NATO denies that any of their instructors were present at the time of the Russian attack, and even the Pentagon said the last of their people had left the Yavoriv military base a few weeks ago. Swedish reporter Dan Malmquist spoke to a survivor of the bombed International Center for Peacekeeping and Security near the Polish border.
However, the attack from Russia so close to the border with NATO country Poland was called a “significant escalation” by the British government and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned that any shelling of a neighboring NATO member – even if it happens by mistake – will lead to a “full-scale response” from the military alliance.
After the dawn raids, the international recruits tried to get to safety in a forest – which turned out to be mined. At least one volunteer was killed, according to Joel. Photo: Joel Karlsson
Ukrainian authorities have confirmed that 30 rockets hit the base, citing the casualties of 35 dead and 134 wounded. The Ministry of Defense claimed that no foreigners were confirmed among the dead. British daily The Mirror reported that the number of dead probably exceeds 100 and that at least three British ex-soldiers were feared to have been killed.
Joel Karlsson fled the military base after it was first bombed. Some 45 minutes later it was bombed again, he does not think many survived. In the picture, he is wearing the uniform the recruits got out of the training camp. Photo. Joel Karlsson
Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that it had eliminated “up to 180 foreign mercenaries and a large number of foreign weapons” and that Russia would continue to attack foreign troops in Ukraine. They are considered illegal combatants and are not covered by the laws of war on how, among other things, prisoners are to be treated.
The attack came shortly after the Kremlin pointed out that arms deliveries from the West are legitimate targets for military attacks.
President Vladimir Zelensky reiterated his call for NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
“If you do not close the sky, it is only a matter of time before Russian rockets fall on your territory, on NATO territory,” Zelensky said in a video on the same day as the attack.
The Swedish Foreign Ministry on Thursday 17 March, still had no information about Swedes injured or killed in the attack.
Swedish mercenary survived to recount what had happened
In an interview with 26-year-old Sundsvall resident Joel Karlsson who was at the base when it was attacked, said: “That night the air siren went off at three in the morning. When we ran out to take defensive positions, we saw that there was a Russian drone above the tree line. It felt weird that they had to go around there with drones – an officer had confirmed that it was a drone – but they told us to go to bed again, and since I was so damn tired, I did not question it.
“At six o’clock in the morning it just erupted, the whole house vibrated, people screamed. I immediately realized that ‘now it’s serious’, so I put on a jacket and ran out towards the forest. When I opened the door, I saw a cruise missile coming with the naked eye. Then more came. They had damn good accuracy. In the beginning, eight missiles arrived.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a press release that the military base was attacked with “long-range precision weapons”. Our sources have not been able to independently confirm if the base was attacked by fighter jets or if it was cruise missiles. Both aircraft and cruise missiles use jet engines, so only the sound can be difficult to distinguish. The “cruise missile” that Karlsson saw may have been a missile fired from an airplane.
Ukrainian colonel Anton Mironovich, spokesman for the National Army Academy in Lviv, told Buzzfeed that “the attack was carried out by fighter jets taking off from Saratov air base in western Russia but approaching from the south, from the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov”. At the same time, he stated that “All legionnaires survived. No killed, no injured,” a statement which Joel Karlsson immediately contradicted.
“We heard jets and when we ran out into the woods we heard artillery fire in the distance. I asked a sergeant or officer if it was artillery and he said it was. It was pitch black out in the woods, people started screaming and raving. Everything was on fire at the base and people were starting to shout for us to come back and help the wounded, help put out the fires and so on. Some then said outright that we can not go back to a base where it was bombed ten minutes earlier, because it will be bombed again.”
The Ukrainians led the foreign recruits into the open
“They asked us to regroup and put ourselves in large groups to wait for new orders. We did that and stood and discussed what was happening. Some had obtained weapons but most were completely unarmed. Then the Ukrainian officers started talking some propaganda shit about the Russians not daring to send in any jets over our land.”
Dan Malmquist (DM): “Just after you were bombed by jets, did they say that the Russian would not dare to send any jets?”
