(NEW YORK) — Thousands of foreign volunteer fighters are currently fighting on the side of Ukraine to help the country turn back Russia’s invasion.
But for one group of those foreign fighters, the ongoing war has hit close to home.
ABC News’ Patrick Reevell got an inside look at two brigades made up of mostly Chechen volunteers, filming with them as they trained outside Kyiv before returning to the frontline in eastern Ukraine.
The fighters, many of whom are keeping their identities a secret for fear of reprisal from their repressive government back home, said they volunteered their services to Ukraine because they are all too familiar with the violence wrought by Russia’s government.
“What is happening in Ukraine now, it’s the same thing that happened to Chechnya,” a Chechen volunteer fighter who goes by the call sign “Maga,” told Reevell. “All these occupation(s), all these massive graves, all this genocide of civilians.”
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia fought two devastating wars in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996 and again from 1999 to 2009 to prevent the region from breaking away from Moscow’s control. Russian forces laid waste to Chechnya, razing its capital Grozny to the ground with tactics it is now repeating again in cities in eastern Ukraine, like Bakhmut. Between 50,000 to 250,000 civilians were estimated to have been killed in the wars.
Chechnya’s current leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was appointed by president Vladimir Putin to keep a tight grip on the region, has turned it into his personal fiefdom, accused of frequently kidnapping, torturing and killing his critics.
Kadyrov has sent thousands of Chechen troops into Ukraine to support Russian forces.
“It’s slaves of the Russian Tsar,” Maga said of Kadyrov and its forces.
Maga belongs to the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion, named after Chechnya’s leader in the 1990s, who declared its independence. The brigade has around 50 Chechens fighting in it, according to Maga.
Maga and a number of the Chechen soldiers had been already fighting for Ukraine before last year’s full-scale invasion, and when Russian troops began advancing on Kyiv last March they grabbed rifles and joined the defense. Since then, they have become one of Ukraine’s most-battled hardened units, involved in many key Ukrainian victories, including the counteroffensive in Ukraine’s northeast last year, when they were among the first units to enter the strategic city of Izyum.
The victories have given hope to many of these foreign volunteer fighters that they can eventually defeat Russia in Ukraine, which they see as a step towards gaining independence for their own homeland.
“Our objective is to liberate Ukraine and after, to totally liberate Chechnya,” Maga said.
The Chechens are joined by a number of Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority from the peninsula that Russia seized in 2014. Like the Chechens, tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars were deported from their homeland by Soviet authorities under Joseph Stalin.
Since the Kremlin’s takeover of Crimea, Russian security forces have persecuted the Tatar community, seeing them as disloyal, with dozens arrested on extremism charges, as well as some reportedly kidnapped and tortured.
Tamila Tasheva, the Ukrainian president’s permanent representative for Crimea, who is a Crimean Tatar herself, told ABC News that of 181 political prisoners in Crimea, 116 of them are Tatars.
Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield, as well as a growing number of Ukrainian strikes on Russian bases within the peninsula — most spectacularly on the Crimean bridge connecting it to Russia — have fanned the hopes of Crimean Tatars that Ukraine could re-take Crimea militarily, despite most experts’ belief that that remains a tall order.
A Crimean volunteer fighter, who asked not to be identified, said he left his country in 2014 after the Russian annexation because of the persecution. During a recent training session, he said it is only a matter of time before Ukraine will retake Crimea.
“I definitely don’t know how many years, but I hope that it will be in the near future,” the volunteer fighter said. “I want to return home. I want to visit the tombs of my ancestors.”
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