By Eva Merkacheva, Mk.ru
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
Savchenko talked about her past after [temporarily] suspending her hunger strike in Russian prison
“I was expelled from the Kharkiv flight school because of dirty dishes”
A bouquet of pink tulips stands in the cell of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko. Fresh flowers are an unheard of luxury behind bars ([prison officials] allow them in the rarest of cases). And Savchenko herself looks reinvigorated. Either these flowers have worked, or the chicken broth which she started to drink (although just a few sips at a time) after her 80-day hunger strike [Ed. note: 83 days]. But, from a living corpse – which is what she looked like during the past few days – Nadiya has turned into quite an optimistic detainee. She even resumed her morning stretching.
Nadiya is now more frank than ever. She recalled some facts of her biography, unknown to anyone, as well as moments she thought she had long buried in her memory. She vigorously talked about her love for the sky and about her agonizing path towards her dream. About how she was forbidden to fly in Ukraine, and how Russian pilots called on her to join them …
I visited Nadiya Savchenko as a human rights activist on Friday [March 6, 2015]. For the first time [since her detention], the atmosphere in her cell was no longer oppressive. Maybe because hope had come into Nadiya’s sight [Nadiya means “hope” in Ukrainian].
– Flowers – from a man? – I ask Savchenko.
– In a sense, – she laughs. – From a Ukrainian ambassador. He was just here.
– Touching … March 8th is, after all, [International Women’s Day]. Prisoners are allowed flowers in exceptional cases.
– I don’t need anything touching [like this]. But the flowers are really encouraging. And I know that this is a rarity. They treat me like a treasure here. I heard about the terrible conditions prisoners in other prisons live in. I am [truly] lucky in that sense. But I am not going to thank [them] for this. All I want now – is [for them] to let me go under house arrest – I would live in the Ukrainian Embassy [in Moscow]. I would wait for the judgment of the court there. And here, it is impossible to watch TV – it’s like watching a “Visiting Fairy Tales” program the whole time [Ed. note: a popular Soviet children’s TV program run in 1970-80s]. I am afraid that my subconscious will record whatever they say on the air.
– How are you feeling?
– For two days, I vomited so badly that I began having spine spasms. I never thought that it happens like this. I’ll say this to you – my health deteriorated, but I will not die today or tomorrow. I think I will survive for a couple of months on any hunger strike. But I feel worse than I say.
– Why have you finally decided to eat?
– They were going to send me to a civilian hospital (I started having problems with my internal organs). And then, it’s the eve of March 8th. And a Ukrainian commission of doctors is planning a visit. They will definitely be allowed to visit Matrosskaya Tishina prison, but it’s uncertain if [the authorities] would allow them into a [civilian] hospital. That’s why I decided to stay here and agreed to drink the broth. But I am not feeling well because of it. It is now easier not to eat than to eat. Now I understand what they mean when they say that it is harder to end a hunger strike than to start it.
– Are you ending it?
– No. I will simply drink this broth over the holidays until March 9-10. And then I will decide what to do next. I will consider what the Ukrainian doctors advise.
– [People] want to bring you a juicer so that you can have fresh juice.
– No, I will not drink it. Nothing besides broth. I also want to say that I am ready to compromise. But it would be great if your [Russian] authorities were ready to compromise, too. I hope that I will [be able] to participate in a PACE session this April (laughs).
– Anything can happen. Especially since you are now a Hero of Ukraine.
– If I flew, [I] would never have received this title (it would simply be impossible). And here I received it. It turns out, I did not fly for it, I sat for it. Funny.
A woman on eternal duty (Nadiya has in mind that she is on duty in her solitary cell –”MK’s” note). Like Groundhog Day. In the army, I also went through a time when I had to dig every day. Here, I am on duty; back then – I had to dig.
– What did you dig?
– Trenches, pits. Once I dug a 4 by 4 pit [13×13 ft], 2 meters [6.6 ft] deep. I dug at night, I dug all the way to the high-voltage wire (I thought it was a tree root), which almost did me in. I wanted to serve [in the army] so much!
– [People] write many different things about your army career. Including the fact that if it weren’t for your father’s connections at the [Department of] Defense, you would never have become a pilot.
– [They] are lying through their teeth. My father died in the spring of 2003, and it was only six months later that I decided to become a pilot. He was an agricultural engineer. He worked at the Kyiv munitions plant during all of World War II. And my whole family went through the war. Four of my mom’s brothers died, two went all the way to Berlin (one as part of the Belarusian, and the other as part of the Ukrainian Front) … So, none of my relatives serve in the army now, nobody has anything to do with it. And I’m the only one who smokes and says obscenities.
– And what brought you to the army?
– I now realize that I always daydreamed about the sky. I remember the first time I flew on a plane with my parents to Crimea when I was 4 years old. And later a friend gave me the idea of becoming a female pilot. I was 17, he was 19. We rode motorcycles together, then climbed on roofs and bridges. I loved the elevation and the speed. And he said that he dreamed about becoming a pilot. But he was so sure that it was almost impossible to get into the flight school, so he did not even dare to try. And I did. I came to the Kharkiv Air Force University, and they said: “Girl, you have only one problem – that you are a girl.” And they wouldn’t even let me on the premises. This happened for several years. But I finally managed to get an appointment with the boss, a general. I said – “where does it say that young women cannot fly?!” He responded to me, “you’re not ready, you must first serve in the army.” So I went to a military enlistment office. There, they asked, “Are you out of your mind?” They couldn’t believe that I wanted to serve [in the army]. They sent me to a psychiatrist for a note. I brought it back. They had to take me.