Joel Karlsson (JK): “Yes, they claimed that it was an ‘uncoordinated attack’ in sheer desperation. That is absolutely not true, it was a coordinated attack. Almost every missile hit where it was supposed to, they took out exactly the stuff they knew they were going to aim at. So there was someone in there who had leaked information.”
The Russians knew exactly where to bomb, according to Joel. They started by knocking out a warehouse of modern Western weapons, which were stored in an inconspicuous barn. Then they turned to a gym, where many lay and slept. Photo: Private
DM: Where did the missiles hit?
“The first was an ammunition depot that was located in a discreet building, an old barn or similar. Another hit a small building where there was a gym, but there were a lot of people camping and sleeping, which they apparently knew. They [the recruits] probably did not even have time to wake up before they were killed.”
DM: So they are setting you up unarmed on open ground immediately after a hostile air strike?
“Yes, exactly, on open ground… Even I understand that these are shitty decisions that were made. They asked us to walk towards some helicopter landing sites on completely open and level ground. Then there are reports that someone has seen helicopters and there is talk that there are Russian paratroopers at the entrance. Then they line up people and say that we should consolidate the positions and defend the base against the paratroopers without weapons.
“Myself and a few others immediately said that we did not intend to do that. Others started protesting and said they had no weapons. A British officer told my group that ‘those who want to go can go, those who want to stay can stay’. Then I said that I did not come there to fight without weapons, it would be suicide. Myself and about thirty others left the other way, away from where the attack was expected. A small evacuation bus arrived and we hopped on board. Later we learned that about 45 minutes after we left, 20 more missiles came and leveled everything to the ground.”
DM: Did ground troops come in too? [No Russian ground troops have been confirmed to have been used in the attack. ed.]
“I do not know. But the Ukrainians were very quick to abandon the base. It was the volunteer legionaries from other countries who were allowed to fortify the positions without weapons, while most of the Ukrainian officers and soldiers just ran away. There was a whole bunch of Ukrainians who was supposed to help us, but they jumped in cars and just ran from there.”
DM: Who then led the command in that situation?
“It was very unclear. I never even had time to grasp who were the top officers at the base after being there for several days. There were new people who came and talked all the time, some held training sessions or gave out information, often without even knowing English so they had to have interpreters with them. It was a fucking circus, everything felt frivolous from the beginning.”
DM: Who came in with the evacuation bus?
“I do not know. It was just an ordinary school bus type, with a driver who did not speak English either. He came in, we jumped on board, he drove into the base while we shout that he can not go there and must turn around. He was escorted by a small car with a military guy in it, but he was in civilian clothes.”
DM: You wrote on a group on Telegram that you thought it was a PR coup from the Ukrainians, that they wanted volunteers to be struck. But that would not make it easier for them to recruit volunteers.
“I do not really know, it can also just have been a lot of infiltrators among the officers and pure incompetence. But it was at least quite obvious that they completely ignored the fact of volunteers had died. Some of us had managed to get hold of weapons and then came Ukrainian soldiers who tore the weapons out of our hands to take them for themselves. Then they ordered us to move towards where the paratroopers would arrive while they were sitting further back with weapons, so that we would attract fire. That was just before they ran away.”
DM: You were used as cannon fodder in short?
“Yes absolutely. There was a guy who had a weapon left and they shouted that they would give him ammunition. Then they claimed that the ammunition depot was locked. So there was only one guy in our group who had a weapon but not a single cartridge, and they started shouting that we had to stay and were not be allowed to leave the base.”
“I’m probably a bit conspiratorial, but I think it may have been deliberate. I’m not saying that it is so, but it was something damn clever in any case, everything was handled so strangely from beginning to end.”
DM: How big are the losses?
“I think that the Russians’ figure of 180 dead may very well be correct. Almost my entire shooting company went to where they were told that the paratroopers would come and that was where lots of bombs fell later. If there were 300 people on the base in total and 180 had died, I do not doubt it, I rather think that there may be more. In retrospect, we have had some contact with some guys who went back to look for survivors, and from them I heard that they found two who survived the post-bombing. There are certainly more than the two who survived, but there can not be many. It was such a sick devastation.
