Story of a foreign fighter in the war in Ukraine

Story of a foreign fighter in the war in Ukraine

Lviv - For ten days his only companion was silence. The enemy lines were less than a hundred meters away and his voice - if too loud - could easily have crossed no man's land and turned him into a target for Russian soldiers. “I saw them every day and every day they shot at us,” says James, unwittingly sipping a glass of cherry liqueur. He would prefer a beer, like the ones he enjoyed in pubs with friends, in the UK. But for a month the sale of alcohol has been prohibited throughout Ukraine. "You know, I know a bar, here in Lviv, where if you ask for a 'special coffee' they will pass you a bottle of wine under the counter".

We are in the most important city in western Ukraine, where one month from beginning of the Russian invasion, life is almost back to normal: Lviv is full of journalists, volunteers, diplomats, as well as obviously displaced people from the east and the capital. The shops and restaurants are open until ten in the evening, when the curfew is applied. Although no one seems to notice it anymore, the anti-aircraft alarm is now going off on average three times a day.

On March 13, a few tens of kilometers from here, a Russian air attack destroyed the military base of Yavoriv , which had served as a training site for hundreds and hundreds of foreign fighters who joined Ukraine against the invader. "There was my suitcase with all my things, damn it - smiles James -. Now I only have a backpack with a couple of sweatshirts, some T-shirts and pants. I'll have to buy everything back at the shopping center nearby. "

He also passed, from that base, as the first Ukrainian stop for almost all the fighters who came from abroad to lend a hand, and to hold a rifle, for the cause of resistance. And now, after an exhausting mission in the northern suburbs of Kyiv, which he says with excellent results, he is enjoying a moment of relaxation in a city 60 kilometers from Poland that seems to be experiencing a surreal climate, in which he breathes war and normality at the same time. time.

Radicalization online The interventionist vocation of James, 31, born and raised in a modest town on the outskirts of Liverpool, was activated as for many other foreign fighters thanks to indignation. Not even two weeks earlier he was scrolling through the news on his cell phone after a long day of work, lying on the bed, in the dim light, when he saw some social media profiles showing Russian military vehicles on the streets on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital. In one of these, a tank seemed to voluntarily go into an oncoming car by crushing it and passing over it.

How Ukraine is setting up an army of hackers In response to the invasion of Russia and the cyber attacks, Kyiv responds by recruiting cyber experts, collecting cryptocurrency donations and a battle against Moscow's disinformation Read the article Its grudge against Russia was already on fire since February 24, the date on which Vladimir Putin ordered the attack on large scale to the neighboring country - formerly part of the Soviet Union - of 44 million inhabitants. That was the straw that broke the camel's back, and got him into action. “I have participated in other conflicts, in the past, or I have watched them from afar. But never, not even when our army fought the Taliban, had it been so clear to me where the reason was and where the wrong was. Where the good and where the bad ”, he explains sitting in an elegant cafĂ© in the center of Lviv, touching his long red beard and keeping his hands tucked into a yellow sweatshirt.

The dynamics of that accident with the tank are still not totally clear: the armored vehicle, identified by experts as a Strela-10, is supplied to both the Russian and Ukrainian armies. There is no evidence to establish whether this was a Russian-based attack or an accident due to a loss of control by the Ukrainian army.

James that night, with several years of service in Afghanistan already for the British army could no longer sleep a wink. He then opened the website of the Ukrainian embassy in London and sent an email asking to enlist. That's right, without too many frills or bureaucratic steps. They answer him immediately, with a questionnaire.

"I had to specify that I was aware of the risks, that my service would not be paid for, and also explain what kind of experience I had in the field", he says.

From there he starts a whirlwind of phone calls, messages to relatives and friends to inform them of the radical choice ("My parents didn't react very well, he admits") and to his boss, owner of a small company that assembles scaffolding, to announce that the next day will present at work. "He was more than understanding, he even drove me to the airport."

On March 3, just a couple of days after that incident that persuaded him to leave, James is on a train in Poland, on his way to the border with Ukraine. From there he is picked up by the Ukrainian army within the borders of the country at war and taken to Yavoriv, ​​where he finds a large company of volunteers from all over the world waiting for him, but also a packed warehouse. , he says, of weapons from at least 20 different countries: "I understood this from the labels on the cases, but also from the type of weapons they put in our hands. They weren't the best, but they were fine".

In short, it was a true international league, he says, with eyes still shining. “We were coordinated by three Ukrainians who said they could speak English, but instead we understood each other by gestures. But there was a lot of excitement ”. Also because, he explains, “we were all prepared to fight an enemy like Russia. This is what is being taught in professional military training throughout Europe, at least since 2008 ”. With the invasion of Georgia? "Yes. Even if we were all there for different reasons, some to defend democracy, some because he had always hated the Russians".

Life in the trenches The mission is easily described: the garrison of a small village just outside Kyiv of great strategic importance. The team is formed: about twenty foreigners including five Canadians, three Americans, three British and one Mexican. After spending two days settling in, exchanging opinions and advice with his new comrades, the most important journey begins, the one to the capital, by car, while the whole West holds its breath and fears for an imminent encirclement of the metropolis. .

