‘I ran like hell’: Irish fighter who survived Russian missile attack in Ukraine

Ivan Farina (51) on return journey to Ireland after two weeks with Ukraine’s foreign legion

An Irish man has described how he “ran like hell” when Russian cruise missiles hit the Ukrainian army base where he was training for combat with the country’s foreign legion.

Ivan Farina (51) says he was blown off his feet by the sonic boom from missiles landing in the base as he ran towards a swampy wooded area in a desperate bid to take cover.

“As I left our block and ran out, I heard a crackling sound and I thought they may be cluster bombs,” he says. “So I was pegging it and I thought I was already surrounded [by cluster bombs exploding]. I really thought I was going to be caught. And that’s when I ended up in the swamp.”

Two days after the attack, as he and his colleagues were sleeping in the woods in temperatures of minus-nine degrees, he received a message on his phone from his daughter.

“I read it and I realised how much stress my family were under and I realised the situation we were in – our supplies were very low and ammunition was very low,” he says. “I had said to myself I was staying but then when I read my daughter’s message, my resolve collapsed. And I just thought I couldn’t do this to them any more.”

He left Ireland on March 5th.

He is expected to return soon but says he has “no regrets”. “It’s a pity it didn’t turn out better but the legion is still there. It’s been a tough task trying to get this thing up and going, and those of us who left have gone for our own reasons, mainly family reasons.”

Some of the foreign fighters who withdrew from Ukraine with him have already gone back into the country, or plan to do so soon, he says.

Farina, who is married and has two teenage daughters, has a professional background in software and photography. He served alongside the Croatian army in Bosnia in the 1990s. He speaks to The Irish Times five days after surviving the attack in Ukraine.

The Combat Training Centre in Yavoriv, western Ukraine, near the border with Poland, was targeted with about 30 cruise missiles, he says. They are believed to have been fired by Russians from the Black Sea. About 20 were shot down. It is understood at least 38 people were killed in the attack, though there are conflicting reports about the number of deaths and Farina is not aware of any foreign fighters among the dead.

‘Not my first rodeo’

On the day of the attack, early on Sunday morning, he and the other foreign fighters at the base got no warning; the air raid sirens did not sound, despite keeping them awake for hours during earlier false alarms.

“I woke up in the morning and there was just a bang. Lockers were shaking,” he says. He was sleeping on the second floor of an accommodation block on the base when the attack began. “We had blacked-out windows in the barracks but through cracks in the blackout the orange flash was so bright it illuminated everything. I could see what was happening. I knew what it was this because this wasn’t my first rodeo.

“I didn’t even have time to put on my boots properly. I just grabbed my pants and my jacket and ran out the door and I ran like hell. I ended up waist-deep in a swamp and these cruise missiles were flying overhead. There was giant mushroom clouds after the explosions and fire everywhere. They basically trashed the place.

"We were waiting for the smashing to stop but it was really intense. The missiles were leaving craters that were four metres across and three metres down"

“These missiles were flying in over our heads and they didn’t have what you might call a rocket noise. It was more like a very well-tuned car engine and they were coming over in clusters of two, three, maybe four. These missiles were swinging in and there was a Ukrainian MiG [aircraft] in the air trying to intercept them. There was a lot of fire and a lot of roaring and enormous detonations.

“They just blew the shit out of everything, excuse my French. But I’ve been through worse. We just hung tight. I was half submerged in a swamp with one shoe on. As we were running out I’d gotten blown off my feet and on to my knees and I gave myself a bit of a bang and a bit of a bounce, so that’s painful. I just scrambled into the swamp about 100-200 metres from one of the target zones.

“We were waiting for the smashing to stop but it was really intense. The missiles were leaving craters that were four metres across and three metres down. There were buildings burning and when I was running I didn’t know they were cruise missiles. It was just columns of fire and mushroom clouds going up, really massive.”

Combat experience

Farina, whose grandfather emigrated to Dublin from Naples and opened a barber shop on Capel Street, north Dublin, in 1905, says the battle against the Russian invasion was too significant not to join.

Before leaving Ireland he had contacted the Ukrainian army and had been immediately accepted into its foreign legion on the basis of his combat experience, over a five-year period, in Bosnia, where he says he became a platoon sergeant.

He first travelled to Poland and was contacted via messaging app with contact details for the Ukrainian military. After assembling by arrangement with other foreign volunteers, they were collected by Ukrainian Foreign Legion personnel and put up in a hotel overnight before being bussed to the base in Yavoriv just over the Ukraine-Poland border.

“We signed contracts which obliged us to be members of the Ukrainian army,” he says. “We were insured, paid and had the full legal rights of the Ukrainian soldiers. Joining the legion is the only way you can legally join the war and have full cover and rights.”

Once on the base in Yavoriv, the foreign fighters were issued with uniforms and began training immediately, which involved “intense” physical drills and weapons training. Other foreign fighters with more recent combat experience were grouped and moved out to fight much more quickly, he says.

Rumours began to spread that Russian special forces were about to mount a night attack on them

He met other Irish volunteers, but fighters were from all over the world. "I met guys from as far away as Korea and anywhere in South America you can think of, the Middle East, China, Malaysia, all over. I honestly never met so many nationalities."

After the attack last Sunday morning, as a platoon sergeant, he had helped to gather his troops in a wooded area where they slept out for two nights. However, rumours began to spread that Russian special forces were about to mount a night attack on them. While that proved unfounded, it underlined how much damage the attack had done to their preparedness and how low their supplies were running, including ammunition.

Against that backdrop, and when his daughter’s message reached him, he and many of those he was with decided to withdraw. Transport was laid on for them back into nearby Yavoriv, from where they were brought to the Polish border and crossed. Farina plans to return to Ireland from Poland this weekend.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times