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‘It’s a strong bond’: Irish man Rory Mason one of thousands of foreign fighters to answer Ukraine’s call

Dozens of international volunteers have died in war, with many more likely to fall if Russia is defeated

In the weeks after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the city of Lviv near the country’s western border with Poland became a teeming gateway for hundreds of thousands of women and children fleeing to EU and Nato states, and thousands of men coming the other way to help repel Russia.

The International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine, for which Co Meath man Rory Mason (23) was fighting when he was killed in the Kharkiv region last week, was formed on the order of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy just days after the all-out attack began on February 24th.

In an address to “all citizens of the world, friends of Ukraine, peace and democracy”, Zelenskiy said that “anyone who wants to join the defence of Ukraine, Europe and the world can come and fight side by side with Ukrainians against the Russian war criminals”.

Kyiv said that some 20,000 foreign nationals answered the call over the next fortnight, and they were easily found in the streets and cafes of Lviv’s picturesque old town – all wearing a motley mix of camouflage and khaki, but otherwise strikingly varied in age, nationality and military experience.

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The legion says people from 58 countries have served in its ranks, but for some it was a disappointing, terrifying or even deadly experience long before they reached the frontline.

On March 13th, Russia fired up to 30 cruise missiles at a Ukrainian military base between Lviv and the Polish border, where international legion recruits were reportedly training. Ukraine said at least 35 people were killed, while Moscow claimed to have eliminated “180 foreign mercenaries”.

It is not clear how many foreign volunteers died in the attack, but it convinced some survivors to leave, including Irishman Ivan Farina, who told The Irish Times that, after the bombing and receiving a phone message from his daughter, his “resolve collapsed” and he headed for home.

Military experience

Volunteers with much more military experience raised other concerns about the legion in its early days.

Matthew Robinson, who served in the British army and spent four years in Iraq as a US military contractor, told The Irish Times that when he flew into Poland in March he found representatives of the legion waiting with “a big sign at [Krakow] airport, so I got on their bus to Ukraine”.

“On the way, a heavily intoxicated Polish guy pulled out a knife. He thought the bus driver was Russian and was driving us to Russia, so we had to disarm him,” he went on. “Plus, people didn’t really have the op sec [operational security]. They had their location services switched on [on their phones] and were taking pictures where they shouldn’t. So it became difficult to be safe.”

Like many others who answered Zelenskiy’s call to arms, Robinson found actual weapons to be at a premium in Ukraine, given the demands it faced in fully equipping its own armed forces at a time of national crisis, leaving little for the influx of thousands of volunteers.

“Many westerners came with high expectations that they would be fully equipped as soon as they got here. But there was no body armour or weapons and yet they were still sending people to the front. That didn’t sit too well with most of the guys, myself included,” said Robinson, who instead of heading to the front became a lead trainer for another international unit that is attached to Ukraine’s Georgian Legion, which was founded in 2014.

Over time, however, Ukraine’s supply problems eased and many less committed and less capable foreign volunteers fell by the wayside, and in recent months international units have played a small part in helping slow and then stall Russia’s advance in eastern and southern regions before launching a counteroffensive in August.

Oleksiy Arestovych, a senior adviser to Zelenskiy, noted the role of foreign volunteers in defending Sievierodonetsk – which finally fell to Russia in late June after a long and costly battle – and praised their “motivation, professionalism, their preparedness for urban warfare”.

Mason was killed on September 28th in the Kharkiv region, where with stunning speed Ukraine liberated an area the size of Cyprus last month and seized dozens of tanks and other armoured vehicles and big ammunition stores that Russian troops simply abandoned as they fled.

The international legion declined to reveal any details of Mason’s final mission, but said “Rory’s memory will live on in his unit, in the legion and the armed forces of Ukraine.”

His father, Rob, meanwhile, said his son had “a deep sense of right and wrong and an inability to turn the other way in the face of injustice.”

When Zelenskiy founded the legion, he said, “This is not just Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is the beginning of a war against Europe…against democracy, against basic human rights, against a global order of law, rules and peaceful coexistence.”

Dozens of international volunteers have already been killed in Ukraine, but if Zelenskiy was right, many more are likely to fall before the Kremlin is beaten.

As Robinson noted, their contribution – and sacrifice – is deeply appreciated by local people: “Ukrainians have shown such love and hospitality to us,” he said. “It’s a strong bond.”