War. Stories from Ukraine

Ukrainians tell stories about their life during the war

“I will protect the innocent.” Why foreigners from Morocco, South Korea, and Romania fight in Ukraine

by | 18 July 2022 | War. Stories from Ukraine

Illustrated by Darya Klochko

June 9, 2022 The room of so called “court“ of the terrorist quasi-state Donetsk People’s Republic, Ukrainian territory temporarily occupied by Russia. Three foreigners who took part in military operations as part of the Ukrainian army and were captured by Russians in April 2022, are in the prisoner’s box now, behind the metal bars. All three have shaved heads. Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin are Britons. 21 year-old Brahim Saaudun, Moroccan national is the youngest. All three are sentenced to execution by firing squad.

According to the Foreign Legion press service, thousands of people from 55 countries fight for freedom in Ukraine. Why they came to defend a foreign country thousands miles away from home and what challenges they face — read the article below. 

Death sentence for Brahim Saaudun

“We met at the club. He was the brightest person I’ve ever known and I really wanted to be friends with him. So I approached him, we talked and started spending time together”, Muiz Avghonzoda recalls of his friend Brahim Saaudun. 

Brahim moved to Ukraine from Morocco in 2019 to study. According to the CEDOS analytical center, about 20 thousand foreign students come to Ukraine to study. Most of them are from India, Morocco, Nigeria, Turkmenistan, Egypt, Azerbaijan, China, and Turkey. They choose Ukraine because they have heard of good and cheap education and they consider that as the chance to get to Europe.

Brahim wanted to get to a European country as well. 

“He was looking for a relatively cheap European country with an interesting culture. He had a fight with his parents, so he decided to move out”, his friend Liliia Aleksanova explains. She also met Brahim at a club. She says, when he totally owned the dance floor, and he seemed to know literally everyone around.

First, Brahim learned Ukrainian in Poltava, then entered Kyiv Polytechnic Institute and studied aerospace technologies. However, he was quickly disappointed in the level of training, says Lilia. First, because of online classes due to COVID-19, second teachers did not speak English well. After a year and a half, Brahim decided to quit.

He went to parties, worked, hung out with his friends. He attended various protests as well. “It was important to him. He’s kind of a rebel”, Muiz says.

Liliia adds: he was worried that he was doing nothing for society, for Ukraine, where he found his friends and himself. 

Muiz confirms those words: “He said that there are few things Brahim wanted to prove to himself. He also said that he felt useless, so he wanted to do something to feel helpful, to find the purpose of his life, so to say.”

Once, at the party in August 2021, Liliia noticed an earpiece in Brahim’s ear while dancing. She asked him then: “Come on Brian (that was his nickname), why do you need an earpiece? Music is playing here!” “I have to hear an incoming message notification. I really want to join the army and I’m waiting for instructions about the documents”, he answered. 

Brahim knew about the war in eastern Ukraine and felt that by joining the army, he would do something useful and find his place, explains Liliia. 

In the end, after a military training, Brahim signed the contract with the 36th Marine Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast. 

Foreigners have been allowed to conclude voluntary military service contracts with the Armed Forces of Ukraine since 2016 in accordance with the Regulations of Military Service in the Armed Forces of Ukraine by Foreigners and Stateless Persons. According to Muiz, Brahim was a gunner (the position of Ground Forces soldiers who point guns at the target — Ed.). 

Brahim, like two Britons who shared the bench with him, was captured by Russians in mid-April in Mariupol. Then there were heavy battles for that city, which is now completely destroyed by Russians. The unit where Brahim served was surrounded at the metallurgical plant. 

​​Russian terrorists accused the prisoners of war of “mercenary and actions aimed at seizing power and overthrowing the constitutional order.”

These three are not mercenaries, they are legitimate servicemen who joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces even before the full-scale Russian invasion, says Anton Myronovych, the representative of Ukrainian Foreign Legion press service. They are prisoners of war according to Geneva Conventions. Moreover, all three foreigners received the same salaries as all other AFU soldiers of the same rank, while mercenaries are usually paid more.

“The fact that Russia has awarded them capital punishment sets a certain precedent for everyone else. To implement their hostile plans, the Russians neglect all the laws and customs of war, the Geneva Conventions, they just paint everything with a broad brush by calling all foreigners mercenaries. This is absolutely not true and is an extremely gross violation. We hope that the international community and the competent organizations will make the right decisions and actions to stop all that outrage.”

A couple days after the trial, Brahim’s father said to journalists that his son surrendered “voluntarily”, so he had to be treated as a prisoner of war. He added that Brahim received Ukrainian citizenship back in 2020 after the year of military service which was a precondition for studying aerospace technologies at Kyiv university. 

However, according to Brahim’s friends, he does not have a citizenship, just a temporary residence permit, and his father just spreads fakes and is very pro-Russian. Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan published a letter, in which Saadun Sr. allegedly asks Putin to pardon his son. 

Even before the trial, Brahim’s friends created a team to save him. Together with his sister who lives in Europe, they filed to the European Court of Human Rights (formally, Russia is still a member). On June 16, the ECHR urged Russia to ensure that the death penalty imposed on Brahim Saadun is not carried out.

