He carries a battle-axe into combat. He never wears body armor, and laughs at the idea of wearing a helmet. When it’s hot, he wears a tank top and a kilt. He keeps his hair and beard long, sometimes pulled into braids. When it’s time to assault, he runs with the fury of a madman.
When they ask for volunteers on a particularly dangerous missions, his hand is the first one raised.
He is Rafael Lusvarghi, the Brazilian Viking of Donbas.
“Truly, I don’t care if I die in combat,” he said, with a perfect white smile, and a benign shrug, “ because I will go to Valhalla.”
Valhalla, of course, is the Viking paradise for those who die in battle. This is more than just a nod to the Nordic, pagan religion. It is his true religion, and his faith is proudly tattooed on his skin.
He spent two years in the 2nd Airborne Regiment of the French Foreign Legion, then became an officer in the Brazilian Military Police. His claim to fame occurred in Sau Paolo when he was at a protest against the FIFA World Cup 2014 – an extravagance in a country where people were starving.
He was hit with rubber bullets and maced. It took several police officers to get him in handcuffs, and some reports indicate that he was intoxicated, and screaming, “Carnival!”
Politically speaking, he’ll raise his hands with a lack of interest.
“I am a Eurasianist,” he says, nodding to the ideological movement today led by Alexander Dugin, which reconciled nationalism with Russian imperialism. Some use the term “Eurasianist” synonymously with national-socialist.
“Journalists come here [to Donbas] and ask me about my ideology, but it’s not important,” he says, “they never ask me about what I have done here, and most people don’t even realize that even though I was born in Brazil, my blood is Russian. My family is Russian.”
He speaks Russian, Portuguese, English and French. He criticizes some of the pro-Russian’s actions (See: Naivete of Soviet Tactics). Yet, he still does his best to grit his teeth and follow orders.
“I want to teach that to the other foreigners that volunteer to fight in Donbas,” he says, “there are some tactics used here that don’t make sense, or might even be stupid, but you ultimately work for them [Novorussiya]. You volunteered to help them.”
At first the pro-Russian rebels had assigned him as an instructor to the Unité Continentale, which was started by French Army veterans Nikola Perovic and Victor Lenta.
“I had some disagreements with the leaders,” He says with a shrug, “Actually it kind of offended me because I speak Russian, I’m ethnic Russian, the Russians accepted me really well, so why did they put me in a regiment with foreigners?”
For the most part, his integration into the rebel forces appeared to be well received.
“Look at this Brazilian’s face,” his current commander in the Cossack battalion said, “He looks Russian, he speaks Russian. In his spirit and mentality, he is Russian.”
Some of his rebel comrades criticize him for being uncontrollable, filled with war lust and no sense of self-preservation.
After a few weeks in the Unité Continentale, he was invited to join a special unit based in Vergulovka as an artillery forward observer. While in Debaltseve, he attacked a Ukrainian checkpoint without orders from the higher echelons. They raided the post, the Ukrainian soldiers retreated.
“We did what we thought we were supposed to do – raiding an enemy block post – and after a half hour, the Ukrainians counter attacked and we retreated. It was just a raid, we really had no intention of occupying it,” he smiles mischievously, “And it made some of our commanders, specifically Mozgovoi, furious… We got chewed out. But I don’t mind, I have been chewed out before.”
Despite that mission not being well received, his constant volunteerism he received an ex-Soviet Union award that rebel commanders will use to show appreciation for a fighter’s heroism.
Still, he was not satisfied with being a forward observer, “I am trained as a paratrooper – pretty much a universal soldier – and have been trained in many tasks, like reconnaissance and anti-tank tasks” and wanted to use those skills in the field.
“My commander, Fidel Pascha, is the man I most admire in Donbas. I have served with him since the beginning of the war, with him and his son, and I like that family,” he said, “and he decided to join the Cossack battalion.”
The Cossack Battalion have a fierce reputation, and are much more aggressive than the regular troops of Donbas. He resumed work as an artillery man, often taking launchers and other heavy equipment in a civilian car into Ukrainian territory, to shoot their enemy from behind.
In late January/early February, the rebels were preparing to assault Debaltseve, and were once again looking for volunteers because they predicted that the assault would result in heavy losses. Lusvarghi, eager for a great fight and anticipating a long siege, volunteered. He was quickly disappointed.
“We captured the first positions, but we had to hold the terrain for 10 days because the next positions were very strong. So we had to hold positions under artillery fire,” and he adds with a smile, “Sometimes our own… but it happens… They missed, I guess, I really don’t know.”
They assaulted and occupied a position that had a view of the corridor that had been left open into what was dubbed the “Debaltseve cauldron” – a small pocket or Ukrainian-controlled territory that was surrounded by rebel fighters.
They spotted an Ukrainian convoy, and Lusvarghi called for fire on their position.
“It didn’t touch the convoy really,” he admits, “But the Ukrainians just left everything – BTRs, tanks, everything – and ran away.”
His hazel eyes grow dull with the disappointment as he recounts example after example of Ukrainians abandoning their positions at the first sign of the rebel attack.
“We attacked a tank, and didn’t really get a chance to hit it. But again, the Ukrainians just ran away,” he recalls, “Inside, there was food, uniforms, weapons, ammunition.”
The mayhem he describes was far from the organized retreat that was represented by the Ukrainian authorities. He described the salvaged tanks, the uniforms, and the war trophies he accumulated from that assault – including one Ukrainian belt he took from a Ukrainian prisoner. He uses it to pick his teeth.
“The regular soldiers,” he says, “They don’t want to fight. At least that is what I see. They are not like the radicals of the National Guard or the Pravy Sektor. They are just ordinary people that do not seem to want to be here.”
\Lusvarghi says that he is waiting for the ceasefire to end. Though combat has not come to a full halt, it has shown a reduction of operations on both sides, as international observers supervised the withdrawal of heavy artillery to create a buffer zone between the Kiev-led Army and rebels.
“I don’t think Debaltseve really violated the Minsk Agreement, because it was supposed to be our territory anyway,” he says, “So there is still a cease fire but I don’t think it will hold.”
He hopes, for the sake of the civilians, that Donbas is successful in achieving autonomy from the Ukraine government.
“If they kill your brother, or your sister,” Lusvarghi says about Ukrainian artillery killing civilians, “How could you ever look at yourself, as a man, and not do something? How could you ever be at peace with them [Ukraine], when the wounds are still on your skin?”
Want to learn more about Rafael Lusvarghi? Download the documentary where he is featured!