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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Ukraine needs more troops to fight Russia. Hardened professionals from Colombia are helping
KYIV, Ukraine: Melodic Colombian Spanish fills a hospital treating soldiers wounded fighting Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s ranks are depleted by two years of war. As it battles the Russian war machine, Ukraine is welcoming hardened fighters from one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.
Professional soldiers from Colombia bolster the ranks of volunteers from around the world who have answered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for foreign fighters to join his nation’s war with Russia.
A 32-year-old from the city of Medellin was trying to save a colleague wounded in three days of heavy fighting with Russian forces. Russian drones attacked the group and shrapnel from a grenade dropped by one pierced his jawbone.
“I thought I was going to die,” said the man, who goes by the call sign Checho. The fighters insisted on being identified by their military call signs because they feared for their safety and that of their families.
“We got up and decided to run away from the position to save our lives,” Checho said. “There was nowhere to hide.”
Colombia’s military has been fighting drug-trafficking cartels and rebel groups for decades, making its soldiers some of the world’s most experienced.
With a military of 250,000, Colombia has Latin America’s second-largest army, after Brazil’s. More than 10,000 retire each year. And hundreds are heading to fight in Ukraine, where many make four times as much as experienced non-commissioned officers earn in Colombia, or even more.
“Colombia has a large army with highly trained personnel but the pay isn’t great when you compare it to other militaries,” said Andrés Macías of Bogota’s Externado University, who studies Colombian work for military contractors around the world.
Retired Colombian soldiers began to head overseas in the early 2000s to work for US military contractors protecting infrastructure including oil wells in Iraq. Retired members of Colombia’s military have also been hired as trainers in the United Arab Emirates and joined in Yemen’s battle against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Colombia’s role as a recruiting ground for the global security industry also has its murkier, mercenary corners: Two Colombians were killed and 18 were arrested after they were accused of taking part in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.
At the military hospital normally treating wounded Ukrainian soldiers, a group of about 50 Colombian fighters spend most of their time staring at their phone screens — calling home, browsing the Internet and listening to music in between meals and medical procedures, most for light injuries.
As the two-year mark in the war approaches, Ukraine’s forces are in a stalemate with Russia’s. Ukraine is now expanding its system allowing people from around the world to join the army, said Oleksandr Shahuri, an officer of the Department of Coordination of Foreigners in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
In early 2022, authorities said 20,000 people from 52 countries were in Ukraine. Now, in keeping with the secrecy surrounding any military numbers, authorities will not say how many are on the battlefield but they do say fighters’ profile has changed.
The first waves of volunteers came mostly from post-Soviet or English-speaking countries. Speaking Russian or English made it easier for them to integrate into Ukraine’s military, Shahuri said.
Last year the military developed an infrastructure of Spanish-speaking recruiters, instructors and junior operational officers, he added.
Hector Bernal, a retired ex-combat medic who runs a center for tactical medicine outside Bogota, says that in the last eight months he’s trained more than 20 Colombians who went on to fight in Ukraine.
“They’re like the Latin American migrants who go to the US in search of a better future,” Bernal said. “These are not volunteers who want to defend another country’s flag. They are simply motivated by economic need.”
While generals in Colombia get around $6,000 a month in salaries and bonuses, the same as a government minister, the rank and file gets by on a much more modest income.
Corporals in Colombia get a basic salary of around $400 a month, while experienced drill sergeants can earn up to $900. Colombia’s monthly minimum wage is currently $330.
In Ukraine any member of the armed forces, regardless of citizenship, is entitled to a monthly salary of up to $3,300, depending on their rank and type of service. They are also entitled to up to $28,660 if they are injured, depending on the severity of the wounds. If they are killed in action, their families are due $400,000 compensation.
Checho says principle drove him to travel to Kyiv last September. He estimates that in his unit alone, there were around 100 other fighters from Colombia who had made the same journey.
“I know that there are not many of us, but we try to give the most we have in order to make things happen and to see a change as soon as possible,” he said.
In Colombia, word about recruitment to the Ukrainian army spreads mostly through social media. Some of the volunteers who already fight in Ukraine share insights on the recruitment process on platforms such as TikTok or WhatsApp.
But when something goes wrong, getting information about their loved ones is hard for relatives.
Diego Espitia lost contact with his cousin Oscar Triana after Triana joined the Ukrainian army in August 2023. Six weeks later, the retired soldier from Bogota stopped posting updates on social media.
With no Ukrainian embassy in Bogota, Triana’s family reached out for information from the Ukrainian embassy in Peru and the Colombian consulate in Poland — the last country Triana passed through on his way into Ukraine. Neither responded.
“We want the authorities in both countries to give us information about what happened, to respond to our emails. That is what we are demanding now,” Espitia said.
The Associated Press tracked down a Colombian fighter who uses the call sign Oso Polar — Polar Bear — and says he was the last person to see Triana alive on October 8, 2023. He says Triana’s unit was ambushed by Russian forces in the Kharkiv region, after which his fate was unknown.
The Ukrainian military unit where Triana was serving confirmed to The Associated Press that Triana is officially missing, but would not disclose any details surrounding the circumstances in which he disappeared.
Espitia, his cousin, says he’s not sure what motivated Triana to fight in Ukraine. But the 43-year-old had served in the Colombian army for more than 20 years and leaving it had been “mentally difficult,” Espitia said.
“It could’ve been for the money, or because he missed the adrenaline of being in combat. But he didn’t open up very much about his reasons for going,” Espitia said.
After almost three weeks in the hospital, Checho has returned to Ukraine’s front line. So have more than 50 other Colombian fighters who were treated in the same facility.
“The situation here is hard,” Checho told AP. “We are under constant bombardment, but we will keep fighting.”
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