A Foreign Volunteer on Fighting Russian Troops in Ukraine

TIME was first to meet Povilas Lombattas in Vilnius, Lithuania on the second day after Russia invaded Ukraine. At the age of 24, the bartender had fled his Kaunas home and boarded the train to register for volunteer combat service. An orphan who had spent two years in the Lithuanian army military experience and a strong sense of moral duty, he had felt that “it would be selfish” not to go.

He had his registration papers, but it was difficult to find the right way to travel to Ukraine. In the end, he went with another Lithuanian, who ran humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, and returned with the refugees. He attempted and failed to cross the border twice. The second attempt proved to be a blessing: if he hadn’t been refused, Limontas could have been at Lviv’s international training center when Russia attacked it March 13. 35 people were killed. He was eventually admitted to Ukraine in March, and he made it to Kyiv with some other volunteers from Sweden and the Czech Republic. They were sent to the Territorial Defense Forces as a unit. They would witness two weeks worth of combat in the next month and the horrors that occurred after the liberation of Bucha.

Limontas was done with his assignment and returned home to Kaunas in Lithuania on April 7. He’s still debating whether to go back to Ukraine. Limontas spoke to TIME’s Lisa Abend on April 17.

We spent about four days at the central military base where we were given our weapons–an AK47. There was training for people who were green, but we weren’t, so we told them to give us some targets and 10 or 20 shots to warm up with so we could get familiar with the gun. That was all. We were ready to go. One thing that I liked was that no one asked, “Why are you here?” Everyone understood that I was there to fight against evil.

Our first act of duty was only two weeks after we arrived in Ukraine. Two of us were assigned to be bodyguards on behalf of a high-ranking official who was at the front. We went with our most experienced colleagues to Irpin. [a city northwest of Kyiv]. It was very intense. The rockets would often cause alarms in Kyiv. You could still go hide in a shelter and smoke a cigarette during the sirens’ absence for long periods. There was never silence in Irpin. The sirens rang for 20 seconds before the blast. It was just bombs coming all the time from right and left—and dangerously close, about 400 meters from where we were.

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I was able to go on two more bodyguard missions. We had our first fight during the third mission. It was located in Irpin (in the forest) and the enemy was approximately 200 meters away. They tried to ambush Ukrainians. We came in as reinforcements, and fired a bit, but after a little while, we had to run, because one thing I had learned in Lithuania is that if you’re in a firefight with Russians, you only have 10 minutes before they send in artillery. It lasted for five-ten minutes but felt like it took five seconds.

The second frontline was a defense of a village located near Kyiv’s river. We spent nine days there. According to our instructions, the village required support. We also were asked if we could relieve any units that were already there. As soon as we got there—in the first 10 seconds after we exited our vehicles—we were shelled. We both fell to our knees. We fell to our faces. The blasts came from 200m away, at 100m, and just kept on coming. It was right when we arrived, so there’s a good possibility we were targeted.

My Czech friend was my best buddy. At first, we joked about how nice it would be if we lived to see the third day. We had been so shelled the first night. After a few hours, it became clear that we just wanted one more day. We basically didn’t sleep the first night because every two hours we had to guide other guys to the positions in the trenches, and every time we got 50 meters from our shelter there’d be a whistle, we’d get down, and boom. The night I nearly died was the first. A little shrapnel was found in my helmet’s back. It’s a small piece but that’s all it takes.

The fourth and fifth days were my closest encounter with death. The shifts we did were for territorial defense fighters. At about 8 a.m., I had finished my shift and was walking back to the shelter alone, which wasn’t very bright of me. I heard a whistle, but it wasn’t the normal kind of whistle, where it’s likely that you’ll live. It was like hearing a kettle boil at maximum heat. My legs collapsed and my neck was covered. The explosion was about 10 meters away. There was an entire house nearby, and it was totally destroyed. I was saved by one brick wall. If the artillery had hit on the left side instead of the right, I’d be gone.

