DONETSK, UKRAINE – They may not get proper uniforms or much training but from former policemen to Soviet Army veterans a growing number of volunteers in east Ukraine are signing up with insurgents to battle government troops.
Vladislav, dressed in a black bulletproof vest and cradling a Kalashnikov rifle, guarded the entrance to his rebel barracks in the rebel controlled-city of Donetsk.
On his chest was a sticker saying: “I’m from Donetsk and I’m proud of it.”
The 25-year-old ex-cop said he had joined the pro-Russian separatist movement just two weeks previously.
The self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” is actively recruiting to bolster its forces in heavy fighting with the Ukrainian Army that has killed some 360 people since April.
Vladislav said he was undergoing training, including target practice at a firing range, and was ready to go to the front line.
“Of course we’ll go. We’re going to defend the Donbass,” said Vladislav, speaking of the rebel-held industrial heartland in the country’s east.
“We think that the Kiev authorities won’t stop. They’ll go further and further, to the end. We also won’t sit and wait.”
“We hope for support from Russia, that there will be some support from Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. We love him very much, respect him,” added Vladislav.
Highlighting the makeshift nature of the rebels’ operation, new recruits are not being issued with uniforms, said Vladislav, who simply wears his old police clothes.
“They are giving out weapons, to those who can shoot,” he said, proudly showing off his Kalashnikov.
The rebels have been advertising for volunteers on their own radio and television stations, particularly calling for those with military experience, including tank drivers.
They are also recruiting through several stands in the city center.
“Hundreds of people sign up every day, of all ages,” said 37-year-old Vitaly, who wore a vest with a bulldog print, and described himself as the recruits’ sergeant major.
Yevgeny, a 25-year-old from Donetsk, wore a mismatched outfit of camouflage jacket and black sports shoes, with a black balaclava tied to his shoulder.
“I was watching television and saw what is happening in the country. I have a grievance against the Kiev authorities,” Yevgeny said, explaining his motivation to volunteer.
“There was an ad running along the bottom of the screen on television, saying they were recruiting rebels,” said the shaven-headed young man who grinned to reveal a chipped front tooth.
“We came to defend our city, our families, everyone we love and respect,” Yevgeny said.
The young men said that while they underwent training, their battalion was acting as a law enforcement body in Donetsk.
They said they were being sent to crime scenes and questioning suspects since the Kiev-loyal police service have little authority in the rebel-held city.
“We have more powers than the police. They don’t go out, they are afraid,” Yevgeny said. “We deal with looters and illegal gangs in the city.”
While some of those manning checkpoints in the heavily Russified region may look like teenagers, the recruits said the minimum age for joining up was 18.
“Lots of women come as well as a lot of guys who have done military service and are aged 25 to 30,” said Vitaly.
“They do a course of combat training and then they go to the front line.”
The rebels are also recruiting older men who served in the Soviet Army, Vitaly added.
Sergiy, a 45-year-old with a gaunt sunburned face and glasses, said that he had served in the Soviet armed forces in East Germany.
“I’m not afraid to die,” he said. “All the same, the republics will live on. The republic means freedom.”
“It’s a place where they don’t force me to speak a language, where they don’t force me to call myself a different nationality.”
Another older volunteer, 49-year-old Viktor, who was unshaven and wore a tracksuit, said he had never served in the army.
“I never thought that I’d become a soldier,” he said.
“We lived 23 years with these people,” after Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union. “I never thought that they’d open fire on the civilian population.”