From Adelaide to Ukraine: What drove one Australian to join another’s war? | Ukraine

Matt Roe was devastated to discover that a medical condition would prevent him from enlisting in the Australian Army.

“It took me years to get over it…if I ever did,” says the South Australian landscape gardener.

“It’s all I ever wanted to do.”

But now Roe, 36, has found another – albeit potentially illegal – way to get involved in a military campaign, by leaving Australia to join the Georgian National Legion, a unit created to fight Ukraine’s struggles. against the Russian invasion.

Roe is not Georgian or Ukrainian.

Growing up in the North East of Adelaide, he says that in many ways he ‘lived the dream’ and made good money as the owner of a small gardening and landscaping business.

But when the war started, images and reports from Ukraine kept Roe awake at night.

“It really eats me up inside, just sitting at home, you know… drinking beer and trudging along enjoying my three-day weekends, while people [there] suffering.”

Roe says he’s someone who “sticks his neck out and isn’t afraid to take risks, and I have a strong sense of right and wrong.”

It wasn’t the first time he felt compelled to volunteer for someone else’s fight.

“I wanted to do the same when the war started with Isis – I thought about joining the Peshmerga [the Kurdish armed forces fighting Islamic State] back in the days.”

Roe says an image finally broke any hesitation about going to Ukraine.

“There was this particular news story video I saw of this family, and they were carrying this little girl — she was probably about six or seven — and she was murdered.”

“That’s when I said, ‘nah fuck it, that’s it.'”

‘The Russians would see me as a mercenary’

Sarah Percy, an associate professor at the School of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Queensland, has researched and written extensively about the role of mercenaries and unconventional fighters. She says men who sign up to fight abroad often find that things are very different from what they imagined.

“There’s a very effective romanticization of war for young men, and especially when there’s a cause at play,” she says.

“Certainly with… Syria, what you often found was that they got there and were absolutely shocked by the reality of the war.”

She says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “had all the hallmarks of the kind of conflict that pushes people to fight for someone else.”

“There’s a definite aggressor, there’s some pretty charismatic leadership fighting back, there’s a sense that ideals are really at stake, important ideals — and that’s what drives people to go.”

Matt Roe, pictured in Ukraine, says he
Matt Roe, pictured in Ukraine, says he “likes to stick his neck out.”

In March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced the formation of an International Legion, and tens of thousands of people from around the world responded, including an estimated 200 Australians. Like Roe, some had little or no military experience, and some faced similar legal hurdles.

A British recruit said he had been detained at the airport on his departure and could be arrested for terrorism on his return, although signals from the British government were ambiguous. In February, Secretary of State Liz Truss said she would “absolutely” support anyone who volunteered to fight, but her fellow Secretary of State Grant Shapps later stressed it was illegal to do so and warned potential volunteers that they risked making the situation in Ukraine worse.

Roe traveled to Ukraine with a 23-year-old Melburnian whom he met through Reddit. Before leaving, he sold his landscaping business for “about 20% of what it was worth”.

By the time they arrived, they were both carrying several pounds of body armor, were severely sleep deprived and – despite concerted efforts to leave the country undetected – were known to the Australian government.

Australian law says it is an offense to “enter a foreign country with the intent to engage in a hostile activity, unless serving in or with the armed forces of another country’s government”, with penalties ranging up to life imprisonment.

The foreign affairs department declined to comment on Roe’s case, or the law’s application to anyone who went to Ukraine to fight. The advice on the Ukraine page of the government’s Smartraveller website makes no reference to the law, but simply says, “Don’t travel.”

dr. Carrie McDougall, an academic at the University of Melbourne and former assistant director of the international law section of the foreign affairs department, says the definition of a country’s armed forces has not been tested and could likely extend to the Georgian National Legion. .

Even if the judge favored a narrow interpretation, a criminal offense would only be committed if a person intends to engage in, or actually participates in, “hostile activities”, such as attempting to overthrow the government of a country. to overthrow.

Any decision to prosecute would also require the approval of the Attorney General, meaning the impact of any prosecution on Australia’s relationship with Ukraine could be taken into account.

