- By Harriet Orrell
- BBC World Service
“Our current opposition has a female face,” Ukraine’s first lady wrote on her Instagram account.
Olena Zelenska, wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, shared striking images highlighting women’s efforts following the Russian invasion.
And it’s not just Zelenska who is posting pictures flooding social media of women holding weapons and wearing military uniforms ready to fight in the war that has ravaged Ukraine since the end of February.
Families have been divided as millions, mostly women and children, flee to the west in safety, while husbands and fathers remain to defend cities attacked by the Russians.
But many women also fell behind, including Zelenska, despite the extreme risk to their lives.
Here are the stories of five women on the front lines of the war.
Kira Rudik – “It’s scary, but I’m angry”
“I had not touched a gun before the war started,” said MP Kira Rudik. “It just was not necessary.
“But when the invasion started and there was an opportunity to get a gun, I was so shocked that I decided to take it.
“She was heavy and smelled of metal and oil.”
Rudik has assembled a resistance unit in Kiev, and they are training to defend the Ukrainian capital.
She keeps her whereabouts secret as intelligence services have warned her that she is on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “target list”.
Despite this, she continues her high-profile job as leader of the Voice party in the Ukrainian parliament while patrolling her neighborhood with her unit.
A picture of Rudik carrying her gun quickly went viral on the net, and she says it caused a wave of other women to follow her and take up arms.
“I’ve gotten so many messages from women telling me they’re fighting,” she told the BBC.
“We have no illusions about what this war will be like, but we know we must all fight to protect our dignity, our bodies, our children.
“It’s scary, but I’m angry too, and that’s probably the best mood I can have to fight for my country.”
Of the 44 million people living in Ukraine, 23 million are women, according to the World Bank, and the country has one of the highest numbers of women serving in its armed forces.
Ukraine’s military says 15.6% of its soldiers are women – a figure that has more than doubled since 2014.
That number could now be even higher after a statement in December urging all women between the ages of 18 and 60 in good physical shape to enlist in potential military service.
Those who are called or choose to stay can be in considerable personal danger.
It is unclear how many people have died in the fighting since the Russians invaded, but Ukrainian authorities say more than a thousand civilians have been killed since the February 24 invasion.
It is not possible to verify this figure, but the UN reported that per. By March 8, 516 civilians had been killed.
In addition, thousands of combatants on both sides are believed to have lost their lives as reports of war victims continue to fill the world’s news reports, and they are likely to be far more than the wounded.
President Zelensky said 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers died in the first two weeks of the war.
Many Ukrainians close to the fighting are now living underground, in basements and metro stations, to protect themselves from missiles and airstrikes hitting their cities.
The bombings do not discriminate either. Every day, new images show that civilians’ homes have been destroyed, hospitals razed and humanitarian corridors ignored.
This is the reality for those who choose to remain in Ukraine’s war zone.
Marharyta Rivachenko – “I had nowhere to go”
In addition to the politicians, ordinary women also volunteered for the war effort.
A few days before the start of the invasion, Marharyta Rivachenko celebrated her 25th birthday in Budapest, Hungary, with friends.
Today, she learned to sleep to the sound of air raid sirens in the shelters as her city is bombarded by Russian forces.
“When the war started, my family was in Kharkiv and I was alone in Kiev. I had nowhere to go,” the PR official told the BBC.
“I did not want to evacuate, I wanted to do something, so I decided to join the territorial defense.”
Rivachenko took first aid courses to become a nurse in his battalion and is now volunteering as a nurse.
“I’m very scared,” she says. “I love my life and I want to live, but my life depends on this war, so I have to do something to help end it.”
Yustyna Dusan – “My priority is to survive”
Not everyone can join Home Guard units, because there are already so many volunteers, and not everyone has enough experience to be safe.
IT recruitment consultant Yustyna Dusan is doing everything she can to help her country.
“I’m in the reserves now and ready to fight,” she said. “I was evacuated to Lviv, because without a weapon or a car to help, I was not effective in Kiev.
“So I am volunteering in a safe area so far to help organize the return of equipment and humanitarian aid to the front line.”
Before the war, Dusan was an animal rights activist. But she says she no longer has the emotional capacity to worry about animals.
“It’s a disaster that animals are left in cities to die,” she said. “But my priority is to survive, to be able to help our armed forces, which will remain standing until the end.”
“Our children are dying and they want to kill all Ukrainians and we feel so alone in this situation.
“I just do not want to be killed.”
Learn more about the Ukrainian crisis
Olena Biletskyi – “I want my daughter to be born in a free Ukraine”
Former lawyer Olena Biletsky’s home in Kiev has become the de facto headquarters of Ukraine’s Women’s Guard.
She is six months pregnant and has decided to stay in the capital with her husband and two daughters aged 11 and 16 to help defend the city.
“We organize women in the resistance movement across the country,” she explains.
“It was a family decision to stay and fight, because we do not want to live under occupation.
“It’s a question between slavery and freedom, and that’s the feeling of women all over the country. So we’ll stay in Kiev for as long as we can.”
She and her husband Oleksandr coordinated the physically and mentally demanding work of preparing civilians for war.
Their efforts include training in making Molotov cocktails, using assault rifles and posting information in 33 languages on their website.
Biletsky’s organization is also working to cut off ultraviolet marks, which she says were made by Russian forces to serve as targets for missiles and paratroopers – including one that her family found in their own backyard.
“The first few days, the fear and anxiety was overwhelming,” she says. “But now there is no more fear, only the desire to defeat the enemy.”
“I did not want to run away, and I did not intend to.
“I do not know if we will survive, but I want to live and dream of having my third daughter in a free and independent Ukraine.”
Yaryna Arieva – “I’m not afraid of me”
The morning Putin decided to invade Ukraine, Yaryna Arieva had only one thing on her mind: to get married.
She lived apart from her new husband, Svyatoslav Fursin, and the couple wanted to stay together throughout the conflict.
The newlyweds then joined the Home Defense to help defend Kiev.
“I will do everything I can to protect my country and my city,” she said.
“My property is here, my parents are here, my cat is here. Everything I love is here, so I can not leave Kiev and I will fight if I have to.”
Arieva is a deputy in the Kiev city council, which means she received a gun and a bulletproof vest. She has joined Territory Defense Base with her husband, but she is not yet experienced enough to participate in combat missions.
Instead, she waits for days, praying, smoking and working, waiting for news from her husband, who is struggling in the front line.
“Before the war, I had a lot of fears. I was afraid of dogs, of the darkness,” says the 21-year-old young woman.
“But now the only fear I have is losing my husband – I’m not afraid of myself.
A dangerous job
Volunteers die in the front line, including many women.
On February 24, the first day Russian tanks entered Ukraine, Iryna Tsvila, 52, a veteran and mother of five, was killed in Kiev.
She had volunteered to defend the city along with her husband Dmytro, who would also have died the same day.
One week later, a car carrying people delivering food to animal shelters near Kiev came under fire, killing Anastasiia Yalanskaya, 26, and two others.
The dogs had been without food for three days and she reportedly refused to evacuate so she could help them.
Another young volunteer, Valeriia “Lera” Matsetska, was shot and killed by a Russian tank as she went to collect medicine for her mother, according to her humanitarian organization, USAID.
She had just celebrated her 32nd birthday.