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In Search of Meaning: Foreign Volunteers in the Croatian Armed Forces, 1991–95

  • NIR ARIELLI (a1)

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.

Les volontaires étrangers figurent régulièrement dans les conflits modernes. Tous les partis des guerres de Yugoslavie (1991–95) attirèrent des volontaires d'autres pays. Cet article se concentre sur ceux qui se joignirent aux forces croatiennes (tout en excluant les émigrés croatiens retournant dans leur pays natal). Il discute de leurs origines et de leur motivation en venant dans les pays Balkans, et il examine comment ils se représentent et commemorent leurs expériences de la guerre. L'article soutient que leur participation se comprend comme ayant aidé à une quête personelle pour trouver un sens, une camaraderie et une valeur.

Ausländische Freiwillige sind in modernen Kriegen von wachsender Bedeutung. Besonders in den Jugoslawien-Kriegen (1991–95) konnten wir beobachten, wie eine wachsende Anzahl ausländischer Soldaten an dem Konflikt beteiligt war. Dieser Artikel konzentriert sich auf jene Ausländer (ausgenommen der rückkehrenden kroatischen Emigranten), die sich bei den kroatischen Streitkräften verdingten. Er untersucht, aus welchen Motiven sie auf den Balkan kamen und wie sie ihre Kriegserfahrungen in der Öffentlichkeit darstellten und erinnerten. Der Artikel argumentiert, dass ihre Beteiligung an dem Konfilkt vor allem durch ihre individuelle Suche nach Bedeutung erklärt werden kann: für Kameradschaft und ihrer Suche nach Kontrolle über ihr Leben.

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

2 Hoare, Marko Attila, 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 Hećimović, 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. Bečirović, ‘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, Glenny, Misha, The Fall of Yugoslavia (London: Penguin, 1996), 25; Sikavica, Stipe, ‘The Army's Collapse’ in Udovički, Jasminka and Ridgeway, James, 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.

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, Rein, R., ‘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 Gaunt, Steve, War and Beer (Coventry: Panic Press, 2010); Hutt, Simon, 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 Avant, Deborah D., 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 Udovički and Ejub Štitkovac, ‘Bosnia and Hercegovina: The Second War’, in Udovički and Ridgeway, Burn This House, 190. For more on ‘long-distance nationalism’, see Anderson, Benedict, ‘Western nationalism and eastern nationalism’, New Left Review, 9 (2001), 3142.

11 Email from Ivan Farina, 17 Aug. 2010.

12 Jackson, Michael, 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 Udovički 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 Jelinić, ‘Život nakon rata za tuđu domovinu’, Nacional, Nov. 2010, 68–74.

23 Jackson, Fallen Sparrows, 33.

24 Email to the author (date withheld).

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

26 Email to the author, 20 Sept. 2010.

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

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

29 Hutt, Paint, 55; interview with Gaston Besson, 14 March 2010; Krott, Rob, 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, MacPhee, John, 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 Loyd, Anthony, My War Gone By, I Miss It So (London: Black Swan, 2002), 54.

34 Bourke, Joanna, 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 dobrovoljačka jedinica’, 9 Oct. 2007, (last visited 22 Jan. 2011); Jelinić, ‘Život nakon rata za tuđu 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 (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 Kovačić for this information.

73 ‘Swedish robber convicted of crimes in Bosnia’, The Gulf Times, 10 Nov. 2006,; The Associated Press, 10 Nov. 2006; International, Amnesty, ‘Sweden end impunity through universal jurisdiction’, No Safe Haven Series, 1 (London: Amnesty International Publications, 2009), pp. 8892.

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 Jelinić, ‘Život nakon rata za tuđu 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:,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 Magaš, Branka and Žanić, Ivo, 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: Krüger, Christine G. and Levsen, Sonja, eds., War Volunteering in Modern Times: From the French Revolution to the Second World War (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011).

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Contemporary European History
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