McDougall says: “I think a strong argument can be made that it would be the exception rather than the rule that someone who went to fight for the Ukrainian Armed Forces or another associated entity would be captured by the Australian foreign incursions.”

Roe knows he will have to think about what might happen if he wants to return to Australia, but he says questions about the legality of his action “are not the most important thing to me at the moment”.

“The most important thing for me at the moment is that Ukraine wins.”

There is also the rather pressing issue of the Russians. The ramifications of any legal action in Australia pale in comparison to the day-to-day risks in Ukraine.

At least one Australian who joined the International Legion has been killed. Tasmanian Mick O’Neill, who also had no previous combat experience, died on May 24 when his unit was hit by a Russian mortar attack outside Kharkiv, the Australian reported.

The prospect of being captured is not much less terrifying.

“[The Russians] would see me as a mercenary,” says Roe. “To be put to death.”

At least two British men face the death penalty after being captured while fighting Ukrainian troops.

Rocket attacks and untrained volunteers

Roe arrived in Ukraine at a bad time for potential foreign fighters.

Many deserted hastily after a rocket attack on a base used by the fledgling International Legion just 10 km from the Polish border.

“There were a lot of people in the International Legion during those bombings who put down their guns, and they just ran to the Polish border,” Roe says. Some of them forgot to unpack their bags and tried to cross the border with five or six hundred rounds.”

After that, the policy of the Ukrainian government changed drastically: volunteers were welcome, but they had to prove their mettle before they were given the confidence to fight.

“We were all pretty pissed off,” Roe says when he learned he wasn’t going to fight. “A lot of people… just left.”

Roe stayed. He enlisted in the Georgian National Legion and received training as a military instructor, despite his own lack of experience.

Since then, Roe has criss-crossed Ukraine’s central regions training boys and men — often the only instruction they receive before being sent to the front.

“You’ll be like ‘how many people in here have fired a gun?’ There are about 100 people and two hands are going up,” says Roe. “Unfortunately, we lost quite a few people we trained. But it’s better than nothing… and you can see how much of a difference it makes.”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meets his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a visit to Kiev in July.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a visit to Kiev in July. Zelenskiy encouraged the formation of an international legion, but the Ukrainian government limited its action after the first weeks of the war. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

When Roe arrived in Lviv in late March, Russia was still making a northwestern advance through Belarus, aiming to take Kiev.

Lviv, the hub through which most aid to Ukraine passes, was regularly shelled.

“The first few days, when a siren went off, you noticed and ran to that shelter,” Roe says. “But as time goes by, everything becomes normal.”

When the Guardian spoke to Roe, Russia had carried out its first missile strikes on Kiev in nearly a month. He says his response was a long way from those first few days in the country.

‘Yesterday… we just went out. We went to a museum.

“There are missile sirens and missiles explode… But you can’t just stay inside, and a missile is just as likely to hit someone when you’re in an apartment building as it is when you’re out and about in Kiev.”

‘He does something that feels right’

Sarah Percy says her research shows that there is often no easy way back to civilian life for those who go into combat, and exposure to war can have lasting effects on both the individual and those around them.

“You could certainly speculate whether that could lower people’s barriers to using violence,” she says.

And while the current Royal Commission on Defense and Veteran Suicide has drawn more attention to the importance of post-conflict mental health treatment, people outside that structure are at risk of losing any chance of institutional support.

“One of the dangers of going on your own…is that you’re doing it outside the state umbrella designed to care for people with PTSD,” she says.

“That’s one of the risks you take…there’s no one to pick up the pieces.”

Back in Adelaide, any thoughts on how Roe might adapt are far from the primary consideration for his sister Ali, 36, as she anxiously awaits news about her brother.

She says he’s one of her best friends, but doesn’t know if and when she’ll see him again.

When she talks about Matt’s motivations, his sister talks in terms of purpose.

“You have a purpose in life, and you really feel that purpose so strongly. [Matt’s] just never felt settled and never been able to be really really happy because the one thing he’s always known he has to do he hasn’t been able to do.

She says that – for better or for worse – he has found his purpose in Ukraine.

“It’s hard… it’s really damn hard. But…for the first time ever, he’s doing something that feels right.”

Leave a Comment