It took Alexei Panchenko several attempts over a month and a half to find a way out of Russian occupation with his family, but barely a week after reaching the safety of Kyiv-held territory he decided to turn back and face the enemy as a soldier in the Ukrainian army.
Many thousands of his compatriots have volunteered to defend their country since Russia launched its full-scale invasion last February, but Panchenko’s move was particularly striking because he is a member of a Ukrainian Roma community that has always been marginalised, sometimes persecuted, and routinely dismissed as lacking in patriotic loyalty.
“We were drinking tea together when I said that I’d signed up,” Panchenko says of the April evening when he told his wife and her relatives about his decision.
“‘Signed up where?’ they asked me. ‘At the enlistment office,’ I replied, ‘and tomorrow I’m going to the army.’ There were tears and crying, but I told them that I’d said that I would do it and so I would. And the next day I went,” he recalls.
As a father of three, Panchenko (40) was exempt from potential conscription and a ban on leaving Ukraine that applies to most men of fighting age.
“I didn’t discuss it with anyone and it was my decision alone. But I saw a lot with my own eyes living under occupation, heard a lot from friends and gathered a lot of information about what was going on,” he says, explaining that he found accounts of Russian atrocities – particularly against women and children – to be intolerable.
“I also have children, including two girls. If not me, then who should go and help defend the country?”
Panchenko enlisted on April 20th in the Dnipropetrovsk region, a fully Kyiv-controlled area to the north of partly occupied Zaporizhzhia province, where since late February Russian troops had controlled his hometown of Velyka Znamyanka on the Dnipro river.
“When I was filling out my forms, the recruitment officer asked me what ethnicity I was. I said I was Roma, and he stood up and shook my hand to thank me for coming to serve,” says the former lorry driver, who now drives truckloads of troops around eastern and southern Ukraine.
“Of course, my loved ones worry about me. And many people were shocked that a Roma had joined up – some didn’t even believe that I had really done it.”
One of the doubters was Panchenko’s younger brother, Janush, an ethnographer and researcher of Roma culture, language and history who lived under occupation for about six months in Kherson region before fleeing to Germany with his mother.
“He didn’t tell any of us what he was planning. He thought people wouldn’t understand him and that many Roma wouldn’t support his move… He told us about a month after he’d joined up. Honestly, I didn’t believe it, but I didn’t know what to say so as not to offend him. But then we saw his photos and knew it was true,” Janush says.
“Before this war, military things were considered very ‘non-Roma’. Some Roma even laughed at people who were involved in military things. But now that has changed strongly and [Roma] are very proud of those who defend Ukraine. Now there are quite a lot of Roma in the Ukrainian army and territorial defence forces,” he adds.
“In Kherson region, for example, many Roma homes were looted, so nearly everyone has a relative or friend who has suffered because of the Russian soldiers. When it comes that close to you, a lot of people responded by joining the army,” explains Janush, whose hometown of Kakhovka, home to several hundred Roma, is still occupied.
“It’s very hard to live in a town where you see things being destroyed and smashed and foreign military vehicles on the streets, and where your loved ones are suffering. Then the Ukrainian army becomes something that is not distant – our army is our relatives and friends and neighbours, people we spent time with and studied with; war has that effect.”
Volodymyr Yakovenko, chief executive officer of Arca, a Roma non-governmental organisation based in Kremenchuk in central Ukraine, said there is a longstanding tradition in the Roma community to steer clear of military matters and avoid taking up arms.
“But the reason for this tradition is that you don’t feel part of the society. Why do I need to protect this field if I am not part of this society? It’s better just to move to a safer place,” he says of how earlier generations of Roma reacted in times of conflict.
“Some Roma soldiers have said their commanders or comrades were really surprised to see them… And it’s not only soldiers who are surprised – people in general are surprised when they see Roma helping out. It’s a stereotype that Roma are not part of society, that they just do their own thing and can only take and not give,” Yakovenko explains.
“When Okhtyrka [in northern Ukraine] was badly damaged earlier in the war, we sent fuel, batteries for mobile phones and other things to help people there. The mayor of the town said thanks on social media to the Roma community of Kremenchuk … and from people’s reactions you could see this was something they’d never seen before.”
Yakovenko says there may be up to 500,000 Roma in Ukraine, and most face the same problems as their kin in other countries – bigotry, poverty, a lack of access to education, healthcare and other state services – which compound the impact of war and make them particularly vulnerable to the upheaval of a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.
Roma in Ukraine have also been attacked by ultra-nationalist gangs and targeted by vigilantes who blame them for crime, but Yakovenko says discrimination here is no worse than in many other European countries.
Photographs appeared in March showing several Roma girls taped to lampposts in the city of Lviv and doused with a green antiseptic, prompting outrage from some commentators and media coverage in Russia that cited the incident as evidence that it was indeed fighting “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine.
“Our organisation and others did a lot to explain that this happened not because these people were Roma but because they were accused of stealing. It was not legal … but all around Ukraine people were trying to take control of a chaotic situation, and didn’t want looters and marauders in their towns,” says Yakovenko.
Shortly after the incident, the Roma council and youth council of Ukraine published an open letter stating their position on the war and addressing Russians.
“Roma have lived on the territory of Ukraine for more than 600 years and consider it to be their motherland! All sorrow and joy that happens in our country, Roma experience just like everyone else,” they wrote.
“Fascism is alien to the Ukrainian state… Ukraine has its problems, as do other countries, but this is our house, and in our house we will sort things out ourselves!”
Widespread prejudice against Roma, in Ukraine and neighbouring EU states, has not gone away during the war, and Roma have reported facing discrimination when fleeing fighting inside the country, when crossing its borders, and when seeking help abroad.
Even Roma efforts to help the war effort can be disparaged: when Roma in Kherson reportedly seized an abandoned tank from the invaders in late February, many Ukrainian and foreign media joked about how “gypsies stole a tank from the Russians” – playing on the common trope of “thieving Roma”.
“They risked their lives for this – a Russian soldier could easily have killed them for it – but they did it just like any other Ukrainian,” says Yakovenko.
“Roma are now showing that they really are citizens of Ukraine. Those who can fight are going to the military, others are volunteering and helping with food and other things, not only for other Roma but for everyone who needs it,” he adds.
Janush Panchenko says “many” Roma tell him that they feel “more Ukrainian” now.
“This war is a very serious blow, emotionally and physically, to everyone living in Ukraine. It brings great tragedy, pain and distress. So now the differences between people of different ethnic backgrounds have diminished, and everyone sees themselves as Ukrainian residents of the Ukraine state,” he explains.
Viktor Ilchak joined the army in 2015, the year after Russia occupied Crimea and sent fighters and weapons into eastern Ukraine to seize parts of the Donbas area.
“My mother and my wife were a little bit against my decision, but since the start of the full invasion they understand that we need to defend our land,” says Ilchak (31), a father of four from Uzhhorod in western Ukraine.
“Some other soldiers were surprised that a Roma wanted to fight for his homeland. But now, thankfully, there are many more Roma defending the country,” he adds, as he prepares to return to the ranks after recovering from concussion suffered at the front.
“There are those who went abroad [to escape the war]. But my children are proud of me, and they tell people all the time that their dad didn’t run away.”
Panchenko says he has “absolutely no regrets” about signing up.
“I went to serve for the sake of my children,” he explains.
“I want them to live on our land, a free land, and to carry on with our Roma and Ukrainian traditions in peace.”