He wanted to join the British Army when he was younger, but was rejected because of a childhood injury. Now “the Tourist” has at last fulfilled his ambition to be a soldier, with the army of the Donetsk People’s Republic, fighting the forces of the Ukrainian government.
The Tourist, as his comrades have nicknamed him, is from central Scotland, one of several hundred foreigners on both sides of this conflict. There has been publicity about those fighting for the Kiev government, many of them in private armies funded by oligarchs, and the presence of Russian “volunteers” in the separatists’ ranks has also been documented. Now The Independent can reveal for the first time more about those fighting alongside them, from the West and beyond.
These men face an uncertain future. In many cases, the Russian visas which allowed them to reach the border and cross into the rebel-held Donbass region of Ukraine have expired, and the authorities in Moscow are reluctant to renew them – perhaps a sign that President Vladimir Putin wants to defuse the situation and discourage more foreigners from flocking to the fight.
If they ever do get home again, the Western volunteers face possible terrorism charges from authorities in their home countries that back the Ukrainian government and regard the separatist enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk as illegal entities.
Eight Spaniards were arrested earlier this year after returning from Donbass, having posted social media photographs of themselves posing with assault rifles and explosives. For this reason, the Tourist does not want his identity made public. “I know those returning from Syria to Britain have been arrested by the police,” he said.
“This is something one worries about, I just have to be careful and hopefully it will be OK. My parents think I am travelling around the world; some very close friends know I was thinking of coming here, but they don’t know any details.
“I didn’t come here for the money, I gave up my job, said goodbye to my lassie, because I wanted to be a soldier. I don’t speak Russian yet but things have been OK at the front with sign language so far. I do miss home, things like food, a bit of haggis. You have to eat everything here with a spoon.”
The Tourist, in his mid-30s, has been here for four months. He became interested in the Ukraine conflict through media reports and became sympathetic towards the separatists. But, despite being brought up near Bannockburn, he is no separatist when it comes to the United Kingdom. “I voted to stay in the Union in the referendum,” he said. “All the guys here try to persuade me that I was wrong.”
He compares Donbass to Northern Ireland, with Russia as Britain and Ukraine as the Irish Republic, “which wants to take over Northern Ireland if you see what I mean,” and insists: “I am British and I will be going back home.”
One foreign fighter in Donbass not planning on a quick return to his homeland is Russell Bonner Bentley III, born in Texas, who said: “If I ever go back… I will do so driving a tank, man. America is now a fascist country, and what’s happening here is part of that. Washington is paying the Nazis in Kiev to keep this war going. They are paying those bastards to murder innocent people.”
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
Mr Bentley said he decided to join the rebel forces after seeing footage of a bombing by Ukrainian forces in Luhansk. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to kill some of those mother-fuckers who did that,’ and that’s what I did.”
Tex, as he is known, declared: “My life has been like a movie and this is the best part.” He was in the US Army for three years and had been involved in marijuana smuggling which led to shootouts in Mexico and a five-year prison sentence in America. Mr Bentley stood for Senate on a ticket to legalise marijuana in Minnesota and his involvement in drug trafficking was, he maintained, partly a political act.
He reached Ukraine in December, served with the rebels’ Spartak Battalion and now runs his own show on Radio Free Donbass. “When I was fighting, I could fire an RPG [rocket propelled grenade] 900 metres. With my radio show, I can reach all the way to the politicians in Washington with the truth.”
Javier Benitez, from Badajoz in Spain, is a doctor on the front line. He has never fired a shot, he insists, and wears a combat uniform because, he claimed, Ukrainian snipers had been targeting medics. “I am here for humanitarian reasons. The world hears about people dying from shelling and shooting but the Ukrainians are blockading this place, and that means people are dying from lack of medicine.”
Dr Benitez, who lives in an abandoned flat without water, has been ill himself with lung problems and suffered hypothermia after collapsing in a field at night. He also had a lucky escape when a howitzer round landed near him.
The 24-year-old doctor knew about his compatriots being arrested after returning to Spain. His Russian visa has run out and the local Spanish consul in Donetsk is unsympathetic. “He said I should live with the consequences of my action and go back to Spain through Ukraine. Of course I would get arrested if I went to Ukraine,” he said.
Ravi Singh, from Chandigarh in the Punjab, is sometimes mistaken for a Brazilian volunteer. He had gone to university in New Zealand and he was working as a restaurant manager in Christchurch when he decided to travel to Donbass.
Mr Singh, 24, was a supporter of one of India’s many communist parties. “I thought Russia had become a fascist state after the fall of communism. Now I know that is not the case. I started following what was going on in Ukraine, terrible things like the fire in Odessa [when 46 pro-Russian demonstrators were burnt to death] and thought I must do something,” he said.
At 6ft 5in, Mr Singh was snapped up by the People’s Republic army for its elite Khan Battalion. “I haven’t found it physically difficult. I am quite fit, I played cricket.”
Although he supports separatism in Ukraine, he does not do so in India. “I followed the movement for Khalistan [an independent Sikh state] once, but then I realised it was being organised by the CIA,” he said. “This is different, the Ukrainians are cowards, they fire over our heads at civilians. I will stay here until we get victory. Then I want to go to Syria, if that war is still going on, and fight for the Kurds.”
The Tourist, from Scotland, also want to join the Kurdish militias in Syria, even though they only want people with military experience. “By the time I get there I’ll be an experienced soldier,” he said.Reuse content