“The first time you cry. Now I am like a stone”. Four months on the front line of the war in Ukraine curten. This was transmitted by a member of the International Legion who arrived as a volunteer at the Polish border and who, despite having no military experience and being over 50 years old, ended up wearing the uniform and deployed on the country’s northeast front. Out of sheer personal commitment, he decided to take the leap from delivering humanitarian aid to fighting the Russians. However, he acknowledges that the casualties in his battalion, in which there are Spaniards, Colombians, Peruvians, French or British, are being numerous. He speaks of “many deaths”, but he does not repent or back down. He is adamant about the need for him to return to the front the day after this match, which takes place on the last of his only three days off in a month.
His scope of work has always been the Kharkov regions —where he fought during the counteroffensive carried out in September—, Donetsk and Lugansk, the two regions that make up what is known as Donbas. “Always from Liman to the north,” he specified, referring to what was one of the Russian strongholds that fell into the hands of local troops in those weeks. He also tells that he participated in the liberation of towns like Kupiansk. But the losses suffered in his group mean that both he and his colleagues are now in the shadow of the Krakers, a well-known body of the Ukrainian special forces.
This man, who has left behind a hospitality business, a wife and a teenage daughter, is convinced that if President Vladimir Putin has his way, he will go after other countries. That is the reason that he uses for his enlistment. “If these people here lose the war, the motherfucker Putin’s will go after Poland and other countries”, argues this fighter from a Central European country, who prefers to hide more precise details about his identity. “I earn more at home than here. Also, with less stress, less cold, less danger… but the Americans do it for money”, he comments, referring to his Latin American colleagues. “Some are people who know and have experience and here they get 3,000 or 4,000 dollars a month.”
“Each town costs a lot of blood,” he laments, referring to the companions he has left behind along the way and for whom he sheds fewer and fewer tears. Artillery fire or Russian Grad and Kalibr missiles are wreaking havoc, he claims. There are also occasions when they have to advance their positions to try to push back the enemy, who is waiting for them stationed in a wooded area where they are received with all kinds of fire. The Ukrainian Army is trying these weeks to gain ground in the Lugansk region, which until recently was almost entirely in the hands of the invading troops. Already in the rear, the legionnaire assures that he has gotten used to resting at night, even though the detonations sound in the background. Aware of his lack of experience and that he does not have excessive firearms skills, from the beginning he clung to the AK47 rifle, the Kalashnikov of a lifetime, which “is easy to use and clean.”
It’s very hard “when the group leaves and you stay on duty and someone doesn’t come back from the mission. The first time you cry. Now I’m like a stone.” He regrets how, a few days ago, a 20-year-old boy lost his leg in his first 10 minutes of mission, just getting out of the vehicle. Despite everything, what hurts him the most is seeing neglected children and women below zero. At that moment he remembers again the months that he was a volunteer distributing humanitarian aid.
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Surprised, he also recalls the day they arrested about twenty Russian soldiers from the Buryatia republic, a very poor area on the borders of Russia, north of Mongolia. It is about an ethnic minority that the Kremlin has used in a special way to swell its troops in the invasion of Ukraine. The member of the International Legion recounts that they were detained while they were asleep and did not even have their weapons ready to react. On the way to the base, “they saw a town with 30 houses and some asphalt and that was already a city for them. `These houses have a lot of money,’ he says one of the prisoners commented.
In the International Legion there are enlisted thousands of people from more than fifty countries, including Spain. They sign a contract and have a salary of about 120,000 grivnas a month (about 3,130 euros), details the interviewee. His direct boss is also a foreigner, although the highest decisions come from local commanders. The status of the members of the International Legion is different, for example, from that of other foreigners who arrive in Ukraine as military instructors, train members of the Army in bases and camps without going to the front and have to leave the country after 90 days. To re-enter they must apply for the visa again, according to an American with experience in Panama and Afghanistan.
The controversy also surrounds the International Legion, according to an investigation published last August by the newspaper Kyiv Independent. “Some of the unit’s commanders are implicated in the theft of weapons and assets, sexual harassment, assault and sending unprepared soldiers on reckless missions,” says the report, published after obtaining a 78-page complaint report sent to the kyiv authorities as well as a dozen interviews with active members or those who had resigned due to these irregularities. The interviewee at no time refers to abuse of this type, although he acknowledges that his life is not a bed of roses and that his bosses are just as demanding with him as with those who are 30 years younger. Of course, he affirms that they are well equipped to face the low temperatures that are already shaking the country.
The authorities have never offered details of the number of members of this body, the places where they are deployed or their casualties. In June, Damien Magrou, who was then his spokesman, reported that they had troops from 55 countries on all continents. The movement has its foundations in the existing number of volunteers from different countries to support the Ukrainian forces after the uprising of pro-Russian separatists against kyiv in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Throughout these eight years, some groups have gained notoriety, such as those commanded by Georgians, Chechens or Belarusians. In the early stages of the invasion, kyiv even had to put the brakes on recruitment, as there were too many volunteers and there was a lack of training and weapons.
Despite everything, and aware that they could need their help, President Volodimir Zelenski eliminated the visa requirement for all foreigners who wanted to enter Ukraine to join the International Legion on March 1, except for those who come from of States considered aggressors. The temporary elimination of this requirement will be maintained as long as Martial Law remains in force, which, in turn, prevents Ukrainians between the ages of 18 and 65 from leaving the country, with some exceptions. That Martial Law has just been extended 90 days, so it will be maintained, at least, until February 19, 2023, five days before one year after the Russian invasion. Like them, the contract signed by the soldiers of the International Legion prevents them from leaving through the Ukrainian borders.
Also among the invading ranks fighting Ukraine in this war are foreign militiamen. The last case that came to light was that of a Colombian who arrived from Spain and who died last month in Donbas. It was Alexis Castillo, 24, whom President Gustavo Petro fired from his Twitter like this: “A young man who wanted to be a revolutionary has died. And the revolution is peace”.
Late in the interview in Kharkiv, carried out last Tuesday, the alarms sound and several distant detonations are heard. There has just been an attack—another one—on a power station. The second city of Ukraine is left in the dark, but the soldier does not flinch and continues to give testimony in the dark. “This is not the Play Station, if you get hurt you keep playing the game”, he settles while he points to the patch attached to his jacket that reads: “Fuck orcs” (fuck you, orcs), the insult with which the Ukrainians refer to the Russian military.
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