The foreign soldiers spent “four miserable days” hardly sleeping, under Russian artillery and heavy infantry.
Kevin, a stocky American in his thirties, climbs the charred rubble of an old sauna and flashes the light from his iPhone through the dust.
“Let’s stop here, because this thread is intentionally tied to something and buried here,” he warns. “Many Russians went back to some of these places and mined them, set traps.”
Kevin is one of an elite group of mostly American and British foreign special forces veterans who have enlisted to help the Ukrainian cause. He says that in March the group spent four days at the spa – which they called “the house from hell” – often just 50 meters from Russian troops. It was, he said, the most advanced position held by the Ukrainians in Irpin, a suburb on the outskirts of kyiv, as Russian forces attempted to advance to seize the capital.
The once wealthy suburb is now synonymous with alleged Russian war crimes – a place of pilgrimage for visiting dignitaries who passed through the bomb-scarred streets. Kevin says he and his men were the first witnesses to attacks on civilians here.
Despite a career as a former top US counterterrorism agent serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kevin says it was here in Ukraine that he faced the most intense fighting of his life.
And he says he and his new comrades in arms have implemented many of the same guerrilla tactics that have been used against the US military in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The insurgents are now them.
“Everything is much more decentralized,” he explains. “Small group tactics are definitely a big plus here.”
We do not use Kevin’s full name due to the nature of his work in Ukraine and to protect him from Russian retaliation.
“Being on this side now and listening to their conversations on the radio – and them knowing, okay, they’re out there somewhere, we don’t know where or who they are – there’s definitely an upside to that. “, he says.
“A real combat experience”
Like many military veterans, Kevin says he has felt adrift since leaving the battlefield several years ago. He had a full-time job in the United States, but quit when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed early in the war for experienced foreign fighters. He arrived in western Ukraine, was airlifted to kyiv and found himself on the front lines of the battle for the capital within hours.
He joined the International Legion of Ukraine, launched by the government at the start of the war. The government pays you and your colleagues a modest salary of two to three thousand dollars a month. [entre 1.870 2.810 euros], although they say they spent a lot more than that on hardware. The International Legion even has its own website, informing prospective foreign recruits on everything from how to contact the Ukrainian Embassy to what to bring.
During those first weeks, the government struggled to weed out the suitors and war tourists who stood their ground. As of March 6, more than 20,000 applications had been received, according to the foreign minister.
The number of foreign fighters currently in Ukraine is a state secret, but an International Legion spokesperson told CNN the “symbiosis” means “Ukraine’s chances of victory have increased significantly.”
“The best of the best join the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” Col. Anton Myronovych told CNN. “They are foreigners with real combat experience, they are foreign citizens who know what war is, they know how to handle weapons, they know how to destroy the enemy.”
For the first time in his life, Kevin was defending himself against a better equipped invading enemy. It was he, not the enemy, who had to worry about the airstrikes. There was no master plan, no air support – and there would be no evacuation in the event of a disaster.
“It was like a movie,” he says. “It was crazy from the start. We started getting indirect fire – small arms fire. And I was in a truck, driving down the street.”
“There were tanks and above us there were helicopters. And you could hear the Russian jets flying. And in the open fields, the Russian helicopters were dropping troops. And then you’re like, ‘Wow! ‘ It’s a lot.”
Kevin and his colleagues were the recipients of the artillery fire. During the fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, these foreign soldiers called for airstrikes and artillery bombardments. They never knew what it was like to be on the receiving end.
Kevin says that, faced with the reality of the battle, many outsiders decided to leave. “That’s when they say, ‘Maybe it’s not for me. The first time the gust hits 20 meters is the first time you’re like, ‘Oh shit,'” he said.
Day after day, Kevin and his friends concluded that they too were fed up. Then came the next day, with new orders and new assignments, and they found themselves staying. Later, he said, they found themselves in the sauna and gym complex, where they hid for four days, even as the building slowly disintegrated under Russian shelling.
“We called it the house of horrors because it was literally a nightmare to be there,” he says. “It was a really miserable four days of very little sleep, very heavy artillery, very heavy infantry presence from the Russians. No matter how many people we pulled from their camp, they just kept coming.”
He and the other foreigners were “shocked”, he said. “But the Ukrainian army was…calm, serene, serene. As if to say, ‘It’s normal, don’t worry.’
He is amazed at the efforts of the Ukrainian soldiers.
“They are masters of pitch denial,” he says. “They know every inch of the area. They know the alley we might have waiting. They know how to get there. They know that’s where we can hide. They know which building to go to. And they’ll tell you before you do. go ahead, hey, hey, five houses down, there’s a very nice basement, that’s where you have to go”.
“Everything was on fire”
Kevin walks through what’s left of the building, which has been gutted by fire. In the gym, the dumbbells warped under extreme heat. The rubber in the weight plates has melted.
“It was a chair,” he says, pointing to a metal structure. “We were under such heavy artillery attack that we put this chair here so we could jump out this window if we were in a hurry.”
When a loose corrugated roof sheet blows away in the wind, he jumps.
At one point in the clash, he said, the Russian troops were so close that, lying on the ground in the dark night, they could hear the glass cracking under the enemy’s feet. And yet, he is certain that he made the right decision by coming to Ukraine. “It became increasingly clear to us that this was the right thing to do,” he says. “Everything was on fire. The artillery wouldn’t stop. We had already seen civilians being murdered.”
He agrees that there was a moral ambiguity in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It really comes down to good versus evil,” he says. “You will hear Ukrainians calling Russians ‘Orcs.’ he declares.
“The Russians know exactly what they are doing. They have an education. They have social networks, information,” he says. “I never knew why they were killing women and children. And it wasn’t by accident. It was murder. We found a lot of people at the end of the street who were tied up, shot, thrown on the side of the road, crushed by tanks. Just barbaric. Why?”
Russia has repeatedly denied war crimes allegations and says its forces do not target civilians. Ukraine’s Attorney General Iryna Venediktova is investigating thousands of alleged Russian war crimes cases across the country, and the International Criminal Court’s top war crimes prosecutor has visited Ukraine to investigate.
Kevin says he feels like he’s aged five years in the past three months. He doesn’t know how to explain to his friends back home what he’s going through here. You don’t even know if you want to explain yourself.
But he knows Ukraine “is where I should be” and plans to stay in the country for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve seen this happen many times in history. People always ask me, ‘Oh, this isn’t your fight.’ Or, ‘What are you doing here?’ Yes, but it hasn’t been our fight many times in history. And then it was. It’s not your problem until it’s your problem.