‘Our country, we have to protect it’: Ukrainians who stay behind

Some 1.4 million people have fled Ukraine to escape fighting, but others stayed behind to join local units and fight against Russia’s invasion.

Mirny, Ukraine – At any given time, thousands of cars are lined up along eastern Ukraine’s roads, packed with families trying to reach border crossings hundreds of kilometres away, trying to find refuge.

But there are those who chose to stay put.

Like Anikei, a resident of the village of Mirny near Dnipro and a member of the locally formed units known as Territorial Defence, determined to fight the “treacherous invasion of Ukraine” by Russia.

“Women, children and the elderly are suffering,” he told Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid. “Homes are bombed at night.”

Anikei is a seasoned fighter who first took up arms in 2016 to fight pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east. “We didn’t provoke and we didn’t want this war, they came to us and [we are] ready to answer,” added the balaclava-wearing Anikei, who did not want to give his real name.

The men and women of the Territorial Defence units know the forest in the Dnipro region well. They usually hunt there but now spend most of their time digging trenches, filling sand bags or building bunkers in case Russian troops come their way.

Those unable to fight help in other ways.

At the village school, a woman named Ludmilla is busy cooking some 200 meals.

On the menu is rassolnik, a hearty soup of beef, barley and pickles that will be put in jars and taken to the checkpoints and trenches – where her husband is also on duty.

Oksana, whose son-in-law is on a front line with Ukraine’s regular army, is also pitching in.

“My daughter is keeping busy like me, just not to go crazy. It’s our country, we have to protect it, we won’t leave but it’s hard,” she says. “What can I do, we are all in the same boat. And what can I say about the soldiers who came to our country to kill us and pretend they didn’t know.

“They have been here for more than 7 days and they still don’t know.”

Back in the forest, members of the Territorial Defence unit brace for a cold night ahead.

The Russian forces are still far away, but this has largely been a war of missiles and rockets that are devastating cities and villages.

For now, the only safe way for most Ukrainians is to go west – and get as far as possible from the fighting. Eleven days into the war, nearly 1.4 million people have fled Ukraine

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