by N I R    A R I E L L I


Foreign war volunteers are a recurring phenomenon in modern warfare. The Yugoslav Wars (1991–95) saw the participation of foreign fighters on all sides. The article focuses on foreigners who joined the Croatian armed forces (excluding returning Croatian émigrés). It examines where the volunteers came from, what brought them to the Balkans and how they represent and commemorate their wartime experiences. It argues that their participation in the conflict can be understood as part of an individual search for meaning, comradeship and empowerment.

Foreign war volunteers are a recurring phenomenon in modern warfare. The Yugoslav Wars (1991–1995) saw the participation of foreign fighters on all sides. Volunteers from various Muslim countries, who came to be known as mujahedin, as well as some non-Muslim volunteers from western Europe and elsewhere were incorporated into the Armija BiH, the predominantly Bosniak1 army of the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina.2 A few hundred Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians and Greeks, who came to be known as kontraktniki or contract soldiers, joined the armed forces of Serbia and of the Bosnian-Serb Republika Srpska.3 The foreigners who joined the Croatian armed forces have received little attention. Outside of Croatia they have usually been described as right-wing extremists, adventurers or mercenaries.4 The last term in particular is anathema to many of Croatia’s veteran foreign fighters. In fact, one of the main objectives of the Association of Foreign Volunteers of the Croatian Homeland War (Udruga Stranih Dragovoljaca Domovinskog Rata or USDDR) is ‘to remind the world of our contribution and sacrifice for a country’s independence, [and] to get rid of the myth of foreign volunteers as “mercenaries”.’5

According to figures published by the USDDR, 456 volunteers from thirty-five countries served in the different Croatian military formations – the Croatian National Guard (ZNG), the Croatian Army (HV), the Croatian Defence League (HOS) and the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) – both in Croatia and, after spring 1992, also in Bosnia-Herzegovina.6 The first part of this article examines who these foreigners were and what brought them to the Balkans. It argues that their participation in the conflict can be understood as part of an individual search for meaning. The second part analyses the volunteers’ self-representation of their wartime experiences. An examination of the enlistment process, of their interactions with each other and of their reception by the locals underlines the centrality of comradeship and a sense of empowerment in keeping the volunteers in the warzone. The final part looks at the post-war period with special emphasis on the veterans’ personal odysseys and associational activities. These help to illustrate how the search for meaning, comradeship and recognition can continue to be fundamental elements in the lives of former volunteers long after the war ended.

For the purpose of this article these foreigners will be defined as volunteers because they travelled to Croatia and enlisted for service voluntarily. The term ‘adventurer’ seems insufficient as many of those who came to fight were motivated by either ideological or moral convictions. Moreover, an adventurous spirit has nearly always been a prerequisite for foreign volunteers in modern conflicts, even in highly ideological conflicts such as the Spanish Civil War.7 The term ‘mercenary’ is likewise inadequate. Though some of the foreigners who served in the Croatian armed forces received a monthly salary, payments were irregular and in any case were much lower than average wages in Western Europe or North America from whence most volunteers hailed.8 The article therefore excludes the fourteen-man training team which was sent to Croatia by Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI) as part of that company’s contract with the government in Zagreb. Though there has been some debate about whether or not MPRI was involved in the planning of operations in the spring and summer of 1995 (most notably Operation Storm), their role remains outside the scope of this study because of its contractual and officially-sanctioned nature.9 This article also does not examine the military contribution of returning Croatian émigrés. While these played an important part in the country’s struggle, their decision to fight was motivated by a different set of reasons, such as kinship and ‘long-distance nationalism’, and their reception and wartime experiences differed from those of foreigners with little or no prior acquaintance with the region or the Serbo-Croatian language.10

The sources available to the historian for a study such as this are limited and incomplete. First they do not represent all the volunteers. Most of the veterans were unwilling to be interviewed by the author. Fewer than a dozen agreed. One veteran explained his colleagues’ reluctance by saying: ‘All foreign volunteers who fought for both Bosnia and Croatia have been subject to large degrees of persecution due to a posthumous reinterpretation of the roles of foreign fighters in foreign wars, post 9/11.’11 Fortunately, there are also a number of printed and online accounts that were published by former volunteers after the war had ended. One veteran, Eduardo Rózsa Flores, even produced an autobiographical film portraying his experiences in Croatia. However, retrospective sources dealing with wartime experiences suffer from known methodological shortcomings. Post-war experiences often affect the portrayal of the past. Moreover, most accounts conceal as much as they reveal. Certain events could have been forgotten, repressed or omitted. In particular the description of any atrocities that may have been committed by the volunteers against civilians is absent from these narratives. Even if such events took place they would not be mentioned either because of shame or because of fear from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. One must also take into account that each of the volunteers came to the Balkans at a different stage, stayed a different length of time, and saw different things. Thus, their stories represent an individual and subjective experience.

These self-representations can be supplemented by contemporaneous press reports on the activities of the volunteers, but these were few and focused only on a limited number of individuals. Therefore the picture that emerges from the analysis of all these sources offers only a partial reconstruction.

Why did they go?

