Ex-para swaps Essex for Ukraine in 'adventure' and winds up in invasion but promises not to fight

Former paratrooper Don Rawling.
Don Rawling insists he is 'not a danger tourist' and plans to help the humanitarian effort in Moldova. Credit: Don Rawling

Don Rawling was sprinting through the streets of Kyiv, his old army issue rucksack strapped to his back, when the local militia emerged from the shadows.

The overnight curfew was imminent, and Mr Rawling found himself spread-eagled on the floor, scrabbling for the passport in his pocket as officers shouted at him.

They pointed their rifles, convinced they had cornered a Russian spy - until the man trained in their sights started to laugh.

His response was prompted not by nerves or fear but by the sheer absurdity of his situation. He was no spy. He was Don Rawling, from Essex, and he was here to toast his 60th birthday.

A fortnight earlier, the former paratrooper had waved goodbye to his wife and teenage daughter and swapped Burnham-on-Crouch for Kharkiv and Kyiv.

Five days later, Russia began its deadly invasion.

Don Rawling said he came to Ukraine for an "adventure". Credit: Don Rawling

Mr Rawling told ITV News Anglia the militia soon realised he was not the enemy.

"They got me up and threw me against a wall. But then we got chatting and they sent me on my merry way.

"I came here for the adventure and to be part of history," says Mr Rawling, speaking via Zoom from his rented apartment in Kyiv.

"But when I got here it became deeper than that. My admiration, my love for these people. They don't understand that I'm here in solidarity with them but I am and I'm proud of that.

"My daughter told me if I was happy, she was happy. My wife understands completely. They understood I needed to do this for myself."

Mr Rawling, who served in the Falklands War, insists he didn't come to Ukraine to fight. He came here to witness.

He is also adamant that he is not a "danger tourist" and has pledged not to contact the British Embassy.

"I came here by myself and I'm going home by myself," he says.

But, having refused offers of help to leave, he is not sure when that return journey might take place.

He may first try to head west towards Moldova and help with the humanitarian effort as millions flee.

"I'm reluctant to go," he says. "I want to see this through to the end, I really do. I want to be with these people, to stay next to them.

"I'd feel like a coward for leaving."

Mr Rawling has been documenting his trip. He has filmed the "bedlam" at the railway station and tried to help the elderly with their luggage.

He says he is in awe of the Ukrainians' "pride, bravery and inner-strength" but he hasn't been sheltering in the subway with them.

"My mother spent a lot of her childhood in the Underground in Bethnal Green during the war," he says. "I was worried it was going to come full circle so I refuse to use it. I go to bed.

"There comes a time where you become quite blasé about it. The explosions are all the time. The air raid warnings are all the time. The police cars are flying around with their sirens on all the time.

"I fully understand that a few kilometres from here all hell is breaking loose but you'd never guess that when you go for a loaf of bread in the morning."