In the long, narrow basement underneath Litsey 20, a school in Ivano-Frankivsk, western Ukraine, Serhiy Korneliyevych Hamchuk stands before a row of women and lays a Kalashnikov assault rifle down on the desk in front of him.
The 10 women, aged between 18 and 51, watch attentively as Hamchuk demonstrates how to load ammunition into the gun’s magazine, sliding the bullets into place one after another with his thumb. “Dobre,” he says. “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 between six and 18. But with in-person teaching banned across Ukraine because of the war, the school is providing a different sort of education.
At the end of March, the mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk, one of the largest cities in western Ukraine, announced that shooting ranges at five schools in the city – normally used by pupils in the Ukrainian equivalent of the Combined Cadet Force – would be reopened in order to teach civilians how to use firearms. Although open to all, the courses are primarily aimed at women.
“There are other institutions where men can train, but these are special courses organised for women,” Ruslan Martsinkiv, the city’s mayor, says. “Women have to be ready to protect themselves and their families.”
The first lesson was held on 31 March, the day Ukrainian forces liberated Bucha, a suburb north-west 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 – of the killing of civilians with their hands tied behind their backs, of rape, torture and looting – thousands of women rushed to sign up. Over the first weekend, more than 3,700 women enrolled, with 800 men also registering their interest. In the weeks since, thousands more have signed up, and there is now a waitlist of more than 6,300 women who want to learn how to shoot.
For 51-year-old Natalia Anoshina, the idea that she might want to know how to handle a rifle was one she had never considered. 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 horrific. My mind can’t process this information, this dread,” she says of the events outside Kyiv.
Dressed in a grey hoodie, jeans and purple Crocs, Natalia watches while her daughter, Anya, lies propped up on her elbows on the shooting range, and cocks the air rifle tucked into her shoulder to load it with a pellet. “It makes you look at things with a different perspective,” she says. “These are the things that lead you to some unexpected decisions. Now, anything could help you, like this shooting course.”
Hamchuk, a former colonel in the Ukrainian army, is more forthright. “Taking into consideration what is happening around Kyiv, I think everyone should hold a gun and defend our country,” he says, disassembling the Kalashnikov with a clatter.
The shooting lessons, available every weekday in Litsey 20 and the four other schools in the city, are split into two parts: the basics of handling a Kalashnikov, and target practice on the shooting range with an air rifle. Those attending are not issued with guns afterwards, but, Martsinkiv says, “the main point is to learn how to use it, so they are ready to use it”, if and when the time comes.
“There is no fighting in Ivano-Frankivsk at the moment, but if war comes here it will be a different situation – we’ve seen what happened in Bucha and Irpin,” Martsinkiv adds. “Women need to be ready, it’s the task of the present day, the task of war.”
As they take it in turns to shoot a cup off a chair, the women chat and laugh. But they become sombre when they discuss 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 thinks that knowing how to handle a weapon is a useful skill in wartime. The events in Bucha, she says, were a painful confirmation that she had made the right decision.
“You need to know these skills and have the possibility to defend yourself in the future. I have a son and a husband who are in the army. But I need it for myself, in case of an emergency,” she says.
“It would be better if I don’t ever need to, but at least I will know how to use it. What else can we do? It’s just the state of life now.”
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