Among the devastating images to come out of Ukraine as the country fights to protect its democracy against Russia, those of women and children fleeing everything they’ve ever known have become emblematic of the cruelty and callousness of war.
Now, many of those women are heading back to join their husbands and brothers — who were forced to stay put — on the frontlines.
Others are Ukrainians who were living abroad and decided to return to join the makeshift ranks of foreigners who decided to leave their own countries to fight for Ukraine’s freedom.
One woman, a healthcare worker, told the Associated Press that she feels a duty to return to western Ukraine from Poland. “I am a health worker, so the hospitals need help,” Iryna Orel said. “And I will stay until the end.”
Orel, 50, put to rest the idea that war is mens’ work in blunt terms: “Women can fight. Many women are patriotic to defend Ukraine — why not?”
Women have been allowed to fight in combat positions in Ukraine’s army since 2016, according to the Christian Science Monitor. But they were integral to war operations before that, when Russian forces annexed Crimea in 2014.
Since 2019, women have been admitted to military colleges, and they now make up nearly 10% of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Olena Bilozerska, who trained as a military officer, told the news outlet that women fighting alongside men has largely become accepted. “Everyone got used to female fighters on the front line,” she said of the Crimean War. “It’s normal.”
To date, over 3 million people have fled Ukraine since Russian forces invaded on Feb. 24, with more than half of them landing in Poland, according to CNBC.