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."


If proven, Smollett allegations could be a ‘career killer’

Updated 22 February 2019
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If proven, Smollett allegations could be a ‘career killer’

  • “This could be a career-killer. We’ve seen this many times. Society has become more intolerant and unforgiving,” according to a PR expert
  • After a three-week investigation, Smollett was charged with staging the attack with help from two brothers he knew and allegedly paid for their services

LOS ANGELES: Jussie Smollett is enmeshed in weekly drama on the set of “Empire,” the Fox TV series that gave the actor a breakout role and the fame to advance his social activism.
But a scene that played out on a dark Chicago street in January has left Smollett facing felony charges and raised the possibility that “Empire” could mark the pinnacle of the 38-year-old’s career.
Smollett, who is black and gay, told police he was the victim of a hate crime committed by men who threw liquid in his face, yelled racist, anti-gay slurs and looped a noose around his neck. After a three-week investigation, Smollett was charged Wednesday with staging the attack with help from two brothers he knew and allegedly paid for their services.
Even in an industry in which bad or erratic behavior is expected, insiders and observers are stunned by what authorities allege was fakery intended in part to get Smollett publicity and a raise.
“This is incredible. No one does this,” said Garth Ancier, a veteran network executive and a co-founder of the Fox network. If more money was his goal, that’s what agents and negotiations are for, he said, calling the alleged hoax “beyond the pale.”
“It’s too bad that such a talented guy threw all that away,” Ancier said, adding he didn’t see how he could be kept on “Empire.”
Producers appeared to be doing that for now, with Smollett traveling directly after being released from jail on bond Thursday to the “Empire” set. There are two episodes left to make of the 18 airing this season, the fifth year for the series starring Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard as hip-hop moguls Cookie and Lucious Lyon.
Replacing Smollett at this point would be problematic. Writing his character, one of three Lyon sons, out of future seasons would be less so.
Smollett’s legal team released a statement late Thursday calling Chicago police’s version of events “an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system.
“Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing,” the statement said.
After Smollett was charged, TNT’s celebrity battle-rap series “Drop the Mic” pulled an upcoming episode with him “in the interest of not being exploitative of an incredibly sensitive situation,” the network said in a statement.
The Fox studio that makes “Empire” publicly stood behind Smollett when he first reported the attack and as skepticism about it arose. But it declined comment Thursday about what happens next as he fights charges of filing a false police report.
Experts in the field of crisis management were pessimistic. The online mockery Smollett is taking is unlikely to stop, and it could hinder any attempt to re-emerge, said Eric Dezenhall, CEO of the public relations firm Dezenhall Resources.
“The thing it’s really hard to come back from is ridicule,” Dezenhall said. “It can be easier to come back from something just bad. In our culture the whiff of something dangerous has a certain street cred. But here we’re talking about a combination of malevolence and ridiculousness.”
Eden Gillott, president of Gillott Communications, offered a similar take.
“This could be a career-killer. We’ve seen this many times. Society has become more intolerant and unforgiving,” said Gillott, citing instances ranging from Kevin Spacey’s firing from “House of Cards” for alleged sexual misconduct to Megyn Kelly’s “Today” exit after she defended blackface costumes.
What Smollett is alleged to have done isn’t analogous to either one — or to just about anything that’s happened with a celebrity or prominent person in recent memory or in news files.
There have been stunts, such as Joaquin Phoenix’s role in a so-called documentary, “I’m Still Here,” directed by actor Casey Affleck and supposedly about Phoenix’s career as a rapper in decline. The film’s release came with public apologies and lawsuits attached.
Others have exaggerated their exploits, such as TV journalist Brian Williams’ account of being in a helicopter hit by a rocket in the 2003 Iraq invasion or Hillary Clinton’s 2008 account of landing under sniper fire during a 1990s trip as first lady.
But Smollett, instead of creating an image-burnishing fiction, positioned himself as a victim and the deserving centerpiece for outrage directed at his attackers. He said those who questioned him made him feel “victimized.”
The allegation that Smollett did it for money could be seen as both a betrayal and baffling, given what he earns: more than $1.8 million for the current 18-episode season of “Empire,” according to a person familiar with the situation.
Dezenhall said it would be tough for Smollett, who proclaimed himself innocent of the charges through his lawyers, to explain himself publicly.
“All of us have said something stupid, put something in an email we shouldn’t have — we can understand that. But very few of us would say, ‘I would orchestrate something like that to advance my career.’ There’s a difference between a mistake and a scheme,” Dezenhall said. His advice to Smollett: “’Vanish for a few years, take up a cause, devote yourself to doing something good, and revisit it later.’“
Or search out people like Kandi Burruss, the singer-songwriter and reality star.
“I consider him a friend. I love him and regardless of if it’s true or not, I’m still going to be here for him. I hate the situation but I don’t hate the person,” she told The Associated Press Thursday at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon.