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A closer look at the volunteers who are signing up to fight the Russians

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's a city that has so far been spared the worst of Russia's war on Ukraine. And that means it's had time to prepare and even reinforce the cities now under attack. Here a diverse resistance is taking shape. And it's made up of everyone from rank-and-file soldiers to a seasoned fighter driven by ideology to a house painter who's never picked up a weapon. At a military enlistment center, men are signing up to fight. A couple women that are nurses want to be military medics. They turn around and see Zhora Malconyan.

And I saw you walking up with your duffle bag. What are you going to do here?

ZHORA MALCONYAN: (Through interpreter) Defend the Ukraine.

FADEL: The 19-year-old is trying to sign up to fight. The interior design student says when he tried last week, it was chaos.

MALCONYAN: (Through interpreter) They were only taking the people who served before. So now I'm back here to try to sign up again.

FADEL: He hates the Russian government for attacking his country, the Belarusian government for threatening to join the attack, but not the people. His grandparents are in Belarus. He talks to them every day and sends the money.

What do you want to do? Where do you want to go?

MALCONYAN: (Through interpreter) Wherever I would be sent - I don't care.

FADEL: So if they send - if they say, all right, go to Kharkiv, go to Kyiv, you're ready. You're going to go today.

MALCONYAN: (Through interpreter) Of course. Yes.

FADEL: You're not scared?

MALCONYAN: (Through interpreter) No. Why? They came to our land. So they have to be scared, not us.

FADEL: What's in your bag?

(SOUNDBITE OF VELCRO OPENING)

MALCONYAN: (Through interpreter) Metal cups, a bag, uniform, medic - sweets.

FADEL: So you're ready to go.

MALCONYAN: (Through interpreter) Yes (laughter).

FADEL: He runs off to get in line as Yulia Kravatz and her brother embrace their father. They walk off in tears. Her father fought against Russian forces in 2014 when they annexed Crimea.

YULIA KRAVATZ: (Crying) And now he's going to the war again. And I hope that it will finish soon because we need our fathers here in our homes. And we want stay in our country. And we want to be freedom from Russia - occupation. And we hope that our father will come back alive.

FADEL: I pray that he will. I pray he will. And what did you just say to him when you said goodbye?

KRAVATZ: Come back alive. We wait on you.

FADEL: Her mother isn't with them. She couldn't face the goodbye.

KRAVATZ: She just told father that she is waiting for him and hope he will come back soon.

FADEL: Did you ever tell him, don't go?

KRAVATZ: Sure. But our father is a nationalist. And he love Ukraine very much. And he said, if I don't go, then who will go? So we need to do this.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR #1: (Speaking Ukrainian).

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR #2: (Speaking Ukrainian).

(SOUNDBITE OF RIFLE PUMP)

FADEL: Across town, hundreds of people stand in an open field watching three instructors who rotate - one on first aid, another on how to make Molotov cocktails and third on weapons. After the demonstration, there are questions from the crowd.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter). Tell me, please, how many seconds it takes for the whole magazine to be empty.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR #1: (Speaking Ukrainian).

FADEL: In the crowd, I find Micola.

And what's your full name?

MICOLA: No - because my family now in Belarus.

FADEL: The fact that he's fighting Russia would put his family in danger in Belarus, where Russia has control and troops are poised to join the attack on Ukraine. Micola's with a few other Belarusians learning about weapons. He says they are all part of a group of foreign fighters that are forming to fight Russian troops assaulting Ukrainian cities.

MICOLA: I'm waiting guys from Poland - Belarus guys from Poland. We are united here and go to Kyiv to help our guys.

FADEL: He's here today because some of the men with him have no experience, so they're watching the instructors.

MICOLA: I'd like to hang instead of lamps as much ruskis (ph) as I can.

FADEL: Missiles?

MICOLA: Ruskis - Russians.

FADEL: If you didn't catch that, he says he wants to see Russians hanging from every lamppost. And you said you fought before. Or is that a...

MICOLA: I'm a hunter.

FADEL: OK.

MICOLA: I have a lot of experience for killing animals.

FADEL: But have you ever killed...

MICOLA: So...

FADEL: ...A person?

MICOLA: No. It's more easier to kill a person than animal.

FADEL: Really?

MICOLA: Yeah - because if you hate some person, it's OK. I don't hate animals.

FADEL: Next to him is a tall man with a beard and tattoos visible on his hand and neck. He gives only his first name, Andree.

ANDREE: I'm the head of the foreign fighters who come from Europe to Azov Battalion. This is my group. Now they're going to make a tactical training. Then they're going to go to the front.

FADEL: So let's talk about the Azov Battalion. That regiment has a reputation for having the fiercest fighters in Ukraine. The paramilitary is credited with recapturing the southern port city of Mariupol from Russian separatists in 2014. And despite their neo-Nazi affiliations, they were folded into Ukraine's National Guard. Groups like this are what Putin uses when he tries to paint Ukraine as rife with Nazis. It's part of his justification for invading. Andree bristles when our producer, Graham Smith, asks about a symbol he's wearing.

GRAHAM SMITH, BYLINE: So I can't help but notice the patch on your shoulder.

ANDREE: (Unintelligible).

SMITH: I think it's a patch that's associated with kind of a right-wing political movement.

MICOLA: Cannot say that.

SMITH: What's the name of it?

ANDREE: Cannot say that.

FADEL: He won't say.

SMITH: Political movement.

ANDREE: It's not far-right.

SMITH: I don't know how to describe it.

FADEL: In times of war, people don't always ask questions about who's coming to defend them. And it seems like a lot of people are coming.

ANDREE: A lot of them come from Belarus.

FADEL: Belarus.

ANDREE: Yeah. A lot of them come from Lukashenko regime and Putin. A lot of them come from United States and Germany, Switzerland.

FADEL: You have Americans in your group.

ANDREE: We have Americans. And also, America's on the way.

FADEL: They're on their way.

ANDREE: Yeah.

FADEL: How many Americans would you say are in your group?

ANDREE: Cannot say this.

FADEL: You can't say this. I have to ask, is there any concern to have so many foreign fighters coming to Ukraine that you don't know who they are, why they're coming?

ANDREE: They all been checked.

FADEL: How do you check them?

ANDREE: Cannot say this.

FADEL: So far, only 10 are in the country, but he expects hundreds. And Andree is eager to stop with the logistics and get to the fight in Kyiv.

ANDREE: It actually was funny thing. I told superior guys that I feel like I'm a tour agent and they want to go back (laughter).

FADEL: You feel like a what?

ANDREE: A tour agent - guys come here. Drive this. Go over there. Do this. So the guys - I'm sick of this s***. I'm going to go over there. No way (laughter). There soon will be no Russians left.

FADEL: When do you think you're going to go?

ANDREE: (Sighing).

FADEL: Yet another question that he can't answer.

LUKA: Well, not exactly - but because the city expanded.

FADEL: So we're out in front of this abandoned factory that is now the site, I guess, of people building Molotov cocktails. We're going to go inside and see what's up.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTIC TARP RUSTLING)

FADEL: We pull back a plastic curtain and walk through what looks like a hipster cafe and then out back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS SCRAPING)

FADEL: So this whole courtyard is filled with what look like abandoned buildings. But they're artist studios and apparently underground clubs.

LUKA: Oh, you see - it's hanging over there?

FADEL: Who is hanging over there?

LUKA: Vladimir Putin.

FADEL: Oh, wow. There's an effigy over here of this guy. Yeah - Vladimir Putin hanging from a balcony of what looks like an abandoned building.

LUKA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LUKA: It's - American journalist.

FADEL: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hey.

FADEL: OK. This is a theater - usually. (Inhale). It smells like gas. This whole room smells like gas.

LUKA: Of course. So don't smoke cigarettes.

FADEL: Don't smoke cigarettes in here (laughter).

LUKA: That open to there?

FADEL: What's back here?

So they just lifted a black curtain, and we walked in, and there's a bunch of empty bottles.

So what is this?

METROV SOVKA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LUKA: "It's just prepared empty bottles to maybe make the cocktail for our occupants."

FADEL: It feels like an artist collective - you know, if firebombs weren't being made here. There are bicycles mounted on the wall, one of them covered in dried flowers, spray-painted murals on empty lockers.

Metrov Sovka is running the operation today. Just last week, before the war started, he was a house painter.

SOVKA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LUKA: "Now, like, this unites everyone. And I never thought, I'm going to do this. I had absolutely different, like, view on life."

FADEL: You said you had an absolutely different view on life. Like, describe what you were like six days ago.

LUKA: (Speaking Ukrainian). "I like more of a chill, relaxed, laid-back lifestyle. Like, I come back home from work, and I smoke a hookah and I relax,"

FADEL: OK. And so how did you end up being the Molotov cocktail factory guy (laughter)?

SOVKA: Oh, YouTube, Google.

LUKA: "And then we tested it out on that wall over there."

FADEL: Oh. So this black...

SOVKA: Yes. Yes.

FADEL: ...Burns all over this wall is from practicing?

SOVKA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

FADEL: They're sending them to the front lines, to various check points. But Sovka hopes the Russians turn back before these firebombs are ever used.

SOVKA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LUKA: "So this is a point that we always had friends in Russia. And - but Russian people - we have to understand that it's the Russian government who is the terrorists in this situation."

FADEL: They offer to put one together. They take us outside to show us how it works.

SOVKA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Ukrainian).

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS ON GRAVEL)

SOVKA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Ukrainian).

(SOUNDBITE OF MOLOTOV COCKTAIL CRASHING AND IGNITING)

FADEL: If the Russians make it here, they say, this is where they'll face their biggest fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAMES CRACKLING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Arezou Rezvani is a senior editor for NPR's Morning Edition and founding editor of Up First, NPR's daily news podcast.
Graham Smith is a Senior Producer on NPR's Investigations team and winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for audio reporting. He works with staffers, station reporters and independent journalists to dig deep and create sound-rich, long-form stories and series.