>>21821497 Me, Gaston Besson, French mercenary An inside testimony of a very dirty war Initially, Gaston Besson seems to have the classic profile of the kid that can’t get enough of Lartéguy’s adventure stories; gold hunter in French Guyana at the age of 16 and soldier at the age of 18, participating in the rebellion with the Karens in Burma, with jungles and malaria as a background. Gaston follows his older brother. Half-journo, half-mercenary, he trains with the guerrillas of the Suriname, Laos and Cambodia. He returns to live in France, but, plagued by boredom and enticed by the images of the ex-Yugoslavian war, he departs for Croatia with a journalist friend. There, he goes fighting on the Croatian side from November 1991 to February ’93. Today, the doomed soldier has the eyes of a man who has killed too often. From Vinkovci, Karlovac, Slavonski-Brod in Croatia to Mostar, Kupres and Brcko in Bosna-Herzergovina… He talks of his actions among the extreme-right commandos of the HOS, or at the Croatian green berets, his encounters with foreign mercenaries, but also of manhunts, summary executions, of wars where no prisoners are taken and the wounded are shot.
Q: How did you enter the war in Yugoslavia? A: I travelled there with the vague intention of taking pictures. But when I arrived in Vinkovci, the town was about to fall. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the end of the world. Yet, at the same time, there was a huge nationalist rush, a kind of last-ditch fight for liberty, where men who did not know how to fight went to the front to get slaughtered. I spent two weeks with them in the trenches. And then, one night, there was an attack, and I couldn’t take photos… So I found myself with a Kalashnikov in my hands.
A: Yes. I already had combat experience. I had even trained recruits in South-East Asia. The majority of the Croatians had no military competence. This wasn’t an army. Their strategy comprised of: “For fuck’s sake, provide cover!” It was a total mess. I wanted to engage myself to the max. So I ended up among the commandos of the 6th battalion of the HOS in Vinkovci. We were entrenched in the caves, going out at night in no man’s land between the Serbian lines, to ‘hit’ a tank or a mortar. At the beginning, I was with this guy nicknamed ‘Chicago’, a nut job who’d spent two years in the US. He had no idea what he was doing, making us do stupid things, like going out straight ahead between the lines and randomly getting us into enemy contact. Madness. I left. I tried assembling some men. The combat was very difficult in November and December ’91. Then with the lull in the fighting, the HOS militia (suspected by Zagreb to be preparing a NLDR putsch) started to receive less weapons. At the end of March, the HOS HQ in Zagreb was blown up: five dead, twelve wounded. We never knew how. This was the end of HOS. I was leading a group of twelve men at the front. It ended horribly. The entire group was wiped out in an operation. We had gone across a minefield. On my side, I blew up a tank. However the others bumped right in front of a sentry detail. Lit by flares, everyone was under machinegun fire, in the middle of bouncing mines: it was carnage. There were two survivors. It was the end of the war in Croatia. Already, a lot of Croatians-Bosnians were returning to Bosnia. Two or three months prior, everyone knew what was going to happen over there. So they went. Me, I had returned to Zagreb where they put me in a Croatian special unit, the green berets. Destination: Herzegovina.
>>21821547 Q: Where did the foreigners in your unit come from? A: I was commanding a section of thirty men. Three-quarters were Croatians from the US, Australia and there were two French-Croatians. There only were three ‘real’ foreigners: a Dutchman, a Briton and a French ex-Légionnaire, a sergeant-chief turned General. Everyone spoke French on the radio. There were many Légionnaires, ex-soldiers who had done eight or ten active years. I was a mix of old soldiers and idealistic adventurers. A lot of them were ultra-conservative Britons who never stopped arguing, a few of them were French, some Germans… I ran into a few rare neo-Nazis. How many foreigners? Five hundred in total with sixty permanent members. There were very few young men like me. Those who wanted to fight were often in their thirties [Continued]
[Continued] A break-up sprang up in their lives, a problem, a bout of depression, so they decided to play with death. But they often had a life and work somewhere else. If they hadn’t been wounded or killed, they left after two or three months. I remember this British guy, half-Spanish, with very long hair, an ex-soldier who owned a bar in the Philippines. One day, a buddy mentioned Vukovar to him. They went together, to Hong Kong, to take a train to Moscow, where they crossed the whole of Europe until they reached Yugoslavia. He was badly injured. Shrapnel all around the heart; the doc forbid him to move. He immediately rejoined us on the Bosnian front, fought for a while, then left in the direction of Spain. I never saw him again.
