‘I Am Useless With a Gun’: The Men Who Can’t Leave Ukraine

Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are barred from leaving the country as it fights back against a Russian invasion. VICE World News spoke to young men who have stayed.

Around three million people have fled Ukraine as Russia continues its attack on the country that started three weeks ago. Cities have been flattened, and in recent days, Russian President Vladimir Putin has increased bombardment of major cities like Kyiv, forcing more people every day to cross the border to safety. But most men can’t leave. 


Since the first week of the war, men aged 18-60 have been barred from leaving in an attempt to force the country to defend itself. Although conscription has only been extended to reservists, men could be mobilised if needed. This has meant women and children have been separated from their partners, fathers and brothers as they escape the country, not knowing whether they will see them again. 

VICE World News spoke to the men in the country – some keen to stay, and others who wish they could leave. 

Dmitriy Koloah, 34

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PHOTO: Dmitriy Koloah

The situation in Ukraine is bad. Some cities are under siege, some totally destroyed. Even more-or-less safe western parts of the country are not very safe anymore. People are accustomed to war and have developed coping mechanisms and adapted. 

I am now in the west of the country. It was very hard both emotionally and physically to get here from Kyiv – it took me more than 50 hours. My family is still in central Ukraine and don’t want to move anywhere. It's more or less quiet, but 10km from their house there is a military airport which has already been bombed three times. My parents are scared.

I can’t join the army because of a lack of experience; I am useless with a gun. It would be good to leave the country and be able to do some work to support my family and relatives because everybody has lost their jobs, and because I have no military training I am in the very last mobilisation group. But we have what we have and I am OK with this. This is war and we now live under martial law. Now, I will try to find a remote job as a music composer or sound designer. 


Inside every Ukrainian there is a rebel spirit, the spirit of freedom. We cannot be subjugated. We would rather die than live in captivity. But everyone has their own fight. I am an artist and this is my battleground. 

My cat, Misha, is OK but over the last few days we have started to quarrel. Nerves are getting to everyone, even animals. He wants to go home too.

Vlad Tislenko, 32

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PHOTO: Vlad Tislenko

I’m in Kyiv. Several civilian buildings were bombed recently, but it is relatively safe here compared to the front line. 

I don’t want to leave the country. I am where I want to be. This is my way of protesting the Russian invasion. I speak the Russian language, and I’m originally from Donetsk, so I am a good example that Putin’s claim of liberating Ukraine from neo-Nazis is bullshit.

I have an enormous appreciation for our protectors [the Ukrainian Army]. They are managing to defeat an enemy with a much larger force than our own, but I currently see myself as more beneficial to our nation in a civilian role.

I am trying to keep a relatively consistent daily routine. There is a risk of Kyiv being attacked and disconnected from electricity, water, and other necessary resources. I am focusing on mitigating those risks. Also, I’m helping my friends and neighbours locally. Many older people are left here and need help from younger people like me. 

Most of my family is in Europe now. I’m glad that they are safe, but they are unhappy about their refugee status. I hope Europeans will remain positive towards Ukrainians and continue to help them integrate into their nations. The war and its consequences may last a long time. 


Oleksii Sobolev, 38

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PHOTO: Oleksii Sobolev

Remaining in Ukraine to help is fun and interesting… you can feel how the country is coping and working. Everyone is trying to do something that they weren't doing before the war to help the country, from just keeping businesses alive to doing humanitarian work, or helping the army or getting supplies. It is motivating. Everybody is trying their best to get things done. 

On the first day of the war, my wife and I moved with our two young daughters to my parents’ home with eight relatives in the Kyiv suburbs. We were there for 11 days until tanks came to nearby villages. We decided to get my parents, my wife and kids to my sister’s home in Slovakia. I helped them to drive to the border. 

Leaving them was really sad… you're not sure when you're gonna see them again. That is painful and I became angry. I cried.

I run a state-owned company, and I need to be here. We run auctions for the government to sell government property and land and it has become really important because all economic activity in the country has decreased significantly. 

I would stay [even if I could leave]. A part of why Ukraine is fighting so hard is to fight for freedom. I definitely need to be here, and I can help a lot to help Ukraine win sooner and make my family come back together.