kind of education.
At the end of March, the mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk, one of the largest cities in western Ukraine, announced that the shooting ranges of five schools in the city – normally used by pupils of the equivalent Ukrainian Combined Cadet Force – would be reopened. to teach civilians how to use firearms. Although open to all, the courses are mainly aimed at women.
“There are other institutions where men can train, but these are special courses organized for women”, explains Ruslan Martsinkiv, the mayor of the city. “Women must be prepared to protect themselves and their families.”
The first lesson took place on March 31, the day Ukrainian forces liberated Bucha, a suburb northwest of the capital, Kyiv. In the days that followed, as reports of war crimes committed by Russian soldiers circulated in the media and on Telegram channels – the killing of civilians with their hands tied behind their backs, rape, torture and looting – thousands of women rushed to sign upstairs. During the first weekend, more than 3,700 women signed up, and 800 men also showed interest. In the weeks that followed, thousands more signed up and there is now a waiting list of over 6,300 women who want to learn how to shoot.
For Natalia Anoshina, 51, the idea that she might want to know how to handle a gun was something she had never thought of. But after hearing about the atrocities in Bucha, when her 18-year-old daughter suggested they sign up, she agreed. “It’s a nightmare, it’s just horrible. My mind can’t process this information, this fear,” she says of the events outside Kyiv.
Dressed in a gray hoodie, jeans and purple Crocs, Natalia watches as her daughter, Anya, lies on her elbows on the range, and cocks the air rifle shoved into her shoulder to load it with pellet. “It makes you see things from a different perspective,” she says. “These are the things that lead you to unexpected decisions. Now anything can help you, like this shooting course.
Hamtchouk, a former colonel in the Ukrainian army, is more direct. “Given what is happening around kyiv, I think everyone should hold a gun and defend our country,” he said, dismantling the Kalashnikov with a crash.
Shooting lessons, available every day of the week at Litsey 20 and the other four schools in town, are divided into two parts: the basics of handling a Kalashnikov and target practice on the shooting range. shooting with an air rifle. Participants do not receive firearms afterwards, but, according to Martsinkiv, “the main thing is to learn how to use them, so that they are ready to use them”, if necessary.
“There are no fights in Ivano-Frankivsk at the moment, but if war breaks out here it will be a different situation – we saw what happened in Bucha and Irpin,” adds Martsinkiv. “Women must be ready, that is the task of today, the task of war.”
As they take turns pulling a cup from a chair, the women chat and laugh. But they become somber when discussing what motivated them to attend. Galina, a plumbing saleswoman from Ivano-Frankivsk, signed up for the sessions as soon as they were announced because she believes knowing how to handle a weapon is a useful skill in times of war. The events at Bucha, she says, were a painful confirmation that she had made the right decision.
“You need to know these skills and be able to defend yourself in the future. I have a son and a husband who are in the army. But I need them for me, in case of an emergency,” says -she.
“It would be better if I never needed it, but at least I’ll know how to use it. What else can we do? It’s just the state of life now.
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