When Alisa Kovalenko signed up to fight for Ukraine, she says she was driven by outrage over Russia’s invasion of her home, and memories of the sexual assault she survived during battles with Moscow-backed separatists eight years earlier.
The 34-year-old film director is best known for her documentaries, including ‘Sister Zo’ and ’Alisa in Warland’.
But days after Russian forces charged in on Feb. 24, she put down her camera, suspended most work on her latest production and volunteered to fight on the eastern front.
Slight and animated with piercings climbing up her ears, she told Reuters her story in the Kyiv suburbs where she has been living with her father when she is not fighting as a soldier near Kharkiv.
She said she was working on a film on the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region in 2014 when she was stopped at a separatist checkpoint, taken away for questioning, then sexually abused by a Russian officer in a nearby apartment.
Russian authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Kovalenko’s account.
But Moscow regularly denied sending officers and troops to the separatists at the time, and has since dismissed all accusations that its forces have committed acts of sexual violence, calling them lies and propaganda.
Kovalenko said she was interrogated for hours in 2014 and accused of being a Ukrainian sniper before the officer took her to the flat and forced her to strip naked in a bathtub.
She said she remembers crying as he asked her to lie down on a bed, lay on top of her then tried to rape her before falling asleep. After repeated interrogations, she added, she was freed a few days later.
”I think I was so afraid, it was like an animal … animal fear. I never had (that kind of) fear before.
”I promised myself if a war … will cover all Ukraine, then I will fight not with my camera but with a gun.”
’I WAS NOT SO AFRAID’
Eight years later, when Russia did send tens of thousands of soldiers over the border in what it called its ”special military operation”, Kovalenko’s memories came flooding back.
The prospect of fighting off a full-blown invasion was daunting. But then she recalled what she had already survived.
”It (the sexual assault) broke me. But at the same time, I was not afraid of anything after it,” she said. ”When I went to the war … I was not so afraid about war.”
The memories of the attack fed into a mix of motivations, said Kovalenko, who was born in the eastern city of Zaporizhia.
”It’s one factor that made me take this decision … one thing in a list of factors. All of them played a role in trying to protect ourselves from these sorts of things – not just protecting myself but also all people, my family.”
Since then, she has spent months on the frontline under shelling, miles away from her husband and young son in France.
She has lost one close friend in the fighting. ”It’s completely unbearable … you became a family with some of your comrades because you spend so much time together,” she said.
When they are not fighting, the soldiers talk about films and music, smoke cigarettes and share jokes and life stories.
Many survivors of sexual violence choose to stay silent, said, fearing reprisals from Russia and stigma from their Ukrainian neighbours.
But she appeared in a play about her ordeal before the invasion, and talks freely about it now.
”It’s not only for me, but it’s for others, and it’s generally also for Ukraine because we need to talk about crimes, about what Russia did.”
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