Roma at war: Romani soldiers defend Ukraine from Russian occupation under the Romani flag

A group of Romani soldiers is defending Ukraine against Russian aggression in the 128th Independent Mountain Assault Transcarpathian Brigade. Although they all were eligible to avoid mobilization, they have voluntarily joined the army to defend their homeland.

“When eight friends and I went to the Svaljavsk Military Commissariat, it took the official a long time to understand what it was we actually wanted,” Michajlo Tytychko, aka “Baron”, told news server Ukrainska Pravda. The Army officials eventually understood the Romani men were volunteering to defend Ukraine.

“The war in 2014 was like a bolt from the blue for me. When I saw what was happening after 24 February [2022], I realized I had to go. If not on the first day, then on the next day, but I have to. Everybody has to. So I got the guys together and asked who would go with me. Another eight people signed up,” says Tytychko, who is an undisputed authority in the Roma community in Svaljava, where about 2,000 Romani people live.

Tytychko was born in Kazakhstan in the USSR in 1975 and later moved along with his entire family to the Zakarpattia Oblast of Ukraine. He attended a primary school with 100 % Romani pupils in Svaljava.

After completing school, Tytychko joined the military service. He gradually went through military training and became a paratrooper.

Tytychko graduated from the Faculty of Law and lived in the Czech Republic

After Tytychko’s military service ended, he graduated from law school, got married, and moved to the Czech Republic, where his two daughters were born. His older daughter has since graduated from Charles University in Prague.

After his first marriage ended in divorce, Tytychko returned to Zakarpattia Oblast and remarried. He has three sons age 5, 7 and 8 with his second wife.

After returning, Tytychko began a successful business in the Zakarpattia Oblast. He even founded a Romani organization to aid the Romani community.

Tytychko became an authority figure in the community, and bureaucrats or politicians who wanted to settle something with the Roma started turning to him. “The Roma only exist for them when they need something. Ahead of elections especially. At that moment we suddenly became Ukrainians to them. After the elections we became ‘gypsies’ once more,” he criticizes the behavior towards Roma in Ukraine.

As a father of three children, Tytychko was not subject to mobilization, but he volunteered. Initially there was mistrust of the Roma in the military unit tasked with repairing damaged equipment to which they were assigned.

“They were always afraid we would steal something from them. They admitted that to me after about a month once the mistrust disappeared because they had gotten to know us,” Tytychko said.

Tytychko: We Roma have an unwritten law – do not fight – but now we must defend our land

Later, a combat unit was created from the repair unit, and all nine Roma signed up for it. They were deployed directly to fight the Russian aggressors.

“They were constantly shooting at us, sometimes with cluster munitions. They destroyed our kitchen with just one shot. At first everybody was afraid, but then they got used to it and their fear gradually passed,” says the “Baron”.

“The Roma have an unwritten law never to fight, not to take up arms at all. We are not the foreign nationals here, though, we are defending our own country,” he says.

“We are creating our own history here – Ukrainian and Romani. We have our own Romani flag, and after I have finished my service, I am going to take a few things that have been here with me from the beginning and I will start a little war museum so people will know the Roma also defended Ukraine,” Tytychko says.

Vasyl: I don’t want the Russians telling me what to do in my own home

Other Romani men are currently serving together with Tytychko – the oldest, Vasyl, is 41 years old, and before the war he made a living by buying scrap metal. On the day of the Russian invasion, 24 February, Vasyl was home with his wife, but after the first rocket strikes he decided to go to the front as a volunteer.

“I don’t want the Russians to come to my house and tell me what to do,” explains Vasyl, who has a big family and is already a grandfather despite his relatively young age. Yet another Romani soldier, Dmytro, is 31 years old and has five daughters.

“When Russia attacked and they started showing the horrible footage on the news, it completely paralyzed me,” Dmytro says. “I looked at my daughters and decided to go to the front.”

As for 28-year-old Albert from Bila Tserkva, near Kyiv, he understood war was coming and on 15 February took his wife and three sons, aged 11, 9 and 7, to Zakarpattia Oblast. “In Bila Tserkva our house is right next to the military base that was attacked by rockets on 24 February,” the Romani soldier describes.