By INNA VARENYTSIA
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — An honor guard fired a three-barrel salute into cloudy skies as friends and comrades-in-arms gathered in Kyiv to bid farewell to a Russian woman who was killed while that she was fighting alongside Ukraine in the war with her home country.
Olga Simonova, 34, was remembered for her courage and kindness at a funeral in the Ukrainian capital on Friday.
Simonova’s coffin was draped in the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, topped with a stuffed lion. His nom de guerre was “Simba”, like the main character in Disney’s cartoon “The Lion King”.
Just days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Simonova spoke to The Associated Press in a trench in the Donbass region, where she had served for years alongside of Ukrainian soldiers fighting Russian-backed separatists.
Born in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, Simonova had a keen interest in sports and excelled in both rock climbing and karate. She said she was always proud to compete for Russia.
But she began to feel uneasy about her homeland after reading about Russia’s war in Chechnya and its actions in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region and Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. .
Filled with doubts that she “could ever raise the flag of my country, my homeland again,” Simonova made a life-changing decision. She traveled to Ukraine to join the conflict in the Donbass on the Ukrainian side, first as a volunteer combatant, then as a paramedic and finally as an enlisted member of the armed forces.
“I had this inner feeling that I could handle it and what I was doing was right and necessary, because I can’t condone the situation,” she said. “I only had to buy a one-way ticket. I bought it and left.
Simonova said she never hid her Russian background from her colleagues and earned their trust by showing her commitment to Ukraine on the battlefield. In 2017, she received Ukrainian citizenship.
She became a sergeant and was given command of infantry and artillery units.
Friends and colleagues said Simonova, who was unmarried and had no children, had recently redeployed from the east to the southern region of Kherson, where Ukraine launched a counteroffensive against Russian forces. They said she died on September 13, after her vehicle hit a landmine.
“She was respected not just as a commander, but as a person,” said Dmytro Karabinovskyi, her former commander and friend.