There are no forecasts, we are talking to Russia, you know”, says Muiz.

“Foreigners (defending Ukraine as part of the AFU) realize that they cannot fool themselves by trusting Russians. This is a cruel war, Russians stop at nothing to achieve their goals, — says Anton Myronovych. — And we warn about this: “Guys, if you are captured, they will possibly consider you mercenaries.” People understand that and they do their best not to be captured in a critical situation. But they also know that they have to be ready for the worst.” 

Don’t worry about me. I did what I loved. That was just bad luck.” — said Brahim in his video for family and friends made by Russia Today propagandists.

No one can say for sure if it is possible to appeal the resolution to shoot the defenders of Ukraine.

Foreign Legion

After the full-scale Russian invasion, the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky initiated creation of the International Legion, a separate unit that may be joined by foreigners, as the part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. On March 1, they are eligible for visa free entry to Ukraine. It does not apply only to the citizens of the aggressor state. 

The Armed Forces of Ukraine does not share how many foreigners are fighting for Ukraine now. They only say that there are thousands of them. Most foreigners fighting in Ukraine joined the Foreign Legion. Most of them are 25 to 40 years old. 

In total, there were about a hundred thousand applications in four months, says Anton Myronovych from the Legion’s press service. The procedure is the same for everyone. First, you need to contact the Ukrainian embassy in your country. There, military attaches check if someone is suitable for service. The main criterion now is real combat experience. It is important to know how to provide emergency medical care on a battlefield and be psychologically resilient to critical situations. 

“This war in Ukraine is very cruel, perhaps, the cruelest since World War II. Combat operations are intense, and an untrained person with no combat experience has little chance to succeed and survive. People who go there must have a chance to be effective, to win, and survive”, explains Anton Myronovych.

Further, embassies make sure that people understand their role and mission. What they have to do, against whom, and why they fight: for Ukrainian interests, Ukrainian people, and democratic values. 

Finally, the Security Service must check and verify that an applicant does not have any negative background, is not a part of any extremist organization or political party contrary to the interests of Ukraine and the European community. After that, soldiers start training to join the International Legion. 

“Some people’s expectations run counter to reality. This is not a computer game, not a Hollywood movie, this is a real war. People are dying, resources are exhausted from time to time, there are some logistical challenges, just like in any war. They must understand that there’s no air armada covering them in any extreme situation”, warns Anton Myronovych.

In addition to participating in combat operations, offensive and defensive missions, Legionnaires can perform humanitarian missions: evacuate or support locals, work in civil-military cooperation points.

Legionnaires sign contracts valid until the end of martial law, but now it is possible to terminate earlier. Including at their personal request, if legionnaires are tired or changed their minds. 

“To be effective on the battlefield, people must be motivated and ready. If someone is forced to do something, it may cause more problems than good”, Myronovych explains that decision. 

All legionnaires have the same contract terms as Ukrainians. The same benefits, rights and obligations, monetary and material security. Legionnaires must follow the same laws, the same customs and rules of war. 

“They must totally feel the part of Ukrainian defense forces, as an additional motivation. Some people came to earn a lot of money here. But no, this is not mercenary”, Myronovych underlines.

He also notes that according to Ukrainian laws, foreigners can only have the positions no higher than non-commissioned officers. They can only command departments of up to 10 people. 

“Their direct commanders are Ukrainian officers. Even with an officer rank in their own country, they will be privates or sergeants here. We explain that while recruiting. If someone is a colonel in their army that does not mean they will lead their headquarters immediately”, says Myronovych. 

Ken Rhee’s case

The Foreign Legion’s geography today is 55 countries. Most people are from Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom. There are many representatives from the USA and Canada. There are also fighters from faraway Australia or South America.

Ken Rhee, 38 y.o., came to Ukraine from Seoul, South Korea, He used to be a Navy SEAL officer, and participated in combat operations in Somalia and Iraq. He is now the CEO of the military consulting firm ROKSEAL. As a military consultant, he trains representatives of the military and law enforcement agencies.

This year, Ken planned to travel the world, participate in extreme sports events and try to set a Guinness World Record for greatest absolute distance flown in a wingsuit (a special skydiving suit that simulates wings — Ed.). However, when he saw the speech of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asking the international community for help, Ken realized that he had to cancel his plans and help Ukrainians to fight against the Russian invasion. 

On March 6, he arrived in Ukraine for the first time. 

“My family and friends were all very worried and against me going over to Ukraine, because of the high risks of warfare involved. However, they understood that I made the decision for moral reasons and they knew why I had to go to Ukraine”, says Ken.

Ken Rhee was the commander of a multinational special operations unit. His unit had direct-action missions (short raids to capture or destroy enemy forces — Ed.). On his Instagram, Ken posted a photo from Irpin, Kyiv Oblast.

Photo by Ken Rhee

“The Ukrainian Armed Forces have a lot of heart and a strong fighting spirit whereas the Russian Armed Forces seem to lack a lot of morale. I am impressed with the Ukrainians and I firmly believe they will win this war.” Ken shares.

