The International Legion. A Pole and an American fight for Ukraine’s freedom


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December 24, 2022

The International Legion. A Pole and an American fight for Ukraine’s freedom

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war
Photo: Daniel Berehulak

After calls by the President of Ukraine, volunteers from abroad have joined the fight against Russia. Among them are Poles.

Not only Ukrainian soldiers are stationed in the dense forest, where the singing of birds mixes with the roar of artillery. One team is preparing positions. They dig deep. This is due to a Colombian who prepared for battle in the jungle.

“His first time, he dug down to the water table. We looked, surprised, then nodded our heads in appreciation,” says 24-year-old Patryk, one of the diggers.

Like everyone else, Patryk has a blue and yellow patch Velcro’d to his sweatshirt, but the baseball cap with a white and red flag reveals his origin. As he explains, he was drawn to the forests in the Kharkiv region, where fierce fighting is taking place, by the desire to defend Ukrainian statehood against the dictatorship that wants to deprive Ukrainians of their rights, freedom and the possibility of self-determination.

“We should defend this at all costs, even if the price is life,” he says. “For me, an attack on Ukraine does not differ much from an attack on Poland.”

Defense of the state, the civilian population, and the suspension of Russia’s further armed expansion – these are the reasons that most often bring foreign volunteers to Ukraine. Apart from Poles, in the unit you can meet people from the United States, Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Israel, Korea, Japan and Australia. Ukraine — like Spain in the past and, recently, Syria — has become a place for which not only its citizens are ready to die.

Not everyone wants to fight

When Russia launched the full-scale offensive on February 24, Patryk was following the news in Warsaw, where he lived. Three days later, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the establishment of an international legion and called on those willing from all over the world to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Ukrainian army in the fight against the invaders. This gave rise to the International Legion of Defence of Ukraine.

Patrick decided that he could not remain indifferent. When the war in Donbas broke out in 2014, he was still a teenager. Then too foreign volunteers joined the Ukrainian ranks — mainly Georgians and Belarusians — but they were few.

Patryk’s name has been changed. He served in the Polish Army, then was an entrepreneur. He does not give an exact profession or real name. According to the applicable law, a Pole who joins a foreign army or armed group without the consent of the Ministry of National Defense may be sentenced to up to five years in prison. Some Polish politicians appealed for changing this provision for volunteers wishing to defend Ukraine, but no decision has been made thus far.

“If the law changes, I will gladly show my face,” admits Patryk.

Despite the potential problems, he had no doubt that he was doing the right thing. A few Poles in his unit did the same. The youngest and the oldest are separated by at least a generation difference. Not all have military experience.

Patryk is surprised by the scant participation of his countrymen in the war against Russia: “from what I have seen, there are more Germans than Poles. It’s strange because I thought more people would feel a bond with the Ukrainians. After all, we border both Ukraine and Russia. Although, of course, I understand that not everyone wants to take part in war,” he adds.

The number of Poles who went to fight in Ukraine is unknown. Neither the Polish nor the Ukrainian side provide official data. Moreover, foreigners fight not only in the international legion — they are also incorporated into various branches of the armed forces of Ukraine. Nor is the total number of foreign volunteers known. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced at the beginning of March that nearly 20,000 people wanted to join the international legion, but it is not known how many of them actually crossed the border.

A rocket attack for starters

After Zelenskyy’s appeal, Patryk stopped working.

“I had to leave a lot of things to come here. I had my projects and a business that I closed. I’ll open it when I get back,” he admits.

Without telling his family, he crossed the border with Ukraine in early March. Only once he arrived did he dare to send them a message that he had gone to fight. Terrified, they begged him to return. He claims that they finally came to terms with his decision.

He packed clothes, food, cigarettes (he doesn’t smoke himself, but it’s always a good currency in times of crisis), a scope, knife, bulletproof vest, tactical belt and medicine: “I didn’t expect to receive anything here, only that they would arm me and immediately send me to the front,” he explains.

However, this is not 2014, when the Ukrainian army did not have any equipment or facilities. Patrick signed a one-year contract and got all of the necessities, including an American M4 carbine, which is rare among Ukrainian soldiers.

He initially ended up at the International Center for Peace and Security Forces in Yavoriv, approx. 20 km from the border with Poland. He was to undergo training here. It is in Yavoriv that NATO instructors have been training Ukrainian soldiers for years.

On the morning of March 13, Russian rockets struck the base. Patrick was awakened by glass falling from the windows. He jumped out of bed immediately. An alarm sounded late, after the explosions. Volunteers and soldiers from the base took refuge in the forest, because it was under attack for some time longer. According to the Ukrainian side, 35 people were killed and 134 were injured.