In his seminal work on the International Brigades, Michael Jackson remarked that ‘there were as many reasons to go to Spain as there were men who went’.12 The foreign volunteers who fought in the Croatian armed forces were likewise motivated by a wide variety of reasons. Some came for personal motives, unrelated to the causes of the conflict. Twenty-one-year-old Nicolas from France told a French news crew that he needed action in his life and he wanted to die as he was in love with a girl who did not love him and did not care about him. Therefore, he took the first train to Zagreb.13 Joost van Dijk from the Netherlands frankly admitted in retrospect that ‘I was in big financial problems. Had no proper education to find a suiting job, was also in trouble with the law. I decided to burn all bridges behind me and went to war because I felt I had nothing to lose anymore.’14 Though these cases may be untypical, most of the volunteers were young unmarried men who did not mind leaving their workplace. There are no available statistics to establish their median age. At least five were in their late teens, while there were a number of volunteers who were in their forties and fifties. The vast majority, though, were in their twenties or thirties. Sociologist Ozren Žunec, then an officer in the Zagreb Defence Command, had the impression that the social background of the foreign volunteers he encountered in 1992 was lower than average.15 On the basis of the available sources it would be hazardous to come to sweeping conclusions about boredom or lack of opportunities for the volunteers at home. However, there does appear to have been little to keep them tied down. Shortly before departing from the UK, Steve Gaunt noted in his diary, ‘I must admit that I don’t feel I’m leaving much behind’.16

That said, Gaunt and the majority of the volunteers saw the conflict in the Balkans in ideological terms. Many have pointed out that they fought for Croatian liberty and against Serbian aggression. While it certainly did not encompass all the volunteers, an anti-Communist approach was fairly prevalent. Jean-Philippe from France explained to a French news crew that he joined the war to fight the Communists (which he equated with the Serbs). He described himself as an idealist who would have loved to live in the 1930s or 1940s, when communism was emerging in Europe, so that he could fight against it.17 Another French volunteer, who refused to be interviewed by the author, was only willing to say: ‘We fought for freedom, against the abandonment of perverted thinkers of the West and against the last Marxists in Europe!’18 This approach was in tune with the image the regime of Franjo Tudman¯ laboured to project both at home and abroad in the early 1990s, that of a free-market, democratic country which opposed Slobodan Miloševic’s´ Bolshevism.19 Yet not all the volunteers held right-wing views. French volunteer Gaston Besson defines himself as an anarchist, and there were Labour supporters among the British volunteers. There were political arguments between the volunteers during the war and some of them continue to argue among themselves today. Besson, for instance, likened Croatia’s foreign volunteers to the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, while Steve Gaunt rejected this analogy.20


Another pervasive reason which influenced the decision of many to volunteer was a feeling of disappointment at what seemed like the indifference and inaction of their own country. Irishman Antaine Mac Coscair was ‘dismayed at the indifference displayed by those around me and that of the international community’.21 Nigel Patrick Balchin and Rodney Morgan from the UK were likewise angry that the world was not helping the Croats. Besson, who arrived in Croatia as a photo-journalist, could not believe that such a tragedy was taking place in Europe and decided to take up arms and fight.22 In a way these volunteers seem to have felt that they were stepping in where their home states had failed to do so. To paraphrase Jackson’s dictum, they each made a personal declaration of war, taking upon themselves the sovereign’s right to do so.23 However, here too it is impossible to generalise. A Dutch volunteer whose trip to Croatia was prompted by an advertisement published by a pro-Croatian organisation in one of the Dutch newspapers, disclosed in retrospect that ‘if the ad I reacted on came from the Serbian corner I would’ve gone as well’.24

If a generalisation can be made at all, it is to be found in a search for meaning that was common both to those who fought out of ideological conviction and to those who volunteered for personal reasons. This, of course, is not to say that the lives of the volunteers were meaningless before they travelled to the Balkans. ‘Meaning’ here is used in the sense coined by the Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl. Taking as his starting point a phrase attributed to Nietzsche – ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how’ – and drawing on his personal experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz, Frankl constructed a theory according to which the search to find and give life meaning is a fundamental human driving force. By identifying a purpose or a cause to work towards, a person can alleviate stress or internal disharmony and improve his or her self-esteem.25 In this case, wartime service gave the volunteers a sense of meaning, be it on an ideological, moral, masculine or any other level, much as it has done for war volunteers throughout history. Ivan Farina from Ireland, then a twenty-one-year-old student who beforehand had worked on construction sites in London, commented:

My three years in London were hard in terms of work, societal matters, security and violence. It was there I think I developed tough self reliant ethical principles that were not serviced upon my return to education and the surrounding confines. Yugoslavia seemed to hold the answers I was looking for, the test I craved and the commitment I believed was needed and I could deliver. In short when the war broke out, so did I, I was ready.26

For him and for others the war provided a sense of purpose. It helped to fill a void. A search for ‘reasons of being’ is also central in the work of the sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. For him, individuals struggle to emerge from indifference, depression, solitude or insignificance in order to find a ‘feeling of counting for others, being important for them’. The accumulation of meaning provides ‘a kind of continuous justification for existing’.27  Bourdieu stresses that, ‘It is society, and society alone, which dispenses, in varying degrees, the justifications and reasons for existing’, a notion which the anthropologist Ghassan Hage shares: ‘It is society that offers individuals the possibility of making something meaningful of their lives’.28 Hence there are two exceptional things about the foreign volunteers. First of all, their quest for meaning could not be fulfilled, for whatever reason, in their home society, so it was intentionally sought out abroad. Second, this search transpired in a military context. This is perhaps unsurprising if we bear in mind that many of these men shared an attraction to war. Almost all the Dutch volunteers, and many of the British and French, had previous military experience, as did a number of ex-servicemen from the US. The foreigners in Croatia included Gulf War veterans, international guerrillas who had fought alongside insurgents in Southeast Asia and a number of soldiers who deserted the British Army and the French Foreign Legion in order to fight in a ‘real war’ in the Balkans.29 Rob Krott, a former officer in the US Army, disliked civilian life and ‘felt that if I didn’t do something, anything, I was going to lose my mind’.30 Many of those who had no military experience when they first arrived in Croatia had a military tradition in their family or had tried to enlist at home in the past. Some went as far as inventing a false military background to pave their way into the Croatian armed forces.31 To use Ivan Farina’s words, ‘Foreign volunteers have in common mostly the desire to fight and the will to engage in conflict’.32 Peter, a Dutch volunteer who was interviewed by reporter Anthony Loyd in 1993, offered the following apposite remark:

