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“The Russians were very inventive in their ways of torturing back then,” Mamuka Mamulashvili, the 45-year-old leader of the Georgian Legion, told Express.co.uk.
He was talking of his time in Abkhazia, back then officially a part of Georgia but today a breakaway, self-proclaimed republic backed by Russia.
Mr Mamulashvili was just 14 years old when he found himself fighting in the Abkhazian war in 1993, a bloody conflict between Abkhaz separatists and Russian government armed forces on one side, and Georgia’s military on the other.
All these years on, he continues to fight Russia, today in Ukraine where he and his legion operate on the conflict’s frontlines.
The difference is that he is now middle-aged and more experienced in life and the art of war, surely 14 is far too young an age to be involved in war?
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“For me it was natural,” he said. “My father was a military general, I grew up on a military base. Actually, I could use explosives better than most soldiers.”
The Abkhazia war would last for just over a year and ended with the region becoming a de facto independent republic, though it to this day remains an internationally recognised part of Georgia. Only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, and Syria recognise it as an independent state.
Back then, Georgia fought against Abkhaz and Russian forces on its own, meaning youngsters like Mr Mamulashvili were in a sense forced to take up arms to help their country’s cause.
“There was no one supporting us at that time,” he said. “I killed people, of course, I was involved in operations from the beginning of the war.
“I remember a journalist back then asking me if I was sorry that I’d killed people, and I said no, I didn’t feel sorry because it was a war and you have to kill the occupier.
“Ever since then, it has always been on my mind: Russia is trying to occupy my country and I have to fight it.”
At some point during the war, Mr Mamulashvili and his father were captured and held as prisoners of war. He spent three months in captivity, witnessing, he claims, atrocities carried out by Abkhaz and Russian forces.
“One of the most unpleasant torture methods saw them put you in a cage that was placed underground in a deep hole,” he said.
“When the rain came down, you were trapped in the water, and they could keep you there for a month or a week.”
He says many of his fellow soldiers had their ears cut off as retribution, and that of the 60 men who were captured, only 31 managed to return home.
The brutal and lawless nature of the Abkhazia war would have put many off going anywhere near another conflict — but not Mr Mamulashvili.
Just two years later, in 1994, aged 16, he fought as a volunteer in the first Chechen war against Russia, and 14 years later would again fight against Russia in the 2008 conflict.
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Things went largely quiet, and in 2013, he moved to Ukraine to support the Maidan Revolution. They proved successful, and within a year Russia, aware of the potential ramifications of a westward-looking Ukraine, launched a war in the country’s east and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in the south.
It was then that Mr Mamulashvili established the Georgian Legion. A group of mostly ethnic Georgian volunteers who have since been incorporated into the Ukrainian Army took form and have grown to a force which today numbers between 1,000 and 2,000 personnel.
Not all of these men are Georgians, however, with 33 nationalities having joined the group, including a large number of Britons.
Mr Mamulashvili sees Georiga’s future tightly wound up in Ukraine, fearing that a Russian victory could well lead to Russian encroachment on Georgia.
His work has been closely monitored by the Kremlin, and as of September 2023, eight criminal cases had been initiated against him, his name also being added to Russia’s “most wanted” list.
“It is a great honour [to be added to the list], a badge of honour, in fact, because Putin is an internationally sanctioned war criminal,” he said.
The Legion has become a force to be reckoned with in Ukraine, appearing in some of the conflict’s most intense battles, including the first major battle of Hostomel.
David Kezerashvili, who served as Georgia’s defence minister during the 2008 war with Russia, praised the legion in a statement sent to Express.co.uk.
He said: “Memories of Russia’s invasion of Georgia still rankle today, and the current conflict in Ukraine is seen by many Georgian fighters as an opportunity to turn the tide against the Kremlin’s influence in the region.”
The Kremlin accuses Mr Mamulashvili and members of the Legion of committing war crimes, and by the end of July this year, had prosecuted in absentia more than 70 mercenaries for their work in Ukraine.
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