The last time I saw Mariana Zhaglo, war was still a rumour. It was January 24, a full month before the Russian invasion, and she stood in her kitchen in Kyiv with the Zbroyer Z-15 hunting carbine she had bought to defend her city against possible Russian attack.
Few of her neighbours believed the Russians would really invade, and Mariana’s preparations — the pickles and tins of fish and ham she had stashed as emergency rations, together with boxes of ammunition — seemed zealously pre-emptive.
The photograph I took of her that day, standing armed and watchful in civilian clothes, her fridge and kitchen cabinet behind her, went viral: an iconic symbol of Ukraine’s likely defiance against possible Russian aggression.
When I met her again last week, a soldier fresh from combat 300 miles east of Kyiv along a front line abutting the Russian border, the intervening months of war had washed over the 52-year-old marketing researcher and mother of three in a wave.
“I was ready to defend my own home and city against the Russians when I saw you last,” she smiled. “Everything I prepared was geared to defence. Now I’m far from my apartment, and my life as a soldier is all about attacking them.”
The Zbroyer was gone, replaced by a standard issue AK-47. She wore a flak jacket, British issue multi-cam combat dress, with a chest rig complete with spare magazines and a combat knife. Her frame was spare, and her face refined by months of operational service as a sergeant in an infantry company on the front. Her language was different too, no longer merely musing on the possibility of war and her children moved to safety abroad — “I hope that they are proud of me”. Instead she spoke with the brief, pared down manner of a combat-hardened veteran.
“Massive,” she said simply of the Russian artillery to which her unit had been exposed in fighting along the Ukrainian-Russian border north of Kharkiv as part of the counteroffensive that has sent Russian units reeling back in north eastern Ukraine.
“Their artillery is the most difficult aspect to handle. All of our casualties are the result of shelling and shrapnel. The moment we get into a new position the first thing we do is dig, dig, dig. Everything else follows once the digging is done.”
After speaking of the shelling, she talked next about sleep. Between regular clashes with Russian units over the past fortnight in a landscape of obliterated villages and shell-torn earth, she had become familiar with three hours on, three hours off patterns of sleep on the front.
“I’ve learned to take whatever chance I get to sleep, because if I miss it I may not know when another chance arises,” she added.
After shelling and sleep, firefights featured next in her conversation.
“First the Russians shell us, then they send in their units to attack, usually at night,” she noted. “It was like that almost every night for the past fortnight. So, I’ve done a lot of shooting as they close with us.”
“It is not a matter of whether or not you feel scared. I keep in mind that either we will do for them, or they will do for us. One side alone will win. So as a soldier I fight. The fear becomes irrelevant. Keep shooting, or they will shoot you.”
Of the war’s many horrors, a sense of vengeance accompanied the coldness in her words.
“Most of the dead Russian soldiers I see are in pieces: just arms and legs. After the massacres at Bucha and Irpin, the sight of their limbs is actually good for me to see. It is not such a bad thing to see them dead like that.”