‘Death is a real possibility,’ Canadian says of life in Ukrainian Defense Legion – Canada News
Photo: Associated Press/Emilio Morenatti)
Volodymyr Bondar, 61, cries next to the grave of his son Oleksandr, 32, after burying him on Saturday at the Bucha cemetery on the outskirts of kyiv, Ukraine.
The day before Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border, Igor Volzhanin met a friend in a cafe in central kyiv.
“We stayed there until about midnight, just talking,” the Canadian recalled in an interview from Ukraine. I don’t think any of us really expected that to happen the next morning.”
On February 25, Volzhanin’s vacation in Ukraine was to continue with a Louis CK comedy show, and the next day he was to board a plane for France for a ski trip. But his plans quickly changed.
Russian forces began their assault on February 24. A few days later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a call that was heard around the world when he asked people around the world to help his country fight Russia.
Volzhanin has no military experience, but he still enrolled in the so-called International Defense Legion of Ukraine. He said he was the second of an estimated 20,000 people from 52 countries who have since volunteered to fight.
“I felt it was the right thing to do,” he said. “When the war started, there was an option to leave the country. There was a car waiting for me, basically. And I felt…that I was born in Ukraine. So that’s my house in a way, and I felt like I wanted to defend it.”
The Canadians make up one of the largest groups of volunteers in the international legion, alongside those from the United States and Britain, according to a spokesperson. The organization is growing and seeking more members with combat experience, even as the Canadian government and other Western powers warn their citizens not to fight in Ukraine.
But it’s not just the experience the Legion is looking for, Volzhanin said. It is also motivation.
“You are the underdog, you get shelled and the war is much more intense,” he said. “Death is a real possibility here.”
Volzhanin, a 34-year-old former tech entrepreneur who grew up in Mississauga, Ont., was dressed in a camouflage t-shirt on a recent Saturday, and around 7 a.m. local time he already had hours into his day. . When outside, he said he was wearing around 12 kilograms of body armor, which he described as “fairly light”.
He is involved in the assessment of legion candidates, logistics and other duties as required, he said.
He compared the Legion to a “start-up” – in a “positive sense” – in which he started at ground level to make things work.
If he applied to join the legion now, he would not be accepted given his lack of military experience, he added.
Former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj is among a group of volunteers who have offered to help the Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa contact and vet Canadians willing to respond to Zelenskyy’s call to arms.
Wrzesnewskyj said about 1,500 Canadians have applied to join the international legion. But while interviews with potential candidates began about a week ago after a temporary suspension, Wrzesnewskyj said none had yet been deployed.
“They’re just careful to make sure they have the right people,” he said. “It has been repeatedly emphasized that these have to be people who really have combat experience, and that a proper interview and vetting process takes place.”
The majority of Canadians who applied do not have combat experience and will not be accepted, Wrzesnewskyj added.
Volzhanin said he was “extremely” nervous when he first signed up.
“I was scared because I’ve never served in the military,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect at that time in February. There were so many images and stories of people getting the gun and being sent to the front lines. I didn’t know what to expect. wait.”
Now that it’s been about six weeks since he enlisted, he understands that “no one in the military is interested in sending untrained soldiers to the front lines”, and he’s much calmer and more at ease.
Some Canadians have decided to bypass the official application process and travel to Ukraine alone to fight. Wrzesnewskyj said there had been previous reports of Canadians injured or killed in action.
“None of these turned out, as far as I know, to be correct,” he said. “And I hope that will continue to be the case. But (for) those who will eventually head out, it’s a real possibility.
Exactly when the Canadians will start deploying remains a mystery, but Wrzesnewskyj said volunteers are still needed even if the conflict turns from an all-out invasion of Ukraine to a war over territory east and south of the country.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to requests for comment.
The legion has drawn veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, the Balkan Wars and people who fought drug cartels in South America, Volzhanin said. Unlike those conflicts, those in Ukraine cannot rely on air superiority and other advantages.
Those who join the legion must sign a contract stating that they will stay until martial law is lifted. But there were a few whose circumstances changed and were allowed to leave, Volzhanin said.
“No one keeps them in the legion against their will or desire.”
But what he is telling people is that Ukraine is at war and it is a country with very few resources to spare for those who suddenly change their minds.
“So if you’re already kind of thinking ‘well, maybe I’ll do this for a limited period of time’, think about the resources the country will put into you and whether or not you’ll be able to contribute back at least the same or more,” he said.
“And if you know you’re coming for a week or two, then it’s not worth it.”
The conflict caused him to put things into perspective and Volzhanin said he wondered how it would affect him in the future.
On the morning of the invasion, he said he was in a grocery store where he saw a few people wearing designer clothes and carrying designer accessories. Since that moment, he said he had wondered if he could pick up the threads of that old life and get back to the way things were.
“I just remember thinking about how meaningless they had become. Not just irrelevant, but how meaningless these things had become in the span of eight hours,” Volzhanin said.
“And that’s true of a lot of things in the world. I watch the news and people’s lives and I think well, but it’s not war. It’s not death.”
The thing that surprised him the most, Volzhanin said, was how quickly the onslaught began.
“It makes you realize how thin the line is between normalcy and war,” he said.
“The night before you could just walk down the street and there were people, there were cafes, bars, all open, people having fun, and literally eight hours later you could find yourself in the war zone. There is something that you thought was stable, something that has been built up over the years, could just be completely destroyed. In an instant.