Harusan had no military experience or Ukrainian language skills. This foreign fighting unit took him on anyway (2023)

From Japanese gangster to Ukrainian freedom fighter, Harusan* is on a redemption arc.

The 50-year-old moved to the eastern European country a year ago to fight against the Russian invaders.

He's been training with the Georgian Foreign Legion as a sniper, hoping to return to the front line in the upcoming spring offensive.

For now, he stands guard outside a military barracks in the capital Kyiv.

It's a far cry from his former life of crime.

In fact, Harusan had no prior military experience, doesn't speak the local language, and the journey to Ukraine was his first trip abroad.

But his work ethic, life experience, and the tattoos plastered over his bodyhave made him a favourite among his comrades.

"I came to Ukraine to atone for my past sins," he says.

"I will either stay until the war is over, or until my body can't take the task anymore."

From a troubled youth to a prison cell

Harusan was getting into trouble from a young age.

His father was a yakuza boss and spent very little time athome.

Harusan took solace with other young troublemakers. Mischief turned into criminal behaviourand by junior high school, Harusan was sentenced to juvenile prison.

"I had bad friends, and I did nothing but misbehave," he says.

"I didn't have any money, so I earned money by doing things like stealing and extortion.

"I guess I inherited a similar personality to my father."

Yakuza is an umbrella term used to describe organised crime syndicates in Japan involved in racketeering, prostitution, gambling, fraud, drug trafficking and other criminal activity.

Members often mark themselves with large tattoos, but unlike some criminal gangs, these represent events or experiences from a gang member's life, rather than identifying a particular gang.

Yakuza were most active in the 1960s, with thousands of gangs operating across the country.

But laws introduced in 1992 to crack down on organised crime sawmembership come crashing down, according to the National Police Agency, and gang members who were once considered part of the community started to become reviled.

To this day, many public swimming pools refuse patrons with tattoos, and former yakuza find it difficult to access bank accounts, sign rental agreements, or simply live in the community as a "katagi" (law-abiding citizen).

For Harusan, the yakuza lifestyle landed him in a jail cell.

Harusan had detonated a homemade bomb at the entrance of an organisation that promoted friendly relations between China and Japan. The doors were damaged, but no-one was injured.

Harusan said he wasfurious about China's treatment of Tibetans and Uyghurs. He says the attack was not intended to hurt anyone, but rather to serve as a "warning".

Police raided his home and seized 400 items, including literature related to right-wing groups, extremists, gangs and terrorism, according to a local media report at the time.

Harusan had already thrown away the tools he used to make the explosives.

"The investigation team believes that the suspect gradually became more and more inclined towards right-wing ideology in his 20s and targeted groups that he thought did not match his anti-Chinese views," the media report stated.

Harusan had no military experience or Ukrainian language skills. This foreign fighting unit took him on anyway (2)

Harusan was sentenced to nine years in jail for violating the explosive substances control law. An extra year was slapped onto his sentence after he beat up a fellow inmate.

Then, three years into his sentence, he had an epiphany.

"I was getting close to 40 years old, and I felt that I shouldn't go on like this," Harusan says.

He started to look at his other inmates with disdain.

"They were all grown-ups, but their way of thinking was very childish.

"I thought I didn't want to be like them, and I thought I had to make an effort every day to change myself."

Ukraine takes a chance on a criminal with no military training

The war in Ukraine has attracted large numbers of volunteers from across the world, with varying military experience and motivations.

The extra personnel has helped Ukraine's war efforts and there have been acts of heroism,but the arrivals have also created their own risks.

There arereports of volunteers bickering, falsifying their fighting experience, misspending donated money and even revealing their units' confidential locations by posting photos and videos on social media.

The problemshave raised questions about Ukraine'svetting process, long after the country was flooded with volunteers early in the conflict.

Harusan was compelled to join the war effort when he saw images of Ukrainians being killed in battle.

"I can't tolerate Russia's actions against Ukraine," he says.

"Especially when it comes to civilians who are not soldiers, or elderly people or children being sacrificed.

"I can't do anything on my own, but I can't turn a blind eye to the situation, so I thought I would like to be of some help."

Harusan had no military experience or Ukrainian language skills. This foreign fighting unit took him on anyway (3)

After serving his time, he made it to Kyiv, through Poland, andheadedto a recruitment centre for a division of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, with a British army veteran he had befriended.

Harusan, with no military experience, was unsurprisingly knocked back.

But the British volunteer vouched for him. He told the recruiters that his friend's past life with the yazuka would make him a fierce comrade.

And, after a bit of encouragement, Harusan showed off his tattoos to prove his credentials.

"The recruiter thought about it for a while and eventually said, 'it's OK if the British man is going to support you'. That's how I got in," Harusansays.

It was a gamble that soon paid off for the Ukrainian recruiters.

Harusan started to show exceptional skills with a rifle, after only a couple of months of arms training.

Harusan had no military experience or Ukrainian language skills. This foreign fighting unit took him on anyway (4)

His unit was transferred to the city of Lysychansk, in the Donbas region, where fierce fighting has taken place between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

The city was ultimately lost after Russian artillery bombarded the city.

Harusan was lucky enough not to endure the worst of the shelling. Some of his close friends never made it out alive.

The losshas only hardened Harusan's resolve.

"I barely escaped the attack," he says.

"I thought I might die when the shells were flying very fast towards me. But I wasn't afraid of dying.

"It was so intense that I laughed hard with a Ukrainian who was hiding in the trench with me about how great the attack was.

"I guess I have the kind of guts that ordinary people don't have."

Harusan had no military experience or Ukrainian language skills. This foreign fighting unit took him on anyway (5)

Ready to defend freedom for Ukraine

After the attack, Harusan's division was disbanded. Determined to stay in Ukraine, he joined theGeorgian Foreign Legion, a unit founded back in 2014 when violence first erupted between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.

It has evolved into one of the largest foreign fighting units in Ukraine with around 1,000 troops, split equally between Georgian fighters and volunteers from other countries.

It is also one of the most elite units in Ukraine, with specially trained squads being sent out for covert assignments including sabotage, ambush, and reconnaissance missions.

The legion's founder and commander, Mamuka Mamulashvili, recruited Harusan in November after the battle for Lysychansk.

Heunderstood Harusan had no military background before Ukraine, but was happy to take a chance as previous volunteers from Japan had proven to be "good soldiers".

Harusan had no military experience or Ukrainian language skills. This foreign fighting unit took him on anyway (6)

"He's not experienced militarily, but he's a very disciplined man," Mamuka Mamulashvili said.

"He's willing to defend freedom and that's a really big deal."

Harusan feels he has a long way to go to atone for his past sins.

"I have regrets, but on the other hand, if I regret too much, I wouldn't be able to move forward," he says.

"I guess you could say I've learned a lot about life from my regrets. I took it in a positive way.

"People say that what I'm doing is amazing, but from my point of view, I think it's natural for a human being.

"[Ukraine is] a country that's far away, but we're all the same human beings."

*Harusan is a pseudonym.

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