A former New Zealand soldier who drew an online following with his dispatches from the frontline of the Ukraine war has been killed in fighting there.
The death of Kane Te Tai, 38, was confirmed by New Zealand’s foreign ministry Thursday, citing Ukrainian government sources.
Te Tai, who fought with the International Legion, is the third New Zealander known to have died in Ukraine.
For many in New Zealand, Te Tai was the face of the country’s unofficial involvement in Ukraine’s war. He fundraised for equipment and undertook news interviews before he left New Zealand in May 2022, and documented his friendships, battles and daily life on Instagram and Facebook.
A video he posted earlier this month recorded the moment when he was unexpectedly reunited with a Ukrainian friend who had been held hostage for months by Russian troops, and whom Te Tai recognised when the man began to call out, “New Zealand! New Zealand!”
“My brother!” Te Tai replied.
Last April, Te Tai told TVNZ that he would leave his job at a construction hire company and travel to Ukraine, “to help in any capacity I can.”
He was one of a number of foreign fighters – estimated to be in the low thousands – who have traveled to the conflict since Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed for volunteers from abroad last February.
At least eight Britons, seven Americans and four Georgians are among those who have died in the war against Russia.
Te Tai – who served for almost a decade in New Zealand’s army, including in Afghanistan – had posted tributes on social media to members of the International Legion who had died. Last month, he was interviewed in a CNN story about the group – using his call sign, Turtle – where he was credited as his unit’s leader. The story showed the group training new recruits near the embattled town of Vuhledar, close to the frontline.
“There is such a lot of emotion within these fights,” Te Tai told CNN. “Mainly because from a lot of what I’ve seen, they [Russian soldiers] don’t want to be here either.”
After leaving the army in 2010, Te Tai co-founded a charitable trust to support veterans’ mental health; Aaron Wood, the joint founder, said in a statement posted to Facebook on Tuesday that he had been told of Te Tai’s death and wanted to help to arrange the retrieval of his body.
“Kane had a huge heart and loved helping people,” Wood wrote. He told the Guardian on Thursday that his friend had helped a number of New Zealand veterans to access mental health support in the past five years.
Te Tai’s mother told RNZ she had heard of her son’s death via his contacts in Ukraine. He was “an awesome father, awesome son, awesome uncle and brother,” she added.
New Zealand’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that it was “aware of reports” that a New Zealander had been killed there and confirmed Te Tai’s death on Thursday. The country’s embassy in Warsaw is attempting to learn further details, a statement said.
New Zealand soldiers have been formally deployed to the UK to train Ukrainian troops, but the country has no military presence on the ground in Ukraine. The defence ministry has acknowledged that an unknown number of current or former soldiers could be on the frontline in their own capacity.
Dominic Abelen – a New Zealand soldier who was on leave without pay from the army – was killed in August during combat in Donetsk. He had not told the army he was going to Ukraine and did not seek permission to travel there.
In January, Andrew Bagshaw – a dual British-New Zealand national who had travelled to Ukraine from Christchurch where he was a research scientist – was killed during a humanitarian mission, also in eastern Ukraine.
New Zealand’s prime minister Chris Hipkins told reporters on Wednesday that the war in Ukraine was “unjust” and “an illegal invasion by Russia.” But he urged New Zealanders not to travel there.
Te Tai had read online of an $11m NZD reward for his death offered by Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Wood said.
“He joked about turning himself in so he could collect it.”
On Sunday, Te Tai told Wood in WhatsApp messages that after 10 months of combat, he had been training his replacement and intended to leave Ukraine for good in the next fortnight.
“He wrote, ‘That’s enough war for me,’” Wood said. He added that Te Tai loved Ukraine, but wrote: “Before the game gets me or before I just decide that life here is too easy, maybe it’s time to start living my real life.”