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“For the will is not given for free, it is won with weapons and zeal”: the story of the machine gunner of the 72nd Mechanized Brigade Oksana Rubaniak

Before the full-scale war, Oksana Rubaniak was known as an active public figure who always tried to be useful to her country. After February 24, she joined the territorial defense and, since May, she has been serving as a machine gunner in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. At the same time, she is studying to get pedagogical, philological, and psychological degrees at the military department.

Photo: Oksana Rubaniak personal archive

Here is a story about her civic activities, the decision to go to war, and about things that keep her spirit from breaking down.

To be useful in your country

Oksana Rubaniak is 19. She is short, with long red hair and bright blue eyes that contrast with the camouflage tactical clothing she is wearing. 

The girl was born in the mountain village Hramotne, but has lived in Ivano-Frankivsk for the past four years. “As a child, I was a straight-A student. Not a perfectionist, but I had to manage everything. Sometimes there was too much of me, and I’ve been told that. But I liked to be everywhere,” says Oksana. “I remember how we talked about the government in the ninth grade. While most were silent, I asked many questions. We discussed why we have such a governmental system, what can be changed, and what I would have done differently.”

The beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2014 was quite memorable for 11-year-old Oksana Rubaniak. The girl’s uncle, Ivan Rubaniak, then went to fight as a volunteer; he is also fighting now.

“I remember how we were seeing my uncle off to the frontlines and how he came back and told about the battles: Debaltseve and Ilovaisk, as well as capture. They were given two loaves of bread for 50 people, then they were not fed at all for two weeks. It was imprinted in my memory. A bright example in our family laid the foundation. I understood that, apart from us, no one will fight for our freedom and victory,” says Rubaniak.

Photo: Oksana Rubaniak personal archive

After graduating from school, the girl entered the Ivano-Frankivsk Vocational College of the Vasyl Stefanyk Precarpathian National University. It was then that she began to engage in social activities — she organized various patriotic activities and events. Later, there was an internship at the Ivano-Frankivsk City Council, after which she began working as the deputy head of the regional center’s youth council.

While working in the public sector, Rubaniak actively volunteered — she helped her military friends on the front lines. In 2020, the girl entered the military department of the PNU Vocational College, where she acquired theoretical knowledge of military affairs.

“I realized that sooner or later, I would be needed in the war. In the fall of 2021, there were offers from a friend to go to the frontline with his battalion, which was just being formed at that time. I did not refuse — I said we should talk about it in the spring. We didn’t have to talk, I’m already here,” says the servicewoman.

“Both then and now, I dreamed of being useful. I wanted my contribution to the history of Ukraine to be only positive. Maybe it sounds a little childish or naive, but that’s how it was and still is.”

Call sign “Xena”

On February 24, 2022, Oksana Rubaniak was at home. The owner of the apartment the girl was renting ran into the room and woke her up with the words: “Oksana, wake up. The war has started.” At first, she thought it was a dream, but then she heard the first siren outside.

“Then I started calling relatives and friends to find out if they were all right. I didn’t plan to go anywhere myself though. After making sure my loved ones were safe, I called my colleague, the mayor’s adviser on security and law and order, Nazarii Kishak, my current commander. I asked if help was needed. At that time, he was creating a voluntary formation of the Ivano-Frankivsk Territorial Community No. 3, and I immediately joined,” says Rubaniak.

She knew that her place was at the frontline. The decision to go to war was clear and logical for the girl. First, a voluntary formation, later — the Armed Forces. Rubaniak went to the front with 35 other participants of the Voluntary Formation of the Ivano-Frankivsk Territorial Community No. 3. They became the basis of the newly created machine gun platoon of the 72nd Separate Mechanized Brigade named after the Black Zaporozhians.

“I gained combat practice already in the Armed Forces. I knew the names, types, and details of weapons, as well as their handling and use in theory before, but at the frontline, everything is not the way we were taught at the military department or tactical courses,” says the soldier. “Since we are machine gunners, we mostly mastered various types of machine guns: PK, DShK, Brownings, trophy Kords, RPG, etc.”

“We learned quickly because there was no time. I will not say that it was more difficult for me than the boys or vice versa. We did and are doing everything equally.”

Her call sign is “Xena.” She is currently the senior machine gunner of the machine gun platoon. As Oksana says: “I didn’t choose the machine gun, but it chose me instead.” The main job of a machine gun unit is to hit the enemy when infantry and lightly armored vehicles attack.

Photo: Oksana Rubaniak personal archive

“Three people work behind a machine gun: a gunfighter, a machine gunner, and an ammunition bearer. The machine gunner fires, the ammunition bearer maintains and loads the machine gun, and the gunfighter with a rifle covers the rear or fires from the side if necessary. Even though we have fixed positions, we take turns not to overload people because it is difficult to work behind a machine gun,” explains Rubaniak.

A personal war

“The war took away a few of my friends. She gave them to me and took them away. It hurts to understand that yesterday you talked to a person, and today they are gone. This morning you went out with your brother-in-arms on an assignment, and in the evening, he died. This war becomes death for one person and a beggining of a new life for another,” says the servicewoman.

Photo: Oksana Rubaniak personal archive

During the war, there are different emotional states, says the girl. The support of friends and family, who are waiting for her at home, saves Oksana.

“The events that take place at the front will never occur in civilian life. However, one has to get used to them. There is nothing you can’t get used to. Sleeping in dugouts, trenches with mice or frogs, the lack of a normal toilet and shower — you get used to everything,” the girl says.

Photo: Oksana Rubaniak personal archive

In addition to military missions, Oksana Rubaniak writes prose and poetry. During her stay with her fellow soldiers on the front lines, she wrote many poems for the collection. She writes in Ukrainian.

“Victory will come, but not as quickly as we would like it to. However, nothing is given for free. I even have a poem in which there is a verse that goes: “For the will is not given for free, it is won with weapons and zeal.” That’s why we fight with weapons and zeal.”

Translated by Anastasiia Belanova