We don’t fight for the money, and we’re not in it for the killing. It’s about camaraderie and, sure, it’s about excitement. Some are bullshitters, some are psychopaths. We are neither. We are here because we want to be, and if there is a price to pay, then we are ready for that too.33

Comradeship and power

In her compelling analysis of the attraction that warfare has been able to exercise on generations of soldiers, Joanna Bourke highlights how comradeship, with its bittersweet absorption of the self within a group, appealed to some fundamental human urge. And then – in contrast – there was the awesome power conferred upon individuals by war.34

Comradeship and power provide two useful frameworks through which the volunteers’ wartime experiences can be evaluated. While a multitude of reasons, which we have grouped together under the heading of a search for meaning, brought the foreign fighters to the Balkans, it was often comradeship and a sense of empowerment that made them stay.

Once they left their homes and set out to Croatia, most volunteers had to follow one of two paths to enlist: report to a military headquarters in Zagreb, or travel to one of the fronts and join a unit there. Those who came to Croatia during the early stages of the conflict found that the Croats were not expecting foreign fighters and did not know exactly what to do with them.35 This reflects the broader lack of organisation that afflicted the Croatian war effort when hostilities began. A Spanish Civil War-style International Brigade, with its own recruitment network and training camp, had no parallel in Croatia.36 Neither was there a state-sponsored organisation such as Machal, which funnelled overseas volunteers for the Israeli armed forces from 1948 onwards. Thus, the first steps were improvised. When Steve Gaunt arrived in Zagreb he found:

Soldiers and militia are everywhere, bristling with weapons. I approached two of these and made clear my intention to join the fight. After looking extremely surprised, they told me that they would collect me from the hotel at 11 o’clock.37

Who the volunteers met upon arrival in Zagreb often dictated which unit they joined, at least initially. Mac Coscair met a Croat man on the train who told him to claim to be of Croatian descent, to avert suspicion, and took him to the HOS headquarters in Zagreb. HOS headquarters was also the first place to which Simon Hutt, a soldier in the British Army who went AWOL (absent without leave) to come to Croatia, was taken by an experienced Dutch volunteer he had met at Zagreb train station. When Hutt’s request to enlist was turned down, he and his Dutch patron travelled to the front and joined a HOS unit there.38

Although HOS was the military wing of the ultra-nationalist Croatian Party of Rights, led by Dobroslav Paraga, it was coincidence rather than familiarity with Croatian politics that brought foreigners there. For instance, until HOS was forcibly amalgamated into the government army in late December 1991, the location of its HQ near Zagreb’s train station made it a logical first stop for many of the incoming volunteers.39 When Paraga was arrested that month for allegedly plotting a military coup against the government, a number of foreign volunteers found themselves ‘tangled in the Tudman¯-HOS feud’ when they defended the HOS HQ against a possible police raid. Mac Coscair and others who were involved insist that their team was entirely apolitical and that their role in the affair was accidental.40 The fact that they went on to serve in the Croatian Army supports this claim.

A third and somewhat uncommon path to the warzone was through special units that were raised abroad. The first unit of foreigners that was recruited outside Croatia was the First Dutch Volunteer Unit. The Nederlands Kroatische Werkgemeenschap (Dutch-Croatian Work Community), an organisation associated with the Right, published an advertisement in the Dutch press in 1991 calling for volunteers with at least fourteen months of military experience to enlist for military service in Croatia. Subsequently thirty-two volunteers were taken by bus to Croatia, arriving in mid-September. These formed the nucleus of the First Dutch Volunteer Unit which was led by a Dutch officer, Johannes Tilder, who was later captured by Serb forces and died while in captivity.41 In December 1992 the American magazine Soldier of Fortune sent an eight-man team to train Croatian troops in western Bosnia. While the team included seasoned professional soldiers such as the editor, Lieutenant Colonel Robert K. Brown, and ex-Rhodesian SAS Major Robert MacKenzie, they only remained in the region for two weeks and did not see active combat.42

Foreign volunteers served on every front where the Croatian armed forces fought between 1991 and 1994 (most were gone by the time the war ended). Some stayed a few weeks, leaving because they became wounded or simply did not fit in, while others remained for years. The earliest volunteers took part in the defence of the besieged town of Vukovar in the first months of the conflict. Others served elsewhere in eastern and western Slavonia and in Krajina. As an uneasy ceasefire took effect in the early months of 1992 many foreigners were demobilised. However, war soon erupted in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina and consequently some of the foreign volunteers joined or were sent to Croatian paramilitary units fighting in the Posavina corridor in the north, around Donji Vakuf in central Bosnia and in Herzegovina in the south.43 The volunteers performed a wide range of mainly infantry-related duties, from manning defence positions to conducting special operations. According to Rob Krott, ‘Most of the so-called special operations units in the Croat Army were organised by foreigners or by Croat veterans of the French Foreign Legion.’44 In exceptional cases volunteers served in tanks or as instructors to Croat troops.45

