Why won’t I go home to fight on the Ukrainian front

February 24 will forever remain in the memory of Alexei Vasilenko.
He was traveling with friends in a remote part of Australia’s Northern Territory when they stumbled upon a rare cell phone patch.
“I got a bunch of messages about all [applications] like Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and people were saying, “Alex, they are bombing us… the war has started,” he tells SBS Dateline.
“We stopped the car in the middle of the road, and it was one of the first times in my life when I actually had tears in my eyes, because I realized that this is the end of life, as I knew before.”

But when the missiles fell, the pain of losing his homeland was not enough to make him want to return home and fight the advancing Russian forces along with many of his friends and family.

Having moved to Australia from Ukraine in 2012, Mr. Vasilenko lives in Sydney and works in data and analytics as well as a start-up. The 33-year-old says that watching Russia invade his homeland left him feeling helpless.
“When I’m here, I miss Ukraine, especially the food, the music and the behavior of the people,” he says.
“It’s a part of me… even if I spend the rest of my life here [in Australia]… on my last day before my death, I will still remember Ukraine.”
After Russian President Vladimir Putin approved his “special military operation” in Ukraine, Russia launched a full-scale invasion by land, air and sea.
In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky established a foreign legion and called on everyone, including Ukrainians abroad, to return home and fight.
The call was met with enthusiasm, and by 6 March Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced that more than 20,000 men from 52 different countries were enlisted in the army.
Although Dateline reported in April about an Australian who traveled to Ukraine to fight, it is not clear how many other Australians have joined him.
Australian citizens are prohibited from fighting for non-state armed groups in foreign conflicts, although it is legal to join the formal military forces of a foreign country. The current DFAT advice for travel to Ukraine and Russia is not to travel.

In addition, a Home Office spokesman told SBS Dateline that consular support for Australians in the region is extremely limited.

A man is sitting at a table with his mobile phone.

Every day Alex Vasilenko receives many messages from friends and relatives in Ukraine.

For Alex, despite a sense of loyalty to Ukraine, the prospect of going there to fight made him think about his own mortality.

“If you live in Australia, I don’t think you will support Ukraine if you go there and fight, unless you are a professional soldier and you have very specific professional skills,” he says.
“If you just go there, take a gun and get killed the next day, that’s not a lot of support. It’s a loss of support.”

According to Zelensky’s adviser, up to 200 Ukrainian soldiers die every day. The number of Russian soldiers who died during the conflict is unknown. Russia rarely discloses data on the death of its military personnel.

Loss of loved ones

Alex says that at least 10 of his close friends and family members were killed during the fighting on the Ukrainian front line.
“I have several messages from wives who know me and like me, remember Zhenya? … He was killed.
“There are young families in this group of people, they have small children, they just started their normal lives to settle down.

And now they’re dying. They lose everything.”

If you just go there, take a weapon and get killed the next day, that’s not much support. It’s a loss of support.

Alexey Vasilenko

Being captured by Russian forces is another risk of joining the Ukrainian Foreign Legion, as two Britons and a Moroccan who fought for Ukraine are currently facing execution.
Aiden Aslin, Sean Pinner and Brahim Saadoun were convicted in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, one of Russia’s puppets in eastern Ukraine.

UK officials condemned what they call a “show trial” against Russia. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss attempted to intervene, claiming that they were “prisoners of war” and that the decision was “a bogus verdict with no absolute legitimacy”.

Three men are behind bars.

British citizens Aiden Aslin (left), Sean Pinner (right) and Moroccan Saaudun Brahim (center) at a sentencing hearing in the Supreme Court of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Source: A MONKEY / STRINGER / EPA

For these reasons, Alex says he had no intention of going to Ukraine to fight. Instead, he encourages the Australian community to find other ways to help.

“My close friends who work in the army or in the Ukrainian special services say we have long queues, five or six people per place, who want to go and fight. They said that you better do your job, especially if you stay abroad, spread information, support the Ukrainian movement… influence. [other] governments to support Ukraine.
Before foreign governments began to provide assistance to Ukraine, Alex said that the front line was suffering from a shortage of essentials.
“The other kind of help we can provide is financial assistance,” says Alex.
“The soldiers do not have enough money in the army account to supply them with medicines such as painkillers.”
It was this knowledge that made him act quickly.

“So I thought, ‘Why don’t I donate my salary?’ Give it to those people who are fighting for my country.”

A Ukrainian soldier walks among the rubble of a building.

A Ukrainian soldier walks among the rubble of a building badly damaged by multiple Russian bombing raids close to the front line in Kharkiv, Ukraine on Monday, April 25, 2022. Source: AAP, AP / Felipe Dana

Australia is one of the largest non-NATO donors to Ukraine’s defense program.

Following Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit to Kyiv in early July, Australia pledged another $99.5 million in military support, including an additional 14 armored personnel carriers and another 20 Bushmaster rugged mobile vehicles. Australia has so far provided about $388 million in military aid to Ukraine.

Escape from Ukraine

In early February, as Alex sat in his car in the red mud near Uluru, he only thought of one person.
“I realized that my mom was in danger and that I had to make some quick decisions,” he recalls.
Tatyana Vasilenko lived in the city of Kharkov, in eastern Ukraine, about 40 kilometers from the border with Russia.
On February 24, at 5 am, she heard bomb explosions.
“I was very afraid for my life, because a rocket could fly in at any moment,” Tatyana tells SBS Dateline.

“It’s very hard to realize that your whole life in Ukraine is literally over.”

A woman with blond hair looks upset.

Tatyana Vasilenko lived in the city of Kharkov in eastern Ukraine.

Thanks to her son’s tireless efforts, she was driven out of the city while the bombs were falling.

She made it to a bomb shelter in the Ukrainian city of Kropyvnytskyi before boarding an evacuation train to Krakow in Poland.
The UN estimates that more than 3.5 million people have fled into Poland since the invasion began.
“The train was stopped several times and they asked them not to use mobile phones because Russian planes were flying around them and started bombing the railways,” Alex said.
“The worst thing she saw was that parents put their children on the train, as there was no place for them.

“They gave their children to random people, crying and saying: “Could you at least save our children?”

Map of the Ukrainian cities Kharkov and Kropyvnytskyi and the Polish city of Krakow.

Tatyana traveled from Kharkiv to a bomb shelter in Kropyvnytskyi before boarding an evacuation train to Krakow.

In April, Tatiana managed to arrive in Australia as a refugee, but the trauma of the escape still haunts her.

“It’s so terrible, all these explosions,” she says.
“When I was in Krakow, the door slammed and I thought it was gunfire.

“Ever since I came here [to Australia] I feel good, I am calm. Maybe it’s because my son is by my side.”

A man and a woman stand in front of a waterfall.

Tatyana Vasilenko and her son Alexei Vasilenko in Australia.

While Alex is relieved to have saved his mother from Ukraine, he worries about the family and friends left behind.

Some of his relatives take refuge in the Kharkiv metro, which has been turned into a bomb shelter. The trains have stopped.
“This war is not only about Ukrainian sovereignty,” he says.

“This is a war between the free world, the future against the past.”