PRZEMYSL, Poland -- While over 3 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia's invasion, a small but growing number are heading in the other direction. At first they were foreign volunteers, Ukrainian expatriate men returning to fight and people delivering aid. Now, increasingly, women are also going back.
Motivated by a desire to help loved ones in trouble, or to contribute to the defense and survival of their country and compatriots in ways large and small, these women are braving the bombs that have increasingly pounded Ukraine since Russian forces invaded on Feb. 24.
Many are not refugees but Ukrainian women who had been living and working abroad. Others had already chosen to stay put in their country but were forced to cross the border to shop for needed goods as supplies dried up under the onslaught at home.
“I will go back and help. I am a health worker, so the hospitals need help," said Iryna Orel, 50, lugging her luggage as she boarded a train from Przemysl, Poland, to Lviv in western Ukraine. "And I will stay until the end.”
With Ukraine’s government ordering men to stay and fight, the vast majority of people fleeing Ukraine have been women, children and the elderly. For those who can't or won't leave, the perils they face are many, and images such as those of a mortally wounded pregnant woman rushed on a stretcher from a maternity hospital in Mariupol testify to the dangers.
Still, some women have chosen to head back toward the gunfire and bloodshed to contribute in whatever way they can.
Reached by phone after arriving in the port city of Odesa, which has so far remained under Ukrainian government control, Orel said she was frightened at first by the air raid sirens and sounds of explosives, but “sitting and shaking with fear does not help.”
She envisions her role as providing medical care, but other women might choose to help defend the country militarily, she said.
“Women can fight,” she said. “Many women are patriotic to defend Ukraine — why not?"
Women rushing into war zones or taking part in war efforts is nothing new. Female soldiers were a visible part of the Ukrainian military before the war, including in combat roles. Some women, like many men, are taking up arms for the first time. Plus, gender equality in the workplace as well as the military has traditionally been more common in post-Soviet states like Ukraine than many other parts of the world.
Since the invasion, Polish border guards have tallied over 195,000 crossings of people from Poland to Ukraine, more than four in five Ukrainian nationals, spokeswoman Anna Michalska said Tuesday. That includes people who come and return — to buy food and other supplies in Poland and go back, or who bring relatives across and return. So some people are counted a number of times.
Poland has taken in more than 1.8 million refugees — over 60% of the total exodus of 3 million people since the invasion, according to U.N. agencies. The U.N. refugee agency had initially predicted some 4 million refugees would flee — a figure that may soon be eclipsed.
“What to say, really? Three million refugees in the space of just over two weeks. This is frightening and it doesn’t stop,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said in an interview in the Afghan capital, Kabul, where he was visiting to assure Afghans that despite the horrors of the war raging in Ukraine they have not been forgotten.
“Everybody’s asking how many refugees will come out of Ukraine," he said. "The answer is very simple: I simply don’t know.”
Aid deliveries are making their way into Ukraine, as well as reported flows of weapons and fighters ready to use them. The International Committee for the Red Cross said 200 tons of medical supplies and relief items had arrived in the country, including water, mattresses, blankets, food, first aid kits, plastic tarps and more than 5,000 body bags.
Less noticed has been the entry or cross-border shuttling of women who are either trying to bring help or stay in the country to continue their lives as best they can.
“I am returning to Ukraine to help people evacuate," said Maria Khalica, who lives in Italy and was headed to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. “I am in a more stable state now than my friends, who are under rocket attacks and bombs.”
"I know that Kyiv is also going to be occupied and we are taking the last chance to help other people” there, Khalica said, adding that she believes Russian forces will eventually seize the capital.
Some women are returning to join their families and others to help in any way they can, either as health workers or with the army.
“We plan to return to the family and we will decide with the family what to do next” said Olga Simanova, 56, who traveled from Germany to return to her family's hometown of Vinnycja.
Meanwhile, the number of those fleeing continues to grow.
James Elder, a spokesman for UNICEF, said some 1.4 million children have fled Ukraine since the invasion — or about 73,000 per day on average.
That, he said, amounts to "55 every minute. So we are almost — since war started on the 24th of February — (at a point where) a child has become a refugee out of Ukraine every second.”
They have fled to countries across Eastern Europe: Romania has taken in more than 450,000, Moldova more than 337,000, Hungary over 263,000 and Slovakia some 213,000, according to the latest UNHCR tally on Tuesday. The Polish capital of Warsaw, alone, has taken in about 300,000 refugees, about a 15% increase of its population of more than 1.7 million.
“These are enormous numbers,” said Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu, who signed a 10 million-euro ($11 million) agreement with Italy on Tuesday to help with the refugee crisis. “The number of refugees represents 4% of the whole Moldovan population.”
Keaten reported from Geneva. Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland; Vira Loy in Przemysl, Poland; Helena Alves in Chisinau, Moldova; and Kathy Gannon in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.