‘The foreigners tend to stick together around here’, Simon Hutt was told when he first arrived at the front.46 Where possible, most preferred to serve in units with other volunteers and under English-speaking commanders. In places where the number of non-Croatian volunteers was high, such as eastern Slavonia and Posavina, foreigners even commanded small international units in order to avoid language difficulties. Many volunteers tended to incorporate manifestations of internationalism, stemming from their own foreign identity, into their immediate environment and subsequently into their units’ esprit de corps. In Mala Bosna on the eastern Slavonia front, a plaque was placed over the entry to a bunker declaring: ‘This bunker was built by English volunteers fighting for Croatian freedom December 1991’. In the same village one of the volunteers wrote ‘British Poll Tax Refugees’ on an exterior wall of a building. Simon Hutt carved the words ‘Nuneaton Borough F. C. on tour’ into a plastered wall while he was at the front in northern Bosnia. Ivan Farina designed a sleeve patch for a short-lived group of foreign volunteers with the words ‘Free Crusaders’ and a picture of a Templar Knight.47 Seventeen Swedish and Norwegian volunteers established the Viking Platoon which was part of a HVO brigade in western Bosnia-Herzegovina.48 Most volunteers wore beret badges from their national armies, distinct uniform and other insignia which identified them as foreigners. The exhibition of internationalism can also be found in the way volunteers commemorated the war. The autobiographical film ‘Chico’ (2001) shows graffiti of the Spanish Civil War slogan ‘No Pasaran!’ on a wall of a half destroyed house in a Croat village, while the protagonist, Eduardo Rózsa Flores, whose family had a strong Communist tradition in Latin America, speaks to his men about the International Brigades and quotes from a speech by the Spanish Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri (‘La Pasionaria’). Soldiers everywhere tend to personalise their immediate environment but what is noteworthy in the case of these foreigners is their desire, whether conscious or not, to make it visibly known that they had travelled a long way to be there.

However, the volunteers were by no means isolated from the surrounding Croat environment. As many of the testimonies show, the foreigners often chose or had to change units, and mobility between different military and paramilitary outfits was frequent. Many of the volunteers picked up the local language, a process the Dutch soldiers excelled in, acting at times as mediators between Croats and foreigners.49 It was quite common for foreign volunteers and Croats to fight side by side. Steve Gaunt observed that:

I feel we have been invited to join this unit for the purpose of increasing morale. The Croats seem to feel as if they are standing alone. Foreign volunteers seem to alleviate the feeling to some small extent.50

This feeling was shared by some of the Croat military personnel who came into contact with the foreign fighters. Ozren Žunec recalls that I felt somehow that foreign volunteers were a symbol that the world has not totally forgotten what was happening in Croatia. In autumn of 1991 Croatia felt alone and abandoned by the international community, and foreigners in HV were a sign, however small, that there are some people in the world who care.51

In fact, it was precisely this shared comradeship which, even today, makes Gaston Besson appreciate his service in a HOS unit. Angered by the negative post-war reputation of this right-wing paramilitary organisation, he stresses that ‘HOS was the only place where Croats, Muslim, [Croatian-]Serbs, foreigners and women served together’. The desire to stand by Bosnian comrades who had served with them in Croatia was what led him and others to go and fight in Bosnia-Herzegovina once the war there started.52

In summer 1993 Eric, a Canadian deserter from the French Foreign Legion parachute regiment, was trying to reach central Bosnia to link up with the government forces, the Armija BiH. However, when he encountered a fellow ex-legionnaire while passing through Herzegovina, he was easily convinced to join a Croatian HVO unit instead.53 Here again, comradeship more than ideological resolve or awareness of political developments seems to have guided the way. Most foreign volunteers who fought on the Croatian side in Bosnia-Herzegovina have conspicuously little to say on their role in the fighting which erupted between Muslims and Croats in winter 1992–93. This is an interesting omission if we consider that they had originally set out to fight the Serbs. Indeed, Serbian aggression in Bosnia-Herzegovina, not least against Muslims, was a key motivation for some of the volunteers who arrived in the Balkans from April 1992 onwards. As Ivan Farina remarked, ‘When the existence of concentration camps came to light in Bosnia all doubts were dispelled and I concentrated on getting over to fight’.54 While self-representations are prone to gloss over dissonances, John MacPhee’s detailed description of atrocities committed by Muslim troops, which can be seen as a justification for staying with a HVO unit that fought against them, is an exception.55 In this case, and perhaps for others as well, comradeship led to immersion in the Croat cause, overriding motivations for participating in the war in the first place. For MacPhee, they were fuckin’ swell guys these Croatians. War brought out that need, that love of humanity, a love that children can not inspire – it is a special bond among soldiers who fight, live and die for one another.56

As noted above, war often gives soldiers a sense of empowerment and alters the perception of what is permissible. This would account, at least partially, for displays of bravery by volunteers on the one hand, and them getting into trouble with the locals, each other and the law on the other. Quite a few volunteers keenly sought frontline action. In autumn 1991, while in the Novska region, Mac Coscair took part in hit-and-run ambush operations behind enemy lines against Serb vehicles and infrastructure. During this period his unit sustained a high number of casualties and came under daily artillery and rocket attacks as well as occasional aerial bombardment.57 A small group of German volunteers who served in the King Tomislav Brigade in Bosnia-Herzegovina begged their Croat-Canadian commander to go out on patrol. When he consented, they reportedly picked their way through no-man’s-land and killed two Serb soldiers.58 Steve Gaunt noted in his diary that when a group of soldiers had to be sent to the front in Mala Bosna the foreigners were selected as ‘none of the Croatians wanted to go’.59 A Canadian volunteer told reporter Anthony Loyd, ‘The officers would encourage me to go out on raids but a lot of the guys I was with got pissed off because they knew every time I went out with an RPG they would get shelled. I mean, do they want to fight a war or what?’60 A number of published accounts vividly narrate experiences of killing enemy soldiers.61 Ultimately, war provides participants with the alluring power to decide over human lives. However, quite aside from frontline activism and courage, wartime empowerment also brought with it unrestrained behaviour when no enemy was in sight. Foreign volunteers often drank excessively and got into fights which at times ended in injury and even murder.62 Some of the foreigners who served with Rob Krott in 1993 confessed to looting and told him how they had tried to shoot one of their own commanders from behind. After a while he ‘began to worry about my wallet – and my back’.63 Because volunteers describe others behaving in this way, and not themselves, it is difficult to assess whether this conduct was the result of wartime brutalisation or whether the war merely created circumstances where pre-existing criminal behaviour could flourish. Krott, however, was convinced that the latter was true.

