The International Volunteer Movement
Yugoslavia 1991: Faced with demands from Slobodan Milosevic that they allow tanks onto the streets of Kosova, the Republics of Slovenia and Croatia cannot agree and so proclaim their independence from the Federation. In weeks they are under attack from the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army (JNA). Slovenia is free after ten days but in Croatia the Serb minority, supported by the JNA, rebels and the horrors begin.
Round the clock air strikes batter the country; Yugoslav Army Divisions surround population centres and begin pounding them into rubble. The worst excesses are committed by heavily armed Serb paramilitaries. As villages and towns fall thousands are murdered and columns of distraught refugees stream past television screens around the world.
Disgusted by the inability of governments to halt the slaughter, individuals rose to the challenge from every civilised nation, setting aside political, ideological and cultural differences. Most protested, raised funds or conducted humanitarian operations. Some, a few, went further.
Seven hundred and seventy foreign citizens came forward as volunteers for the new Croatian Army. Some had a great deal of experience as soldiers, others none. They were welded by a shared purpose; the prevention of murder, rape and the wholesale destruction of civilian property and cultural heritage. Lacking basic weaponry and resources, the shortcomings in junior leadership amongst the new citizen army were met by we who became known
as the International Volunteers.
Present in every front-line brigade, most of us fought in the bitterest sector; the salients and trenches of the Vukovar front, though volunteers could be found on all of Croatia's five fronts and in the overcrowded hospitals of Zagreb.
We became propaganda pariahs to the Belgrade regime. Possibly the only factor the generals had not considered when launching their war, we scared them and they vastly inflated our numbers in order to compensate for their own shortcomings in the field. We were an enormous boost to civilian morale and our presence in battered front-line towns brought resolve to beleaguered defenders. We reorganised defensive positions and stiffened crumbling units. We fought as front-line infantry and taught on the job military skills to men who weeks before were ordinary civilians going about their business. In return we learned their language, received their hospitality and gained mutual respect.
By spring 1992 the Serbs had been fought to a standstill by a six month old army they dwarfed and should easily have defeated. At the demand of the United Nations Croatia was obliged to demobilise the International Volunteers from the army they had done so much to help create.
As predicted, Bosnian Muslims and Croats became the next target of the Yugoslav Army and its Serb paramilitaries at about this time. Many of the International Volunteers headed south to join the Muslim Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina or the Forces of the Croatian Defence Council (HVO). Their numbers were swelled by new volunteers in spite of generally hostile press coverage back home.
Sadly, the long awaited arrival of UN troops changed nothing and they were spread too thinly to protect scattered communities from encirclement and annihilation at the hands of the Serbs. It therefore fell to units of HVO and ABiH, augmented by the International Volunteers to defend them. Again, this often met with objection and professional jealousy from the UN. By late 1992 we had acquired such a fighting reputation in Bosnia that most brigades had formed platoon-sized groups of volunteers into intervention-reconnaissance units that bore the brunt of some of the heaviest fighting of the war.
Many battles and massacres went unreported due to geography and restrictions implemented by the Serbs in their occupied areas. The tragic though temporary breakdown of the Croat-Muslim alliance attracted the full glare of publicity as did the peripheral, often irrelevant events in Brussels, London and New York, simply because access to those areas was easier. International Volunteers became prime media targets; it grew impossible to take leave from one's unit without being followed around from one's hotel by groups of pressmen, pestering for interviews.
In war, there are no winners. The fighting petered out at the end of 1995 and a larger, better organised IFOR led by the Americans finally established true de-militarised zones. It was time to go home. Some of the International Volunteers had been in continuous front-line service for over four years.
Some 2,800 International Volunteers served for varying periods and hundreds were injured, from light wounds to paralysis and multiple amputation. Countless acts of bravery occurred that would have won decorations in more established armies. We know of four who were captured, tortured, beaten and denied their rights under Article 47 of the Geneva Convention. Eighty-two International Volunteers paid with their lives and the number grows as more come to light.
Upon returning home, these men receive only the basic disability benefits their countries have to offer. Unless they previously served in home forces they have no access to help from veterans' organisations or the various funds in existence.
In 1998 the Serb government stepped up its ten-year repression of the Kosova Albanians with a concentrated attempt to murder or displace the entire population. Sadly, most of us were too disabled, mentally or physically spent to join with the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). Nevertheless 30 - 40 International Volunteers came forward, participating in the guerrilla campaign and training Kosovar soldiers until the NATO liberation. The only recapture of Kosovan territory by the UCK from the Yugoslav Army was led by an International Volunteer.
Kosova was, we hope the endgame. However, if another European tyrant should think he can persecute his neighbours and intimidate others he will have to reckon with thousands of individuals who will be prepared against all the odds and even the hostility of their own governments, to defy him.
Our motto is Za Slobodu, which means for freedom, an axiom as true today as it was in the darkness and fear of 1991.