A: Fourteen thousand and five hundred Dinars. Around one thousand two hundred Francs at the onset of the war and, later, with the devaluing of Croatian currency, the equivalent of three hundred Francs. But we didn’t fight for money. In Bosnia, payday was nonexistent; there were ‘clubs’ in charge of the handing out of money, which came from Croatians abroad. When we came back after three months at the front, we were given a thousand five hundred Francs each, enough to pay for a decent hotel and ten days to get drunk. To forget everything. I lost nine friends over there. Pierre, a soulless adventurer, neither intelligent nor stupid, fascinated by war stories; I don’t know why he came. Maybe he was seeking some adventures; he got them. We got surrounded by tanks, and had two hours to rejoin our lines. We ended up with two dead and twelve wounded. Francois took two rounds in the thigh; he bled out in five minutes. At twenty seven years of age. I liked him. It really hit me. Pierre took a bullet to the head in Livno. And Jean-Louis, ex-soldier of the French army, was killed in December ’91. Him, he didn’t even know why he was there in the first place.
Q: Why so many losses? Were the foreigners sent to the toughest places? A: No. We went on our own accord. We went there to “do something”. Not to act as sentries. To stay or leave… That was our decision. After the extermination of my unit in Vinkovci, I had the desire to go back to Bosnia, to find the Croatians/Bosnians who had fought with us. That was all. One encounter with a buddy in a train station, a few drinks, a train… We changed all our plans. Don’t try to find the rational behind this. Q: Did you know, at least, why you fought? A: Initially, yes. Through idealism, defending a country that was being attacked ten to one, holding ground, we had to hold the villages… even though we never stopped retreating during the war. And then, little by little, we changed. There weren’t any friends. It became war for war. During combat, we didn’t have Marijuana or amphetamine. I didn’t like drugs; I was already nervous enough. But as soon as we left the front, we became doomed alcoholics. In Zagreb, I was wasted 24/7.
A: Savagery? Yes. Among others and within oneself. After every trip to the front, we realise that we are not the same. Therefore, we drink. To forget the fear of dying. To forget the civilians. We avoided them at all cost. When the Croatians wanted to recount to us the massacres of the civilians, I absconded. We didn’t want to hear, let alone know. Myself, I only saw the tombs in front of the houses. I saw corpses missing ears and eyes… It was banal. There always were people coming from nowhere to pillage the corpses, especially after a fire fight. We didn’t give a fuck.
Q: Did you witness any torturing?
A: I saw people getting beaten up, but no tortures. Us, we kept our men in check. You know, the Serbs weren’t worse than the Croatians. The difference was the laissez-faire, the complete impunity that soldiers enjoyed. Of course, there were rapes and summary executions among the Croatians, but only during combat and never within sight or earshot of officers.
In Zeric, North of Tuzla, the Serbian village was encircled by Croatians at the beginning of the war. There was a nice asphalt road that saved walking for hours in the mountains. To use it, we arranged a deal with the Serbian population. There were no problems until the day the Serbian army arrived. The villagers woke up and massacred three or four Croatian families that lived there. They captured a Jeep that passed by and its conductor, a German-Croatian friend that went by the name of ‘Millo’. We found him with his hands nailed to a grange door. It was the other prisoners who told us the details: beatings with sticks, cigarette burns, the ‘Judas cradle’ torture method… He had been tortured in the village square, in front of officers. The guys weren’t scared of torturing openly. An atmosphere of complete impunity! When we found Millo, his hands had bled. He had been nailed alive.
Q: You talked about Serbs. However, you, disciplined officer, you had executed prisoners.
A: Yes, one time only… In Zeric… During combat.
A: It’s difficult to talk about it. We had to retake Zeric and its asphalt road. For once, we had received a tank and a few mortars. We had to take advantage of that. We attacked a village. We progressed house by house, brush by brush. The Serbs wore the same uniforms that we wore… The village fell, then was retaken, fell, then was retaken again. Fatigue and tension set in. Classic stuff. On the radio, I heard that we’d captured two armed militiamen. I went to see them.