The fraudulent and violent behaviour of some volunteers marred the way the foreign fighters saw themselves, as well as the way they were perceived by Croat military authorities. Among the veterans there is criticism of an unknown number of ‘cafe bar warriors’ who never ventured beyond Zagreb. These are blamed for giving the foreign volunteers a bad name. With time, foreigners became involved in the process of filtering new international recruits. Mac Coscair recalled:

One British individual who attempted to join us at the HOS HQ was immediately rejected. Claiming to be a former legionnaire, several of our men questioned him and determined he was a fraud.64

In wartime accounts as well as in retrospect, volunteers tend to distinguish between ‘professionals’ and ‘riffraff ’, ‘good mercs and bad mercs’, genuine soldiers and imposters. In places where the latter element outweighed the first, international solidarity among foreign fighters crumbled. The ex-US Army Ranger Mike McDonald (a nom de guerre) decided to leave the Tomislav Brigade in Herzegovina a few days after arriving because of the ‘crackpot criminal schemes’ of the foreigners in his unit.65 Cy Mackintosh, a British volunteer, had such a negative impression from some of the other foreigners that he preferred to live and fight alongside the Croats in a regular unit rather than the artificially created ‘International’ mercenary units that had plagued the Croatian Army. The Croats had eventually got wise to the negative influence of these groups and sent them home or sent them to join HVO in Bosnia. Apart from a few, the foreigners in these mercenary units behaved and fought atrociously during the war in Croatia. They were hooligans and braggarts, pure and simple. I am proud to say that I was one of the few foreigners in the conflict who volunteered as a result of the injustice I perceived rather than being driven by monetary greed or the love of violence.66

Rob Krott concurred:

the Croats considered the Internationals a notoriously big pain in the ass. They caused trouble and chased after the Croatian women – occasionally to good effect. Nobody really liked them. They were basically all considered assholes.67

However, he later concedes that the unit he trained ‘received a certain cachet by having foreign advisors’ whose presence helped to boost morale. Moreover he argues that, had the Croats filtered the international soldiers more carefully, and organised them into specific units with strict discipline and strong leadership, a lot more could have been achieved from ‘the foreign military talent running around’.68 Croat military authorities were certainly happy to have volunteers such as Willy Van Noort from the Netherlands, who trained a number of Croatian units. Mentioning this Dutch officer in his testimony at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, General Slobodan Praljak, who was a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Defence during the war, said ‘Of course, we didn’t take in everybody [from abroad] who wanted to join, but we considered that it was a particular honour and privilege to have a colonel of the Dutch Army join us.’69 Krott, nonetheless, left the Balkans in 1993, feeling that ‘Unfortunately there weren’t enough of those [professional, brave and dedicated] men in Bosnia to go around’.70

Post-war odysseys

Having left the warzone, most of the volunteers returned to their home countries. A small fraction settled in Croatia, some of them marrying local women. Rob Krott and a handful of others went on to fight in other conflicts. Life was not always easy for Croatia’s foreign volunteers once the war was over. Simon Hutt, who lost one of his legs as a result of an injury he received on the front, went back to the UK where he plunged into an addiction to drugs and served time in prison. Eduardo Rózsa Flores, the Hungarian-Bolivian volunteer who played himself in the autobiographical film ‘Chico’, was killed by police in Bolivia in 2009 for allegedly plotting the assassination of president Evo Morales.71 Cy Mackintosh, who remained in the Bosnian government’s army after the war, was badly injured in a bomb explosion in 1996 for which he was blamed by a military court in Sarajevo. He was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison.72 Jackie Arklöv, a Liberian-born Swedish volunteer who served with Croatian militia in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993, was sentenced in Bosnia in 1995 to a thirteen-year jail term for threatening and assaulting prisoners. His sentence was later reduced, taking into account that he was only twenty years old at the time. Back in Sweden, Arklöv was given a life sentence for a highly publicised killing of two police officers after a bank robbery in 1999. During his time in prison new evidence emerged regarding war crimes he had committed. The case was reopened and, in November 2006, he was found guilty.73 A group of thirteen former Dutch volunteers was similarly investigated for alleged war crimes in the Medak area in September 1993, though their case was eventually dismissed. The investigation by Dutch authorities concluded that the ‘accused Dutchmen on the list were not even in Croatia at the time of the military operation in the Medak enclave’.74 Even in cases where return to civilian life was not marred by violence and crime, veterans of the Yugoslav Wars often encountered alienation at home when discussing their wartime experience. Mac Coscair ‘quickly learnt not to mention it. It was incomprehensible to most people, worried them, and was a depressing subject.’75

In recent years, using the Internet, former volunteers have been able to get back in touch and, in cases where they did not know each other, get acquainted. The veterans’ association, the USDDR, was formed following the initiative of Gaston Besson. Since 2007 the association holds an annual meeting in November in Vinkovci, where many foreigners fought and where two of them have settled. The gathering includes a memorial service for foreign volunteers who died during the war, an event attended not only by veteran volunteers from various countries but also by locals, including dignitaries from the armed forces and the municipality. On a public level, the association is campaigning for Croatian recognition for the foreign volunteers’ wartime contribution. In an article published in 2009 by the Croatian magazine Nacional, USSDR members lamented the fact that, because of a complicated bureaucratic system, only twenty foreigners had received state recognition as Branitelji (defenders). Meanwhile, they complained, hundreds of thousands of Croats had been given this status even though some of them never saw the front line.76 As Bourdieu and Hage have observed, eventually, it is society which confers meaning. Through the activities of the veterans’ association, interviews they have given in the media and online, and printed accounts of their experiences, the former volunteers seek recognition for the sacrifices they made; a sense of counting for others, being important for them. Apart from symbolic recognition, there is also a practical side to the Branitelj status: it enables those veterans who were wounded during the war to receive an invalidity pension. The association therefore tries to help a number of former volunteers to get through the bureaucratic process and receive official recognition.77

