April 28, 2023
Ukrainian officer Olga Bigar will not tell anyone how she received the callsign “Witch” until the war is over. “But when I am asked,” she says with a grin, “I say it’s because I can set the sky on fire.” “Witch,” a mortar platoon commander in Ukraine’s 241st Brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces (TDF), has emerged as one of the individual soldiers in the current conflict who have caught the public’s imagination. Having signed up the day after Russia launched its attack last year, Bigar was later thrust into the grinding battle for Bakhmut, gaining a fierce reputation on the war’s bloodiest front.
Boasting a TikTok following of more than 120,000, Bigar, 31, has become a talisman of the conflict, not only as one of Ukraine’s 60,000 female soldiers, but also of the spirited defense presented by the thousands of civilians who signed up to fight without hesitation.
Bigar spoke to Insider via an interpreter from an undisclosed location away from the front line in April. She described how the war transformed her from civilian lawyer to a seasoned fighter leading her own platoon.
Insider independently confirmed her present role, and her presence at the locations of some of the exploits she described, with the TDF.
A baptism of fire
The head and shoulders of Junior Lieutenant mortar platoon commander Olga Bigar of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, callsign “Witch,” in uniform. Her dark hair is tied back. Fifteen months ago, Bigar was living a very different life; as a lawyer and PhD student in Kyiv. But even so, she said she “lived in anticipation of the full scale invasion.”
Growing up in the Donbas region, Bigar had been “extremely traumatized psychologically” by Russia’s operation there in 2014, fomenting pro-Russian sentiment and sending unmarked forces to take over the region. “They were conducting atrocities in our region pretending to be just civilians,” she said. “And I couldn’t complain anywhere because it was all supposed to look as if it was a civil conflict, which it wasn’t.”
On February 24 last year, the day the full-scale invasion began, she immediately headed to enlist, along with her mother and little brother. “There was fear, there were explosions. We couldn’t eat,” she said. “We all felt nausea.” She said the line was so long that they had to come back the next day to sign up.
Bigar said she didn’t enter the war completely green — she had some experience shooting. She had also previously worked with state security agencies on legal issues, and had volunteered work helping identify Russian positions in the Donbas, she said. That experience set her up well
for leadership. Leading a cohort of men, she was to be trained while simultanously training up greener recruits. But, thanks to a pressing Russian advance, “we received our first training in battle,” she said.
Russian forces had seized Hostomel airfield outside of Kyiv, and planned to advance on the capital with forces landed at the airfield, as The Washington Post reported in March last year. But the small, affluent town of Moschun stood in the way.
New recruits clamored to be allowed to go and help the army defend it, Bigar said. “Only the most prepared and most motivated were selected … there were more applicants than places.” Assisting the 72nd Brigade in the defense of Moschun helped Bigar and her soldiers gain firsthand experience, she said. And it was only after that region of Kyiv was secured that they could begin their training in earnest. “We trained frantically in the forests, created new training grounds, used abandoned buildings,” she said, adding that experienced personnel from both Ukraine and the United Kingdom checked in regularly on their progress. By the end of the summer, they were ready to go to Bakhmut.
Outnumbered three to one
A close-up of the hands of Junior Lieutenant mortar platoon commander Olga Bigar of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, callsign “Witch,” in uniform and with fingernails painted a pale pink. Facing a far more numerous enemy, Ukraine has had to adopt nimble, flexible tactics — a quality that has long been seen as a major factor in its unexpectedly robust defense. Split-second thinking was key to how the 241st Brigade held back one of the Wagner Group’s infamous “wave” attacks as Russian forces bombarded Ukraine as 2023 rolled in, Bigar said. “The Russians had a deadline to take Bakhmut by New Year. And our task was not to let them. They were absolutely desperate.” The TDF confirmed to Insider that Bigar fought in Bakhmut’s defense at that time.
Stationed on the outskirts of the city with her mortar platoon on News Year’s Day, Bigar and her soldiers had been on duty all night, weakening the enemy with artillery strikes. Around 11 a.m., Russian forces fired smoke mines towards the Ukrainian infantry — an ominous sign. “As the smoke started fading, we had reports from the infantry that they saw Wagner Group men coming as one big wall against us,” she said, estimating that 70 men were fast approaching. Bigar’s force, totaling 18 soldiers, was stationed in a scattered formation at some distance from each other. Russian electronic warfare equipment hampered their drones, and they didn’t have the use of the AN/TPQ-53 radar system.
They had just a matter of minutes to perform the complex calculations needed to cover the approaching line from multiple firing positions before the fighters reached the infantry. “We had to do this in conditions of limited visibility, and without any precise data as to their exact location,” she said. “We had no more than five minutes for that, because the Wagner men were moving very fast.” Working like a machine, with Bigar loading and firing mortars herself, the team found their target with the help of corrections from the infantry.
Ammunition was tight. “For every four shots the orcs take, we can answer one — so we count very well,” she said, using a common Ukrainian insult for Russian soldiers.
Meanwhile, shells were exploding nearby as radar-aided enemy artillery tried to get a fix on Bigar’s force. “At first the orcs tried to advance,” she said. “But when we opened fire they began to flee and even abandoned their wounded fighters.”
Dealing with fear
That battle is one of several escapades Bigar recounted, which also included a three-day-long defense of the Bakhmut asphalt plant in October, and a daring sprint to lob grenades at a Russian position, dashing back before their artillery could return fire. As she tells it, her platoon was excited to take on the madcap plan. But especially for inexperienced fighters, fear is very real. “The problem is when a person doesn’t feel fear,” Bigar said. “That means that they already have a serious trauma.” Inexperienced fighters — who receive just weeks of training — are always placed with seasoned officers, she said. “We give people time to understand that war is a job,” she said. “You have to learn well, you have to practice well, you have to get trained well, and you have to follow your orders to the letter. This way you will stay alive.”
With experience comes confidence, she added. “For example, my servicemen are asking me, before the next task, they say, ‘can we take a bit more risk?'”
Mia Jankowicz is a senior news reporter at Insider’s London office. She previously covered Brexit for The New European and has contributed stories to The Guardian, The New Statesman, Politics.co.uk, and Mic.com, as well as several local newspapers. A longtime culture writer, she has published reviews, opinion, and features to a wide range of art publications, with a focus on art from both the UK and the Middle East. She won the Frieze Writers’ Prize in 2007.