The impact with the trench is very severe, however, he explains. Faced with the seemingly unstoppable Russian advance, the Ukrainians have built a fortified barricade with stacked rubble. Ukrainian soil, the soldiers say, is very easy to dig, sandy and crumbly. But the barrier James spends his first ten days on duty seems more suited to a Mad Max movie than a modern battlefield. In one spot, there is a mannequin dressed in a military kit, a ploy to fool Russian snipers using thermal scopes. “They see him as a living human being,” says James.

“It was like being back in World War I. I spent my days in the mud of melted snow, in tiny spaces. Never felt so much lack of sleep To make our needs in theory we would have had to wait for the construction of a sort of sewer in the trenches, but there was no time and so every time we had to go to a nearby grove, risking the life, ”he says.

James is a single father. He has two children he had when he was not even twenty, who now write to him every day on WhatsApp. “I talk to them every day. I explained to him that I am fighting a horrible, ruthless enemy, and there are people here who suffer. But at a certain point I was left without a signal because the lines had gone, the Russians had shot down a repeater. When the signal came back I was out of battery. For five days my smartphone was out of order and I was more terrified for my family than for myself: they thought I was dead. When I managed to turn it back on I got hundreds of messages, it was great to say I was fine. I felt stupid for making them worry. "

Anonymous claims to have leaked Russian military data online The hacktivist group shared a file listing 118 e-mail accounts and their passwords, which respond to gov.ru and mil.ru domains, traceable to Moscow's institutional systems Read the article Like many foreign and Ukrainian soldiers, James asks that his full name not be published for security reasons. " they are already in the Kremlin database. Days ago, scrolling through Twitter, I saw a post by some paramilitaries with my face in plain sight and a short profile ".

James was in Irpin when an American journalist, Brent Renaud, was killed and two of his colleagues were injured in the suburbs of Kiev. He and his group saw him enter when they were leaving the city: “We told him that the Russians were deliberately hitting the press. Not even an hour later we were told that he had been killed. He was brave. Peace be with his soul ".

We ask him perhaps the most difficult thing to confess:" No secret: yes, I killed a man. A forward observation officer - perhaps the bravest Russian ever seen. He was maybe 50 meters away from us. We saw him with infrared binoculars. I took aim, fired a shot and we all heard the thud. We let them take him away. I was sorry, but this it's my job ".

In fact, that's not the worst memory he has of the war experience, for this soldier with chipped teeth and the strong Scouse accent:" Don't put it in the article, but the Ukrainian ration is terrifying. I think it was a kind of canned meat based on pork and spices. Even stray dogs refused it. Luckily, soldiers would occasionally pop up from the rear and throw chocolate and cigarettes at us. They were happy because I had them. taught to use marc's rocket launchers to English who lay behind the trench, unused ".

Mission accomplished, then? Indeed, the Russian army no longer surrounds Kyiv and the capital has even resumed living in many neighborhoods. “During those ten days we helped block the way for the Russians. We didn't push them back but we didn't let them through, "says James. His unit, unlike others, hasn't suffered a single loss. In confidence, however, he adds that the organization of the Ukrainian army leaves something to be desired." They are a bit of a mess. But the Ukrainians are the bravest, most determined and stubborn people I have ever seen. I am absolutely convinced that they will make it ".

WiredLeaks, how to send us an anonymous report Read the article Boredom daily Now that James doesn't have much to do, satisfied that his unit was the only one not to suffer losses, he spends his days in Lviv at his four-star hotel. ex-trench comrades. In the morning some mysterious military middleman comes to visit and puts money in his hand to buy food or new clothes.

He's not very interested in being a tourist, and most evenings he eats of the Italian pizza and faces scrolling on Tinder: “What do you want me to tell you? He is still active, so why not? " We ask him if he tells the truth in his biography. “I remain vague, saying that I am a volunteer. But I can't resist and in my profile photos I also put those in uniform. I met a girl, she was much more afraid of war than I was, but she was grateful for what she did. She made me tenderness and I didn't give her too much information about my travels. "

he He had never been very patriotic, James, but seeing the British equipment on his trench mates filled him with pride." I'm glad Boris Johnson has decided to support the free world. I didn't vote for Brexit, I never gave a damn. I was living in Thailand at the time. But I have seen the effect on Polish truckers and on the Ukrainians themselves who now have a lot of difficulty working in Great Britain. They hope they will open the doors to the refugees ".

As we speak, a waitress with the mask raised asks us to move to the nearest bunker, because the air raid alarm went off and we did not notice it. Meanwhile it has grown dark outside. “You are all too quiet here. I wouldn't want Lviv to end up like Mariupol ”. The Russians must not be believed, he explains, who have called the campaign ended with the "denazification" of the Donbass.

In fact, the majority of experts agree: Russia cannot continue the campaign at its current intensity for more than a month, he has too many open fronts and will have to take a break and regroup with new troops. The initial plan for regime change in Kyiv, with the installation of a puppet government, has been completely ruined by unexpected resistance and now has only remote chances of success. But the sanctions against Russia do not seem to have the desired effects for now, the Moscow army no longer threatens the Ukrainian capital but has conquered almost all of Donbass; has improved its logistics. The fear is that we could get bogged down in a war of attrition, long and destructive and with great ripple effects. James, however, doesn't seem to care. He already misses Liverpool, he says, but he fully embraces Ukrainian public opinion, which is fiercely opposed to any territorial concession. How long does he still think he's staying? “Until we win this damn war. I have told my children, my friends, the people I meet here ".







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