– How old were you at the time?
– 22. They sent me to serve in the railway troops, in communications. I served for five months and did not see a single sapper shovel. Well, what type of army is that? So I asked to join the airborne troops. I came to Zhytomyr. In a llama coat, long hair – so stylish (in my free time from trying to get admitted as a pilot I was trained as a fashion designer). The commander looks at me with a grin and says, “If you can run 15 km [9 miles] in full ammunition and a 15 kg [33 lb] backpack and not fall behind the soldiers – I will take you in.” He thought I would leave the venture alone. I changed and started running – while carrying a grenade launcher usually carried by three soldiers. Everyone thought that I would give up. At the very end, the commander gave me another task. Once again I had to run, but without cargo. My mouth was dry, and it had just rained – so I scooped up water from a puddle with my palms, drank it, and kept on running. I caught up with the company. Nobody asked me any more questions after that. They no longer considered me a woman.
– In what sense?
– In the direct [sense]. They treated me the same as the men. When we celebrated March 8, the commander gave an order – all the women were to gather at the parade ground (then he tasked them with making dumplings for the holiday). I ran over. And he said to me: “Bullet, scat from here, what are you here for?” And this was the best compliment I’ve ever heard in my life.
– Bullet – is this your nickname?
– Yes. It stuck to me after an incident. One time, a commander told the soldiers that I walk faster than they think. Like a bullet. In general, all the commanders said in the beginning that if they had a dozen such Savchenkos they would be the best. And then everyone wanted to get rid of me.
– How come?
– Because I was always painfully honest. I nagged them with questions, demands. The signalers gave the paratroopers a bottle of vodka for me (so they’d keep me away from them), the paratroopers had promised a box of vodka to the pilots already, and the pilots “threatened” a whole tank of alcohol so that they could send me away. I wonder, how much would they give for me now so that I’d return? (Laughs).
– Did you come to Iraq from the airborne troops?
– Yes, when I was a paratrooper. And then I came back to the university after serving [in the army], and told them there – “I’m ready! Enrol me!” And they said: “Too late, now you’re old. You are already 24, and the enrollment cut-off age is 23 years.” So I went to see the Minister of Defense again. I waited in a long line for the appointment. I came in, told him everything, and how I wanted to fly. He responded with a single word: “[go] Fly!” And they admitted me. To that very Kharkiv Air Force (the only one in Ukraine).
– You were then expelled from [the university] because you were professionally unfit?
– I have just remembered how it happened! So you’re the first I’m telling this to. It all happened because of the dirty dishes. Then, I was an A-student, was going to graduate with honors, everything was great. And so it was my turn to serve at the dining room at an airfield (I was there for practice). And so we had a common custom that everyone puts away the plates. Everyone was equal at the airfield, all the pilots. Even officers did not wear epaulettes there. And so, two of them came for breakfast – a major and a colonel. And I said to them cheerfully: “Comrades officers, an elite crew is serving you [today]. Please put away your plates!” They did not. And I did not put away their plates. On the same day, they came again for lunch. And I poured them borscht straight into those dirty cereal bowls. Without a word, they ate. And then I thought – that’s it, I am done. They did not put away their plates again. And I did not touch them either. They came for dinner – I served it in the same plates. And again, they ate in silence. And I realized that I was totally done then, they would not forget it. And from that moment I was suddenly “not prepared” to fly! My instructor begged me: “Go, say you are sorry.” I did not go to apologize. And with every day, my flights were becoming “more” and “more fun.” Once, they turned off the radio station for me. I hit the board and said to the examiner that if something like this were to happen again, I would fly such a loop during a flight that he would not survive it. And he gave me the feedback that I was unmanageable. And I told them in response: “You can’t control me on the ground. And I can control a plane in the air.” They used to say that I would never fly in the sky over Ukraine, they will not let me to do that. And Russian pilots who were at the airfield and [saw] the whole story, supported me saying, “You can fly in Russia!”
– Unbelievable!. You could fly with us [in Russia], and now you’re imprisoned…
– Yeah. But I will still be able to fly here. Maybe I could fly for some airshow. I believe that I will fly. I know.
– But you have not graduated yet. And after all of this, were you expelled?
– Yes, for allegedly poor performance. I went to the Minister of Defense again. I waited a month for an appointment. I came in, he looked at the records, grades. And he commanded to reinstate me in the same class. And I was reinstated. And the colonel that took revenge for the plates was shocked when he saw me again. He told me all that time, with a sneer, that is was okay, I could be a housewife on the ground. And I told him then, “I will forget your name, and this story. But you will remember me your whole life. And I’m going to fly.” And that’s what happened. I only remembered this incident with plates here at Matrosskaya Tishina [prison].
They tricked me at the university afterwards. Until the very end, they would not say what type of degree I would graduate with. I looked at it – and they gave me a Mil [NATO: “Hip”] helicopter. There was no point in arguing at the time. More precisely, I did argue, I proved that women could fly Sukhoi [NATO: “Flanker”] fighter jets, but Ukraine practically had none of these jets anymore. So what’s the point of having a degree, which says that I can operate “Flankers”?
I later fell in love with helicopters as well, they have a romance, there is a beauty in flying them (especially when you fly over the forest, and a moose races ahead underneath). But still, I dream about airplanes. And let them say whatever they want, but no one has ever petitioned the Ministry of Defense for me, there was no preferential treatment, and everything I have achieved – I achieved by myself and in spite of the circumstances. I’m sorry I never made it to pilot. I was only an operator.
And when I studied to be a pilot, I did not think about war. I just wanted to fly.