It was only in the next base that Patryk completed the rest of his several-week-long training that all volunteers with no military experience underwent. Veterans were immediately sent to the front. The first units composed of foreigners already in March took part in, among other engagements, the defense of Kyiv.

After training, the international legion found its way to the vicinity of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine. From the first day of the invasion, the city with a population of 1.5 million became a target of the Russian offensive. Almost immediately, Russian tanks appeared on its outskirts, and fighting broke out in full force. Gradually, however, the Ukrainian army pushed the Russians away from the city, occupying more towns [see TP no. 22 – ed.]. The soldiers of the international legion followed the front, mainly taking positions on the second line of defense and relieving the Ukrainian army.

“We did not take part in pitched battles. We were shelled a couple dozen times,” admits Patryk. Some actions only include mortar operators, Javelin operators, and snipers from his squad.

Places Ryan knew

Among the latter is Ryan, 33, a US citizen. On February 24, he was in the mountains of Georgia and did not have reception, and news did not reach him as a result. Ryan co-owns a mountaineering company. When he connected to the internet a day later, he immediately went to the nearest city, bought tickets for the first available flight and made it to Ukraine. He wanted to help, although he did not know exactly how.

He had previously lived in Ukraine for two and a half years — in Lviv, Kyiv and Dnipro. He was a teacher and volunteer at mountaineering camps for children. He taught them how to climb and hike. He felt close to the country.

He went to Ukraine with the idea that he would go to Kyiv and join the territorial defense.

“I wanted to do it for my Ukrainian friends. For them to be safe and for their lives to return to normal,” he explains.

Meanwhile, Zelenskyy announced the formation of an international legion. The American decided that this was the place for him. He became a sniper because he had practiced long-distance shooting for years. He had not served in an army before. He was a little afraid of being subordinate and following orders. However, he quickly got used to operating during war. So far he has not fired a shot. He goes to a position where he observes the movements of the opponent, not far from the position of the international legion.

The shelling is the most difficult to withstand.

“The artillery is terrible. I am small, it is big and I can die easily. However, I am a climber, and sometimes scary or dangerous things happen in the mountains. In the mountains, I do it for fun, and here at least this fear and danger are in the name of something,” Ryan admits.

More than the hardships of war, he is impressed by how the Ukraine he knew had changed. He had visited Kharkiv in October. It was hard to believe that the recently bustling city was now deserted and dilapidated. He also saw Vovchansk, bordering Russia, which he reached through the dam. Now the dam is blown up and the city is occupied by the Russians.

“I have seen these places, so I can see the contrast, especially when looking at the terrified people fleeing their villages. It increases my motivation to be here,” says Ryan.

Waiting for your moment

Since Patryk came to the base in Yavoriv, the number of volunteers has significantly decreased.

Jan, 28, from Lviv, a company commander with the rank of captain, believes that there were two moments that led to this. The first was the missile attack on Yavoriv. The second — the training itself, some foreigners realized that they could not bear such physical or military drilling.

Patryk adds a third moment. It was several hours of artillery fire, under which his unit found itself while in a village. Shrapnel kept hitting the house in which they were staying.

“It was worse for me than rockets, because it didn’t last a moment, but a few hours,” he admits.

Some time earlier, a volunteer from the Netherlands was killed during Russian shelling. Jan explains that this happened when, after completing its mission, the squad was ordered to return to their positions. The rockets most likely fell on them then.

“Even those who you thought should endure them, because they have combat experience, have served, for example, several missions in Iraq, cannot cope with artillery fire. They couldn’t stand it mentally. You just lie there and wait to see if it hits you or not. Either I’ll die or I won’t. It’s a lottery,” says Patryk.

Therefore, those who remain are the most motivated and willing to fight. They don’t think about a quick exit. Patryk also has no plans to return. Like everyone else, he has a contract signed for a year, but there is a provision in it that for important reasons it can be terminated. He knows from experience that getting out of it is not a problem. He certainly does not want to stay in Ukraine after the war.

“I have a life in Poland, I want to return there. A year is a long time, so maybe the war will end at that time?” He wonders.

Ryan wants to come back to civilian life before winter because there is a lot of work for his company then and he doesn’t want to abandon his colleagues.

Therefore, the only thing that can exhaust the volunteers is boredom. In informal conversations, many of them admit that they would like to finally be at the front, and not wait in reserve. Especially because fierce fights are taking place in that section of it. The foreigners hope that they too will take part in the liberation of the Kharkiv region.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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