"She was a warrior of light." Stories of Ukrainian women killed at war

Ukrainian women are fighting, collecting and delivering aid to the hottest spots on the front. They take risks, and sadly often give their lives in doing so. They are an example of courage for the entire world. We have collected the stories of some of the defenders and volunteers who have been killed in the course of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Each of them fought for the freedom and independence of Ukraine.

The article has been prepared exclusively for Ukrainska Pravda by the Memorial remembrance platform, which tells the stories of civilians and fallen Ukrainian soldiers who have been killed by the Russians. To report information about Ukraine’s losses, please fill in these forms: for fallen soldiers and civilian victims

Valentyna Pushych, defender

Saved hundreds of wounded people

Valentyna Pushych, 41, from Kyiv, gave up her job as a manager in an international transport company to serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. She had been saving soldiers on the hottest fronts since 2016. She was shot on 27 February 2022 near the city of Brovary, Kyiv Oblast, while on her way to pick up an injured defender. She left a mother and a daughter.

"She always achieved what she set out to do, ever since she was a child. She always dreamt of being useful to people, of her life not being wasted," Nina Berenok, Valentyna’s mother, recollects.


Valentyna Pushych with her daughter

Source: family archive

Valentyna dreamed of becoming a doctor, but she didn’t get into medical school. Instead, she qualified as a seamstress and worked in a factory. Then she got a position as a manager in an international transport company and started a correspondence course with a psychology professor. She was also raising her daughter. In 2016, she decided to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

"She said she would be more valuable there than in Kyiv. She talked with her daughter every day – she was ten years old at the time," Valentyna’s mother recounts.

"Valia’s boss was understanding about her decision to join the army. He even offered to keep paying her wages, but she said, ‘Better help our boys.’ He did actually send aid after that," says Oksana Feshchenko, a volunteer soldier.

Valentyna served in the 72nd Separate Mechanised Brigade named after the Black Zaporozhians. She went to Avdiivka in Donetsk Oblast a few months after joining them, at a time when fierce battles were ongoing in that area. She received the alias "Romashka" ["Daisy" in Ukrainian – ed.].

"She understood all the processes within literally a few days, and no one would have believed that she was a newbie," recollects Oksana Korchynska, a volunteer who was Valentyna’s roommate there.


Valentyna mastered the profession of combat medic very fast

Source: friends’ archive

Valentyna was good at organising the work. When the chief medic in the battalion proved to be incompetent, Valentyna took charge of that person’s responsibilities.

"Everything was always in perfect order in her car and her medical organisers. That is essential in order to provide very rapid assistance. I would have never thought she was not a medic before," says Taras Popadiuk, a volunteer medic from the Hospitallers voluntary medical battalion who was also in Avdiivka at that time.

"This was a woman with a capital W. She worked around the clock. She was always ready. She’d open the windows because she was afraid of not hearing in time that an injured soldier was being brought in," adds Olena Snitsarenko, a defender.

Valentyna Pushych got injured soldiers out of the most critical spots. Together with a driver, she could carry a soldier on her back for 1½ kilometres. Once she managed to get an injured person out under fire when he had shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade in his face.

"Valia realised in time that the bulletproof vest was supporting the shrapnel and stemming the bleeding. Because of that, she and the driver managed to stabilise the injured man. The surgeon was taken aback and even fainted. He hadn’t seen such complex injuries before. The soldier endured a long and difficult treatment, but he survived. Valia kept in constant touch with him," says Oksana Korchynska.

Friends say that Valentyna never feared anything. The lives of her comrades-in-arms were always her first priority, so she would rush to save them no matter how dangerous it was.


Valentyna with her comrades-in-arms

Source: friends’ archive

"She was very compassionate and sympathetic. When I saw how she reacted to the first soldiers’ deaths, and it caused her great personal pain, I couldn’t imagine how Valia would be able to work with the wounded. But there turned out to be a fierceness in that fragile body. She saved hundreds of outstanding people. Many of them went on to become commanders or deputy commanders of battalions. Unfortunately, a lot of them were killed after the full-scale invasion started," Oksana Korchynska recounts.