“When we ran out into the forest, we also did not know that it was mined with our own landmines. Of course, the officers knew about it, but we recruits had not received any information at all, so it was one of our own guys who died that way when we ran into the forest.”
DM: If this had been done deliberately by the Ukrainians, who do you think ordered it in that case?
“I do not know. At first I really thought it was a PR trick considering how incredibly badly everything was handled. You would run into a forest with mines in it, stand against paratroopers unarmed, and the warning air siren had been switched off. In fact, it felt like they wanted the worst slaughter of people. There may be other explanations – a guy from some intelligence service said that it had been confirmed that there was espionage and sabotage at the base. But at the very least they used us as pure cannon fodder.”
DM: So there was no air siren warning during the attack?
“Nothing. I woke up to the first bomb that fell. And they had no bunkers, no trenches, nothing. They had not told us where we would take shelter if an attack came. It was all just weird. Afterwards, I spoke to an American soldier from the special forces who pointed out how insane it was that we were ordered to stand on open ground by the helicopter pads. He refused to obey orders and remained in the woods instead. Among our group that withdrew from there, there were several elite soldiers who said that ‘this was the sickest thing I have been through in my whole life’. They had served in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Falkland Islands, all kinds of wars, and say they have never been in such a vulnerable situation. ‘Suicide mission’, several of them said bluntly.”
DM: How were you treated before the Russian attack?
“All right, but everything was so badly controlled. Bad equipment, bad organization, bad discipline. Poor hygiene and poor food made people sick all the time. They did not seem to know anything at all. Soldiers with experience said they had never experienced anything like it. I asked for a pair of gloves that I could wear in combat and they came with a pair of blue-red Helly Hansen gloves that practically shouted ‘here I am’ if you tried to camouflage yourself. Many also did not have the right equipment, the right uniforms and so on. There were no helmets, no vests, nothing.”
DM: So what happens now, are you going home to Sweden again?
“I’ll go home to fix certain things, then I’ll go again, but now to conduct humanitarian work. I was never particularly keen on fighting to begin with and was assured that they needed all sorts of people, not just soldiers, so I had really intended to work as a welder or mechanic behind the front. But when we were there, it was ‘welcome here, you get ten days of training and then you are sent to the front’. A few days later we still did not have a weapon and it was reduced to ‘five days of training, you get a weapon on the way to Kiev and then you will go into battle’.”
DM: Were people were sent straight to their deaths?
“To say the least. There were also so many leaks on this base that the Russians always knew what was happening. There had been a bus ride to Kiev with about thirty ‘fully trained’ volunteers. It ended up in a fire attack, a single one survived and was captured by Russians. In another bus with 80 people, four survived and managed to get back to base, the other 76 were killed. So the Russians knew everything that came in or out of that base, but they just kept sending people straight to their deaths.”
DM: Where did you hear this?
“It was a guy at the base who told me. There were confirmed fire attacks on the road to Kiev.”
DM: How did you react to that?
“I got nervous. Really nervous. But I went there for a reason. I had expected this. I knew I could die. It is war. I did not go there for nothing.”
DM: Do you think there were spies and saboteurs at the base?
“Yes, there are many who claim it. That they knew exactly where to fire their missiles to cause maximum damage, that the warning air siren was turned off just when the real attack came after it had been working quite well until then.
DM: Did your friend you came with survive?
“I have a very hard time believing it. He was one of those who lined up to go to the helicopter pads, and I have not heard anything from him since. It’s possible that he’s alive somewhere on Ukrainian territory, but I do not think so.”
DM: Who was he?
“A 32-year-old guy I met in Sundsvall where we both live. We exercised together and stuff like that. Nice guy.”
DM: I’m sorry. Did you know more people at the base, and were there more Swedes there?
“I personally met at least ten Swedes and you heard Swedish a little here and there. The day after the attack, when we managed to get to Poland, we sat there in a pub and had a beer and came across several Swedes who had been on their way to the base. Otherwise, it was people from all sorts of countries and political orientations. I know two Swedes who survived besides myself, the rest I have no idea.”
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