The association sees the number of volunteers who were killed in action as a key measure of the foreigners’ contribution to Croatia’s war effort. In recent years, the USDDR has compiled and published a number of lists of volunteers who were killed and wounded during the hostilities. In 2010, the association’s ‘Roll of Honour’ commemorated seventy-two fallen volunteers. Divided according to country of origin, it included twelve volunteers who were identified only by a first name or a nickname, and five who were listed as ‘unknown volunteer’.78 The only female on the list was Collette Webster, an American aid worker who was killed in Mostar in September 1993. Webster was twenty-seven, her marriage was breaking up and her convenience store was losing money. Moved by a Bosnian refugee she had met, she took a six-week training course in emergency medicine and travelled to Bosnia-Herzegovina through Croatia in January 1993. She joined a Croatian-based relief organisation and spent the next few months working at orphanages, hospitals and refugee camps. At a certain point she applied to join a Croatian military unit as a combat medic in order to work close to the front line.79 There is, of course, no way of knowing whether she would have identified with the veterans’ association which honours her memory.

In addition to public recognition, the formation of the USDDR helped to fill the void left by the war and its aftermath. The association and its annual gathering provide both physical and virtual forums to sustain wartime camaraderie and to help certain veterans to cope with trauma and/or the effects of physical injury. Speaking of one association member who experienced much hardship in the post-war years, Steve Gaunt commented: ‘It’s nice to see our organisation was able to help him. Even if we don’t do anything, we’re there. He’s with us now, he’s with his old comrades.’80 Despite ongoing differences and occasional personal rivalries, members of the association keep in touch and retain a strong sense of group identity based on their experiences during the war, much like veteran international volunteers who fought in other conflicts.81 However, some veterans want to have no part in the activities of the USDDR, echoing the aversion towards fellow volunteers expressed by a number of foreign fighters during the war. To use the words of one former volunteer, ‘Veteran associations are the perfect place to get backstabbed by disgruntled fellow members.’82


A mixed bunch by all accounts, Croatia’s foreign fighters came to the Balkans from very different backgrounds. As a result of their voluntary participation in the fiercest military confrontation Europe has known since the end of the Second World War, dozens of foreign fighters died and an even greater number were wounded. But what is to be learned from this case study? In terms of manpower, the contribution of the 456 foreigners to the Croatian war effort was tiny. At the early stages of the conflict the strength of the Croatian armed forces was approximately 65,000 troops. By early 1992 this number had risen to somewhere between 230,000 and 250,000.83 In places where foreigners served as instructors or helped to boost the morale of local soldiers they may have had a greater influence than their small number suggests. For instance, when describing Mac Coscair, Dobroslav Paraga recalled that:

HOS Army general Blaz Kraljevic (killed in West Herzegovina 1992) and my wife Nevenka said the young, smart and brave Irishman was the best. He assisted in many dangerous battles around Vukovar, Vinkovci, Nustar, Jasenovac, Novska, Petrinja, Zadar etc. He was a brother in arms with the best HOS fighters later involved in the Croatian Army and he contributed in the war with other prominent foreigners like him.84

For Ozren Žunec, the foreigners he encountered were similar in many respects to Croatian war volunteers. Some were ‘very young, some very disciplined and focused with clear sense of purpose, and some unruly troublemakers, loud and drunk’. However, he also recalled that in spring 1992 I was specifically ordered that all of them were to be demobilised without exception. I remember that the higher command was not easy with the idea that foreigners serve in Croatian Army (HV) and tried to get rid of them. Maybe this was under the influence of former JNA [Yugoslav National Army] officers occupying higher posts in HV for whom the foreign volunteers were equal to mercenaries of the worst kind.85

Clearly, any appreciation of the volunteers’ contribution to morale was subjective and depended on individual experiences of interaction.

The importance of this case study is in its contribution to our understanding of the phenomenon of transnational war volunteering. Recent scholarship has dedicated considerable attention to the analysis of the motivations behind volunteering for war.86 The case of Croatia’s foreign soldiers suggests that the decision to volunteer to fight abroad can be understood as part of a search for meaning. In a Franklian sense every individual searches for meaning. These war volunteers, however, searched for a particular kind of meaning – in a foreign, dangerous, masculine and ostensibly just environment. Moreover, for these men (and one woman), this search could not be satisfied at home. It is difficult to generalise, on the basis of the available sources, about what was missing in the lives of the volunteers prior to their departure. Indeed, different individuals may have been lacking quite different things: excitement, moral coherence, a test of one’s true worth and so on. But there nonetheless seems to have been a void that the war in the Balkans appeared to be able to fill. This is an attribute they share with transnational volunteers in other conflicts, despite differences in historical circumstances.

During the war the individual search for meaning receded to the background. Clear pre-war perceptions of right and wrong, as seen from abroad, often lost their clarity in the realities of the Yugoslav Wars. Lacking a cohesive and generally accepted ideology, comradeship – or in some cases the lack thereof – as well as empowerment played an important role in the foreigners’ wartime experiences. The post-war veterans’ association provides forums for sustaining wartime camaraderie. It also bears witness to the re-emergence of the volunteers’ search for meaning, though this time in a retrospective way. The attempts to attain societal recognition for the sacrifice foreign volunteers have made for Croatia illustrate that the search for meaning is an ongoing process that applies not only to the present and future but also to the interpretation of the past.