Valentyna really loved the soldiers, and the feeling was mutual. She always stood up for the soldiers’ interests and confronted everyone openly when she witnessed injustice.

"If she thought some decision was unfair, she never kept quiet. Some of the commanders were even slightly afraid of her because of that," Korchynska says.

"Before I knew Valentyna, one of the guys started thanking me: ‘You saved my life… Valiusha, Romashka.’ He thought I was her. Later, I realised how kind and pure-hearted she was. It was amazing how she was like that after seeing so much sorrow. When she told anyone off, she did it humanely, without humiliating them," Oksana Feshchenko recollects.

For rescuing soldiers during the fierce battles in Avdiivka, Valentyna was awarded the Order for Courage, Third Class. However, she did not go to the awards ceremony, as she did not want to leave her comrades-in-arms.

In 2018, Valentyna decided to take officer training courses and sign a contract for another five years. Oksana Korchynska tried to dissuade her, saying it would be better for her to spend some time with her daughter. But Valentyna was resolute. She said she would serve as long as she could – in memory of her fallen brothers-in-arms.

On 27 February 2022, Valentyna came under fire while on her way to pick up a wounded man. She was killed, along with the driver.


Valentyna Pushych’s grave 

Source: Inna Varenytsia for Left Bank (Livyi Bereh)

The last time Nina Berenok spoke to Valentyna was an hour before that. A little later, Valentyna’s daughter called her. Her brothers-in-arms answered the phone and told her that her mother was dead.

Valentyna was buried in Kyiv at the Forest Cemetery. Due to the problematic situation at the fronts, only the very closest people to her were present to pay their last respects.

"Valia lit up people’s lives – she was a true warrior of light. Over the years, she and I have only met in the war, but these meetings, for me, were full of warmth. Each of us patriots want the army to be made up of people like Valia. This is a painful loss for the whole of Ukraine. People should remember how much she did," says Oksana Korchynska.

Valentyna Pushych was posthumously awarded the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, Third Class.

Ilona Kurovska, volunteer

Delivered aid to occupied villages


Ilona Kurovska on New Year's Eve 2022

Source: family archive

Ilona Kurovska, 45, the former director of the Institute of Legislation of the Verkhovna Rada [the Ukrainian Parliament], organised the delivery of aid to the village of Klavdiievo-Tarasove in the Bucha district of Kyiv Oblast at the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. She was killed on 24 March 2022 when her car ran over a mine. Her body was found on 2 April, after the liberation of Kyiv Oblast.

Ilona's mother, Iryna Kurovska, says that she first noticed her daughter’s compassion when she was only two.

"I heard my child screaming. I ran to see what had happened, and she was holding the gate to stop some drunk passer-by from coming in," Iryna recalls.


Ilona with her grandparents

Source: family archive

At school, Ilona was an excellent student who would be awarded a certificate of achievement at the end of each academic year. She often used to sing "Oi u luzi chervona kalyna" ["Oh, the red guelder-rose in the meadow", a Ukrainian folk song - ed.] with her mother.

"When she was in eighth grade (Year 9), even before the declaration of independence of Ukraine, she found some blue and yellow ribbons and wove them into her braids," says Iryna Kurovska. "I was working in the District Executive Committee, and the manager called me and said, ‘What is your daughter doing? Tell her to take them off.’ I came home and said, ‘Ilonochka, I'm in trouble at work.’ She said, ‘I'll never take them off.’"

After leaving school, Ilona studied history at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv. Later, she also gained a degree in economics. She defended her PhD and doctoral theses in the field of international law. She received her doctorate on 1 February 2022. In the last year of her life, she was the director of the Institute of Legislation of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada.

Valentyna Osadcha had known Ilona since 2011, when they both became deputy chairs of the Peryiaslav-Khmelnytskyi District State Administration.

"She was very professional and meticulous. When she took something on, she would carefully study every detail. Work occupied a significant part of her life – her working day could last 15 or 20 hours. She was selfless in training other employees," Valentyna recalls.

