The Ukrainians have vehemently denied the Russian reports that foreign fighters were killed. At a press briefing in the city of Lviv on Monday, Maksym Kozytskyy, the governor of the region, said, “There are no casualties among foreign fighters. These are fakes propagated by the Russian government.” According to him, Russian planes over the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov fired some 30 rockets at the base, and Ukraine’s air defenses intercepted all but eight.
But new statements from fighters present during the strike call into question this account of the attack. Two German volunteer fighters said many of their fellow foreign legionnaires, crossing the Ukrainian border into Poland in a tightly packed queue on Monday evening, had been killed in the strike, and estimated the death toll at over 200. “It was really hard, truly hard,” Peter Füchsel told me. He said gotten to know several of the dead in the two weeks or so before the attack. On Tuesday morning, the Daily Mirror of Britain reported that three former members of the British special forces were among the dead.
Füchsel, 55, is a driver for disabled children from central Germany; his fellow fighter, Andreas, did not give his last name but said that he works loading and unloading trucks in Münster and that he is 56 years old. Both men said two planes had carried out the attack. “One of the planes also fired on the base,” Füchsel said.
The two volunteers have military experience. Füchsel, a 25-year veteran of the German Bundeswehr, sported a short beard and silver rings, one adorned with a skull. He said he had arrived in Ukraine overland from Germany on March 3. “I went to fight in Ukraine, because I thought it was a just war, and I saw how bravely the Ukrainians were fighting,” he said. “When I saw that the German government was only giving the Ukrainians 5,000 helmets at the beginning of the war, I felt it was a joke, like I was reading an Asterix comic.” It wasn’t politics so much as a sense of outrage and injustice that drove them. Many of their friends told them it was “madness” to go and fight; others understood. Both of them have no immediate family.
Once in Ukraine, Füchsel went to Kyiv, the capital, which is under siege by Russian troops. “Everything was so chaotic there,” he said. “I stayed only for a couple of days.” He was sent back to Lviv, where he believed it would be safe, to train with other volunteers at the facility outside Novoyavorivsk. While he liked the other volunteers he met there, he thought they were not ready to fight in a war. “Lots of them were only 18 years old,” Füchsel said. “Some ran away from home. They wanted an adventure. They wanted to fight. Lots of them talked about Call of Duty”—the war video game—“they had no idea what was going on.” Some 20,000 fighters have traveled to Ukraine to fight against Russia.
Füchsel and Andreas liked life on the base. The fighters came from lots of different countries; they all got on well, and the food was good. Only 50 or so members of the unit had previously served in the military. Both Füchsel and Andreas, however, were critical of the training they received: At first, the Ukrainian officers on the base seemed to disagree on how to train the volunteers. “There was no comparison to the German army,” Füchsel said. “There you are in a proper unit. You train together.” They said their training consisted of a day of theory when they were shown Youtube clips of how to use a Kalashnikov, and then two days of weapons practice with minimal instruction. Füchsel said that after the attack the volunteers were told they would go on to fight at the front within a week.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, an alarm rang out in the barracks that the men were sleeping in, and then another. The second alarm stopped sounding, and then there was silence. The men at the barracks went back to bed. Shortly thereafter, around 6 am, a series of explosions tore through the two barracks next door. “There were two minutes between explosions,” Füchsel said. (Double-tap airstrikes, which kill first responders, are widely considered war crimes.) The men streamed into the cold air. “The Russians knew exactly where to shoot,” Füchsel said. Footage posted to Telegram from after the attacks showed piles of rubble and craters around the base. The fighters were instructed to go into woods and to not light fires. “Some of the men were only in their underwear,” he continued. “It was minus 15 degrees Celsius”—almost minus 10 Fahrenheit—“in the woods. There was no plan, nothing.”
Later that day, they returned to the barracks. There, they saw huge numbers of their comrades dead and wounded. “Everything, the mattresses, the beds, shredded by broken glass,” he told me. They decided to get a bus to a gas station and then the border, where they waited more than five hours to get back into Poland. He and Andreas carried only plastic carryall bags, and crossed the border using only their drivers’ licenses because their passports had been taken away (common practice with foreign fighters in Ukraine); their passports were probably destroyed by the explosion. From Poland, they planned to head back to Germany, to which they were happy to return. Füchsel said he missed his dog Bommel, a Bordeaux mastiff. Andreas laughed and added that he is looking forward to a long soak in his bathtub.
Most of the other volunteers, Füchsel said, are staying to fight. Indeed, on Monday a number were strolling around Lviv’s central square in the late winter sunshine. “Until the strike, I was sure that the Ukrainians would win,” Füchsel told me when we met at the border later that afternoon. “Now, today, I don’t understand how the Ukrainians have gotten this far and managed like this.” He added, “The foreign fighters—they are just being used for cannon fodder.”