Institute of Humanities & Creative Arts, University of Worcester, Henwick Grove, Worcester WR2 6AJ;


1             A term describing Bosnia-Herzegovina’s indigenous Muslim population.

2             Marko Attila Hoare, How Bosnia Armed (London: Saqi, 2004), 131–5. Estimates of the number of mujahedin who fought on the Bosnian side range from a few hundred to up to three thousand. See also Esad Hecimovi´c,´ Garibi: Mudzahedini u BiH 1992–1999 (Fondacija Sina, 2006).

3             Ali M. Koknar, ‘The Kontraktniki: Russian Mercenaries at War in the Balkans’, website of the Bosnian Institute, 14 July 2003 (last visited 13 Sept. 2011); A. Beciroviˇc,´ ‘Sarajevo ratište kobno za Ruse’, Oslobodenje, 17 May 2010. The number of foreign fighters on the Serb side is estimated at over 500.

4             See, for example, Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia (London: Penguin, 1996), 25; Stipe Sikavica, ‘The Army’s Collapse’ in Jasminka Udovickiˇ and James Ridgeway, eds., Burn This House: The Making and Unmaking of Yugoslavia (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000), 151, fn. 20; Attila Hoare, How Bosnia Armed, 131.

5    (last visited 1 October 2010).

6             ‘USDDR Vinkovci-Vukovar 2009 program’, 17 Nov. 2009. The first two military formations officially took part only in the war in Croatia; HOS units fought in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the HVO, a Bosnian-Croat militia, fought only in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

7             See, for example, R. Rein, ‘Echoes of the Spanish Civil War in Palestine: Zionists, Communists and the Contemporary Press’, Journal of Contemporary History, 43, 9 (2008), 18.

8             Interview with Steve Gaunt, 14 March 2010; Steve Gaunt, War and Pivo, entries for 17 Jan. 1992, 17 Feb. 1992, 22 Feb. 1992 and 15 March 1992. Excerpts from the diary are available on Gaunt’s website, (last visited on 2 Sept. 2010), and see also Steve Gaunt, War and Beer (Coventry: Panic Press, 2010); Simon Hutt, Paint: A Boy Soldier’s Journey (Coventry: Panic Press,2010), 195. According to international law, a person is considered to be a mercenary when that person takes part in armed conflict motivated essentially by the desire for private gain, while having been promised or paid material compensation substantially more favourable than that of fellow combatants. These circumstances do not apply to the foreign fighters discussed in this article. Most received the same pay as Croatian soldiers while some, such as Antaine Mac Coscair, self-financed their stay in Croatia.

9             Deborah D. Avant, The Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 102–3.

10           For more on the wartime role of Croatian émigrés and their relations with the Croatian state, see Francesco Ragazzi, ‘The Invention of the Croatian Diaspora: Unpacking the Politics of “Diaspora” During the War in Yugoslavia’, Global Migration and Transnational Politics, working paper no. 10 (2009), 3–13; Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia, 121–22, 157; Jasminka Udovickiˇ and Ejub Štitkovac, ‘Bosnia and Hercegovina: The Second War’, in Udovickiˇ and Ridgeway, Burn This House, 190. For more on ‘long-distance nationalism’, see Benedict Anderson, ‘Western nationalism and eastern nationalism’, New Left Review, 9 (2001), 31–42.

11           Email from Ivan Farina, 17 Aug. 2010.

12           Michael Jackson, Fallen Sparrows: The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1994), 42.

13           ‘108 HVO International Unit – Part 1’, (last visited 19 April 2010).

14           Email to the author, 19 June 2010.

15           Email to the author, 2 July 2011.

16           Gaunt, War and pivo, entry for 6 Nov, 1991.

17           ’108 HVO International Unit – Part 1’.

18           Email to the author, 5 June 2010.

19           Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia, 90; Ejub Štitkovac, ‘Croatia: The First War’, in Udovickiˇ and Ridgeway, Burn This House, 158.

20           Interview with Gaston Besson and Steve Gaunt, 14 March 2010; Gaunt, War and pivo, entry for 10 April 1992.

21           Email to the author, 28 June 2010.

22           Berislav Jelinic,´ ‘Život nakon rata za tuđu domovinu’, Nacional, Nov. 2010, 68–74.

23           Jackson, Fallen Sparrows, 33.

24           Email to the author (date withheld).

25           Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (New York: Washington Square Press, 1963).

26           Email to the author, 20 Sept. 2010.

27           Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), 240.

28           Pierre Bourdieu, In Other Words: Essays towards a Reflexive Sociology (Cambridge: Polity, 1994), 196; Ghassan Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism (London: Merlin, 2003), 16.

29           Hutt, Paint, 55; interview with Gaston Besson, 14 March 2010; Rob Krott, Save the Last Bullet for Yourself (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2008), xi; ‘A. Mac (Cascarino)’, ‘The Novska Operations’, (last visited 29 Jan. 2011).

30           Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 6–7.

31           See, for example, John MacPhee, The Silent Cry: One Man’s Fight for Croatia in the Bosnian War (Manchester: Empire Publications, 2000), 56.

32           Email to the author, 20 Sept. 2010.

33           Anthony Loyd, My War Gone By, I Miss It So (London: Black Swan, 2002), 54.

34           Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 2.

35           Interview with Steve Gaunt, 14 March 2010.

36           When Rob Krott arrived in Zagreb in spring 1992, he searched in vain for the HQ of the International Brigade only to discover that ‘there was no real International Brigade per se’. Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 16–17.

37           Gaunt, War and pivo, entry for 9 Nov. 1991.

38           Hutt, Paint, 95–7.

39           HOS units in Bosnia-Herzegovina continued to act independently of Zagreb long after the forcible amalgamation in Croatia.