I was my responsibility as an officer. Once there, I quickly realised that these two prisoners weren’t going to make it out alive. If I had sent them to the rear, they would have been slotted behind the nearest shrub. Then I would have had to punish my men. Errors and weaknesses are always paid in combat. I took the decision myself. I had to do it. On site, it’s you that has to decided the life and death of these people. On the spur of the moment, it was the logical thing to do.
Q: You made them lie on the ground and you put a bullet in their heads. Is that so?
A: Yes. They were bound to get killed anyhow. Therefore, sending them to the rear would have been cowardice on my behalf. Anyone can say that I’m an asshole for that.
Q: Or, more precisely, that you are an assassin. If, one day, there came to be a trial for war crimes, in ex-Yugoslavia, you would have to seat on the bench for the accused.
A: Then all the Croatians, the Serbs, and the Germans of the second world war would have to sit too!
A: Yes. During combat, on multiple occasions. What do you think? That we let people leave, in a tranquil manner, by throwing their rifles, their hands in the air? That stuff is only good for TV.
Q: And the wounded?
A: They’re executed. On both sides. There aren’t many prisoners during combat. After… It’s different. When the adrenaline has subdued, one or two hours later, if a man comes out of a barn or a cave, we offered him a cigarette or some coffee. I remember one of the rare Serbian villages we took. Eight hundred civilians were surrounded and taken prisoner. Nothing happened. We found other people, hidden in the woods. They were dying of fright and hunger. We fed them. They had a book with them: “How the Oustachis kill.” Their propaganda was extraordinary. We stayed in the village. It was weird. These men, women and children who lived with us. We gave them cigarettes; they made us coffee, food… An maybe I had slotted one of their fathers, cousins, brothers. And they knew it. But by living so long with us, by sharing everything, the food and the Serbian mortars… When we left for combat, they worried for us; when we came back from an engagement with the enemy, they healed our wounded. This was the unreal side to the war.
Q: Even more unreal than the militiaman who walks, by himself, on a deserted road in the middle of a fierce battle?
A: It was always near Zeric. The village was burning, the houses were burning, the grass in the ditches was burning… And this guy walked, rifle slung over his shoulder, not a care in the world, looking at the ground, as if he were looking for something between the corpses. I will never forget this image. We didn’t dare take the risk of going out in the open to take him prisoner. We hesitated for forty seconds. Then we downed him with a bullet to the head.
Q: You downed him. Why? Because, once again, you were in charge?
A: No. It was because I was there. There was such fatigue… Killing, it’s a routine.
Q: And when you went ‘man-hunting’, was that routine too?
A: No. You can’t talk about ‘man-hunting’! What you’re referring to happened near Mostar, after the death of Thomas Linder, a German friend. We had so many losses, all for nothing! We came back to base. I was feeling so insecure. I had to do “something”, whether it be going back there, blowing up a tank, killing Serbs, killing anyone. I had to get it out of my system, alone, not like an officer responsible for his men.
We left with three officers to snipe in the mountains around Mostar. Some can shoot at 600 meters; myself, I am myopic, I have to get closer to the target at around 250 meters. In Mostar, the Serbian arsenal was impressive, every inch of terrain covered by a machine gun. We had to do it quickly, shoot and run, before we got lit up. We progressed through the night, between the houses, until we reached the edge of Neretva. We hid behind a tree until dawn. We were alone, facing our deaths. We didn’t stay long, eight days in total.
Q: How many men did you kill?
A: Six or seven. Three for certain. The others just fell. Dead? I don’t know. They were all military personnel: a sentry, a soldier manning a tank turret, another one repairing an engine…
Q: For one of them, you waited, through the crosshairs, until he saw you before shooting. Why?
