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Tatiana Demchenko: From Teacher to Rebel Commander in a Year

Last year the red-haired 45-year-old poetry lover was a teacher. Now she commands an 80-strong fighting unit and is a member parliament for Donetsk People's Republic 

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GORLOVKA, Ukraine (AFP) Tatiana Demchenko, aka “TT”, the initials of a semi-automatic pistol, outlines her role as deputy commander of a pro-Russian rebel unit with the steadiness of a seasoned fighter.

Sitting at her desk, the red-haired 45-year-old in military garb betrays little emotion as she explains that she also sits in the self-declared “parliament” of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic in east Ukraine.

Tatiana turned from teacher to combatant in less than a year. Now she’s captain of an 80-strong unit fighting Ukraine’s army and the Kalashnikov is her weapon of choice.

But flashing a steely glance of her brown eyes, she says lack of military experience was no hindrance. “My commander is an architect,” she said. “No one in my unit has any experience.”

“I’m very brave, but my commander removes me from the front-line when it’s too dangerous. He said I was needed for other work and mustn’t die.”

Her unit is responsible for defending the small town of Gorlovka, about 50 kilometres (31 miles) from the rebel-held stronghold of Donetsk.

Women have become a key weapon in the struggle against Kiev, often outperforming their male counterparts, Tatiana said.

“There are many women engaged in battalions, and I can tell you that women learnt weapons’ training faster than men,” she said.

“After the first round of battles some men left, but no woman has deserted.

“My men like me,” continued the fighter, whose husband is too sick to sign up. “They confide in me, I’m aware of family matters that my commander doesn’t even know about.”

“There’s a ceasefire at the moment so my men are taking a rest,” she said referring to the deal signed by both sides in February.

Gorlovka’s “resistance” movement sprang up during the bloody pro-European protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square that led to the fall of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.

“I was part of a movement defending people’s rights,” said Tatiana.

“When the Maidan started, I organised weekly demonstrations where we shouted ‘Russia, please help us.’ I explained to people the good sides of federalism.”

“When Gorlovka was shelled in June, someone needed to coordinate the rebellion, so I came.”

Her unit only started fighting with live weapons after rebels seized control of the police station in nearby Slavyansk, and with it a cache of arms.

Before that, they used baseball bats, said the captain.

A photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin takes pride of place in her office, though crookedly hung between curtains.

“Ah Putin ...” sighed Tatiana. “He speaks foreign languages, he’s sporty and I like his way of life.

“I like how he defends the interests of Russia and I regret that he is not the president of Ukraine. For us, he is an icon.”

Ukraine’s regular soldiers are not “our brothers”, she added, because “brothers do not shoot at each other.”

Tatiana claimed not to suffer nightmares, partly because she sleeps very little, although the much-broken peace deal that came into force on February 15 has given her some respite.

However, she admitted to feeling fear.

“When you’re on the front line, you’re not afraid,” she explained. “But in shelters, in the dark, yes, a little. To stop me thinking of all the dead, and all the problems, I recite verses by (Alexander) Pushkin (the Russian Romantic poet).

On cue, she breaks into verse.

“I love you, though I rage at it, though it is shame and toil misguided, and to my folly self-derided, here at your feet I will admit!

“It ill befits my years, my station, Good sense has long been overdue!”



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