Shyrokyne, Ukraine – Separatist and pro-Ukrainian forces have clashed in Shyrokyne since September, as this once quiet seaside village became one of the most hotly contested sections of the front line.
Houses have been destroyed by artillery fire and the city is a mess of broken glass and twisted metal. Debris litters the streets – the broken reminders of a civilian world that once existed in this seaside town.
But it is here, amid the ruin and rubble of war, that the squad of European fighters, fighting under the aegis of the Azov regiment, is basing its combat operations.
While the group of about a dozen Europeans (their number varies) fighting in eastern Ukraine are not directly connected with NATO or Western militaries, their presence proves that Russians are not the only foreigners fighting here.
In fact, the Azov regiment counts among its ranks former soldiers from almost 20 different countries who have come to fight against Russian and separatists forces.
Unlike most of the men who serve alongside them, these European fighters have no direct relationship with the place in which they fight.
They are volunteers who came to serve with the pro-Ukrainian paramilitary group, the Azov regiment, against separatist and Russian forces in the east of the country, and who are paid the standard of about $184 a month, provided to the rest of the soldiers in the regiment.
But war is personal as much as it is political, and these men have been drawn here for very individual reasons.
For many, this is a political fight, a fight against Russia to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. For these ex-soldiers fighting here is a chance to propagate their personal politics through violence.
Harley, a 42-year-old Frenchman who served in his country’s navy, then later in the private security industry, left his wife and two children to come fight in eastern Ukraine.
“I hate Russia,” Harley said on one clear spring day at Azov’s base in Yurivka, as he waited to return to the front line.
His statement, in slightly modified form, is echoed by many of the men who came from all across Europe to fight. Most of them wear bracelets insulting the Russian president on their wrists.
While these fighters do not hold Ukrainian citizenship, many are adamant in defending Ukrainian sovereignty against Russian incursion, and most came to fight after Russian involvement was clear.
“My reasoning for coming to this side mainly was realising that Russia was actually making an incursion into eastern Ukraine,” argued Chris “Swampy” Garrett, a British citizen and former soldier who came in October.
“It was obvious that what happened in Crimea was at the hands of Russia’s doing … [and] there was a full blown firefight going on between the Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists, which were actually getting most of their equipment from the Russians.”
In the face of a Russian incursion, the war has become “a fight for Europe”, argued David Eriksson, a 48-year-old business owner from Sweden.
For many of the fighters here, their political fight is manifested in the international nature of the conflict.
But others, including Mikael Skillt, the Swedish soldier who arrived in Ukraine during the protests on Maidan last February, came to fight for nationalism and their ultra-conservative political ideals regarding Ukraine.
Andriy Biletsky, leader of two organisations, Social-National Assembly and the Patriot of Ukraine, is the founder of the Azov Regiment as a politically conservative paramilitary group.
The political ideology of Azov has been softened as the battalion grew into a regiment and Biletsky entered the Ukrainian parliament, but many of the Europeans who came in the early stages of the conflict came to fight for their conservative political values.
But, while the political fight is important, it is not the only thing that has brought these men here.
Once on the front line, the war is less about advocating for political ideals than it is about fighting.
“I don’t see anyone talking about politics that much,” said David Eriksson, who came for his politics, but stayed for the camaraderie and adrenaline of the front line.
The large majority of the foreigners, he argued, “are here to fight”. Some of the European ex-soldiers here even considered joining the separatists before settling on the pro-Ukrainian Azov regiment.
These men are driven to the war for the experience of combat. Their politics evolved through their engagement in the conflict.
“I never felt so alive as when they shoot artillery at you,” Skillt said.
Skillt, who fought for months in eastern Ukraine before leaving the front line to train Azov’s recruits in Kiev, was drawn back into the fighting late last spring. Even though he came to fight for his conservative and nationalist politics during the revolution taking place on the Maidan, he found something stimulating about the front line.
The phenomenon of conflict, a life lived on the cusp of death, a game played with ultimate stakes, holds a seductive appeal to the former soldiers and young men who make up the contingent of Europeans fighting here.
For most of these men, the war in Ukraine is a short chapter lived on the front line.
Some stay for weeks, others for months, but almost all of these fighters are here for the war and plan to leave after they finish fighting.
Maybe “you’re in between projects, or you’re going to start to work somewhere, then you’re here [fighting in eastern Ukraine for] a couple of months”, said Eriksson, “and then it’s, like, hit me. You know you don’t want to go on leave, you don’t believe something will f*** you up, so you want to have something happening, and then you can go back to the other life”.