40  (last visited June 2011); email to the author, 28 June 2010.

41           Joost van Dijk, ‘Prva nizozemska dobrovoljackaˇ jedinica’, 9 Oct. 2007, hrvatska/rh/domovinski-rat/4-nizozemski-dobrovoljci.html (last visited 22 Jan. 2011); Jelinic,´ ‘Život nakon rata za tudu¯ domovinu’, 73–4; Rinke van den Brink, ‘Un Colonel Hollandais à la tête de paras Croates’, Le Soir, 30 July 1992, (last visited 25 Jan. 2011). For more on Tilder’s capture and interrogation, see: (last visited 22 Jan. 2011).

42           Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 119–40; MacPhee, The Silent Cry, 57. Soldier of Fortune magazine has helped recruit and sponsor training missions for various, mainly anti-communist, conflicts around the world since the second half of the 1970s.

43           British volunteer Cy Mackintosh explains: ‘Officially, the regular Croatian Army, of which I was a member, wasn’t involved in the war in Bosnia. However, Croatia was officially a military and political ally of the Bosnians against the Serbian common enemy. A case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. In Bosnia were the Bosnian-Croat HVO militia supplied and armed by the Croatian government and fighting in coalition at that time alongside what passed for the Bosnian Army.’ Cy Mackintosh, ‘Partisan Warfare’, (last visited on 27 Oct. 2010). Not all the volunteers saw the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a continuation of the conflict in Croatia. ‘Antaine Mac Coscair’ was at first tempted to head for Bosnia, but eventually decided not to go: ‘The enemy was the same, however the cause was not so clear’. Email to the author, 29 June 2010.

44           Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 16.

45           Rinke van den Brink, ‘Un Colonel Hollandais’.

46           Hutt, Paint, 104.

47           Hutt, Paint, 125, 198.

48           Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 151.

49           See, for example, Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 20; Hutt, Paint, 95, 103, 119.

50           Gaunt, War and pivo, entry for 20 Nov. 1991.

51           Email to the author, 2 July 2011.

52           Interview with Gaston Besson, 14 March 2010. See also Cy Mackintosh, ‘Partisan Warfare’. It is worth noting that women, Muslims and Croatian Serbs were also to be found in ZNG units.

53           Loyd, My War Gone By, 44–50.

54           Email to the author, 20 Sept. 2010.

55           MacPhee, The Silent Cry, 64–70.

56           Ibid., 85.

57           ‘A. Mac (Cascarino)’, ‘The Novska Operations’.

58           Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 168.

59           Gaunt, War and pivo, entry for 18 March 1992.

60           Loyd, My War Gone By, 47.

61           See, for example, Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 48–56; MacPhee, The Silent Cry, 18–19; Hutt, Paint, 148–54.

62           A local taxi driver was murdered by a British volunteer. For this and other violent occurrences, see Gaunt, War and pivo, entries for 1 Jan. 1992, 31 Jan. 1992, 2 March 1992, 12 March 1992; Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 1–4, 15; Hutt, Paint, 196–97.

63           Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 209.

64           Email to the author, 28 June 2010.

65           Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 211–12.

66           Cy Mackintosh, ‘Partisan Warfare’.

67           Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 11.

68           Ibid., 17, 28.

69           Open session, 12 May 2009, quoted on svjedocenje/transkripti_sudjenja/090512ED.htm (last visited 22 Jan. 2011)

70           Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 203.

71           Philip Sherwell, ‘My meeting with the man accused of plotting the assassination of Evo Morales’, The Daily Telegraph, 20 April 2009.

72  (last visited 27 Oct. 2010). I am very grateful to Bojan Kovaciˇc´ for this information.

73           ‘Swedish robber convicted of crimes in Bosnia’, The Gulf Times, 10 Nov. 2006, http://www.gulftimes. com/site/topics/article.asp?cu_no=2&item_no=123186&version=1&template_id=39&parent_id= 21; The Associated Press, 10 Nov. 2006; Amnesty International, ‘Sweden end impunity through universal jurisdiction’, No Safe Haven Series, 1 (London: Amnesty International Publications, 2009), pp. 88–92.

74           Openbaar Ministerie, ‘Dutchmen not involved in war crimes in Croatia’, 1 April 2009, (last visited 20 Sept. 2011).

75           Email to the author, 28 June 2010.

76           Jelinic,´ ‘Život nakon rata za tudu¯ domovinu’, 68–74.

77           Interview with Steve Gaunt and Gaston Besson, 14 March 2010.

78 –1995.html (last visited 20 Sept. 2011). For different figures of volunteers who were killed in action see: ‘USDDR Vinkovci-Vukovar 2009 program’, 17 Nov. 2009.

79           Michael Rubiner, ‘The Making of a Martyr’, People, 27 Dec. 1993: archive/article/0,20107228,00.html (last visited 1 April 2010); Krott, Save the Last Bullet, 197–8. The sources vary on whether or not Spencer succeeded in joining a HVO medical unit.

80           Interview with Steve Gaunt, 14 March 2010.

81           See, for comparison, Josie McLellan, Antifascism and Memory in East Germany: Remembering the International Brigades 1945–1989 (Oxford: Clarendon University Press, 2004), 70.

82           Email to the author (date withheld).

83           Branka Magaš and Ivo Žanic,´ eds., The War in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1991–1995 (London: Frank Cass, 2001), 25, 38, 51.

84           Email from Paraga to Sean MacBride, 17 Jan. 2005. I am grateful to Antaine Mac Coscair for this information.

85           Email to the author, 2 July 2011.

86           See, for example: Christine G. Krüger and Sonja Levsen, eds., War Volunteering in Modern Times: From the French Revolution to the Second World War (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011).