The Viking In Modern Times
The enemy was 800 meters ahead of him, across a flat field bisected by the airstrip of the Donetsk Airport… before it turned into rubble.
“Come get me, fuckers! I’m over here!” he screams, as he waved his arms in the air between a gap in a crumbling wall that was his only cover.
His name is Rafael Lusvarghi. He’s a pro-Russian rebel and has been fighting in eastern Ukraine for almost a year.
He mumbled something about how the Ukrainians were not “playing” today, though he had been running up and down no man’s land with RPG rockets and harassing the enemy all day. He climbed down from the wall, and sat in the dirt. We heard as the whistle-boom of a wire-guided missile as it crashed exactly where he had stood.
The Ukrainians had sent a missile to kill a single man. He burst out laughing while the rest of us scurried for cover.
I once thought that Vikings today were just a few LARPers (Live Action Role Players), hacking away at each other with huge swords in a city park. I didn’t imagine that they were real Pagans, but just some kids playing make believe. They might nod to the old religion the way Game of Thrones nodded to the Middle Ages, but no one really took it seriously. Maybe they spent too much time watching History Channel’s series, Vikings, and decided it was cool to say they were pagans.
Then I met Rafael.
He’s not just a history nerd who throws out a few pagan symbols and buys a sword at the nearest novelty store. He is an axe wielding, Kalashnikov firing, longhaired rebel covered in pagan tattoos. He intends to spend his life going from war to war for a single reason – to die gloriously in combat so that he can go to Valhalla and enjoy an eternity of women serving him mead.
I was with him when he had the worst injury of his life – far more than the usual flesh wounds. Several grenades had crashed around him and ripped a hole into his ankle – cutting right to the bone. Shrapnel embedded into his legs, ribcage, and left arm. The hot, sharp metal burrowed several inches into his skin and oozed blood. That’s the bizarre thing about shrapnel. It doesn’t leave a gaping hole, but a deep tunnel like a mouse eating into a wall. The first responders around him worried that the shrapnel might be between his ribs, threatening to enter his chest cavity.
“All I thought,” reports Rafael, “was that I had no last words. So I screamed ‘Valhalla!’ But Odin did not want me with him yet, so I guess I have to keep fighting.”
Refusing pain medication, Rafael spent a day at the hospital before he escaped against doctor’s orders, crutching and bleeding back to the military base so he could organize getting back to the front lines as soon as possible.
Like most foreign volunteers, he has cultivated a fan base on facebook and vkontakte (Russian social media). He appreciates all the support, but often gets annoyed at strong anti-Ukrainian rhetoric, especially when it degenerates to profane mudslinging.
“I have nothing against my enemies,” he says, with a grand sweeping gesture towards the enemy position on the other side of the Donetsk airport, “In fact, I respect every Ukrainian on the front line. Of course, I do not agree with their ideology, otherwise I would be fighting beside them, not against them, but at least they are willing to fight for their ideals. That is honorable.”
In a long rant, he screamed about online trolls and internet tough guys.
“I hate these fat asses who think that just because they re-post a photograph or use a rebel patch as their profile picture, we somehow believe the same things,” he chastised, “The only people who scream that loud but never fight for their ideals or do anything to really help are just pussies.”
He admits that his political ideology is not particularly strong; but they’re strong enough to prevent him from fighting the easy war for easy glory. He would never, for example, want to join a terrorist organization whose body count largely rested on the deaths of civilians because he finds it un-chivalrous.
“Where is the honor?” he chimed, “If someone offered me a war where I got to fight with a sword and axe against other people who were doing the same, I would do that immediately.”
He laments the advent of artillery, drones and bombers. Killing from such a great distance makes war impersonal, makes humans more inhumane and takes the courage out of the fight.
“How brave do you have to be to press a button?” asked Rafael, “Truly, the more you meet your enemy and look in his eyes, the more you respect him as a human, as a fighter, just like yourself. If you have no respect for your enemy, then you are no warrior.”
There is only one enemy he would not respect, and that is ISIS who he says are in a competition to show who could be the most sadistic.
“I would kill them, but I would not honor them or pay them respect,” he says, “They burned a prisoner alive inside a cage, or behead people they captured. What cowards.”
Several who know him intimately believe that he is lost in an era that has been corrupted and distorted by projectile weaponry, where soldiers won’t even see the faded outline of those they kill. He believes in an older way of life, in a generation that he sees as stronger, more honorable.
“If I could, I would shake the hand of my enemy before battle,” said Rafael.
Others think he’s just out of his mind – a delusional, violent maniac with a hard-on for carnage. More commonly, people just call him crazy. That he’s bought into the illusion of a chivalric time that existed only in fairy tales.