A Briton who traveled to Ukraine to join the military fight against the Russian invasion said he left the war zone amid fears he faced a ‘suicide mission’.
Ben Spann told Sky News he did not tell his wife or 16-year-old son he was going to Ukraine to take up arms despite never having served in the army and had no connection with the war-torn country.
The 36-year-old, from Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, said he spent five days in a safe house in western Ukraine with four former British soldiers – and at one point a gun was pointed at his head after the property was searched by a “Ukrainian SWAT team”.
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He also claimed to have seen the bodies of two dead Russian soldiers propped up at a checkpoint “as a warning” to Vladimir Putin’s army.
The Foreign Office has told Britons traveling to Ukraine to fight in the conflict that they could be prosecuted, after the British military confirmed a number of serving soldiers had gone AWOL and may have traveled there.
Entering the Ukrainian war zone without the knowledge of the family
Mr Spann, who runs an anti-stabbing charity who has previously been involved in growing cannabis, told Sky News he wanted to help defend Ukraine because he thought ‘it was the right thing to do” but admits it was “an absolute nightmare”.
He said he told his family he was flying to Poland to help with the Ukrainian refugee aid effort, but in fact he intended to ‘go there and fight’ .
After boarding his flight from Stansted to Szczecin in Poland on March 2, he said he met four ex-British soldiers who planned to “join the resistance” and he decided to enter Ukraine with them.
After landing in Poland, the group traveled by coach before crossing the Ukrainian border in -6C temperatures in the early hours of the morning, Mr Spann said.
They stayed in a “small” safe house without beds or running water in western Ukraine with several other volunteers, he added.
Mr Spann told Sky News: “It was like walking into a crack den in England to be honest with you.
“It was a bit of a shock thinking, ‘Holy shit, this is reality’.”
Mr Spann said the group expected the transport to arrive at the safe house on the third day in Ukraine so they could collect weapons, but he did not show up.
“We sat there with AK-47s pointed at our heads”
That evening, he said there was a knock on the door of the property and “10 members of a Ukrainian SWAT team” burst in.
Read more: Briton who volunteered to fight in Ukraine refused as he would be ‘a handicap’
Mr Spann said: “One of our snipers who opened the door got pinned against the wall in front of him by two ballistic shields.
“We sat there with AK-47s pointed at our heads for 20-30 minutes, hands over our heads, while they searched everywhere and we were sort of interrogated.
“One boy categorically refused to turn around. He said, ‘If you’re going to shoot me, I want you to look me in the eye when you shoot me. It was a surreal moment.
“Once we managed to defuse the situation and they understood the reasons we were there, the whole atmosphere changed.”
The bodies of Russian soldiers “presented as a warning”
Because the group had not registered in the “foreign legion” of Ukrainian fighters before entering Ukraine, Mr Spann said four armed officials then showed up at the property and took photos of their passports .
He said the next day they drove to an arms base and saw the bodies of two dead Russian soldiers at a checkpoint “propped up, sitting upright with their hats over their faces.”
“It was a warning to the Russians,” he added.
“It was an eye opener. It made you realize things are getting real.”
“My son doubted that I even cared about him”
Mr Spann said the group returned to the shelter unarmed and felt increasingly “vulnerable” as the air raid sirens went off at their location.
On his fifth day in Ukraine, Mr Spann said he felt “genuine grief” from his wife and son – who now knew he had entered the war zone – and that the four ex-British soldiers had decided to go to another part of the country. .
“I got pretty close to those guys,” he said.
“We were ready to go fight and die together, if that was what happened. You bond quickly with people in those situations.
“At that time, my wife and my son were really upsetting me.
“My son doubted that I even cared about him, why I was doing this – same with my wife.”
Read more: UK troops shouldn’t go to fight in Ukraine and ‘take selfies’ – armed forces minister
Mr Spann said he thought the prospect of traveling to a more dangerous part of Ukraine unarmed “was a bit of a suicide mission”.
“While these guys made the decision to venture further into the country, I made the decision to go back to the border,” he added.
‘My wife was pretty p***** off’
Mr Spann said he had returned to the Polish border where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees had fled.
“People were pushing and shoving. Children were screaming and crying. It was snowing. It was cold. My feet were like ice,” he said.
“I dread to think of how some of these children and babies felt. They must have been cold.
“It reminded me of a cattle market to be honest…the tension was high.
“People had been there for hours and just wanted to cross.”
Mr Spann said he slept on the floor of a refugee center before traveling to the Polish town of Lublin and then flying back to the UK.
After leaving Ukraine, he said his wife’s emotions changed from “worry to anger”.
“My wife was pretty p***** to say she was going to fire me and this, that and the other,” Mr Spann said.
“She’s fine now. I’ve been with her for 19 years.
“My son is fine. He never went through the anger process. I just think he was happy and happy to have me back.”
Will the British be prosecuted for going to Ukraine to fight Russian troops?
- The Foreign Office told the British: “If you are traveling to Ukraine to fight or to help others involved in the conflict, your activities may constitute breaches of UK law and you could be prosecuted on your return to Ukraine. UK.”
- The Foreign Enlistment Act 1870 prohibits Britons from fighting in the “military or naval service of any foreign state” which is at war with a country with which the UK is “at peace”.
- Since February 11, the Foreign Office has advised Britons against all travel throughout Ukraine and urged British nationals to leave the war-torn country.
- The British military has declared that all military personnel are banned from traveling to Ukraine.
- The Metropolitan Police reportedly warned the officers they would face disciplinary action if they traveled to Ukraine to help fight the invading Russian army.
- There have been questions about the legality of Britons traveling overseas to fight in previous foreign conflicts.
- In 2014 the Crown Prosecution Service warned that British nationals who went to fight in the Syrian civil war could commit an offense even if they join the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
However, Mr Spann, who founded the charity Change Your Life Put Down Your Knife, said he now ‘regrets’ leaving Ukraine.
“I have no regrets going there, but I have regrets leaving,” he added.
“I regret leaving these guys. I don’t know how helpful I would have been for them, but I feel like I let them down a bit.
“I wish I was still here to be honest.
“I know they’re safe and they got to their destination safely, so that makes me think I should have been safe and maybe shouldn’t have left.”
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Mr Spann said he would consider returning to Ukraine during the conflict, but thinks those without military experience “may be more of a burden”.
“I wouldn’t recommend non-military people go there,” he said.
“I think you can be more of a burden on these guys and the resources they have.
“I would say I would go back – it’s probably my ego side.
“The little voice in my head would think I would be more of a loss to them.”