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“What happens, happens, I’ve lived a good life”: British Volunteers Headed For Ukraine’s Frontline

“What happens, happens, I’ve lived a good life”: British Volunteers Headed For Ukraine’s Frontline

The Ukraine Social Club has become a hub for volunteers and donations

5 min read

British volunteers are already preparing to head for Ukraine’s frontline, despite warnings they could be killed or face legal implications when they return to the UK.

Outside the Ukraine Social Club, just a stone's throw from the country's Embassy, a throng of people have arrived to offer support. 

The club, which consists of a bar and a few small rooms, has become a nerve center for volunteers to coordinate an influx of donations and offers of support. People arrive with envelopes of cash to donate to the cause, others have arrived with medical supplies and even food - some of which is turned away because it’s not suitable for military use or will perish on the trip to Ukraine’s frontline. 

In a small nook at the front of the social club, volunteers are packing bullet proof vests, military backpacks and other equipment from a two foot high pile into boxes before loading them into one of several nondescript white vans parked up on the street. Among the stack are a Metropolitan Police vest and another from the Welsh Police while others, scratched and scuffed, still bear the insignia of British Army forces. 

One of those who has been sent here from the Embassy is Sam Ottoway, an engineer from just outside London. 

“When I make the decision one way or the other I stick with it and it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do and someone’s got to do it.”

Over the weekend, foreign secretary Liz Truss offered support for Brits who wanted to get to Ukraine and help fight the Russian invasion. However, the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, along with Number 10, refused to back her, pointing to the official Foreign Office travel advice, which urges against "all travel to Ukraine”.

Ottaway, a father of teenage children with no military experience, felt compelled to volunteer after seeing the call from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for foreign citizens to help repel the Russian invasion. 

“The Ukrainians have been left out there on their own so if you can do something you should…No I’ve got no [military experience] but I think the guys out there have shown you don’t need that, it’s the moral cause that hopefully drives the victory in this horrible nightmare.

Ottaway has not told his friends or family of his plans to volunteer. Instead, he’s made the trip to central London on his lunch break, and says he was motivated to go after Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Sunday she would “absolutely” support any British citizen motivated to fight.

“I just saw Liz Truss effectively enforced the joining of any British citizen to fight, not just for [Ukraine’s] freedom but for ours. I genuinely believe that. I have children in their mid-teens, but I am fighting for their freedom. My grandparents fought for ours and my grandfather was at Dunkirk. So the baton has been handed down and needs to be picked up.”

Arriving at the embassy just hours after Defence Secretary Ben Wallace cautioned normal citizens against joining up, he says he’s prepared for the risks, both to his personal safety and from the threat of potential legal action on his return to the UK. 

“I have a little bit of concern, but what happens happens. I’ve been lucky to have a really good life, so if I don’t come back, I don’t come back. It’s as simple as that.”

Coming after some legal experts have warned those going across to Ukraine could face legal prosecution on their return, Ottaway says it’s “just something I’ll have to deal with when I come back”.

He adds: “It’s less scary than the prospect of this turning into some horrible nightmare we are all sucked into.”

Oleksandr, one of the volunteers at the social club, is helping coordinate donations while telling another potential volunteer on the phone they have contacts in the country who can help facilitate their travel to Ukraine.

Speaking to PoliticsHome, he says he’s already personally dealt with six people since this morning who have arrived to volunteer to make the trip to the frontline. 

“My family is directly impacted, my friends are directly impacted. My country is directly impacted,” he says of his motivations. “This is global, it’s a war on Europe. Ukraine is pretty much standing alone defending your democracy. 

“This is personal, it was personal in 2014 and while I’ve considered volunteering myself, I’ve realised I can do much more by staying here.”

Oleksandr says he’s “thrilled” by the support he has seen from the British public and has found it hard turning away well-wishing people who have donated items that would not be suitable for transport to the frontline. 

He says those who have volunteered are already preparing to travel, with some groups, he claims, buying up old SUVs to transport some of the donated items to Ukraine before joining the ranks of foreign fighters determined to fight back against Putin’s forces.

Other volunteers bustle around, urging people to donate money to the cause through a dedicated website they’ve set up.

Susie, a former primary school teacher from London has also arrived to donate money. She’s made the trip to personally hand over the cash because she wants to see the operation in person, and volunteer to do more. 

“I’ll make the tea or buy the sandwiches. I’ll do anything I can to help because I can’t bear to spend another minute at home watching these poor people suffer and not do anything to help,” she tells PoliticsHome.

“I’m too old to go and fight, and I can barely get my gloves on because I’ve got arthritis. I’d be a hindrance, but if I was 20 years younger I’d be out there in a flash,” she says. 

“This is a fight against fascism, and we should all be getting involved as much as we can.”

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