Valentyna says Ilona Kurovska had many friends and was decent and fair.

"You could call her in the middle of the night and not be afraid of judgment. Ilona helped me escape domestic violence and became a role model for fighting for the things that matter. She used to feed a lot of stray dogs because she considered it the responsibility of every person," her friend says.


Ilona Kurovska was very fond of animals

Source: family archive

In her spare time, Ilona loved to draw and sing. At 35, she fulfilled a childhood dream and learned to play the violin.

"Recently, she had wanted to adopt a child. She was planning to meet with a mutual friend who had experience of adoption to ask about how it works. She dreamed of giving someone love, tenderness and care," says Valentyna.

The beginning of the full-scale invasion did not come as a surprise to Ilona Kurovska. She had said long before that Ukraine had not responded robustly enough to the Russian aggression of 2014, so there would be another offensive.

"It's still hard to discuss her in the past tense," recalls Alina Rymar, another of Ilona Kurovska’s colleagues. "She was always principled and purposeful. She tried to be as useful as possible wherever she was. So when the invasion began, she knew that she would be in the centre of events."

On the first day of the invasion, Ilona arrived in Klavdiievo-Tarasove, a village where she had spent a lot of time with her grandparents as a child. On the fourth day of the full-scale war, when the town was entirely occupied, she organised territorial defence. Food, helmets and medicine were carried past enemy posts. She accompanied civilians who wanted to leave the occupied territory through fields and forests.

"The kitchen was our headquarters, and the radios were working around the clock. The building shook from explosions, and there was no water or electricity. I asked my daughter to leave because it was frightening," Ilona’s mother recalls. "She flat-out refused, saying, ‘I’ll get you out, but as for me, this is my job.’ Of course I stayed as well."


Ilona Kurovska was always at the centre of things

Source: family archive

Iryna Kurovska says that Ilona was courageous until the very last. She would smile and say, "These are our adventures." She was unstoppable.

Iryna last talked to her daughter on 21 March, when Ilona was setting out to deliver medicines and baby food to her fellow villagers.

"I remember this clearly: she made the sign of the cross and read a prayer before getting into the car. After that, I didn’t hear from her again," Iryna says.

Later it turned out that on 24 March, Ilona’s car drove over a mine and exploded. Territorial defence fighters found her after Kyiv Oblast was liberated. Another volunteer, aged 24, was killed in the car with Ilona. She was trying to apply a tourniquet to save him before she died.

Ilona Kurovska was buried next to her grandparents’ graves in her village. Her mother says that local people, together with the Oblast Military Administration, Defence Intelligence and the Security Service of Ukraine, have petitioned the Office of the President to award her the title of Hero of Ukraine, but so far, there have been no developments.

Ilona’s friend Valentyna Osadcha believes a street should be named after Ilona.

"In the village where she delivered aid to prevent her fellow villagers from dying of cold and hunger. The Institute of Legislation of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine could also bear her name. Someone who sacrificed her life to help others should be remembered forever," Ilona’s friend says.

Viktoriia Yaryshko, volunteer

Helped Kherson residents during the Russian occupation


Viktoriia Yaryshko tirelessly helped the residents of Kherson

Source: friend’s archive

Viktoriia Yaryshko, 39, volunteered in the Kherson Oblast office of the Red Cross in the city of Kherson, helping parents with young children during the Russian occupation of the city. She was killed by Russian shelling on 15 December 2022 while distributing bread to local residents. She is survived by her mother, her husband and their two children: a daughter, 17, and a son, 12.

Liudmyla Berezhna, Viktoriia’s mother, says that her daughter wanted to help others from a young age.

"Her kindergarten teacher used to say, ‘All the other kids get up and go after their meals, but Vika [short for Viktoriia - ed.] would stay behind to help clear away the dishes.’ Then in first grade, Vika’s teacher would ask me, ‘How did you raise Vika so well? She is very kind and always helps everyone.’ Later people would tell me, ‘She’s as good as gold. She will do anything she is asked to do.’ My mum taught me to be kind to people, and I passed this on to Vika."

