‘We are still playing’: Women’s football defiant in the Ukraine

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KYIV: It has been over a year since Yana Vinokurova, president of the women’s football club in Mariupol, Ukraine, has been able to play a game at her home field.

The 32-year-old has led the club for the past seven years. Her team was always self-reliant, cooking and selling dumplings to fund their training and activities.

Six years before the Russian invasion, Vinokurova bought a house in Mariupol, and later opened a cafe. Life was good.

On Feb. 22, 2022, she met with the Ukrainian head of the local football federation to discuss future plans and support for her team. Just two days later, the Kremlin launched what it called “a special military operation” in Ukraine. The subsequent war has resulted in the death or injury of 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 180,000 Russian troops, according to recent estimates. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights verified at least 8,300 civilian deaths as of mid-March.

Mariupol, a city which once had a population of around 425,000, was formerly a thriving center of industry and tourism. It was home to several resorts for tourists visiting the Sea of Azov, as well as vast iron and steel manufacturing facilities.

The siege of Mariupol lasted for almost three months, with Russian forces encircling the city by March. By the end of May, the last Ukrainian holdouts surrendered to Russian forces, and Mariupol has remained under Russian control since.

The city has endured relentless shelling. Moscow denies intentionally targeting civilians or critical infrastructure, but Ukrainian officials say Russian forces carried out deliberate, targeted strikes designed to cut water, power and food supplies to the city and its inhabitants.

Russian authorities claim that residents of Mariupol are returning to the city, and accuse Ukrainian troops of violations ranging from targeting and killing civilians to mining medical facilities before the Russian takeover. Ukrainian authorities estimate that less than one-quarter of the population remains in Mariupol, and that 95 percent of the city has been destroyed.

“For those who didn’t experience the siege, they can never really comprehend what it was like. But that is why it is important to keep talking about it,” Vinokurova told Arab News over coffee in Kyiv.

She said she received a call from a team member on Feb. 24 last year telling her the war had started, and not long after began hearing the sound of explosions.

Some members of the football team fled Mariupol, and Vinokurova housed the remaining seven players in her house.

“I had never really explored my basement, despite living in the house for a long time. But it became our safe place. We tried to make the best out of a horrible situation. We had to live in the basement to seek safety from the shelling. We were lucky to have bought one of the last power generators in Mariupol. We were still cold, however.”

At the height of the siege, Vinokurova said, some shops tripled their prices. “We organized ourselves and split responsibilities; some for water, some for gas, and some for food.”

Vinokurova and her teammates attempted to distract themselves from the trauma of the siege at least once a week. “We’d switch on the generator longer than usual for a night. We watched a movie and pretend we were at a movie theater. We also played cards every evening to pass the time,” she said.

At times, the women felt safe enough to move from the basement upstairs to the main living area of the house, where it was warmer, but their luck never lasted.

“The basement couldn’t house all of us, so we manufactured our own furniture. We made bunk beds. We were wearing all the layers of clothing we had, as it was freezing, but we never caught a cold. I think we were much too stressed and focused on survival to get sick.”

When humanitarian corridors opened for civilian evacuation in May 2022, the team initially decided to stay.

“My house, my cafe — they were the first things I owned in life. It was very difficult for me to leave them behind. The Russians destroyed my cafe. We finally made the difficult decision to leave. I understood the lives of my girls were much more important than anything else. And so, we packed ourselves up: seven girls, one big dog and five cats in a tiny white Renault car.”

The women left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

As they were driving out of Mariupol, a rocket exploded nearby, shattering the car’s windows. The women panicked.

“We still kept going, there was no other choice,” Vinokurova said.

At the first Russian checkpoint, Vinokurova noticed she had left her car identification papers at home. Russian soldiers accused her of stealing the vehicle.

“Between the girls who were panicking, the cats and the dog, I didn’t catch early on that the occupiers just wanted a bribe to let us go. My friend and the coach of the team, Karina (Kulakovska), started crying and screaming at the Russian soldiers, telling them they’re merciless and soulless; that her mother is 75 and she is rushing to see her. Eventually they let us go.”

The women crossed 29 checkpoints. What usually would be a few hours’ drive to the port city of Berdyansk took 29 hours. The women slept in the car, with no windows, in below-zero temperatures.

When they reached Berdyansk, volunteers offered them sausages, sweets and water.

“All we wanted was bread,” Vinokurova said.

Having finally arrived at their destination, they spent the night, warm at last, at a house owned by a teammate’s relative.

“But something kept tugging at my heart. I couldn’t just leave Mariupol, and leave my neighbors and other civilians behind,” Vinokurova said. “So, I made the decision to go back. Karina (Kulakovska), my closest friend and the coach, decided to come back with me as well.”

Vinokurova’s mother broke down in tears when told of daughter’s plan. “She begged me not to, but she knows my character; there was no convincing me otherwise.”

With most civilians too afraid to help, Vinokurova struggled to find a van to rent for the return journey. But eventually she found a man named Vanya who owned a bus. Vanya not only offered the use of the vehicle for free, but also decided to drive them back to Mariupol to help with the evacuation of civilians.

“That man is a hero; there’s no other way to refer to him. When civilians nearby heard of our plan to go back to Mariupol, they donated 200 kg of chicken fillets, baby food, fruit and other products,” she said.

Vinokurova, Kulakovska and Vanya piled into the bus and returned to Mariupol. Once back in their city, they came across Russian soldiers who promised them hot water, but did not deliver on their pledge. The trio evacuated over 100 civilians and distributed the goods they had to those who remained behind.

“After our mission was done and we returned to safety, the trauma of it all came crashing down on me. I didn’t realize the danger of my mission while I was in it. I had to seek mental help. I saw a therapist for several months and have finally started to feel better, but those memories will never leave me. I am not sure I even want them to,” Vinokurova said.

The Mariupol women’s football team still plays on, even taking part in tournaments. Most of their key players have left town and been replaced by other locals. The team, although usually self-reliant, is now looking for sponsors to help them keep playing.

“We are alive. The cats are doing fine, and the dog still covers his ears and cowers every time he hears a loud noise, but we are here. We are still playing, and we hope to find sponsors to help us keep playing.”