Dundee man Mark Cashley is getting ready to go back to the war in Ukraine.
The retired chiropractor spent two months in the war stricken country, driving ambulances, working in psychological operations, and assisting bomb disposal units.
Originally from Dundee, Mark, 60, lived in Forfar before retiring to the French Alps with his new wife Pascale. He renovated the Newport Hotel and Tatha Gallery before retiring to France.
Mark’s first wife Marie died five years ago and memories of her informed his decision to help defend Ukraine.
“It was looking at myself in the mirror every morning. And I was seeing kids getting off at the train station. That’s what it was about, those two things. The children are the ones suffering most over there. I’ve got such a comfortable life here. I’ve got everything. I couldn’t just sit here in comfort.
“Marie always urged me to do what was right and to try to make the world a better place. She would have wanted me to do this.”
Mark headed to Ukraine near the beginning of March and was put through basic training by the Ukrainian Defence Force.
Having spent time in the army as a young man he already had weapons experience. “They won’t take anyone that doesn’t have any weapons training. Fortunately I had firearms experience when I was younger. They train everyone to use the AK-74.”
Mark initially worked running ambulances between Kyiv, Lviv and Odessa to help the many men, women and children harmed by Putin’s invasion.
However a disagreement arose between the Irish organisation that set up the ambulance charity and their American partners.
“The Irish wanted it to be a purely humanitarian project but the Americans wanted more than just medicine in the ambulance. They said medicines don’t win wars. I can see both sides of the argument.”
Mark moved on from the ambulance project and divided his time between psychological operations and helping out a charity that defuses the thousands of deadly mines placed by the Russians.
He was part of the 72nd Centre of Information and Psychological Operations. “Our job was to counter Russian disinformation,” Mark explains. “Lots of Ukrainians have family in Russia. There they are fed state media which means they all think the war is justified and the Russians are in Ukraine to weed out Nazis.
“A lot of our work has to do with getting people in Ukraine and Ukrainians in the West to contact relatives in Russia and explain what’s really going on.
“Another big component involved computer hacking. So to any Abertay computer hacking graduates out there, please get in touch. We need you.”
Mark also helped the Ukrainian Women’s Bomb Disposal Team, which works tirelessly to defuse the thousands of landmines Russia has littered the country with.
“Thankfully, and contrary to reports, Russia doesn’t seem to have used butterfly mines.” Mark continues. “These look like toys and children pick them up.
“However they have used cluster bombs, anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. They’ve also used pop up mines, which jump into the air and explode when they sense vibration.
“There is a shortage of vehicles to transport the teams to where they’re needed so I’ve been trying to raise funds to buy more vehicles.”
The Women’s Bomb Disposal Team is, as its title suggests, an all-female outfit. “Women travel across the border into Kosovo or Poland. There they’re trained to an international standard in defusing landmines.
“When they go back to Ukraine they go to the area they came from, so they’re working in a place they know well.”
Even well trained and on familiar ground it still sounds terribly dangerous. “We lost three bomb de-miners in a week three weeks ago,” Mark says. “They’re such brave women. And they have a great love of life. You need intense concentration with frequent breaks so you don’t make mistakes.
“When you see them on a break standing around it’s like seeing any group of women having a chat on Reform Street.”
Death and destruction
Since Russia withdrew from the area around Kiev numerous mass graves have been found and Mark has witnessed more than his share of death.
“You see death all around. I would walk past bodies lying on the streets of Kiev. What Putin has done is monstrous.”
Mark was based in Lviv and Kiev for a period but also moved around a lot. He has to be careful when talking about locations.
“It’s fine to talk about areas Russia has withdrawn from, such as near Kiev. But the Russians have some extremely accurate missiles – they can hit a particular building from miles away.
“Whole camps have been taken out by tactical strikes from Russia so you won’t have guys close to the front saying where their camps are.
“Whenever Russians were pushed back we would move in and start clearing the area of bombs.”
Rays of hope
Among the darkness there are also moments of light.
“There are parts of Ukraine that are like Broughty Ferry, yet 40km away there are places that are being decimated.
“You might be in a war zone in the morning with rubble all around you and having a fantastic meal with friends in the afternoon.
“Two good friends I made over there are an American pilot, Clarky, and a Ukrainian solder called Sasha. We were with Sasha’s family for the Easter weekend and it was such a nice time.”
While Mark thinks the number of Westerners fighting on the frontlines has been exaggerated he says large numbers of foreigners are involved with humanitarian efforts inside Ukraine.
“I think the Ukrainians are really heartened by that. They know they’re not alone against the monster that is Putin.”
Air raid sirens and the thunder of bombs were part of Mark’s daily life, but he says he never felt afraid.
“In Kiev you could feel the ground shaking when the bombs hit. Sirens were always going off. You don’t really feel fear when you’re out there working, you’re too caught up in things.”
Sadness and loss
“The most powerful emotion I felt was at the Polish border where there are all these women and children trying to escape the bloodshed.
“You’ll see a woman with two children. She’s protective of her children but it’s clear she’s lost everything in her life so there’s all this emptiness and loss on her face. It was so desperately sad.”
Mark returned to France in early May, celebrating his 60th birthday at home with his family. He returns to Ukraine on Saturday. “It was strange going to bed at night and not hearing sirens. I lay awake and couldn’t sleep. I’d been home for two weeks before I learned to relax again and now that I have it’s time to go back.
“I’ll be over there for a month this time then I’m coming home for a few days for a family commitment. After that I’ll be heading straight back out again.”
Mark has four brothers in Dundee and a sister in France. Another brother, independence campaigner Calum Cashley, passed away last year.
Return to Ukraine
He says his family have been supportive of his work in Ukraine. “It’s hard for Pascale. I keep in touch as much as I can but of course she worries about me. She supports what I’m doing though. My brothers do as well, although they think I’ve done my part now and shouldn’t go back.”
As for Mark’s own future, he has no idea how long he will be in Ukraine for.
“I don’t know how long this war is going to go on for. My feeling is either it will get a lot worse as things come to a head, or it will become a stalemate and grind on for years.
“Ukraine needs weaponry to defend itself. I’ve been a Scottish nationalist all my life but the UK government has been excellent about supplying Ukraine. We need the Western countries to keep doing that. It’s easy to get fatigued with war and for it to slip down the agenda.
“I will stay for as long as I can be useful. If a time comes when I’m no longer able to contribute anything that’s when I’ll leave.”
- Contributions to the Ukrainian Women’s Bomb Disposal Team can be made here.