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‘I hadn’t even held a gun’: Climate activists switch fighting for environment to fighting for Ukraine

‘I believe the protection of nature is directly related to the protection of country,’ Extinction Rebellion activist in army says

Zoe Tidman
Wednesday 06 April 2022 18:50 BST
Artem (left) and Pavlo (right) both signed up to fight against the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Artem (left) and Pavlo (right) both signed up to fight against the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Supplied)

Pavlo Vyshebaba spends peacetime campaigning for the environment and animal rights.

The 38-year-old, who founded Ukraine’s first vegan cafe, says he would not hurt a fly - and he means that literally.

“However, when it’s my turn to be on the frontline, I won’t budge,” he tells The Independent. “My hands won’t shake before neutralising as many Russians as I can.”

He is one of many Ukrainians who have signed up to fight the invasion of their country by Russian troops, which has devastated cities, killed hundreds of civilians and displaced millions more.

Among these are eco-activists like Pavlo, who have shifted their fight against the climate crisis to one against Vladimir Putin’s troops.

Describing his life before the war, it appears a far cry from the one now spent in the Ukrainian volunteer army.

The activist runs an environmental and animal rights NGO, Unique Planet, which counts a ban on new fur farms in Ukraine among its successes.

But then, the war struck.

Pavlo Vyshebaba, an eco and animal rights activist, joined the Ukrainian army during the war (Supplied)

“My wife, my little daughter and I live in the suburbs of Kyiv. We woke up from explosions in the area,” he tells The Independent, recounting the first day of the invasion on 24 February. “I took my family to safety - sent them abroad - and returned to join the armed forces of Ukraine.

“Now, I am training to be an effective soldier. Before the war, I hadn’t even held a gun in my hands.”

He says he sees no contradiction in his activism and usual life, which sees him follow a vegan lifestyle to avoid harming animals and reduce his carbon footprint, and his role in the army.

“The animals are just like kids in their innocence, and I feel it would be impossible for me to hurt them,” he says. Instead, he calls the opposition army “anything but innocent”.

“They invaded our land and started brutally murdering civilians - our parents, wives, friends and relatives,” the 38-year-old says.

This map shows the extent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Press Association Images)

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, accused Russia of committing the “most terrible war crimes” since the Second World War, including shooting civilians in cold blood and crushing them with tanks, in an address to the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday.

Russia’s ambassador to the UN denied troops were targeting civilians - which the country has denied throughout the war.

Cities and landscapes have been heavily bombed during the first month of the conflict, with images showing buildings reduced to rubble, vegetation left charred and ecosystems threatened by environmental devastation.

It is for this reason Artem Bilyk, an activist with Extinction Rebellion in Ukraine, does not view his role in the army as too different from his campaigning on the climate crisis.

Artem Bilyk volunteered to fight in Ukraine after Russia invaded (Supplied)

“I believe the protection of nature is directly related to the protection of country,” the associate professor at a university in Kyiv tells The Independent.

Artem has spent years in environmental activism and attended meetings on environmental laws. But now, his fight has moved to the battlefield.

And he says the war is already started to take its toll. “Unique animals, plants and ecosystems are disappearing under fires and from Russian bombing,” he says.

Attempts are being made to monitor the environmental damage of the war, with those involved warning air, soil and water are getting polluted from bombings and fires.

The Ukrainian government has also reported nature reserves have been hit by attacks.

Artem tells The Independent he is volunteering to fight not only to protect his mother, but also Mother Nature.

“When the dangerous time comes, every son or daughter must stand up for their mothers,” the associate professor says.

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered.

To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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