In war-torn Ukraine, women get taste of combat training

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There are 57,000 women in the Ukrainian armed forces, 26,000 of which are on active duty. Above, Ukrainian women soldiers train for a military parade for 2018 Independence Day. (AFP)
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Updated 14 February 2019
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In war-torn Ukraine, women get taste of combat training

  • Ukrainian officials and political activists organize the combat training courses for women on weekends
  • Participating women learn how to shoot guns, use knives, and provide first aid

MARIUPOL, Ukraine: In a gym in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, not far from the frontline with Russia-backed separatists, 20 women fall to the floor and pull back the rifle bolts of dummy Kalashnikovs.
Next to them a bearded instructor in camouflage barks out orders: "Get on your knee, reload, take aim, get on the ground, reload, take aim."
A policeman by day, the 28-year-old who goes by the alias Kazhan ("bat" in Ukrainian) teaches combat training for women on the weekends.
The free courses -- dubbed "White angels" -- were put together by police officers and former members of a far-right battalion who fought against the separatists in the east of the ex-Soviet country.
"Our country is in a state of open war," Kazhan told AFP in the government-held city around 20 kilometres from the frontline.
"The entire population of the country should be ready to fight," he added as his trainees wiped sweat off their faces during a short break.
Fifty women aged 18 to 40 -- including a make-up artist, a veterinarian, and a housewife -- signed up for the courses which began in December.
The trainees meet twice a week for two-hour sessions in the gym in a Mariupol shopping mall to learn gun handling basics and hand-to-hand combat.
They will also learn how to fight with a knife and provide first aid.
At the end of the course -- possibly in spring -- the women will be taken to a shooting range to hone their skills. The organizers also plan to introduce a lecture on Ukraine's modern history.
One of the trainees, Olga Moskovchenko, shows off her trembling hands and a bruise on her shoulder from handling a 3.5-kilogramme dummy gun.
"Usually, women don't get automatic rifles just like that," said the 34-year-old mother of three.
"It's hard but very interesting. I'd only seen things like this on television," the blonde woman said with a smile.
Another trainee, 18-year-old Valeriya Mazurenko, expressed hope she would be better at self-defense thanks to the course.
"It is not safe in our city," she said.
In 2015, Mazurenko fled the rebel stronghold of Donetsk after it came under the separatists' control.
Backed by Moscow, separatists have seized control of two eastern Ukrainian regions -- Donetsk and Lugansk -- in a conflict that has claimed some 13,000 lives since 2014.
Ukraine's armed forces personnel include around 57,000 women, including 26,000 in active military service.
Mazurenko dreamt of joining the Ukrainian army but when she started to collect documents to enlist, she realized she would not be taken seriously.
"I wanted to serve but I am such a petite woman nothing came out of it," said Mazurenko, wearing a white T-shirt with two crossed hammers, the logo of a Donetsk football club, Shakhtar.
Another instructor, 20-year-old Anna Yagmurdzhy, who teaches hand-to-hand combat, said the women were not being prepared "for special forces or the army".
"But we can stand up for ourselves and protect our loved ones," added Yagmurdzhy, who works as a security guard at a nightclub.
In the future the organizers hope to be able to offer nationwide training programs to get more women to learn self-defense.
"It's a law of nature," said Kazhan, the policeman.
"If you find yourself in a dangerous situation, there are two options: you either become a victim or a winner," he said.
"We intend to come out a winner. And in this war too."


Extreme Easter: Flogging, crucifixions in Philippines

Updated 19 April 2019
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Extreme Easter: Flogging, crucifixions in Philippines

  • Nearly 80 percent of people in the Philippines are Catholic
  • Catholicism is a legacy of the nation’s 300 years of Spanish colonial rule that ended at the turn of the 20th century

SAN FERNANDO, Philippines: Hundreds of barefoot men beat themselves with flails and at least 10 were to be nailed onto crosses throughout Good Friday in a blood-soaked display of religious fervor in the Philippines.
Frowned upon by the Church, the ritual crucifixions and self-flagellation are extreme affirmations of faith peformed every Easter in Asia’s Catholic outpost.
Barefoot men wearing crowns of twigs walked silently on the side of a village road in the scorching tropical heat of the northern Philippines, flogging their backs with bamboo strips tied to a length of rope.
While many of the 80 million Filipino Catholics spend Good Friday at church or with family, others go to these extreme lengths to atone for sins or seek divine intervention in a spectacle that has become a major tourist attraction.
“This is a religious vow. I will do this every year for as long as I am able,” 38-year-old truck driver Resty David, who has been self-flagellating for half his life at his village in the northern Philippines, told AFP.
He said he also hoped it would convince God to cure his cancer-stricken brother.
Blood and sweat soaked through the penitents’ pants with some spectators grimacing with each strike of the lash.
Some hid behind their companions to avoid the splatter of gore and ripped flesh.
Many in the crowds had driven for hours to witness the frenzied climax of the day’s gory spectacle, when believers allow themselves to be nailed to crosses in a re-enactment the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
“I’m a little bit overwhelmed. It’s very intense, I haven’t expected something like this,” German tourist Annika Ehlers, 24, told AFP.
Ehlers said she had witnessed the first of 10 scheduled crucifixions during the day in villages around the city of San Fernando, about 70 kilometers (40) miles) north of Manila.
Eight centimeter (three-inch) spikes are driven through both the man’s hands and feet before the wooden cross is raised briefly for the crowds to see. After that the nails are pulled out and he is given medical treatment.
The Church says the faithful should spend Lent in quiet prayer and reflection.
“The crucifixion and death of Jesus are more than enough to redeem humanity from the effects of sins. They are once in a lifetime events that need not be repeated,” Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines official Father Jerome Secillano said.
“Holy Week.... is not the time to showcase man’s propensity for entertainment and Pharisaical tendencies,” he added.
Nearly 80 percent of people in the Philippines are Catholic, a legacy of the nation’s 300 years of Spanish colonial rule that ended at the turn of the 20th century.