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Thousands rush to enlist in Ukraine's army to fight the Russian invasion

Volodymyr Omelyan says he believes that defending the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, is important. It is a city he feels like he belongs to.
Volodymyr Omelyan
Volodymyr Omelyan says he believes that defending the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, is important. It is a city he feels like he belongs to.

On Thursday, Volodymyr Omelyan and his family awoke to the sound of missile blasts nearby.

By Friday, he had said goodbye to his wife and children and had enlisted to fight.

"I'm not a natural-born killer, and I never dreamed to be that type of guy," said Omelyan, who served as Ukraine's infrastructure minister from 2016 to 2019. But he says he sees enlisting as a way to protect his family. And he's confident in the war's outcome.

"We will win," he told NPR.

Omelyan is one of the thousands of Ukrainians who are choosing to join the fight against Russia, despite grave risk.

"Hundreds of men of all ages gathered in front of the town hall in the central Ukrainian town of Mankivka to join the army," NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reported from central Ukraine.

"Ukraine will not kneel," one prospective enlistee told Beardsley. "We will push these bastards from our land."

That attitude is in line with Ukraine's leaders, who are calling on regular citizens to take up arms against Russia after Thursday's invasion.

Still, many Ukrainians are fleeing cities, looking for safety from artillery and missile barrages. One of the biggest outflows has come from Kyiv, the capital, which is threatened by Russian troops.

As the invasion escalates, thousands of civilians have started heading to Ukraine's western borders hoping to flee the country. More than 50,000 Ukrainians have fled their country since the start of Russia's invasion, according to Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

The majority of refugees leaving Ukraine crossed into Poland or Moldova, said Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, with many more expected to follow in the coming days.
Wojtek Radwanski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
The majority of refugees leaving Ukraine crossed into Poland or Moldova, said Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, with many more expected to follow in the coming days.

However, Ukraine's border agency says one group of people won't be allowed to leave: Ukrainian male citizens who are 18 to 60 years old. The policy will be in effect as long as the country remains under martial law, Ukraine's border guard service said in a statement.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has drafted reservists and encouraged citizens to resist the Russians, but he has not imposed a general draft thus far.

Vitaliy, a 22-year-old college student in the southern city of Kherson, said he was willing to fight if called upon.

Vitaliy Shutov has so far been taking cover during the invasion.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Vitaliy has so far been taking cover during the invasion.

"If I have to, then I will. Of course, I mean, I've never held in my arms a gun, for example. I don't know how to shoot it. I don't know how to use it. But if I get drafted, then I'll be OK with it. And I'll go fight," he said.

"I just honestly cannot believe that this is happening in 2022. I mean, feels like 1939, like in Nazi Germany when they invaded Poland."

In another bid to rally military support and repel Russian forces, Zelenskyy invited men from around Europe to come fight, stressing that the war with Russia involves the entire continent.

"If you have combat experience in Europe and do not want to look at the indecision of politicians, you can arrive in our state and protect Europe with us where it is now urgently required," Zelenskyy said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.