Before fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine, Irina was a croupier in a casino who never dreamt of taking up arms.
Now she is gambling with her life. Using the nom de guerre “Gaika”, a cartoon character that translates as Gadget, she has joined an artillery unit in a pro-Russian separatist group fighting government forces.
Her unit, based outside her home town of Donetsk, the main rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine, is part of a rebel militia called Oplot and includes six women – herself, three medics, a fighter and a reconnaissance specialist.
“When your home is being destroyed, everything that is dear to you, friends, work... It’s about character. Girls who go into combat are real Russian women,” she said, explaining why she joined up.
It has proved tough, but she has no regrets.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
“The noise is what I will remember most,” she said. “Painful memories go away. We try to focus on the positive, joyful, meeting friends. There are so many friends around now; the war is bringing people closer.”
The women come from all walks of life. A comrade in arms, who gave her name only as Irina for fear of retribution after the conflict, used to work at a petrol station in the town of Gorlovka. “The fear is always there. But I was more afraid when I was sitting at home and hearing shells fly by. Then I got used to the sound,” she said.
Irina has given up many home comforts, but not all: “War is war but somehow I still need to wear make-up.”
Their commander, Yesaul, a Cossack from the nearby Luhansk region, admitted: “I had doubts before allowing women in. But now I actually have more trust in them than in men. Women don’t drink and I am sometimes seriously worried seeing my men’s condition when they are relaxing after a mission.”
Women are also among the volunteers fighting on the other side of the conflict. About 10 women have joined the 150-strong Shakhtarsk Battalion, which fights alongside government forces, and is based in an oak grove about 30 miles from the city of Dnipropetrovsk, 150 miles from Donetsk. The unit is recovering from a battle around the town of Ilovaysk in which government forces were encircled and suffered heavy losses. A 20-year-old nurse called Maria, who was among those who came under fire, said about 30 of the battalion were killed or wounded.
“I didn’t want to go into, let’s say, humanitarian aid because that makes no real sense if there is no one to drag away our wounded lads. Many die because there was no one to do that. I do that,” she said.
She said the men and woman “live, eat and fight together”. In combat, she carries only a pistol and a medical bag so that her hands are free to help the wounded.
Her comrade Alyona, 21, joined up after taking part in anti-government protests in the capital, Kiev, that culminated in the removal of a president sympathetic to Moscow. First she joined the National Guard. “That was roadblocks and checking documents. I wanted to fight,” she said. “This is just the beginning; the so-called ceasefire is just a pause. I want to fight until the end.”
Female fighters on both sides said the men in their units treat them as equals. They have little respect for men who have not taken up arms.
“If a man has come to fight, he is a man. Real men fight,” Gaika said. “Those sitting in the city and sipping beer should put on skirts. It’s shameful.”
Fighters on both sides expect a long conflict, despite the fragile truce. On Wednesday, at least one person was killed and three wounded when an artillery shell hit a Donetsk shopping centre.
A red-haired rebel fighter called Alla said: “So many people, children and women, were killed on our side. Now I don’t want a ceasefire.”
She has been with the separatist rebels from the start of the conflict, first serving as a cook. She fired her first training shots at a duck on a river and now has a pistol and an assault rifle.
“Maybe I won’t kill many of them, but, if someone is coming, I will get him,” she said.