LVIV, Ukraine – Luis, a veteran of the Mexican army, saw a photo of an injured pregnant woman being transported from a Ukrainian maternity hospital after a Russian airstrike and remembered his sister.
Will, a Navy veteran from North Carolina, was shaken by video showing a Russian tank firing multiple rounds into a car with an older Ukrainian couple inside. Martin, a farmer who had defused explosives in the German army, was angered by a week of TV footage documenting the Russian invasion.
They were among several foreign military volunteers waiting Friday at a hostel in Lviv, western Ukraine, where the Ukrainian government had housed them ahead of training. After the Russian invasion in February, Ukraine announced it was creating a foreign legion, inviting non-Ukrainians with military experience to join the fight.
None of the small group of volunteers interviewed by The New York Times had received a response when they contacted Ukrainian embassies in their home countries, but they decided to make the trip anyway. Many foreigners said they were inspired by what they saw on social media and on TV.
The foreign volunteers asked to be identified only by their first names because they feared being prosecuted on their return for having fought for a foreign army. An 18th century US law prohibits citizens from fighting countries that are not at war with the United States, but it is rarely enforced.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said more than 20,000 people from 52 countries have volunteered to fight, a number that could not be verified. A Russian missile attack two weeks ago on a training base used for foreign volunteers near Liviv killed at least 35 servicemen and civilians, according to Ukrainian officials. Russia said it killed 180 foreign military volunteers. Neither figure could be independently confirmed.
The volunteers waiting in the hostel on Friday were undeterred.
Luis, 29, said he served in the Mexican army to fight drug cartels a decade ago, but until last week was an event photographer in Chihuahua, Mexico , mainly photographing weddings. Then, browsing Reddit, he found a photo from the Associated Press showing an unidentified pregnant woman on a stretcher, carried by rescue workers after a Russian strike against a maternity hospital in Mariupol. Russian officials said Ukrainian forces were using the hospital as a base and said the footage was fake.
“I saw my sister’s face in that woman,” Luis said. “I don’t have kids yet, but I imagined how the baby’s father felt, how the wife and her family felt.”
He had never met a Ukrainian before flying to Europe. But when he read that the woman and her baby had died, he decided to close his studio, sell his cameras and book the four flights to Poland, from where he crossed the Ukrainian border.
He told his parents, his 25-year-old sister and his four-year-old girlfriend that he was going on vacation. “They would never understand,” he said. “I don’t know how to start this conversation.”
Will was working as a truck driver and postman when he saw the image of the tank firing at a civilian vehicle. In the video, which was released by Ukrainian media and appears to have been taken by security cameras on the street, a civilian car with a sticker on the back indicating a disabled occupant stops before an intersection before a tank fires at him. The driver and a passenger were killed.
“They were civilians,” said Will, 33. “They were just having their day, you know? It’s insane. It’s brutality on a whole new level,” he said. He couldn’t sit on the sidelines, he added, because as a former Marine, “I have training, I have ability.”
Another volunteer, Martin, 35, a German farmer, said TV footage of war on European soil convinced him to come to Ukraine.
“I have military experience and I want to defend Europe,” he said before setting off in the rain to follow a Ukrainian official taking them to a training base.