22nd Mar 2023

Why I'm fighting in Ukraine — a Frenchman explains

  • Florent Coury on a bus to Ukraine, Wednesday 2 March
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On Wednesday (2 March), following president Volodymyr Zelensky's call, I enlisted as a foreign volunteer in the Ukrainian army.

I travelled from Brussels to the recruitment centre of a city in the western part of the country. My family and my friends have had little warning or explanation of my actions.

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Each time I had to discuss or explain, I minimised the situation or I told white lies about my real intentions.

In a way, I was also minimising the situation to myself, as until now, I was not sure I would have the courage to enlist. On top of this, I found it particularly difficult to explain my intentions when confronted with the emotion of the people I love.

And so, here are my reasons.

I've got into the habit of telling a story to my children in the evening. I improvise on the spot. I tell of the adventures of two brothers who, through the years, have become valiant knights in a fantasy mediaeval world. This story has evolved over the years according to my children's wishes and my own embellishments.

Last Saturday, my eldest asked me: "Dad, do Ukrainians have knights?"

I answered that yes, Ukraine has very brave knights, though some have only recently discovered that they were, in fact, knights at all.

His loss of innocence about a world he discovered to be cruel and unfair brought me back to a traumatic experience I had as a young teenager about the war in Yugoslavia.

I didn't have a television at my mother's. But while I was on holiday with my grandparents, I saw a dead body on the screen for the first time. It was the shelling of the market in Sarajevo. The image of a man lying with his head in a pool of blood has never left me.

I grew up with a passion for history and geography, as ways of seeking what is in the hearts of men. This inevitably led me to a feverish study of communist and fascist systems, especially in their Stalinist and Nazi expressions.

I admire our long, proud and tragic European and French history, culminating with the French Revolution and the universality of its values that lead me to consider every human being as my brother and to see history as a quest by human societies for dignity.

Today, I see the citizens of our Western European democratic societies caught up in a triple trap linked to digitisation, a weakening ability to transmit knowledge, and a collapse of the collective interest in the face of unbridled capitalism.

Our democracies are being weakened to the point that our freedoms are in jeopardy. We have failed, individually and collectively, to express clearly, unreservedly and unconditionally our democratic values and stand up for them at any cost.

Today, Ukraine is the frontline of our democracies.

Between the aggressor and the attacked, the stronger and the weaker, the invader and the one defending his or her home, there is no room for wavering or doubting.

Our democracies

The cause of Ukraine is the cause of all free people. It may be the last opportunity to regenerate our democracies for present and future generations, and to draw a line in the sand that differentiates democrats from their enemies.

I participated in this rejuvenation of democracies by joining the Printemps Républicain a few years ago, whose members I would like to salute here and assure of my Republican friendship.

I have every confidence that the French Republic under the leadership of president Emmanuel Macron, for whom I have a strong personal admiration, will be able to guide this European renewal.

I have no hatred for the Russians — quite the contrary.

I studied Russian in secondary school (even there is not much left of it) and I then took part in a high school exchange to St Petersburg in 1997. In turn, I welcomed my Russian exchange student on a visit to Paris.

I have one cherished memory from that time, of a discussion in broken Russian with my exchange student's father by the stove in a Soviet flat in a suburban housing estate. We discussed a Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals, Richelieu, and general Charles de Gaulle.

In my personal pantheon I count Tchaikovsky and Vasily Grossman, whose novel Stalingrad is an immortal testimony to the kind of struggle that is once again taking place right before our eyes.

Bella ciao

On a personal level, as a man with a very comfortable life materially speaking and family responsibilities, how could I have made this decision?

Precisely because I can. Because as a citizen of a free country — aware that my rights and those of my family, of my fellow citizens, derive solely from my duties towards the community — I want to show my French compatriots and all of my fellow Europeans that freedom can only be defended by taking the risk of sacrificing everything, by a refusal to live as slaves.

President Macron mentioned it in his interview with Spiegel magazine a few years ago: why can't there be such a thing as democratic heroism?

So here I am, remembering the glorious elders, the Volunteers of the Second Year of the French Republic, the fishermen of the Isle of Sein, who fiercely refused to allow those they cared most about live in a world without freedom.

I don't know how to fight. I didn't do my military service. I'm not a manual worker and I couldn't survive 24 hours in the woods.

But I can be a witness, carry sandbags, cook for those who do know how to fight, and be an inspiration to other Europeans beyond Ukraine.

As for my departure, I found explaining to my children to be the easiest.

On my last night, I explained to them that the Ukrainian knights needed all the help they could get, and that they would even fight better knowing that they were not alone, and that other knights would come from far away to help them defend the dignity of the helpless.

After the lights went out and before leaving the room, I asked my children if they wanted a song. The eldest replied, "I want 'Bella ciao,' Dad".

Sometimes our children understand us better than adults.

Author bio

Florent Coury, 39, is a human resources expert who works in the French automobile sector.


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