Wednesday brought a different sight: Groups of young men, laden with heavy bags and military equipment, crossed into Ukraine from Poland as they answered President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for ‘citizens of the world’ to fight “Russian war criminals”.
Among them, Vasyk Didyk, a resident of New York, a 26-year-old carpenter wearing a fluorescent Carhartt beanie and originally from Ukraine.
“This is our homeland,” he told CNN of Shehyni. “We couldn’t stay in our comfortable lives in America and watch what’s going on here.”
Didyk, accompanied by his friend Igor Harmaii, had spent 24 hours traveling from New York to Poland before crossing back to his native country with a canvas backpack and a suitcase on wheels.
He has no military background and came despite his parents, who do not live in Ukraine, crying on the phone when they learned he was joining the fight.
“I haven’t been back to Ukraine for four years, but it wasn’t even a choice,” he said. “I had to come and help my country.”
The world has watched in horror since Russia invaded Ukraine late last week, sparking what could be Europe’s biggest ground war since World War II. And Zelensky’s challenge not only united Western opposition to Russia, but also inspired foreign volunteers and Ukrainians abroad to fight for the cause.
“It’s not just Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Zelensky said Sunday. “This is the beginning of a war against Europe, against European structures, against democracy, against fundamental human rights, against a world order of law, rules and peaceful coexistence.”
Ukrainian embassies have helped recruit foreign fighters, while at least one senior politician in a Western government that has previously prosecuted those who have joined foreign wars has indicated support for citizens taking up arms in Ukraine.
Asked by CNN if it consented to French foreign fighters in Ukraine, the French government said: “Ukraine is a war zone, classified as a red zone in the travel advice, constantly updated and available under the link next (Travel Advice). As a result, we strongly advise against all travel to Ukraine.”
Asked about US foreign fighters, he said the US had been “clear for some time” telling “Americans who might be considering traveling there not to go”.
If Americans want to help Ukraine, “there are many ways to do so, including supporting and assisting the many NGOs working to provide humanitarian aid; providing resources themselves to groups trying to help Ukraine by being the defenders of Ukraine”, he said.
On Thursday, Zelensky said the first of 16,000 foreign fighters was heading to Ukraine “to protect freedom and life for us and for everyone”, he said. CNN was unable to confirm these numbers.
“An attack on Europe”
In the English town of Milton Keynes, more than 1,200 miles west of Shehyni, British builder Jake Dale says the call for foreigners to join the Ukrainian International Legion inspired him to book a flight to Poland on Friday. He aims to enter Ukraine by Saturday afternoon.
“As soon as I heard his [Zelensky’s] call – it made me think he needed help,” the 29-year-old said from his home he shares with his girlfriend and two children. “I think it’s a good cause to risk my life, and my girlfriend feels the same. Obviously she gets mad, like anyone, but she’s supporting him because she can see that I want to help.”
In 2015, Dale wanted to join a Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which was leading the fight against Islamic State in Syria, but decided against it due to warnings from the British government.
This time, he’s not worried about potential legal issues he might face upon returning from Ukraine. “I’m ready to deal with it,” he said after the UK government distanced itself from Truss’ comments.
During a trip to Poland, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK was not “actively” supporting volunteers going into battle. “I can understand why people feel the way they do, but we have laws in our country about international disputes and how they should be conducted,” Johnson told reporters.
Dale, 36, is traveling to Ukraine with Peter Hurst, a former British Army infantryman, who toured Afghanistan before leaving the army in 2011.
The father-of-five, who lives in the northern England town of Pontefract, spoke to CNN over a video call as he picked out a kit from a military supply store in a neighboring city. He says he wants to fight to protect democratic values and freedoms.
“It looks like an attack on Europe. If you don’t help stop the war there [in Ukraine]it will probably spread,” he said.
Hurst and Dale met this week on a Facebook group – set up to help deliver British medical and military aid to Ukraine. They have worked with a liaison officer – whose name appears on an information packet sent by the Ukrainian embassy – who will provide them with body armor and vests in Poland.
Dale has spent £300 ($400) on kit and plane tickets and worries about the financial impact of not working. “It will be a pressure for my family when I leave,” he said. “But I’m sure everything will be fine.”
Not everyone is in favor of the idea of foreign fighters in Ukraine.
“After Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, far-right online communities rallied behind groups like Azov, both in terms of fundraising and declaring their intention to fight alongside them. “, reads a report from SITE.
The British government told those without military training to avoid combat.
Dale says he is aware of these warnings, but insists his skills as a qualified mechanic could come in handy.
“People may say it’s wrong to come in without military experience, but I believe that by fighting alongside the Ukrainians, I am answering their call for help,” he said. “Putin’s regime is ruthless – it’s not just Ukraine we’re protecting.”
“As Long as It Takes”
Ukrainian citizen Valery, who asked that his surname not be published, lives in eastern France but felt compelled to return to Ukraine to visit his elderly parents as Russia massaged troops on the Ukrainian border.
The February 24 invasion began shortly after arriving in Kiev, where it was heralded by pre-dawn warning sirens.
“I woke up around five in the morning with a very strange noise,” he said. “I thought I was still dreaming. I couldn’t believe my ears. But the sound was so persistent that I couldn’t fall asleep.”
Valery said his mind then turned to one thing: “How useful can I be to my country? The first thought was to join the army and check how useful I can be.”
After enlisting at a conscription centre, the 45-year-old said he “felt this feeling of nausea” when he received his gun, realizing normalcy had been shattered. “Kiev has been a very peaceful city since 1943,” he said.
Valery serves with five other people in a military unit. “Many of them have families, have children. Nevertheless, they have joined,” he said, adding that morale is good within the forces. “There is a lot of determination to defeat the enemy.”
Back at the Shehyni border crossing, New Yorkers Didyk and Harmaii argue with their canvas backpacks and wheeled suitcases.
When asked how long they plan to stay in Ukraine, they both stop and say almost simultaneously: “As long as it takes”.
CNN’s Tara John reported and wrote from London, while CNN’s AnneClaire Stapleton reported from Shehyni, Ukraine, and Joseph Ataman and Camille Knight reported from Paris, France.