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A Frenchman who fought in Syria prepares to go into battle for Ukraine

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By AFP
Ukrainian servicemen survey the impact areas from shells that landed close during the night on a front line outside Popasna, Luhansk region, Feb. 14, 2022.
Ukrainian servicemen survey the impact areas from shells that landed close during the night on a front line outside Popasna, Luhansk region, Feb. 14, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

A young French fighter who trained in Syria against jihadists is preparing to go back to the frontline, this time in Kyiv, to "help the Ukrainians keep their freedom".

The 28-year-old Frenchman says his name is Pierre and he comes from Normandy.

He arrived in the Ukrainian capital five days ago and is waiting to know where he will soon be deployed. He expects it to be in Kyiv. 

He hopes to go where he will be "most useful": "on the front line", to be able to use against the Russians the skills he has acquired over the past few years in Syria, such as "shooting with 12.7 and 14.5 mm (machine guns), Kalashnikovs, rocket launchers..."

Brown-haired, medium height, slim and sharp figure, he arrives with a quiet step in the discreet park of Kyiv where he gave an appointment to AFP news agency. He is wearing a beige canvas ranger and a khaki military tracksuit, like the scarf that hides the bottom of his face.

On 24 February, Pierre, a former apprentice house painter who regularly works on construction sites, was at home when Russia invaded Ukraine. When he saw these images, he was "revolted". The next day, when he woke up, he was still "angry".

"In the afternoon, I said to myself: 'That's it, I'm off. I couldn't stay on my couch and watch that'."

'Until the end'

Ten days of trains and cars later, he is in Ukraine, where President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for foreign volunteers to join the resistance to the Russian invasion. Some 20,000 have already arrived, according to the Ukrainian government, a figure that cannot be independently verified.

Ukrainian soldiers direct Pierre to the Georgian Foreign Legion, a military unit created in 2014 by former soldiers from the Caucasus country to help Ukraine fight Moscow.

Today, Pierre knows that the battle will be long. He plans to stay "until the end of the war if necessary", out of "commitment" and "solidarity" with Ukrainians who are "fighting to keep their freedom" threatened by the Russian "oppressor".

Between 2014 and 2020, in Syria, he says he faced other "oppressors": the jihadists of the Islamic State group (IS) and Turkey, enemies of the Kurds.

He spent four years in total, in three stays, nearly dying several times, especially in Raqa, the former IS capital, which the Kurds, supported by NATO planes, recaptured in 2017 from the jihadists. The latter, before fleeing, had riddled entire neighbourhoods with mines.

While searching a building with his unit, one of his comrades triggered a mine buried under the debris in a stairwell. Pierre, who by chance was in a corner of the stairwell at the time, was unharmed. But in front of him, four people died and another was seriously injured.

"It's a bit traumatic," he says.

'Hypocritical' Europeans

As in Syria, Pierre meets volunteers from very different backgrounds in Ukraine, "Italians, Germans, Norwegians, Spaniards, people from all over Europe", "and even from India".

According to an internal source, the Georgian Foreign Legion in Ukraine currently has several dozen to several hundred foreign volunteers, including at least three Frenchmen.

He sees Ukraine as "the ball in the football match" at the summit between Russia and the US. "In the end, the Ukrainians end up in the shit," he says. "When things go wrong, there's no one left to help them, we just deliver weapons in a hurry...".

He puts France in the same bag as the other "hypocritical" European countries, which are indignant but "let massacres take place" in Ukraine, as "in Kurdistan, in Yemen, in Burma".

When he was younger, in France, Pierre was very interested in the army. But he made "a few mistakes", he says, without wanting to elaborate, which closed the barracks' doors to him. And he knows that his long stays in Syria, which are suspect in the eyes of the French authorities, will not help to reopen them.

But today, he says "thank you to those in France who kept him out of the army", "because it is better to go alone to Kurdistan or here (in Ukraine), than to play the hypocritical game of politicians".