After leaving school, Viktoriia studied to be a pastry chef for a year, but then she decided to train as an artist, working with wood paintings. She made a living making and selling souvenirs, leading workshops at Zeleni Khutory Tavrii [Tavriia’s Green Hamlets, a local history centre - ed.] and teaching crafts at a local school. She often slept only four hours a night to stay on top of everything. Her friends say that she dreamt of launching her own business, something creative.


A doll Viktoriia made

Source: family archive

Mykola Taranenko, commander of the VLAD emergency response volunteer battalion, had known Viktoriia for 16 years. He was a karate teacher when she worked in tourism, and they met on a joint outing. Later he was the person who introduced Viktoriia to the Red Cross.

"She was always smiling. Never complained. It was impossible to get her to talk about her own problems. She’d just say, ‘Everything’s fine.’ She worked too much and couldn’t keep still for a moment," Mykola Taranenko recalls.

Under the Russian occupation, Ukrainian schools were banned, and Viktoriia refused to collaborate with the occupation regime. She started volunteering in the spring of 2022.

The national Red Cross committee provided funding, and Kherson volunteers would buy food and other items from Ukrainian producers and distribute them to local residents. They brought in medicines from the Ukrainian-controlled territories. They organised first-aid training courses, always in small groups to avoid attracting unwanted attention from the occupation forces.

Still, Russian soldiers came to the Red Cross office and took pictures of the volunteers’ documents. They wanted to show they knew who the volunteers were and what they were doing.

"At one point, Viktoriia wanted to evacuate children, even though it was extremely difficult. The occupiers came to search her home twice; they were looking for something in her neighbourhood. Then she changed her mind: she decided to stay here and keep helping on the ground," recalls Viktoriia’s friend and fellow volunteer, Nataliia Shatilova.

Viktoriia adored children and quickly established a rapport with them. Her first priority was helping families with babies. She also led workshops for kids with autism to offer them some psychological support.

"We called her the nappy fairy. She was a guardian angel for families with young kids," Nataliia says.

Viktoriia was overjoyed when Kherson was liberated. She moved into the Red Cross offices with her children when the Russians started shelling the city.


The Red Cross volunteers grew very close during the Russian occupation

Source: Viktoriia’s friends’ archive

"Those who lived through the occupation together were no longer just colleagues, but family. We spent a lot of time together and cared for each other so as not to get discouraged. We all knew the risks we were taking. Viktoriia knew that too, but she was a warrior. Stubborn and determined. She could ask her family or close friends for advice, but she’d make all her decisions herself," Nataliia explains.

The last time the two friends spoke was on 15 December, an hour before Viktoriia's death. Viktoriia had managed to give Nataliia and another friend a photo of them together in a homemade frame with the word "Love" on it. Viktoriia’s friends left for another assignment, and Viktoriia stayed near the office to distribute bread to local people. On days like this, up to a thousand people would gather outside the Red Cross office.

"A little over an hour later, I saw I had a lot of missed calls. And when I called my colleague back, she said, ‘Something terrible has happened. We were bombed. Vika was killed.’ Unfortunately, she was not wearing a helmet, and she received a fatal shrapnel wound to her head," Nataliia Shatilova says.

An elderly man who was queuing for bread was also killed, and three others were wounded.  At the time, Viktoriia's children were in the shelter that belonged to the Red Cross office, so they did not witness their mother's death. But they found out soon enough.

The city was also heavily bombed on the day of Viktoriia's funeral. Everyone in the funeral venue had to wear body armour. A projectile struck nearby, and two people were killed.

Viktoriia's mother took her grandchildren to a resort in the town of Truskavets for three weeks. The children now live with their father.


The gift Viktoriia gave to her friends an hour before she was killed

Source: Viktoriia’s friends

"Everything at home reminds me of her," says Viktoriia's mother, Liudmyla Berezhna. "Everywhere I look, I start crying. The children try not to talk about it to me so that I don't get upset."

Today, Viktoriia is remembered not only by her family and colleagues, but also by the people she had been helping for months. The volunteers have applied to the Oblast Military Administration for Viktoriia to receive some posthumous recognition.