A: I don’t know. At the time, maybe, I could have answered you. Today, I can’t tell anymore…
A: No, never. In Mostar, when we were guarding the town, there was a group of refugees who were getting shot by Serbian snipers, so-called ‘sleepers’, because they were sharpshooters who let themselves get shut inside the town. Concealed between buildings, they killed men, women and children. For nothing. No military reason. And it was disastrous counter-propaganda. We’ve had had enough of this, so we asked for volunteers and, during fifteen days, we visited the buildings and the offices, by kicking down hundreds of doors. It was very dangerous, because the snipers could shoot you from above and could see you crossing corridors and rooftops. We caught a dozen snipers or so, both men and women. Our group caught three. One was killed because he got shot. The other two were handed over to the Croatians.
Q: Their fates?
A: They arrived very, very quickly to the bottom of the building. In Bosnia, war is even more savage than in Croatia.
Q: You wrote: “Today, I am happy to have given death.”
A: Yes, I said that. At the onset of war, I came to help people, to defend, not to attack, and eventually to give my life, not to take lives. Then we lose a friend, and we end up desiring revenge. We kill, then we’re happy.
Q: You even ended up shooting at NATO peacekeepers.
A: They arrived at the wrong time during the war. Only for entrenching a frontier for themselves, not to push back the Serbs. And they saw themselves as liberators! Everyone saw them as unwelcome. On TV, CNN talked of a single peacekeeper getting injured as if it were an absolute scandal… Even though entire towns were massacred. People were saying that there more infant casualties than dead peacekeepers. In Mostar, the military observers had put themselves between us and the Serbs. This did not bother the Serbs and their artillery. But for us, our only chance was to infiltrate their lines. So we began shooting at NATO jeeps. Not at the peacekeepers, only at their hardware. They quickly understood and fled during the night, leaving behind them crates of NATO T-shirts and helmets.
Q: Even you were unwelcome at the rear. Is that right?
A: Zagreb tried to forget the war, to erase all traces, to take up businesses again. Myself, an officer, couldn’t go out in uniform, for fear of getting stopped every two hundred meters by military police. Us, the foreigners, we encumbering. The leaders of Zagreb wanted to forget Bosnia. They only though about reconstruction. And the second war in Croatia. The war of re-conquest… which will not take long to begin.
Q: Why did you give up?
A: I was wounded four times over there: RPG, mortar round, collapsing house, coma, shrapnel in the body… I was exhausted, Francois had been killed, I needed oxygen, so I took leave in Paris. One night, in a car with a friend, we were drunk and sped past a red light. We crashed and I ended up with a crushed kneecap. As you can see my leg is still in plaster. The time of acrobatics was over. It was a car accident that stopped me. Strange.
Q: If that hadn’t happened?
A: I would have gone back to Croatia. Who knows?
[End of interview] 1993
Phew, well that's it /k/. I hope you enjoyed the reading and I bid you a good evening.
The whole collapse of Yugoslavia and the ensuing conflicts are a special kind of fucked up. I'm surprised there aren't more movies and remembrance of it considering the scale of the conflict. Also, I watched the movie "No man's Land", was it accurate in its portrayal of the UN in the conflict?
>>21826221 Well, that doesn't change his oppinion. Also south east asia was a hotbed for that sort of stuff. Even though I believe Africa might win in that regard. >Another advantage of being half something is being offend by double the racist remarks!
in degrees of brutality in war, balkan and asia absolutely win, atleast this century. ill give something to eastern front and some incidents but i have the feeliing they were over the top
>inb4 sacco di roma, sack of magdeburg
if you can get witness testimoneys from sacco di roma, read them. i got to read some in german, its all about raping nuns, hanging grandmas giving the besieged swissguard some grass and just streets filled with corps
>>21822445 >Q: Did you assist in other summary executions? >A: Yes. During combat, on multiple occasions. What do you think? That we let people leave, in a tranquil manner, by throwing their rifles, their hands in the air? That stuff is only good for TV.
>>21822572 >Q: Even more unreal than the militiaman who walks, by himself, on a deserted road in the middle of a fierce battle? >A: It was always near Zeric. The village was burning, the houses were burning, the grass in the ditches was burning… And this guy walked, rifle slung over his shoulder, not a care in the world, looking at the ground, as if he were looking for something between the corpses. I will never forget this image. We didn’t dare take the risk of going out in the open to take him prisoner. We hesitated for forty seconds. Then we downed him with a bullet to the head.
I think these two disturbed me more than anything else in his account. Just feels so wrong.
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