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Code name 'Nut'

Kitty Logan, Donetsk, UkraineMarch 20, 2015

Previously, she worked at a casino. She now leads an artillery unit in eastern Ukraine. DW's Kitty Logan travels to Donetsk to meet one of the female leaders of the self-declared "People's Republic."

Artillery in eastern Ukraine on the snow-covered ground
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Dan Levy

She goes by the code name "Nut" - a young woman in her twenties with close-cropped, red hair. She wears a standard issue rebel soldier's uniform. She does not want to reveal her identity.

Nut sits in her room in the stark, sparsely furnished barracks in the Petrovsky district, a suburb to the southeast of rebel-held Donetsk. A machine gun is propped up beside her narrow, single bed. Her loyal dog, Loki, growls at visitors.

This quiet, slight woman from Donetsk is in charge of an artillery unit of 50 men in the rebel Oplot battalion. The battalion is led by the "Prime Minister" of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic himself, Alexander Zakharchenko.

The ceasefire means the heavy weapons have been officially withdrawn from the front lines. But before the Minsk agreement came into place, Nut played a key role in the fight for Debaltseve (pictured top) and other major battles against Ukrainian government forces. It is a big change from her former life.

"I was working in a local casino, but it closed down," she says. "Because of this conflict, plenty of people have lost their jobs. We had to look for any kind of job."

'We're taking a risk'

Nut says fighting near her home spurred her decision to join the rebel ranks.

"Personally, I also feel [that], if I would stay at home, I would die from shelling anyway," she says.

Nut rose quickly through the ranks to become a captain. "I had to learn very quickly how to handle heavy weapons," she says. "When I reached a certain level, officers in charge decided to give me a higher rank. I don't know why. Maybe because of my personal qualities, or my knowledge."

She says that being a woman has never proved an obstacle to serving on the front lines. "Guys are not afraid to follow me," she says. "They know that I give correct orders. Not the kind of commands that will create extra risk."

Ukraine separatist "Nut," with red, close-cropped hair, smiles off-camera
Ukraine separatist "Nut" has embraced her rapid ascent in the rebel armyImage: DW/K. Logan

But there are risks. Over 6,000 people have been killed in this conflict so far. It is not clear how many of those were from the Oplot battalion. But the kind of heavy weaponry Nut works with causes a great deal of casualties.

"For sure, we're taking a risk," she says. "Usually, artillery fights against artillery. So if we can reach them, it means that they can reach us. It depends how good the teamwork is, how fast the unit can pull back from the position to avoid losing weapons, ammunition."

And a priority, of course, is not losing anyone, she says.

"We've had to pull back under fire many times."

Coming conflict

The number of other female soldiers serving in the various rebel armies in eastern Ukraine is unknown. In this particular unit, the only other women are a cook and a nurse.

Nut says her role as a female captain is an important one.

Alexander Zakharchenko, the "prime minister" of the Donetsk People's Republic, gestures off-camera while wearing army fatigues.
Alexander Zakharchenko, the "prime minister" of the Donetsk People's Republic - and Nut's leaderImage: Reuters

"When it's about protecting your homeland, women are on the same level as men. Sometimes women can even be [tougher] than men. So it's really important to have women in this war."

She says the men in her unit are of the opinion that, if she's going, they're not afraid to go, either.

"It boosts their morale. Both men and women can be good or bad commanders. If a person with higher rank is giving orders, we have to obey it, [whether] male or female.'

Most of the men who serve under Nut are away for training when we visit. She says she cannot tell us where they are.

Nor can she show us where the artillery she operates is usually stored. This, she says, is because it has been pulled back from this area to comply with the terms of the Minsk agreement.

But Nut and the soldiers at the barracks are waiting for the next phase of the conflict to resume.

"We're fighting for our land," she says. "If Ukrainian soldiers are forced to fight, we will fight them back."