Ken was wounded in May during a long-range reconnaissance. That happened during infiltration (tactics of separating enemy forces — Ed.), he fell into a well and tore gristles in both knees. He is currently in South Korea for rehabilitation. He says he is recovering now and will be in perfect shape in a few months.

It is illegal for South Korea citizens to participate in a war in which their country is not involved. Now Ken is being checked by the police and prosecutor’s office. The punishment that he may face ranges from a very large fine to imprisonment.

Fighters must realize that upon returning home, they may be brought to justice, warns Anton Myronovych. However, he reassures that no one has been brought to serious responsibility for helping Ukraine in the countries prohibiting participation in armed formations.

“Despite all laws, those governments realize that fighting for Ukraine is a right thing to do now”, says Myronovych. 

Ken Rhee says that he has never regretted his decision to go to Ukraine. 

Ken Rhee

“It was the right call to make and I continue to stand by my decision. War is always difficult, but I am a soldier for life and I will do whatever I can to protect the innocent. It is what I was trained to do and what I was always meant to do. I plan to continue working for the good side of humanity, wherever in the world that may be”, says Ken.

Mockingjay of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

The Legionnaire with the callsign Mockingjay turned 30 in May. She was born in Transylvania in Romania, but has lived abroad for the last 9 years. Her background is behavioral sciences (the study of human behavior on the basis of anthropology, sociology, psychology, biology, political science, and economics — Ed.). For a long time, she worked in an intergovernmental organization, visited several conflict zones. 

I knew what a war zone looks like and I knew what to expect from Russia”, Mockingjay says. 

On February 24, she was in Lisbon, Portugal. She just took a break from her career, planned to finish a diving instructor course and go scuba diving all summer, and was also preparing to enter the Faculty of Law in 2023. But on March 12 she came to Ukraine, had an interview and signed a contract, all on the same day. 

I felt that this war was not just Ukraine’s war. There is a lot more at stake than Ukraine’s sovereignty or territorial integrity. This is also about how the international community deals with tyranny and a sovereign country being invaded. I saw that from day 1, Russia was targeting civilians. The goal was not to “demilitarize” or “denazify”. The goal was to terrorise civilians, to disrupt normal life and to force Ukraine to surrender. I couldn’t sit at home and watch from far away. I saw the resistance and strength Ukrainians were showing from the very beginning of the full scale invasion and I felt Ukraine and Ukrainians deserve all the help they can get”, says Mockingjay.

The Legionnaire took with her only those things that she will not miss if she loses or is forced to leave. She knew that in Ukraine, she would get everything she needed and if not, friends from abroad would send her the rest. 

“Everyone who knows me said they knew I would end up in Ukraine and they were not surprised. I think they would be more surprised if I wasn’t here. They are all worried of course. Luckily, I am able to speak to people on a regular basis and can reassure everyone I’m ok. I think at this point my family and friends accepted that I’m here for good and until we win the war”, shares Mockingjay.

In the Legion, she ensures communications, PR, and administrative work as the part of a small team that helps Legionnaires on the front line around the clock. The most difficult thing for her is accepting the fact that she can’t help everyone despite her privileged position. And the most frustrating is the realization that all that is escalating in a long-term conflict because the Ukrainian army cannot get all the weapons and ammunition needed for defense and more effective counter-attack. 

Despite all that, Mockingjay says that there’s no army in the world with no problems, where everyone is happy. She is sure that everyone here is fighting for the same goal. 

“I don’t think there is anything more important I could be doing right now. I don’t think I could look back at my life in 10 years and think I did the right thing if I didn’t come here. Even when things get really tough, even on days when I wake up thinking I do not want to wear a uniform or do not want to deal with any of this, I do not regret coming here and joining the Legion.”


Mockingjay is impressed with the strength, unity, and determination to defend their freedom Ukrainians have. 

“The Armed Forces of Ukraine are tiny compared to Russia’s army. The army we are fighting against was allegedly the second most powerful army in the world. And Ukraine stood up against the invaders for over four months now. The Ukrainian army more than tripled in size since the full scale invasion began. I sometimes compare this to a startup during an economic meltdown, — says Mockingjay, — Since I’ve been here Ukrainians and the Ukrainian army only earned more of my respect and admiration.”

The legionnaire wants to stay at least until Ukraine begins to noticeably recover after the victory. She feels more and more at home and seriously considers the option of living here. Especially when her native county is “on the wrong side of history.” Despite the common border, the Romanian Government does not give any significant support to Ukraine, and does not allow weapons to cross their borders.

After the victory, Mockingjay wants to have a couple-week vacation near the ocean and do what she previously planned, i.e. to enter the Faculty of Law.

“Studying international and/or humanitarian law became even more significant for me during this conflict and seeing how Russia violates international law that governs warfare”, says Mockingjay.

The project is produced with the support of Lviv Media Forum and EU-funded programme House of Europe.

Author: Liza Siviets

Editor: Aliona Vyshnytska

Illustrator: Darya Klochko

Translator: Oksana Biliavska

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