Tim is an American war crimes and human trafficking investigator on the ground in Ukraine. Due to the sensitivity of his work, and the real threat of reprisals for undercovering the truth of Russia’s crimes in Ukraine, his surname is withheld. He can be found on Twitter at @PegLegActual.
How were you selected to come to Ukraine as a war crimes and human trafficking investigator?
I am an American amputee, educator and public speaker. I’m from a region of the deep south where we still cling to ideals like God, country and honour like a lifeline in these troubling times of global uncertainty. I was born severely disabled and knew at a young age that I’d face an uphill struggle in my drive to serve my country. I had too many physical disabilities to serve in the military and yet came from a tiny small town where the military and college were usually the only routes out for those who actually left. I went to college for criminal justice and was lucky enough to get work traveling as a security consultant abroad. I spent much of my adult life doing this while pursuing my passion for helping those in greater need than myself. This led me to work fighting human trafficking where I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to do some good.
It must be hard for you, as a person, to confront human trafficking?
I saw many poverty-stricken, conflict-laden lands and developed a true appreciation for what real suffering meant through exposure to war. When the Ukrainian conflict reached a fever pitch in late February, I wrote my local embassy to see how I might be of any service. I was very honest about my amputation and limitations, yet, I hoped I could find some way to contribute. To my surprise, they contacted me and we corresponded for a month before I began formal interviews with the Ukrainian military attaché and staff.
How was the selection process to come to Ukraine?
I was shocked when I heard the Ukrainian government wanted to interview me and recall my first reply being, “Are you sure? You know I have a prosthetic leg?”
We did a series of interviews during which my background was vetted along with my experience. This consisted of everything from checking my criminal history to my references. We then submitted my application to the Ukrainian government which finally made the way to their international legion. I was then formally accepted and given the green light to enter Ukraine. I was asked by the embassy at that time to carry badly needed equipment for their staff into Ukraine, which I was happy to do.
Why did they choose you?
I was recruited as a war crimes investigator due to my background working in conflict areas and experience in investigations with human trafficking. Due to my physical limitations, this was to be a support role on the ground working all over Ukraine in a combat support capacity and not directly on the front lines. The international legion however was caught up in a number of severe combat engagements and was unable to formally develop the intelligence and support division to which I’d been accepted as a member. I then asked where I could be of service and was sent to assist the territorial defense force near the front.
What was your first impression of Ukraine?
I was in no way prepared for the kindness, generosity and strength of the Ukrainian people. One of my first nights in-country was spent in a train station with women and children under cruise missile attack. I tried desperately to get them into shelter while folks looked at me like I was insane. The population of Ukraine has become so used to the daily threat of bombardment that they simply carry on with life – working and raising kids – as the missiles rain down. It was a true inspiration. All over Ukraine I was told how much I inspired them but, in truth, they changed my life in a wonderful way.
Have you run across other foreigners as you do your work in Ukraine?
As I entered the country, I met foreigners who were, unfortunately, taking advantage of the war for profit, fame or the opportunity to take advantage of refugees. It shocked and saddened me to see such brave and resilient people (Ukrainians) burdened by foreigners simply looking to exploit their situation. The cities near the Polish border are/were, sadly, full of these folks.
Are there many foreigners with disabilities now helping in Ukraine?
I didn’t see any other foreign investigators and was told I was the first foreigner they’d worked with in my region. I was, however, very lucky to meet Tanner, an American who was running a medical support group in my region and helping to train the Ukrainian military. Most Ukrainians were shocked that someone missing a limb would come to help and, as you can see in the video they filmed with me, we leveraged that to encourage the populace to defend their cities. We’d say, “If I can come help with one leg, you can do it with two”.
I knew that my prosthetic leg would be a liability on the trip and it absolutely was. However, I limped all the way from Poland to near the Russian border and can happily say I fulfilled my contracts with the Ukrainian army. It was difficult and painful, yet I had the help of brave Ukrainians everywhere I went. There wasn’t a single train stop where I didn’t have kind souls insisting on carrying my bags onto and off the trains. I was finally forced to leave Ukraine to have surgery as well as the replacement of my prosthetic limb. I suffered several wounds to my leg while traveling around the country and was, unfortunately, not given a choice between surgery or being wheelchair bound.