Before I went to Lithuania I stated that I was prepared for if one or two rockets were wasted on me, rather than children. Well, it wasn’t one or two rockets. In those nine days, hundreds of dollars were spent on me. I was lucky to live, it worked out well.

Seven days later, we were informed by the Ukrainians that they had retaken Stoyanka near Bucha and required our assistance. Because I was trained to use the grenade launcher during my service in the Lithuanian military, they gave it to me. I don’t actually know how they managed to get one, but it was like getting a Christmas present.

When we were headed to Stoyanka, we knew there was a good chance we wouldn’t make it back home. So before we left, my Czech friend gave me a piece of paper with a phone number and said, “This is the phone number of my girlfriend. If I fall, you’ll have to call her.” I went numb for a second because I thought those kinds of moments only existed in movies. I replied that he would have to send my latest video to me if I did fall. We just nodded and then went back to work.

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There was huge resistance, which we had expected. But it wasn’t. We helped to clear streets and worked with special police, who cleared basements and houses. It took about 10 hours for the operation to be completed, and the Ukrainians had seized the city. The Ukrainians posted several days later saying that they had retaken the entire Kyiv region.

Ukrainians are full of spirit. You can see their strength just by looking at them. They don’t fear, they laugh, share all their feelings, and they can fight any battle. It’s impossible to win against a country like that.

When I think about the Ukrainian volunteers who joined the fight after the invasion started, the two words that come to mind are “stupid brave.” Ukrainians are stupid brave. If you hand them a gun, they’ll fight. That can be good and bad, but it’s better to be motivated to fight without skill, than to have skill and be afraid to fight.

As for me, I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t feel anything while I was there. I didn’t let myself be guided by emotions. One time, we traveled to Bucha for protection of journalists following the Ukrainian soldiers while they took their bodies. Literally everything that hadn’t been nailed down was stolen—they stole the ATMs, and cash registers from supermarkets. You could see shattered glass all over, as well as shrapnel and bullets from the artillery. The Russians used a kindergarten as their command center, so we entered the basement to see the execution rooms. It was stained with blood. My boots stuck to the floor because the blood hadn’t dried yet.

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I didn’t have any emotion. I basically left all of my feelings behind. But now that I’m back home, I feel like they’re catching up with me, these new feelings that I don’t know how to deal with. I’ve had a hard time understanding what happened. Because it doesn’t matter how strong you are. It’s not something your brain is used to.

Now that I’m back in Lithuania my mission is to go on every radio, talk show, newspaper possible. People get used to things like this and I need to remind them that the war is not over, and people still need support—in food, ammunition, and medicine. Even though five euros are still a donation, 5 euros could feed me for five days.

I don’t think my time in Ukraine changed my perspective on the world or on life. But I know that I didn’t come back the same as I left. My favorite memory is the time we returned to Stoyanka after we had retook Stoyanka. We had 40 kilos gear. It was very hot. We hadn’t slept in 30 hours. After returning to the village, we fell asleep. The next morning when our alarm woke us, the frontline was still far away. The artillery couldn’t reach us. While we were smoking cigarettes outside, there weren’t any whistles. For the first time in 7 to 8 days, it was possible to leave the house. It felt like we had made a difference and that my trip wasn’t for nothing. This was such a wonderful feeling.

We accomplished our mission and defended the village. But I don’t consider it a victory. There were 200 to 250 houses left in the town. Perhaps you could still live there if you changed the windows or the roof. They destroyed all the other ones, and there was only one brick left. But we did win, at a very high cost.

After the move of the frontline, it took 20 hours for the elderly to return home. There was this one old woman who was standing in front of her house, which looked like it had been cut down the middle—one whole side was completely blown off. After a long sigh, she exhaled. Then she returned to her yard and started digging. Everyone has their unique coping mechanisms.

Lisa Abend, as told

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