February 24 will forever be etched in the memory of Alex Vasilenko.
He was traveling with friends in a remote part of Australia’s Northern Territory when they encountered a rare mobile reception area.
“I got a bunch of messages about all the [applications] like Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and people said, “Alex, they’re bombing us…the war has started,” he told SBS Dateline.
“We stopped the car in the middle of the road and it was one of the first times in my life that I had tears in my eyes because I realized that was the end of the life that I knew before.”
But when the missiles fell, the pain of losing his homeland was not enough to make him want to return home and fight the advancing Russian forces, alongside many friends and family.
Having moved to Australia from Ukraine in 2012, Vasilenko lives in Sydney and works in data and analytics while running a start-up company. The 33-year-old says seeing Russia invade his country made him feel helpless.
“When I’m here, I feel homesick for Ukraine, especially the food, the music and the behavior of the people,” he says.
“It’s a part of me…even though I’ll spend the rest of my life here [in Australia]…on my last day, before I die, I will still remember Ukraine.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin approved his “special military operation” in Ukraine, Russia launched a full-scale invasion by land, air and sea.
In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy created a foreign legion and called on anyone, including Ukrainians abroad, to go home and fight.
The call was answered enthusiastically, and on March 6 Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced that more than 20,000 people from 52 different countries had enlisted.
While Dateline reported in April of an Australian who traveled to Ukraine to fight, it is unclear how many other Australians joined him.
It is illegal for Australian citizens to fight for non-state armed groups in foreign conflicts, although it is legal to join the official military forces of a foreign country. DFAT’s current travel advice for Ukraine and Russia is not to travel.
Additionally, a Home Office spokesperson told SBS Dateline that consular support for Australians in the region is extremely limited.
Every day, Alex Vasilenko receives a flood of messages from friends and family in Ukraine.
For Alex, despite a sense of loyalty to Ukraine, the prospect of traveling to fight there made him consider his own mortality.
“If you live in Australia, I don’t think you will support Ukraine, if you go there and fight, unless you are a professional soldier and have very specific job skills,” he says.
“If you just come over there and take the gun and get killed the next day, that’s not a lot of support. It’s a loss of support.
According to an adviser to Mr. Zelenskyy, up to 200 Ukrainian soldiers are killed every day. The number of Russian soldiers killed in the conflict is unclear. Russia rarely discloses the deaths of its own soldiers.
Losing loved ones
Alex says at least 10 of his close friends and family were killed fighting on the Ukrainian front line.
“I got a few messages from women who know me and they say, do you remember Genya? … he was killed.
“In this group of people, there are young families, they have young children, they have just started their real life to settle down.
“And now they are losing their lives. They lose everything.
If you just come over there and take the gun and get killed the next day, that’s not much support. It’s a loss of support.
Being captured by Russian forces is another risk of joining the Ukrainian foreign legion, with two Britons and a Moroccan national who fought for Ukraine currently at risk of execution.
Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Brahim Saadoun were sentenced by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, one of Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine.
British officials have condemned what they call a Russian “show trial”. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tried to intervene, saying they are ‘prisoners of war’ and the decision is a ‘fictitious judgment without any legitimacy’.
British citizens Aiden Aslin (left) and Shaun Pinner (right) and Moroccan Saaudun Brahim (centre) attend a sentencing hearing at the Supreme Court of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. Source: AAP / LENGTH/EPA
For these reasons, Alex says he didn’t consider traveling to Ukraine to fight. Instead, he urges the Australian community to find other ways to help.
“My close friends who work in the army or in the Ukrainian intelligence forces, they say, we have long lines, five, six people per seat who want to go and fight. They said you better do your job, especially if you stay abroad, spread information, support the Ukrainian movement… influence [other] governments to support Ukraine.
Before foreign governments began providing assistance to Ukraine, Alex said the front line suffered from a lack of basic supplies.
“The other kind of help we can provide is financial help,” says Alex.
“The soldiers, they don’t have enough money in the army account to provide them with medicine like painkillers.”
It was this knowledge that compelled him to act quickly.
“So I thought, ‘why don’t I sacrifice my salary?’ Give it to those people who fight for my country.
A Ukrainian serviceman walks among the rubble of a building heavily damaged by multiple Russian shelling near a frontline in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 25, 2022. Source: PA, PA / Philip Dana
Australia is one of the largest non-NATO contributors to Ukraine’s defense program.
Following Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit to Kyiv in early July, Australia pledged an additional $99.5 million in military support, which included the delivery of 14 additional armored personnel carriers and 20 other vehicles of mobility protected by Bushmaster. Australia has so far provided approximately $388 million in military aid to Ukraine.
Escape from Ukraine
In early February, as Alex sat in his vehicle in the red dirt near Uluru, there was only one person in the lead.
“I realized that my mother was in danger and that I had to make quick decisions,” he recalls.
Tetiana Vasylenko lived in the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, about 40 kilometers from the Russian border.
On February 24, at 5 a.m., she heard the bombs explode.
“I was very scared for my life because at any moment a missile could have arrived,” Tetiana told SBS Dateline.
“It’s very hard to realize that your whole life in Ukraine is literally over.”
Tetiana Vasylenko lived in the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine.
Through the tireless efforts of her son, she managed to be driven out of town as the bombs fell.
She went to a bomb shelter in the Ukrainian town of Kropyvnytskyi before boarding an evacuation train to Krakow in Poland.
The United Nations estimates that more than 3.5 million people have fled to Poland since the start of the invasion.
“The train was stopped several times and they asked them not to use their mobile phones because Russian planes were flying around them and started bombing the tracks,” Alex said.
“The worst thing she had seen was parents putting their children on the train because there was no room for the parents.
“They were giving their kids to random people and crying and saying ‘could you please at least save our kids. “”
Tetiana traveled from Kharkiv to a bomb shelter in Kropyvnytskyi, before taking an evacuation train to Krakow.
In April, Tetiana managed to arrive in Australia as a refugee, but the trauma of her flight still haunts her.
“It’s so terrifying, all these explosions,” she said.
“When I was in Krakow…a door was slamming and I thought it was gunfire.
“Since I came here [to Australia] I feel good, I have peace of mind. Maybe it’s because my son is by my side.
Tetiana Vasylenko and her son, Alex Vasilenko in Australia.
While Alex is relieved to have rescued his mother from Ukraine, he worries about his family and friends being left behind.
Some of his relatives have taken refuge in the Kharkiv metro which has been transformed into a bomb shelter. The trains have stopped.
“This war is not just about Ukrainian sovereignty,” he said.
“It’s war between the free world, the future against the past.”