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‘I’m under no illusions,’ says British soldier in Ukraine, after comrades killed

“I’m not a war tourist or anything like that,” Ajay tells me, from his base near Kyiv where Ukraine’s armed forces have been defending the country’s capital.

“I was quite comfortable back home sitting with my cat,” he says in a strong Belfast accent.

Ajay Spence travelled to the war in Ukraine from Northern Ireland a month ago, having first got in touch with the Ukrainian embassy in Dublin.

Having told them about his previous experience with the British army in Afghanistan and Iraq, he was soon on his way to Poland before crossing into Ukraine.

Seeing the news coverage of the Russian invasion is what spurred Ajay into action.

“It was just too much to watch you know, it’s like asking a firefighter to walk past a burning house and not do anything.”

Ajay was placed in Ukraine’s foreign legion, which is said to have fighters from 50 countries, the largest numbers coming from the UK and the US.

His unit were deployed on front line operations in towns around the capital, Kyiv, that saw some of the heaviest fighting, including Irpin and Bucha. They helped to drive the Russian forces out of areas that had been captured.

Their duties centred around “observation missions, advancing, drawing out fire”, he says.

Witnessed death

“It’s been pretty heavy work at times. It’s not like Iraq, that was a guerrilla warfare situation this is a conventional war situation against mechanised infantry.”

But the threat was real. Not long after he arrived on the front lines, two Georgian fighters in his unit died in front of him.

“They were killed by indirect fire, one bled to death, the other was killed instantly. We carried one of them, trying to save him, while there was heavy shelling around us.”

It was a traumatic experience. So what about the risk to his own life?

“I’m under no illusions about that, I’m willing to accept that. I’m here to do a job which is to help the Ukrainian people. You just think about stuff like that later, and get on with the job in hand.”

Ajay Spence and fellow soldier
Image caption,

Ajay and a fellow international legion fighter

In the early days of the Russian invasion the position of the UK government on British citizens travelling to fight in Ukraine was unclear, but there have since been warnings to people not to travel.

Those like Ajay, who have been placed into the Ukraine’s legion of foreign fighters, are paid the same as locals – 11-15,000 UAH (about £300-400) per month in base pay. There can also be additional pay added on top for those that are deployed to the front during active combat.

Communication, at least, has been manageable for Ajay thanks to the number of English speakers. And the reception from Ukrainians has been warm.

“When you’re out and about people notice you, people come up and shake your hand. I think they need to see things like that because they need to know the world is behind them.

“Ukraine is a lovely country, and to see the destruction and damage, and just the pure hatred that’s been thrown against the people here, it’s hard to watch. I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles so I’ve got a bit more empathy towards stuff like that.”

With Russia’s army having retreated from Kyiv in recent days, Ajay says his unit are being redeployed to a new front line. Their mission – to recapture areas currently under Russian occupation.

Quit Belfast

He surprises me after our interview by sharing a photo of himself dressed in a rather different type of soldier’s outfit.

Holding a sword instead of the automatic rifle now sitting beside him. Ajay explains he had previously worked as an extra in Game of Thrones which was filmed in Northern Ireland.

A rather different battlefield, from the one he is now on, and he says he intends to stay in Ukraine until the war winds down.

“When I left Belfast I got rid of my apartment, so I’ll be here as long as I need to.”

No one knows how long the conflict will last, and there will inevitably be questions about what happens to fighters once they return home to the UK.

But for now the international legion says it is proud of its achievements since forming just over a month ago and is advertising on social media for more people to join up.

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