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‘I’m not afraid of dying’: San Francisco tech worker joins civilian fighters in Ukraine

Volunteers for Territorial Defense Units arrive and march past trenches dug to defend their positions against the incoming Russian invasion, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 28, 2022. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
March 05, 2022

Bay Area product Thomas Knapp, 55, has lived in Ukraine for less than a year. But he’s ready to die for his new home.

As an air raid siren echoed in the background, Knapp told SFGATE that he has spent most of the last few days indoors under a strict curfew in downtown Kyiv. Such restrictions have been common since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion on Ukraine on Feb. 24. Those who venture outside without military attire or the yellow armband of a civilian volunteer risk arrest — or even being shot on sight.

Hearing the bombs fall in a place he’s come to love has devastated Knapp. “I’m emotionally spent, I’m physically spent, I’m spiritually spent. I’m so angry words can’t even describe,” said Knapp, who was born in San Francisco and worked in Silicon Valley for years.

That fury has driven him to take up arms in defense of his new community: This week, he joined a civilian territorial defense battalion, a voluntary military unit. Because he doesn’t speak Ukrainian and can’t understand orders when his battalion is in a fire fight, Knapp has been paired with an English-speaking veteran of the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia. Now armed with an AK-47, Knapp and his group are preparing for the incoming Russian forces.

“I’m learning as I go here, actually, because I’m just an entrepreneur,” he said.

Knapp briefly stopped in the middle of the call when he heard a bomb. “It’s loud, one just went off, it’s like a sonic boom, you can feel it. These are huge bombs. You hear them, even if it’s 3 to 4 kilometers away.”

The sound is becoming familiar, but no less terrible. “It gets in your head, and you start to have nightmares,” he said. “We need more ammunition, we need more guns, we need lethal and nonlethal supplies, medical supplies.”

With the bombs falling on the outskirts of the city, Knapp said he was safe for now, as Russian forces had yet to reach the city center where his flat is. While he hasn’t been in a firefight, he and the rest of his battalion are bracing for violence. From what his new comrades have told him, there are fates worse than death.

“I’m not afraid of dying,” he told SFGATE. “I’m afraid of ending up in a Russian gulag. I’m afraid of being caught. God’s truth.”

Knapp, an American citizen, grew up in the Bay Area, moved to West Germany for part of his childhood, then moved back to attend San Jose State. Five months ago, he sold his home of 15 years in San Jose’s Willow Glen neighborhood and moved to Ukraine to found a global marketing company. He’s the father of four daughters who live in the United States.

After relocating to Ukraine on a three-year residency card, he’s fallen in love with the country, where he’s found a higher quality of life for less money than in the Bay Area. He has a girlfriend and many friends he said he hopes to keep for life. Staying in Ukraine when the invasion began was a wrenching decision, knowing he was leaving his daughters behind.

As we spoke, Knapp got a text: “Dad, please be safe. Please come home. I miss you so much. I hope to see you soon. … Dad, I need to be in your arms again, not through a screen, please.”

But he can’t bring himself to abandon the country he’s so quickly come to see as his home.

“When you make a friend in Ukraine, you make friends for life,” he said.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began Thursday, Feb. 24, with massive air and missile strikes and ground troops moving in from the north, east and south. Read “What to know as Russian forces target Kyiv” on SFGATE.


(c) 2022 SFGate

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