Lean times for the dogs of war

The Independent
Friday 29 November 1991
From Marcus Tanner in Zagreb

Strolling down Tkaliceva Street, in Zagreb’s old town, you are almost bound to overhear the words “geezers”, “plonkers” and “shites” wafting from one of the bars where khaki-clad Croatian fighters sip beer on their days off.

At night, there are hotel bars in Zagreb which are pure Casablanca. A piano tinkles in the corner, cigarette smoke coils up to the ceiling and expensively dressed Croatian women smile silkily at a group of lads with South London accents. They glower back, cradling their sub-machine guns. “Would you mind leaving your machine-gun outside, sir?” asks the bow-tied waiter. Sir replies with an expletive that cannot be printed. “You didn’t mind me holding this gun at the front do you, you daft plonker!”

According to the Serbian media, the Croatian army has tens of thousands of highly-paid mercenaries, mostly Germans. In reality, there are a couple of hundred bona fide foreigners who are not of Croatian descent in the ranks of the republic’s armed forces and most are English, Scottish or Irish. A visit to National Guard headquarters in Zagreb revealed 15 Britons in the queue of volunteers. At least two volunteers from Britain are reporters to have been killed so far in the Yugoslav civil war.

The Britons in Croatia are bitterly divided by allegiance, military experience, age and motives. Some serve in the National Guard, while others are in the HoS, the paramilitary wing of the hardline Party of Rights. The Britons in HoS do not talk to the Britons in the Guard.

Tom is a typical English guardsman. Nineteen years old, the son of a gentleman farmer from Cornwall, he has two years’ experience in the Territorials. He shudders at the mention of the HoS. “They stick to themselves and are rather frightening. You never know if they will shoot you in the back.” He says he never considered joining the HoS, because of their political extremism. “I am not fighting for Greater Croatia, but for democracy and the right of Croatians to choose how to live.”

Terry, a 30-year old Irishman who serves in the HoS and had five years’ experience in the French Foreign Legion, snorts at the mention of his fellow-countrymen in the Guard. “They are plonkers and shites, cannon-fodder with no experience. It’s a disgrace they are allowed to come here at all.” Terry is in Croatia because, he engagingly admits, “I like fighting. It’s pure adrenalin. All that stuff about Croatian freedom is shite, politicians’ talk.”

Down at the Guards headquarters the Britons talk less about the adrenalin and more about democracy. They are mostly young, with a knowledge of Croatia culled from press clippings. “Basically if the Croats want their freedom they should have it,” says Bob Morgan, a guardsman serving at Vinkovci. Tom and his colleague Dave, both Church of England, wear rosaries round their knocks. “It’s almost compulsory if you serve in the Karlovac district,” says Dave. “You get given it with your gun and your uniform.”

Terry, a Roman Catholic, sighs at the mention of guardsmen wearing rosaries. “A rosary won’t stop a bullet, will it?”

Almost the only thing the Britons n the HoS and the Guard share is a lack of any substantial financial remuneration. The HoS and the Guard both reportedly employ a handful of highly-paid foreign experts to train their forces. But the rank-and-file like Terry and Tom, in spite of military experience, get the humble wages of any other Croatian fighter – about £28 a month, in dinars.

Tom and Dave were helping a friend on the eastern front who had wasted two days in Zagreb trying to get hold of his wages. “In Vinkovci they told me to come to Zagreb. As soon as I got to Zagreb they told me to go back to Vinkovci,” the man sighed. “I just want a day off with a decent meal, some cigarettes and a couple of drinks.”

Financially Terry is no better off. The appearance of lavish spending in ritzy Zagreb bars is deceptive. Drinks flow, but they are mostly on the house. The pressed shirts come from a team of kindly hotel cleaning ladies, who do it for free. At the end of the day, home is a stretcher in a cold crowded dormitory near Zagreb railways station. There is no shower. “Great hotel!” says Terry. “It’s enough to make you want to go to Angola.”

BELGRADE – Evidence of tensions emerged yesterday between Serbia and local Serbian leaders in Croatia, when Serbia said it did not want independent Serbian militias to launch an all-out assault on Osijek, writes Tony Barber.

The defence of Osijek, capital of eastern Croatia, has assumed vital importance for the Croats since the fall of the nearby town of Vukovar on 17 November.

No significant incidents were reported yesterday around Osijek, and it appeared both sides were trying to observe a ceasefire ahead of the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops. The worst fighting occurred at Novska, near the Belgrade-Zagreb highway.

Despite moving towards Osijek after the fall of Vukovar, the federal army has shown little inclination for another big urban battle so soon. But the leaders of the self-proclaimed Serbian autonomous region of Slavonia, Baranja and western Srem, have vowed that their militias will press on and capture Osijek.

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