Irpin, Kyiv Oblast -- The urban ruins of the Battle of Kyiv contain many secrets.
Irpin, a town just northwest of Ukraine’s capital, a battlefield of ruined homes, charred streets and broken glass, now seems forsaken in a lull.
But beneath the debris is a living and buzzing underworld.
Fighters wearing the most random tactical gear with the exception of blue elbow stripes pull mattresses into a household cellar followed by large bottles of fresh water and simple blankets.
This place used to be the cellar of an expensive single-family house. It is now a Spartan shelter for a Ukrainian volunteer unit fighting the Russian military in the city.
“Remember, people, we need to lodge as many guys as possible here tonight,” one of them tells the rest. “So please move your asses and arrange your sleeping places as close to each other as you can.”
The basement buzzes with a mixture of Ukrainian, Russian, pure and broken English, as well as other languages, snippets of which are barely recognizable to the Slavic ear.
Not everyone among the newcomers fully understands the command, looking to their mates for translation.
Like so many other Ukrainian paramilitary units, this one has welcomed dozens of foreign fighters.
The variety of foreign legionnaires is wide-ranging – from yesterday’s military elite to untrained dreamers willing to join Ukraine’s much-romanticized fight against the world’s second military.
On the battlefield of Irpin, they all get a chance — and, when it comes to Ukrainian volunteer formations, a very equal position among those experiencing the toils of war.
It is not known how many foreign nationals are fighting for Ukraine right now, even though their role is noticeable, especially in the ongoing battle for Kyiv.
President Volodymyr Zelensky created the International Legion in late February as a way to organize the influx of foreign volunteers. The Legion forms part of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force.
By mid-March, the Foreign Ministry had reported over 20,000 applications filed by recruits from 52 countries. Scores of foreigners, namely Chechens, British, Canadians, Americans, Georgians, Poles, and Belarusians have been confirmed as fighting near Kyiv. Some even have their own national formations, like the Belarusian Battalion of Kastuś Kalinoŭski.
Some have joined volunteer paramilitary formations beyond the International Legion, like the group lying low among the ruined houses of Irpin.
Some, including those who served in the military a long time ago, have had to get used to holding weapons again, or even learning basic fighting skills.
It's on the Ukrainian instructors to train their new soldiers, foreign and Ukrainian. Sometimes, they have to do it in basements and partly damaged houses. In the Battle of Irpin there is no time for fancy training grounds.
“We once killed a Russian BMP with this thing, so watch this closely,” says a Ukrainian instructor wearing standard U.S. Army ACU PAT fatigues. He mounts a .50 caliber Browning M2 machine gun, a U.S.-made legend rarely seen in the battlefields of Ukraine, right on the floor next to mattresses placed on wood pallets.
“.50 BMG caliber is a real thing, this gun has the rate of nearly 400 rounds per minute, and it has the effective range of nearly up to 1,800 meters,” the instructor says.
“Is there anyone who can translate the things I’m saying into English? Let’s get our foreigners in on this.”
In the dim light of a bulb powered by a rattling diesel generator, to the sound of buzzing radio sets, fighters take their old Kalashnikov guns off their shoulders and gather around the instructor.
Some, however, do have a strong military background.
A fighter going by the codename “Wi-Fi” is one of several Czech nationals who came to join the Ukrainian formation in Irpin.
Young and fit, speaking just basic English and having a very basic understanding of Russian or Ukrainian, he manages to be fully operative within the formation.
“I did five years in the Czech Republic’s military,” he says, putting his AK-74 cleaning rod in its place. “And half of my family happens to be originally from Ukraine. I couldn't just stay home when things like this are happening to Ukraine.”
This is just one of the many pockets hosting Ukrainian combat formations in Irpin.
In nearly a month of fierce fighting, the city that used to be a thriving suburb of Kyiv has been badly damaged and abandoned by most of its residents.
Along with Bucha and Hostomel, and many other cities and towns northwest, it in many ways absorbed the Russian strike against the Ukrainian capital, sacrificing its cozy residential blocks.
The whole suburban area northwest of Kyiv, a key Russian supply point between Belarus and Kyiv, has been turned into one giant urban battlefield, razed to ashes.
However, by mid-March, it appeared that Russia, in many ways, had exhausted its offensive potential at most of its attack axes, including northwest of Kyiv.
Russian attempts to advance farther south from Irpin beyond the E40 Zhytomyr Highway have demonstrated little to no progress throughout much of March, indicating that Russia’s attempts to encircle Kyiv and impose a blockade are failing.
Moreover, in a series of counter-strikes in late March, Ukrainian forces managed to push the Russian military away from Kyiv in Irpin, as well as in a number of towns west of Ukraine’s capital along the Zhytomyr highway.
On March 28, Mayor of Irpin Oleksandr Markushyn declared the city fully liberated from Russian forces. But, according to local authorities, nearly 50% of Irpin's urban territory has been destroyed, including critical infrastructure.
Nearly 500 civilian residents and 50 Ukrainian combatants were killed in Irpin as a result of Russia's attacks.
According to the mayor, residents won’t be able to get back to their city for at least another month due to swathes of dangerous unexploded ordnance scattered around the city. Grim reports from the military on the ground say emergency service workers have to recover scores of dead bodies, civilians and combatants, decomposing out in the open on the city's streets.
The city remains strictly closed to civilians.
The Ukrainian military is still working on pushing Russian forces further away. On April 1, Ukraine liberated the town of Bucha, just northwest of Irpin. Despite Russia's earlier promises to "significantly reduce military activity near Kyiv and Chernihiv" amid talks in Istanbul, Ukraine is winning back territory through intense fighting.
'Who if not us'
To many foreign volunteers, the brutality of the Battle of Irpin was a serious shock.
Some even opted to take a train to Lviv and leave after what they saw in combat. Others, despite the emotional stress, decided to stay and go on.
Stephen, a volunteer in his fifties from Scotland, stood up to his own personal test just the night before.
“See this?” he points out to his shoulder patch reading “Who if not us”.
“This is basically why I am here. A month ago, I was just an olive farm owner shuttling between Spain and Britain. But then I saw in the news what Russia is doing here — bombing cities, killing ordinary people. You just can’t do that, it’s so similar to what the Nazis were doing in World War II.”
Stephen walks among the Irpin houses ruined by Russian artillery, stepping over piles of broken glass.
“So within days, I decided to leave everything behind and come to Ukraine,” he says. “I started asking around if I can join the fight. And here I am, with an AK rifle in my hands. And to be honest, I am happy.”
“But good god, I did not think I would not survive last night. Russians were shelling our place, and I thought it would be the end. But look — it’s a new morning now, and we’re still around!”