I met the British volunteers killed in Ukraine — they were brave but ill-prepared

 (ES Composite)
(ES Composite)

The last time I saw Andrew Bagshaw — one of two British volunteers killed in Ukraine this month — we were swapping war stories over a beer in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. He was heading out of country on a supply run to buy a new van, after his previous one had been destroyed by Russian shelling in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where the fiercest fighting in the country was raging.

“It was ripped apart” Bagshaw, 48, had told me of his van, its tires shredded and windows smashed by the explosion. “But we got a family out” — which, to him, seemed to be all that mattered. He knew he was fortunate to still be alive, but seemed unphased, planning to continue his work in all the most dangerous areas in Ukraine.

The difference between that evacuation and his most recent one is he came back alive. Earlier thismonth, Bagshaw and his colleague Chris Parry, 28, a former software developer and running coach from Cornwall, travelled to Soledar, a town in the eastern Donetsk region, in order to evacuate an elderly woman, on the very day that the Russian military had managed to enter the city and take over important Ukrainian positions. Within two days, they were confirmed as missing and this morning, the Foreign Office confirmed what many had been fearing: that both men were killed while attempting to evacuate civilians on that mission. They had been trying to rescue an elderly woman when their car was hit by an artillery shell.

Naturally, their families are devastated. Parry’s parents released a statement paying tribute to his courage: “His selfless determination in helping the old, young and disadvantaged there has made us and his larger family extremely proud. We never imagined we would be saying goodbye to Chris when he had such a full life ahead of him. He was a caring son, fantastic brother, a best friend to so many and a loving partner to Olga.

“Chris was a confident, outward looking and adventurous young man who was loyal to everyone he knew. He lived and worked away as a software engineer but Cornwall was always his home. He loved rock climbing, cycling, running and skydiving and wanted to travel the world. He found himself drawn to Ukraine in March in its darkest hour at the start of the Russian invasion and helped those most in need, saving over 400 lives plus many abandoned animals. It is impossible to put into words how much he will be missed but he will forever be in our hearts.”

It just so happens that a colleague of mine, Arnaud De Decker, a reporter for Belgian Media organistaion HLN, was the last journalist to speak to Parry before his death. “Many people won’t go to Bakhmut anymore,” Parry told him, three days before he and Bagshaw went missing, in what is believed to be the last footage of him alive. “But there are people who want to leave, and I’m ready to go”.

Reporter Tom Mutch (left) and his crew the day before war started in Ukraine (Tom Mutch)
Reporter Tom Mutch (left) and his crew the day before war started in Ukraine (Tom Mutch)

Parry was just back from an evacuation mission in eastern Bakhmut and had crossed the river with his own car, going on his own because he got a call that a 51-year-old woman needed to be evacuated from the most dangerous street in the town. “He went no questions asked,” says De Decker, who met the woman Parry had saved. “He went to the eastern side of the city, he was able to ask the military where she was, and he certainly saved her life.”

De Decker recalls how Parry was nonchalant about the extreme dangers he and his fellow volunteers were facing, despite mostly working in the towns of Bakhmut and Soledar, which the Russians were attacking with all their strength. The dangers were extreme: on the several visits I have made to these towns, you could constantly hear explosions from artillery in the background. In May, we visited the site of an airstrike on a language college that had been used as a Ukrainian army base, which had been destroyed by a large missile. The building was flattened, and the windows of the apartment buildings around had been blown out. Soldiers were picking through the rubble trying to find remains of their comrades.

Bagshaw had no military background and did not speak the local languages or have the hostile environment training that is standard for journalists and humanitarian aid workers employed in such hot combat zones. When there are so few people willing to work in these areas, organisations often do not have specific criteria for who they are taking along. He was often scathing of major aid organisations, saying me they were “mostly useless”, hanging around with nice cars in fancy offices in safe cities far away from the frontline.

Volunteer Andrew Bagshaw on a mission in Ukraine (Sebastian Plocharski)
Volunteer Andrew Bagshaw on a mission in Ukraine (Sebastian Plocharski)

With no dependent family back in the UK and in between jobs, Bagshaw seemed a man in search of a purpose, which he had clearly found in Ukraine. Despite his lack of qualifications, colleagues regarded him as competent, hardworking and passionately committed to the people he was helping.

“Andy was a real hero”, his colleague and fellow volunteer Bryce Wilson, who worked with him extensively in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, tells me. “He was one of the few guys there who could always be relied on to do the work you asked him to do. We would tell him to wait at an extraction point outside a city and he would spend the whole day driving civilians to safety.”

