The civil war in Ukraine, increasingly bloody and forgotten, has a frontline unit faithful to Kiev that enlists European volunteers from Italy, Sweden, Finland, the Baltic countries and France. The Azov battalion, accused of Nazi sympathies, is fighting with 250 men on the eastern front in Ukraine against pro-Russian rebels. A dozen foreign volunteers, claiming to be unpaid, have already sworn the oath of loyalty. Another 24 are on their way. On Facebook, Gaston Besson, a French veteran of the war in Croatia, has launched a recruitment appeal from Kiev. For days we followed the Azov battalion from its base in Berdyansk in the east of the country, which is under the control of the Interior Ministry.
Among the European volunteers, the Italian Francesco F. left his life as a business executive to fight beside the Ukrainians against pro-Russian rebels. The Swedish sniper, Mikael Skillt was one of the few we spoke to face to face. The separatists have put a reward on his head. And among them there is also a Russian who wants to overthrow the Moscow government. Because of the colour of their uniforms and their origins on the extreme Ukrainian and European right they are known as “the black men”.
An Italian Volunteer
A big man weighed down by his bulletproof vest, wearing a black balaclava over his face and dark glasses, he bends on one knee to get better aim with his Kalashnikov and pulls the trigger. Then he gets up and slots in a new magazine to go on shooting. Francesco, 53, is the Italian of the Azov battalion. Everyone here calls him “don” or “uncle”.
“On the barricades of Maidan Square I unexpectedly found myself fascinated by a revolution of the people,” says the volunteer in the black beret. “And by the young squads of Pravi Sektor (a formation of the Ukrainian nationalist far right A/N.) with medieval shields together with the babucke who brought tea at 17 degrees below zero or the young women busy filling empty bottles with petrol to turn them into Molotov cocktails.”
In the seventies, in Pisa, he had previously been a militant with Avanguardia Nazionale and then in the Fronte della Gioventù, the youth organisation of the Movimento Sociale Italiano. A law graduate, he was a business executive before his conversion on the road to Kiev.
After the Russian annexation of Crimea and the pro-Moscow rebellion in eastern Ukraine, Francesco decided to enlist and fight in the “International Legion” then being formed. “At the moment of danger, everything clicked,” he explains in the base of the” black men”. “As we say in Italy, la commedia è finita. It wasn’t a game any more. What could I do? Go back home and leave my companions on the barricades of Maidan?”
The baptism of fire arrived on 13th June with the battle of Mariupol, the coastal city on the sea of Azov conquered by the rebels: “We went ahead. We took an anti-aircraft gun, zeroed the sights and pulverised the barricades of the pro-Russians.” A Ukrainian friend with the battle name Legionary was wounded. The young Ukrainians in the unit, including some Dynamo Kiev ultras, cherish the myth of the Roman Empire and Europe of the Crusades. On the chest and biceps of the “black men” tattoos of runes and Celtic crosses abound. On the rare occasions when they leave the base off duty, they wear plain clothes, go in pairs and take their weapons in a gym bag.
“We’re volunteers. They don’t even pay for our cigarettes,” stresses the Italian on the Eastern front. “I’ve spent a lifetime dreaming of an experience like this. We want a united Ukraine, but independent of Russia, NATO or the fake values of the European Union.”
“I’m not a mercenary or a secret agent. I don’t hide. I call myself a revolutionary, an idealist who’s gone through two wars and three insurrections in Croatia, Bosnia, Burma, Laos and Suriname.” The speaker is Gaston Besson, 46 years of age and a front-line veteran in different latitudes. Green eyes and white hair, I meet him in Maidan Square, among the remains of the barricades. Born in Mexico to French parents, as a young man he left school to seek adventure as a gold digger in Colombia. His mother, who makes wine in Burgundy, told him: either work in the family business or enlist. Besson chose five years with the paratroopers and special forces. Then Paris sent him unofficially to Southeast Asia, where he received his baptism of fire. In Croatia in the war against the Serbs he was wounded three times. Besson doesn’t care for the term, but he is the recruiter of the European volunteers fighting against the pro-Russian rebels.
“Many come from countries in northern Europe like Sweden, Finland, Norway. We also get applications from Italy,” he reveals. “The children of the Croats who fought in the nineties want to come and play their part.”
At the base of the Azov battalion in Berdyansk we meet the incredible “Mike” with a goatee and blond Viking hair. A former sniper in the Swedish army, he joined up as a sniper in Ukraine, after seeing images of the bloody clashes in Maidan. The pro-Russians have put a price of 5,000 euros on his head, big money in these parts. He shrugs: “I’m not afraid of them. If they want they can come and get me.”
Another member of the international legion is Muran, a young Russian who wants to break down the system in Moscow. “Rather than let them take me alive I’d blow myself up with a grenade,” swears the masked boy from the Ural mountains.
The French veteran Besson tells us: “Every day I receive dozens of emails from people who want to join up, but I turn down 75% . Those who want to join us have to pay the plane fare with their own money. And then pass basic training in Kiev before being sent to the front line. We don’t want fanatics, people with itchy trigger fingers, drug addicts or drunkards. We need idealists without pay, not mercenaries who fight for wages.” In Croatia, during the 1991 war of independence, he commanded 500 men from France, England, Germany, Ireland, Italy. During the fierce fighting around Vukovar, the Croatian Stalingrad, he was ordered to evacuate civilians from a village threatened by the Serbian advance. When his men were leaving, Besson heard a child crying. “I searched desperately for her while my men yelled at me to get moving. In the end I found her hiding terrified and took her to safety.” She was 6 years old. In 2007 Besson returned to Croatia, to the places where he’d fought. In a bar he met Ivana, a lot younger than him, who became his wife. Her parents said she had been rescued by a foreigner in the war. “It was only later that we realized the truth,” says Besson. “Ivana was the little girl crying in the rubble near Vukovar.”