WAR IN EUROPE
South African among motley crew of foreign volunteers fights for children of Ukraine and his own
Amid the ongoing military violence, hardship and suffering stemming from Russia’s invasion, former Flying Squad member Peter Fouché is lending his medical and combat expertise to Ukraine’s territorial defence, at times with a sniper rifle in hand.
The voice on the other end of the line with its flattened vowels was unmistakably South African. It was late in the evening and Peter Fouché was making his way from Kharkiv to the frontline down south.
Fouché might be the only South African fighting among Ukraine’s foreign volunteers. Daily Maverick has gotten in touch with the friendly 47 year-old — a former flying squad member from the Eastern Cape — by pure chance, while working on an unrelated story.
“We’re about 30 minutes away from our destination,” Fouché tells Daily Maverick.
The destination: a small village near a slightly bigger village. A middle of nowhere kind of place, were it not for its unfortunate location right in the middle of the fight for Donbas.
When the war broke out, Fouché set off from England, where he had been living the previous two decades. He drove to Kyiv in a donated ambulance filled with medical kits, leaving behind a teenage daughter who he says is the reason he is fighting for Ukraine — “when I saw kids getting killed in this country… I told my family I’m going”.
When he got to Ukraine he helped out at a medical field hospital, then went to Kyiv, joined a battalion, and became a firearms and close-quarters combat instructor.
Fouché was responding to a call by Ukraine’s government for foreign volunteers soon after Russia invaded on 24 February. In early March, the country’s foreign minister said that nearly 20,000 had signed up to join the fight — a significant boost to an army of under 150,000 at the start of the war.
But the results were less than inspiring at first. A ragtag army of foreigners itching for a taste of glory poured into Ukraine, but little was done to filter out the gung-ho adventurers, decked out in Walmart army kit and devoid of experience and discipline.
In central Kyiv, one such adventurer from Sweden, in camo pants and a grey sweater, drunkenly accosted diners at a food stand for a light. He told this journalist — his words saturated by alcohol — that he couldn’t join the Swedish army because of a criminal record, but he’s here in Ukraine and eager to fight.
His comrade, a burly, tattooed American, was eager to share his insights into pricing trends in the Ukrainian prostitution market, but was less forthcoming about his time in Ukraine or the formation he belonged to, saying only that he was not with the territorial defence but some “paramilitary unit” instead.
Many foreign recruits have already been sent home and Ukraine’s military has since restricted the recruitment process for volunteers.
But Fouché is the sort who makes the cut. He was built for combat. Rugged, muscular, with a brick-like jaw, his body as solid as his devotion to the Holy Spirit. A gunslinging, middle-aged Saffa stereotype to some, perhaps, but just what the Ukrainians ordered.
His medical training and weapons experience are highly prized in this fight, and he is now a medic and sniper in the St Michael the Archangel Battalion, which falls under the command of Ukraine’s territorial defence.
He is fighting alongside both local and foreign volunteers of different denominations and faiths. Among them a muslim from Chechnya who Fouché says is fighting for revenge after losing his parents in Chechnya’s bloody conflict, in which Russian forces fought separatist rebels until 2009 and practically razed the Chechen capital, Grozny, to the ground.
“Our unit decided to go on the road,” Fouché tells Daily Maverick. “We’ve been driving around the country for the last three or four weeks trying to be of assistance to different towns, different battalions,”
Fouché says that volunteer units like his cannot simply join the fight, and are usually called on at the last minute as an emergency force. But because his unit is made up of a well-trained bunch they’ve been thrust into the Donbas cauldron.
The Russian military, after withdrawing from the outskirts of Kyiv in April, focused its forces on the south and east, throwing more men and materiel into Donbas — the cradle of this conflict, whose fertile plains have been a thoroughfare for invading armies of the past.
A video message sent by Fouché days after his arrival in Donbas showed heavy shelling around his base (he has asked not to disclose the exact location) and he spoke of a serious risk that he and his group would be surrounded. Earlier this week, on Monday, he sounded like he had not slept in days and had gone through an intense baptism of fire.
On Tuesday, however, Fouché sounded more upbeat, having just returned from a mission in which his Chechen comrade had destroyed a Russian armoured vehicle. Two men in Fouché’s squad were wounded in a Russian missile attack but were recovering in hospital.
