Bob Marley, global reggae superstar, isn’t a figure you’d immediately associate with the battlefields of Ukraine: a place where skanking is anything but easy.
But the Jamaican music legend has, in some small way, become linked to the conflict as the namesake of a band of Ukrainian volunteer fighters. Calling themselves the Bob Marley Volunteer Defence Squad, the group of roughly 10 young Ukrainians first banded together as to defend their homeland when Russia annexed Crimea and stoked conflict in the east of the country in 2014, as part of one of the dozens of powerful volunteer battalions that formed to help Ukraine’s underfunded, outgunned military take the fight to the enemy.
“It’s about being guys who can switch between the war and being chill,” is how one of the group’s members, Dmytro Dubas, described their ethos, over a Zoom call from Lviv during a recent break away from the front lines.
“If we need to be rude, we can if necessary. If we have time to chill, we do.”
He adds: “We want victory, and peace. But we don’t want to fight our entire life.”
As a respite from the horrors of war, the group were known among fellow fighters in their barracks for indulging in the finer things in life: good wine, food, music, conversation, and, of course, weed.
The unit wears patches depicting the late reggae icon, and cuts an unconventional presence on the battlefield. Its social media accounts use Ukrainian hashtags of #jahrastafari and a motto that states, roughly, that if you’re stoned you can’t be killed.
As the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east died down in 2015, members of the Bob Marley Squad drifted back to their civilian lives, resuming careers in psychology, medical science, and advertising.
But since Russia’s invasion in February, they’ve been forced to take up arms again to defend their homeland once again. They had long anticipated having to do this again, said the 33-year-old Dubas.
“Our commander always said during the war in the east [in 2014-5] that there would one day be a ‘big war’ with Russia, no doubt. For me, I hoped that there wouldn’t be.”
Dmytro Dubas (left) and Bob Marley Squad leader, Dmytro Myhas in 2014. photo: PHOTO: Dmytro Dubas / Bob Marley Squad
But as Russian troops began amassing on the border for huge military exercises last year, the long-dormant “squad” sprang again into action. Members joined the country’s territorial defence forces to renew their military training, and made contingency plans for what they’d do when the long-feared invasion came.
“We’d gather at a spot in Kyiv, and go to war.”
The first night of the invasion, most of the group, as part of the 112th Brigade of the Territorial Defence Forces, took up positions defending the northern approach to Kyiv. The war took an immediate toll on the group: on the first night of fighting, one of the group’s original members, Dmytro "Demon" Synjuka, and his wife, Iryna Cvila, were killed when their vehicle was hit by a rocket. The Bob Marley Squad’s leader, Dmytro Myhas, sustained serious injuries to his hand in the same attack.
PHOTO: PHOTO: Dmytro Dubas / Bob Marley Squad
Since those initial losses, another of the squad has gone missing in action, following heavy fighting recently near Borova, in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine.
These days, explains Dubas, the Bob Marley Squad is no longer a distinct unit of fighters but a community of veterans, dispersed between three different units of Ukraines armed and territorial defence forces. Most now fight for the 112th Brigade, within a platoon under the command of Vasyl Mangal, a Bob Marley Squad member.
During the seven years since they fought together in 2015, they remained in touch, celebrating holidays and special occasions together.
“I can’t say I was really close with everybody all the time,” says Dubas. “But we have this special connection between us – if somebody asks you for something, you never say no to each other.”
The group has its origins in the Maidan protests that raged from November 2013 to February 2014, eventually unseating then-president Viktor Yanukovych.
Dubas had been working in a sales and marketing job at a construction firm in Kyiv when he showed up one day at the protests. “After that I never went back to my job. They said ‘You have to choose, work or this.’ I said ‘Of course I have to choose [Maidan] because it’s for our country,” said Dubas.
“I was never a person who was attracted to politics, I have no idea about the difference between left and right and I don’t care.”
One of Dubas’s friends was a member of the Bob Marley Squad. When Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014, Dubas met the group.
“They were guys who were close to me in spirit, patriotic in the normal sense – not the Russian propaganda sense,” he says, referring the Russian claim that Ukrainian nationalists are neo-Nazis. “I realised that we were into a new chapter with this Crimea occupation, and the country’s in big danger,” he said.
The group saw things the same way, and began undergoing combat training, under the tuition of a Lithuanian veteran. When Russian-backed separatists began their uprising in Donetsk and Luhansk, the group headed east to become some of the first members of the Aidar Battalion, a volunteer force that would prove a vital player for Ukraine on the battlefield.
Aidar was hailed in Ukraine for their decisive role in battlefield advances, but it’s also been accused of abuses. In September 2014, Amnesty International published a briefing accusing Aidar of abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and possible executions in the north Luhansk region, , some amounting to war crimes. . The report stated that the battalion had acquired “locally a reputation for brutal reprisals, robbery, beatings and extortion.”
Dubas told VICE World News that none of the Bob Marley Squad were involved in any alleged abuses, as they were fighting on the frontlines during the period covered in the report, and were not in the areas detailed. “Aidar Battalion is not Bob Marley Squad, and vice versa,” he said.
VICE World News could not verify his claims with the report’s author.
Dubas said he saw the concept of the volunteer battalion as a model that had deep roots in Ukrainian history, stemming back to the Cossack proto-state, the Zaporozhian Sich, that existed between the 16th to 18th centuries.
Myhas, Dubas, and Vasyl Mangal. PHOTO: Dmytro Dubas / Bob Marley Squad
“They were farmers and other things, but at times of war, they went to the Sich and took up a weapon,” he said.
Dubas said the Aidar Battalion was composed of a similarly diverse cross-section of Ukrainian society, from “guys who ride the tractors in their villages,” to younger urban guys, to a handful of ultranationalists with a far-right ideology.
He said his group got along with everyone, except the latter group. “We were always laughing at them and would say, ‘look at you, you will be first in the hole, you Nazi.’”
He described the Bob Marley Squad as being defined by people “who are interested in each other.”
“We talk about music, jam, talk about books, history,” said Dubas. “Of course we smoke weed, but it’s not about the weed. It more about [identifying with] the songs of Bob Marley: ‘Buffalo Soldier,’ ‘War,’ ‘Get Up, Stand Up.’”
“You know – when people say they want peace and everybody should put their weapons down: well, if Russia puts their weapons down, war stops. If we put our weapons down, Ukraine doesn’t exist.”
While the group’s current logo looks like a weed leaf in the national colours of Ukraine, he explains, it’s “a bit of a game” – it really depicts the similar-looking chestnut leaf, which is a symbol of Kyiv. And while the group was publicly associated with smoking weed through its social media branding, he said there wasn’t much of that going on during the current conflict.
“When you’re in active war, it’s not really that useful to smoke. It makes you panic,” he said. The only time he had smoked since the current invasion was with his commander, who was badly injured, en route to hospital in Lithuania.
The war of 2014 massively disrupted the lives of Dubas’s generation. Now the war of 2022 is doing it again. Dubas, once comfortable in a cushy corporate marketing job, had spent the past three years working as a fixer for international journalists covering the frozen conflict in the east – including for French documentary-maker, Loup Bureau, whose film “Tranchées” hit the festival circuit last year.
Rather than celebrating its release, Dubas finds himself once again returning to the battlefield.
“If there’s not a nuclear war, we can go to the Oscars next year,” he jokes.