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Ukraine

How A FARC Loyalist Became A Pro-Russian Rebel Fighting In Ukraine

The unlikely tale of how a young Colombian's communist convictions led him to leave his family in Spain to fight with Ukraine's Putin-backed separatist rebels.

A masked pro-Russian rebel in Ukraine last year
A masked pro-Russian rebel in Ukraine last year
Elisabet Cortiles Taribo

DONETSK — Some people wind up finding their tribe, wherever it may be. For "Alfonso Cano," a 27-year-old Colombian, his ideological family turned out to be the Russian-backed rebels fighting the Ukrainian state.

It's an emotional thing, and certainly political, but not unique, as other young activists have joined separatist forces that accuse Kiev authorities of being "fascists." Kiev's pro-Western government doesn't hide its hatred of Russia, which dominated the Soviet Union until the collapse of the communist empire. Cano, who was born in western Colombia"s Valle de Cauca, joined up two years ago with the rebels who most international observers believe are backed by Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.

The young man decided to change his name to honor Alfonso Cano, the late leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's primary leftist rebel force, who was killed in army operations in 2011. Cano admires his namesake, but also changed his name to make his identity more difficult to track down if he were caught.

"For me, Alfonso Cano represents the people's fight," he says. "It's a way of telling the FARC they are not alone, that there are people elsewhere in the world who are also resisting injustice."

On the ground in Donbass

Everyone seems to have a pseudonym, or nom de guerre, here. Cano is the only Colombian fighting with the separatists, but there are other fighters from Latin America and Europe. They're not mercenaries or recruits, but instead volunteers who traded their day-to-day routines in Brazil, Chile, Spain, France or Italy for a rifle and a life in the trenches.

"You feel most defenseless when there are bombings, because you hear the noise but don't know where it will fall," Cano says. "If the missile is coming your way, it's no use hiding." He has learned about different missile types from their particular sounds.

Before the war, he lived in Spain. He moved there with his mother when he was 10 because she thought Spain would give them opportunties Colombia couldn't. As soon as he arrived in Europe, Cano says, "I began asking why things were the way they were, why we had to leave Colombia, and I understood about social injustices and class distinctions. I think that is when I began moving toward leftist movements and communism."

The immigrant family lived between Madrid, Murcia and Zaragoza. Cano studied music, served in the army for a while and founded the Movement of Young Murcian Communists.

When war in Ukraine began, he organized pro-separatist protests but felt the efforts weren't enough. Disregarding caution, he traveled to Russia and illegally crossed into Ukraine to join the communist militias in Donbass. Other foreigners had been fighting there for a number of months.

Cano regularly posts photos and videos on his Facebook page, which allow his family and friends to view them: dodging bullets in one post, picking up firewood in another.

If detained by the Spanish government, Cano would face a 15-year jail sentence on terrorism charges, as happened a few months ago with other Spaniards caught fighting with the Donbass rebels.

The Kiev government and the European Union consider these fighters terrorists, which is confirmed by the entry pass we're given to the ATO, or Anti-Terrorist Operations Zone. We're taken to meet Cano at a big camp with a firing range, though it's difficult to interview him amid the shooting and distant noise of bombardments.

It didn't take long for the rebels to discover he had a talent for sharpshooting, and he sports a medal he earned for his actions in the battle for Donetsk Airport. He says he's now accustomed to the sounds of missiles but not the "winter of 30 degrees below zero." He has also learned some Ukrainian and Russian, not like his first months in action when he carried out orders he didn't even understand.

Civil war changes everything. We see homes, ambulances and buses turned into skeletal wrecks. The Donetsk football stadium has become a refugee camp. But as long as there is war here, Cano intends to remain in the Donbass region. "I don't have a return date," he says. "The only date here is the end of the war, which will come, and we shall win."

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