And there is reason for Ukrainian troops to be hopeful even in Donbas. Russia’s renewed offensive has been grindingly slow and at times disastrous, with a recent attempt to create a bridgehead at the Siverskyi Donets river near Bilohorivka ending in spectacular failure.
Initially, the Russian military appeared to be attempting a broad encirclement of Ukrainian forces in the Luhansk and Donbas regions, but seems now to have abandoned that plan in favour of more limited operations, with the town of Severodonetsk becoming a major flashpoint.
As the Donbas offensive continues to push up the casualty count on both sides and Russian forces make very limited advances, in the region of Kharkiv in the east Russian troops have been on the defensive for more than a week and have again begun retreating. Along at least one portion of the Kharkiv front, Ukrainian soldiers reached as far as the Russian border.
Ukrainian authorities and analysts have begun heralding this as Ukraine’s second major victory in the war after pushing back Russian forces around Kyiv and the north.
From the beginning of the war, Kharkiv was under virtual siege. The city is a major industrial centre, and in Soviet times its enormous Malysheva factory employed 60,000 people and churned out tanks of the sort that are now rolling through the south and east. It is also Ukraine’s second-largest city, but the streets emptied after Russian artillery on the outskirts began their relentless shelling. Many of the remaining inhabitants were forced to seek shelter underground in cellars and metro stations.
As of Monday, the city was still very quiet. Most shops and businesses remain closed. Everywhere, storefronts were boarded up and broken glass littered the streets — a reminder of how frequent and widespread the bombing was.
But day by day, the city is returning to daily life. Residents who fled are beginning to trickle back, while those who stayed are emerging from a subterranean existence. Overloaded, battered old Ladas weave through the many roadblocks in the city, and on the outskirts clean-up operations have begun, with teams of locals sweeping rubble from the streets.
Even amid the chaos and destruction, the city has maintained a sense of civic pride. In public squares and parks, perfectly neat beds of newly-planted pansies and tulips are in flower, in a subtle act of municipal defiance.
At a nearby volunteer centre — an old church in the city centre that has been repurposed for the war — a small army of local volunteers sort through boxes of food and aid that clog the corridors and stairwells. Provisions are offloaded from a truck and repackaged into individual parcels that will be handed out to elderly residents in the shelters and surrounding villages to the north, which are still under bombardment.
The parcels are packed into civilian cars which head out in a convoy of volunteers towards the village of Tsyrkuny, just north of Kharkiv. The road approaching the village is littered with burned out and abandoned Russian vehicles.
At a major intersection, a frequent scene that has become a powerful motif of Ukrainian battlefield successes: the body of a burnt-out Russian tank lying about ten metres from its decapitated turret. Nothing was spared here. All along the way are crumpled husks of blown up civilian cars, and hardly a building or house is unscathed. Many are flattened.
Acrid smoke hangs in the air and the sounds of gunfire and shelling is a reminder that the fighting is not far away. Soldiers at a checkpoint just outside the village are scrambling to get to the front, while ambulances wait to take back the wounded. There’s commotion, and a soldier manning the checkpoint prevents cars from going any further. Eventually, the soldier agrees to let the convoy pass with approval from the local commander, and after a 15-minute wait, the convoy sets off again.
The convoy must move fast. Winding through narrow roads, the village appears entirely deserted. But at a prearranged rendezvous the cars come to a sudden stop, and a small group of elderly residents — too poor to move and with nowhere else to go — emerge from their hiding places.
This little DIY humanitarian operation is the only help available to those who have remained in Tsyrkuny, and the provisions are modest — a couple of plastic bags of basic provisions each.
Moments later the convoy speeds off to the next location — a small church where a handful of people are sheltering — then back in the direction of Kharkiv.
On the way back into the city, Volodymyr, a man in his 50s, is rummaging through what was once the house where he lived with his mother at the end of “Friendship of Nations St”.
He grew up in the house and sold meat at a local market, but there’s hardly anything left to salvage of his old life.
“I’m not interested in the reasons for this, or in politics,” he says, as a dusty, tired cat trails him through the wreckage. “What does it matter when there’s bombing every day and you have no home”.
Back in the city, some are wary that war will return here. In an underground metro station, where people have been sleeping in tents and cooking in parked train carriages, one woman cautions that the Russians are still just beyond the gates. The Russian border is only a little more than 40 kilometres away.
The smell of pent-up living still hangs in the air underground, but residents are slowly gathering up their possessions and starting to think about what the future may hold. DM