As volunteer fighters Oleksandr Zhuhan and Antonina Romanova pack for a return to active duty, they contemplate the unicorn insignia that gives their uniform a rare distinction — a symbol of their status as an LGBTQ couple who are Ukrainian soldiers.
The practice harks back to the 2014 conflict when Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, when lots of people said there are no gay people in the army, and actor, director and drama teacher Zhuhan told Reuters as he and Romanova dressed in their apartment for their second three month combat rotation.
The unicorn was chosen by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community because it is like a fantastic nonexistent creature. Zhuhan and Romanova, who identifies as a nonbinary person with her pronouns and moved to the capital from Crimea after being displaced in 2014, met through their theater work.
Neither was trained in the use of weapons but decided after spending a couple of days hiding themselves in their bathroom at the beginning of the war, decided they had to do more.
At a certain point, it became obvious that we only had three options: hide in a bomb shelter, run away and escape, or join the Territorial Defense volunteers. Romanova said that they chose the third option.
Russia says it is on a special operation to demilitarize Ukraine and rid it of radical anti-Russian nationalists. Ukraine and its allies call it a false pretext for a war of aggression.
Their vocation gives them an added sense of responsibility for Romanova and Zhuhan.
Russia does not just kill our people, but they do it because they don't just take our territories. They want to destroy our culture and we can't allow this to happen, Zhuhan said.
Their first tour of duty around Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, about 135 km 80 miles from the port of Odesa, changed their lives. They fought in the same unit and found it terrifying, Zhuhan contracted pneumonia, but the couple says their fellow fighters accepted them.
There was no aggression, no bullying. It was unusual for the others. Over time, people started calling me Antonina, some even used my she pronoun, Romanova said.
The new unit joined Kyiv's central station for a second three month stint, and there was much back-slapping. Some of the team Zhuhan and Romanova knew but the commanders were not at the station.
The mood became more somber as the unit headed towards their train as the dusk fell, and I am worried about that, said Zhuhan. The rules are more strict in some units. It wasn't like that in our first unit. Zhuhan's unease lifts as one commander makes clear his refusal to tolerate homophobia, and a more senior officer says the only important thing on the front line is to be a good fighter, he tells Reuters by phone.
One overriding fear remains, as it is voiced back in her apartment.
The thing I am worried about is that they won't allow Antonina to bury me the way I want to be buried, the way that I want to be buried, in case I get killed in this war, they won't allow me to be buried, said Zhuhan.
They would rather let my mum bury me with the priest reading silly prayers, but I am an atheist and I don't want that.