"We need to tell the stories of people like her; we need to remember them. We are writing the modern history of Ukraine right now. It’s important that it’s not just dates, that it includes memories of our heroes," says Nataliia Shatilova.

Viktoriia Kiiashchenko, defender

Saw the defence of Ukraine as her duty


Viktoriia Kiiashchenko joined the army because of her devotion to Ukraine

Source: family archive

Viktoriia Kiiashchenko, 38, joined the Ukrainian army in 2020 because she considered it her civic duty. During the full-scale invasion, she served at a checkpoint in the city of Volnovakha in Donetsk Oblast. She was killed in a Russian airstrike on 15 March 2022.

Viktoriia was born in the city of Rubizhne, Luhansk Oblast. Oriental dancing had been her hobby since she was a child.

She graduated from Volodymyr Dahl East Ukrainian National University and received a Master’s degree at Taras Shevchenko Luhansk National Teacher Training University. She worked at the Rubizhne Industrial and Teacher Training College. There she met her future husband, Oleh Kiiashchenko. The couple moved to the town of Zolote, Luhansk Oblast, where Viktoriia worked as a guidance counsellor at a vocational lyceum.

"She was always cheerful and positive," her husband recalls. "She danced and sang at every opportunity. However, she was persistent – everything had to be the way she wanted it to be."


Viktoriia with her husband Oleh

Source: family archive

In October 2020, Viktoriia decided to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine. She signed a three-year contract with the 46th Separate Airmobile Brigade. She let her husband know about this by inviting him to come to her swearing-in ceremony. Even before the full-scale invasion, Viktoriia had taken on duties at a checkpoint in Volnovakha.

Liudmyla Kolesnichenko had served with Viktoriia since November 2020. The two of them became friends.

"She was a patriot. She wanted to live in Ukraine, not in Russian-occupied territory. For her, service was also a test of her own strength," Liudmyla recalls.

It was not difficult for Viktoriia to live under martial law. On the contrary, she woke up earlier than everyone else, at 4 am. Every day she did her makeup and styled her hair – it was important to her. She liked to learn new things, especially how to use weapons, so she never missed a class. No matter how hard it was physically, she followed orders.

"When she had to run, she would run. She kept saying, ‘I’ll learn’, ‘I’ve got this’. Military service was good for her – she became even prettier and improved her fitness levels," her friend says.

Sometimes male soldiers would say things like, "Ladies, why are you being recruited at all, why did you come here?" Viktoriia would retort, "Why did you?" She wouldn’t tolerate any arrogance from the "old-timers", who sometimes made fun of the newcomers. Yet she was sociable and had many friends in the brigade.

Viktoriia often asked after her friend's daughters and dreamed of having children of her own in the future.


Friends Liudmyla and Viktoriia

Source: Liudmyla Kolesnichenko

In mid-February, Liudmyla decided to resign from military service, but she kept in touch with Viktoriia.

"When the full-scale invasion began, I asked her to quit, not to risk her life. She said that she was very scared because of the constant air raids and shelling. But she firmly rejected the idea of leaving. She assured me that she would stay with her unit to the end. I was amazed at her courage," Liudmyla says.

The two friends agreed to call each other on 14 March, but the connection was down. And the next morning, her comrades-in-arms informed Liudmyla that Viktoriia had died. A Russian plane dropped a bomb on the building where the soldiers were living. Viktoriia was killed along with five others.

A few minutes before her death, Viktoriia had said, "I’m so afraid to go to the checkpoint – there is so little left of it after the shelling." One of her comrades-in-arms then decided to take her shift. This saved his life.

The defender was buried at Krasnopilske Cemetery in the city of Dnipro on the Avenue of Glory.

Viktoriia Kiiashchenko was posthumously awarded the Order for Courage, Third Class.


Viktoriia did not want to leave her position despite heavy shelling

Source: family archive

Vita Sahnik for Ukrainska Pravda

Translated by
Myroslava Zavadska, Yuliia Kravchenko, Olya Loza and Oxana Hart

Edited by Teresa Pearce