KIEV, Ukraine — The rebel interrogating Lt. Nadiya Savchenko tried his best to wheedle information out of her. Like other men before him, he underestimated her mettle.
In a YouTube video of the encounter, a fleeting smile crossed her face as the pro-Russian separatist demanded details of Ukrainian troop formations from the helicopter navigator in the Ukrainian army: How many units? What kind of weapons and armored vehicles? Who exactly is fighting against us?
“I think all of Ukraine,” replied Savchenko, handcuffed to a bright yellow chair and stating she would not reveal anything that could harm her country.
That video, shot a day after she was captured on June 18, has turned the 33-year-old Savchenko into a national symbol of Ukrainian defiance and crystallized the evolving role of women in society.
From President Petro Poroshenko down to the girls and young women who say Savchenko has inspired them, Ukraine is following the strange twists of her captivity and demanding her release from a Russian prison where she turned up under mysterious circumstances.
She is charged with complicity in the deaths of a Russian TV correspondent and a sound producer on June 17. They were killed during a mortar attack on a rebel checkpoint near Luhansk, where Savchenko was helping train a volunteer Ukrainian militia. Prosecutors say she pinpointed coordinates for the attack. She says she didn’t know how to do that.
Last week, a Russian court ruled that Savchenko was not abducted and brought to Russia to face charges, as she claims, but was “found” in the country after slipping across the border pretending to be a refugee, as prosecutors allege. Savchenko’s family has hired for her a high-profile attorney who once had the Russian opposition punk band Pussy Riot as a client.
A campaign, called #SaveOurGirl, has been launched to keep her in the public eye.
“She’s our Joan of Arc,” said Valeriy Ryabykh, a military expert with the Defense Express magazine.
In a country in which most women are still expected to tend house and cook for their families, the war against separatists in eastern Ukraine is drawing a small but growing number of women to the battlefield.
Women have volunteered for the front line. Seven women are with the Shakhtarsk Battalion, a militia now in the thick of the fighting near Donetsk. Last month, before they deployed, the women were sharing quarters at a campground near the central-eastern city of Dnepropetrovsk preparing for combat.
The women spoke on the condition that their full names not be used. Several said their families had opposed their joining the fight.
“I’m a citizen of Ukraine,” said Iskra, 18, in her camouflage and black boots. “I understand the responsibility for everybody to take part.” Her combat nickname means “spark” in Russian, and she said that she had been hunting with her family since she was 11.
To sign up for the fight, she left behind her family, her boyfriend and her linguistics studies at a university in the central Cherkasy region of Ukraine. Her mother only found out she had joined the battalion when the university called to say that Iskra had not completed the term. Every time she talks to family members, they plead, “Please come back,” Iskra said.
“I realize that shooting a human being is something hard, but war is war,” she said. “I think women are more resistant to stress than men. They’re ready to shoot civilians if it’s necessary.”
Several of the women laughed when talking about how they were treated by their male counterparts.
“Of course the guys don’t forget that we are women,” said Yulia, a 22-year-old from the town of Torez, which is on the front lines of fighting. “They treat us properly. The guys flirt with some of the girls, but the rules are the same for everybody. They made me do 20 push-ups when I was late for lineup.”
Tatyana Rychkova, a former baker from Dnepropetrovsk, is running supplies such as bulletproof vests and helmets to the Ukrainian military. She started in March, she said, after her husband deployed to Donetsk as part of a paratrooper division but found that they had no provisions.
“The first week they spent in Donetsk, they had no food or water,” she said.
Now, she said, she spends a couple days a week gathering supplies in the west of the country and most of the week delivering them to the front lines.
“I get there through the fields, if there aren’t any mines,” she said.
Few women have fought as hard to get to the front as Savchenko.
The daughter of a mechanical engineer and a seamstress, she grew up tinkering with old motorcycles. Three times she tried to attend the country’s Air Force University. Three times she was rejected because the school did not accept women, said her mother, Mariya, who urged her to study clothing design.
Eventually, Savchenko was allowed to enlist in the army. She became a paratrooper and was the only woman in a 2005 Ukrainian peacekeeping mission to Iraq. On her return, she petitioned the defense minister to be allowed to take the entrance exam to the Air Force University.
“Her goal was to become a jet pilot,” her younger sister, Vira Savchenko, 31, said. “That was her passion.”
On this, her fourth try, she got in. After graduating in 2009, she went back to the army as a helicopter navigator and gunner.
When the Ukrainian military went to war against separatists this spring, Savchenko’s repeated requests to be sent to the front were ignored, said Vira, who noted that her sister had considered resigning to look for more opportunities to fly in commercial planes.
In early June, Savchenko took leave to help train volunteers in the Aidar Battalion, a militia.
Vira Savchenko went to visit — and ended up driving Nadiya to the scene of an ambush where several men in the battalion needed rescuing. They got separated. When Vira returned after taking some wounded men to the rear, Nadiya was gone.
She frantically dialed her sister’s phone until a man answered: “Slaughter house,” he said.
Vira said she tried to negotiate her sister’s release, and once was captured by rebels herself before being released with the promise that her sister would soon follow.
That has not happened.
Savchenko’s detention apparently has done little to quell her defiance. On July 9, she was interviewed in her Russian prison cell by a reporter for LifeNews, a private TV channel with close ties to Russian security services.
“I find it easier to die in Ukraine than to live in Russia,” she said.
And in a July 17 letter she gave to her attorneys to pass on to Poroshenko, she assured him: “I will get though this!”
Birnbaum reported from Dnepropetrovsk. Alex Ryabchyn in Kiev contributed to this report.