Where in Ukraine were you stationed?
I had the luck of working with Territorial Defense units as well as an electronic warfare group across the country. I began in Lviv and ended up in Sumy Oblast, working with the territorial defense before returning to Kyiv in a training capacity. I conducted war crimes investigations in cooperation with Ukrainian military staff and aided in the training of TDF soldiers in urban warfare environments because I’d had some experience there. My journey took me to within six miles of the Russian border. Do you know what I found there? I found Ukrainians carrying on with normal life while mortars, artillery and missiles came down. The only way they could cope with constant threat was to simply carry on. As I’ve said, it changed my life and made me revisit the amount of time I’d spent feeling helpless looking at my bloody stump where a leg used to be.
What sorts of crimes did you document?
These are active investigations. I’m currently working through 16 gigabytes of data given directly to me by Ukrainian soldiers.
I can tell you that instances of Russians murdering their own commanders are on the rise. I can also tell you that targeted attacks on gay and lesbian Ukrainians are on the rise. I saw where the Russian forces indiscriminately murdered and burned as they fled the advancing Ukrainian military retaking their lands. I’ve seen the sites where mass graves are interred. Anything else or any further detail is limited as many of the cases I was given are still in process.
What’s the feeling on the ground?
I saw the fear and desperation of the Russian forces as they fled the vengeful Ukrainian military. I literally stood in Bucha and Irpin where that tide of evil was turned back at the high water point. I’ve been in the homes full of indiscriminately bullet-pocked walls where Ukrainians died for no greater sin than simply being Ukrainian. Do you know that the rusting corpses of Russian tanks are all stenciled with blue and yellow peace symbols? To stand bravely in the face of a seemingly endless tide of evil is one thing. To pick up the shattered remnants of your life after the occupiers have left is a different sort of bravery entirely and like nothing I’ve ever seen.
Russian news often says that the Ukrainians are attacking their own people and blaming it on Russia: What did you see/experience, that would dissuade them from believing that?
I’ve watched artillery and missiles coming down from the Russian border including the occupied lands to the south. I’ve seen where innocent families were slaughtered in buildings where the stench of terror and evil may never truly be bleached away. There is a palpable sense of horror…a wrongness you can literally touch. People who say evil has no taste, feel or smell have never seen the wasteland that an army hell-bent on ethnic cleansing and genocide leaves behind. There is a level to these crimes that anyone who knows the Ukrainian people simply understands, on a basic human level, that they’d never ever commit.
The Ukrainians are a stoic, warm, loving and humor-filled people who wish for nothing else than to simply be left alone and allowed to pursue their own lives. They bury their dead, weep for the departed and pray for the living. They brought me into their homes and treated me like family even as their husbands and sons were missing at the front. Part of my body armor came from a Ukrainian wife who hadn’t heard from her husband, and yet gave me a pair of his gloves to protect my hands. I carry them still. The very concept of Ukrainians murdering their own citizens is something dreamt up in the safety and anonymity of the internet age and not by someone who has either incurred loss or seen Ukrainian parents who have buried a child killed by missiles and returned to work the next day.
How has this work in Ukraine changed you?
I was warned by the Ukrainian embassy before my trip, “Careful, Tim. You will fall in love with our people and never leave”.
It was my honor to serve alongside so many incredible brave people. I left my heart in Ukraine and it truly devastated me to leave
Will you come back?
I absolutely will and am preparing for a return trip. There is no human way to not return, given the love and support I encountered.
So, what will happen with the war in Ukraine?
The looming Russian defeat is not one of numbers, superior technology or weaponry. Ukraine would still resist even if they were fighting tanks and bombers with rocks. They will never stop. They will never surrender. These words are foreign to the Ukrainian vocabulary. You cannot defeat such people by any means. All the Russians can do is flee to the safety of their own borders and pray the Ukrainians stop there.
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