While much volunteering and journalistic work in Ukraine has a strong streak of vanity in it, with volunteers competing to post the most intense or conflict heavy videos to TikTok or Instagram, Wilson says Bagshaw was completely different. “He just kept his head down, he wasn’t interested in self-promotion on social media, he was one of the only people not to have an Instagram.”

Bagshaw and Parry had been working with an organisation called Base.UA, an NGO that works to deliver aid and evacuation in the most dangerous parts of the country, though not by the time they went to Soledar. Wilson later left the volunteering group, citing differences with the leadership style, but he acknowledges they saved many lives. “[The] team pulled thousands of people out of Bakhmut and Soledar,” he tells me.

As a reporter on the ground, I saw this with my own eyes. In September, I accompanied Wilson and two British Army veterans - Craig Monaghan and Darren Roberts - from charity the Spearhead Foundation, who had served multiple tours to the town of Soledar as they attempted to evacuate some of the civilians who had remained behind. Many of these civilians were disabled, old or very attached to their hometown and unwilling to leave. It gave me a unique insight into both the heroism and the danger of the works the volunteers do. We left early in the morning from Kramatorsk, the city that is the administrative capital of the region and a major hub for aid and volunteering efforts in eastern Ukraine.

“The ground here looks clear,” Roberts had said as we pulled into a clearing outside the frontline town of Soledar. “That’s what I said the day I got blown up,” was Monaghan’s reply.

Bagshaw (middle) and his fellow volunteers in Ukraine (Andrew Bagshaw)
Bagshaw (middle) and his fellow volunteers in Ukraine (Andrew Bagshaw)

Both men were British veterans: Roberts served in Northern Ireland and the Balkans and Monaghan in Afghanistan, where he suffered a traumatic brain injury from a Taliban-planted IED. The air was ringing with ingoing and incoming artillery. Even then, it was currently the hottest part of the frontline in Donbas, which is still being heavily assaulted by Russian forces.

My time with Roberts and Monaghan gave me an insight into volunteers’ enormous struggle to convince people to leave their lives and homes for good. Many civilians are distrustful of them: in one basement, other civilians told them, “they are here to kidnap you! They will take your children and get paid for it!”. One of the group had to tell them to listen to the shell and ask “do you want your children to die? It’s yes or no” to get them to leave.

News of Bagshaw and Parr’s deaths is tragic and supports Monaghan’s longstanding scepticism that people without appropriate backgrounds should be working in these areas. Monaghan says he is amazed by Parry and Bagshaw’s bravery, but that their lack of experience means they should likely not have been in Ukraine in the first place. He also says that he had noticed serious safety concerns among volunteers in the area, including people wearing camouflage to make them look like soldiers, or putting yellow tape on their vehicles similar to what the Ukrainian army does.

Andrew Bagshaw and his fellow volunteers on an evacuation (Andrew Bagshaw)
Andrew Bagshaw and his fellow volunteers on an evacuation (Andrew Bagshaw)

“Volunteers shouldn’t be in camo, they shouldn’t have the Ukrainian cross on their vehicles,” he tells me. “In an Afghanistan context, if I was seeing black turbans coming towards me, even if they were saying they were friendlies, I’m going to be apprehensive and think they are Taliban. If I’m a Russian soldier and I see people in a vehicle with yellow tape on it, it’s the same vehicle that people have been shooting at me from for the last two weeks - I’m shooting that vehicle.”

Of course, Monaghan doesn’t know exactly what had happened in Bagshaw and Parry’s case, but he believes that there must have been serious planning errors in the operation, as it would have been possible to know if there was serious fighting going on in the town before entering.

“That’s the failure in allowing people like that to go on the ground. Darren and I knew quite a bit,” he says, referring to his and his colleague’s previous extensive military experience. “The lad [Parry] was a running coach and chose to go across and do arguably one of the most dangerous jobs without experience, it’s wild. I’m teaching Ukrainian military teams and I’m going to tell them that if people don’t have the background to get them out of the way. The difference between living and dying is understanding warfare - and many people there don’t understand warfare,” he concludes. “They shouldn’t have been there.”

For me, the war had always been terrifying and heart rending, but it hits differently when the deaths are of people you know. DeDecker and I were both particularly shaken by the fact that Parry was our age. Working in the same place, it could so easily have been one of us. But all we can do is raise a glass with the toast ‘Heroiam Slava’ (‘Glory to Heroes’) and continue our work.