The curious case of Legionnaire Peters

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Kyösti Pietiläinen is a hard man. He served 28 years in the French Foreign Legion. The sailor from Finland became a military police man in 2. REP, Legion’s paratrooper regiment. During his years in the French military apparatus Pietiläinen – who served under nom de guerre Karl Peters and attained a rank of caporal-chef, a master corporal – undoubtedly used his fists and baton effectively in numerous bar fights and detained scores of drunk legionnaires. Life in the Legion, even today in its modern version, offers rather strange and unusual events on a daily basis owing to its macho culture and a mix of soldiers from all nationalities, often with troubled backgrounds.

But the most bizarre episode in Legionnaire Peters’ story unfolded after his retirement from the Legion in 2000.

Assisted by his nephew Petri Pietiläinen, caporal-chef Peters wrote memoirs of his 28 Legion years. The book (Legioonalainen Peters. Suomalaisen palkkasoturin muistelmat, Tammi 2003) outlines Peters’ adventures in Corsica, a hostage freeing operation in Djibouti in 1976, his combat jump in Kolwezi in 1978 , operations in Chad in the 80’s, U.N. operation in Sarajevo and the massacres of Ruanda in 1994. In the book’s intro Peters states that his story is “99 % true and 99 % lies”.

Now what the hell is that supposed to mean? I had to find out. It happens that Tammi, one of the largest publishing houses in Finland, is also my publisher, so when I visited their office they handed me Peters’ book.

One characteristic of the Foreign Legion is that it hardly changes over time. It is like a grumpy old man sticking to his old, conservative ways. Though I served in that establishment in the 90’s, I could easily relate to Peters’ story from 70’s and 80’s and understand that while the core of the Legion life – the cleaning chores at the barracks, the training, the drinking, the fist fights – was accurately described, he had colored his story with imaginary accounts of warfare, summary executions of deserters and war heroism that riddle every page of the book. At a quick count, Peters eliminates single-handedly at least three dozen enemy soldiers or fellow legionnaires.

It may be difficult to live up to the expectations of readers who have the image of Foreign Legion as a rogue mercenary force fighting secret wars in Africa, when in fact it is as any military in times of peace. There’s little or no combat exposure. But Peters decided to deliver. This was back in 2003.

Now, the Finns can’t be so dumb that they actually believe this nonsense, can they?

It gets worse. Since 2003 Peters – or his editor – has written eight more books about his adventures: two more with Petri Pietiläinen (“120 days to become a Legionnaire”, “Legionnaire Peters’ early years as a sailor”) and six with a military historian and a member of The Finnish Association of Non-Fiction Writers Ville Kaarnakari (“Legion’s strike to Kolwezi“, “Military Police Peters No. 005”, “Legionnaire Peters – The Bloody Oasis”, “Legionnaire Peters in Rwanda”, “Legionnaire Peters – The Desert Fox” and the latest, “Legionnaire Peters in the sights of a sniper”). All were published in Finnish language by Tammi. The books are marketed as non-fiction. They have sold well.

I got interested in finding out if the quality of narration and the proportion of non-fiction had risen from the previous 1 – 99 percent of my 2003 reading experience. After all, the books were now co-written by Mr. Kaarnakari, a military historian. Having myself participated in France’s Operation Turquoise in Rwanda in 1994, I was interested in hearing Peters’ version of that operation. So I set out to read “Legionnaire Peters in Rwanda”.

In the aftermath of the mass killings of April-July, a force of 3000 French troops was sent in. Our mission was to secure distribution of humanitarian aid, to protect refugee camps and to create a humanitarian zone in the west of the country.

Comprised mostly of French army paratroopers, logistics and transport troops and special forces’ reconnaissance units, only three Legion units participated in Operation Turquoise: 1st Company of the 2. REI (in which I served), 3rd Company of 13. DBLE (in which Peters served) and a reconnaissance team from the 2. REP.

While 1st Co. remained in and around the town of Cyangugu in the west, the 3rd Co. set up its zone of operations at the eastern edge of the Nyungwe national park. In particular, they were to control the highway leading through the park. My squad (a fire support team) was sent in to reinforce the 3rd Co. in an area called Kitabi.

I never met caporal-chef Peters there. None of the guys of the 3rd Co. mentioned that we had the notorious Finn with us. I did meet another Finn, but a young, stressed-out legionnaire just out from basic training who had been sent to Djibouti and 13. DBLE.

This in itself was curious. How come did I manage not to see Peters in that small perimeter? After reading “Legionnaire Peters in Rwanda” the answer became obvious to me.

Legionnaire Peters wasn’t in Rwanda.

The book is a work of fantasy. What makes it all the more unfortunate: it is a very poorly written work of fantasy. Surely the team Kaarnakari-Peters could have spent some time studying background materials in order to fabricate a bit more plausible story? But it seems they were in a hurry.

The book starts with Peters’ 3rd company being inserted directly into Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, in the beginning of Operation Turquoise. No date is given. Actually, there is no single date or any other detail such as unit numbers or references in the whole book. But let’s assume this was in late June when the bulk of the French forces entered Rwanda.

The problem here is that like my company, the 3rd Co. flew to Goma, Zaire, from where we entered Eastern Rwanda by road convoys. Peters writes that after the operation they also flew out from Kigali and returned to Djibouti. This would have been equally impossible. At the time Kigali had fallen into the hands of military forces of RPF, the Tutsi-led political organization which opposed the French forces. In reality, after Operation Turquoise the 3rd Co. spent a month in Zaire, guarding the airport of Goma.

In the book however, using a French pioneer unit’s barracks in Kigali as a base, Peters’ squad sets out to conduct reconnaissance patrols to the surrounding areas – and in fact across the whole area of Rwanda, from eastern border with Tanzania to the western Lake Kivu.

Well, let’s be charitable and put aside the fact that there were no French units in Kigali at the time. With only one vehicle, without any back-up, his team of nine legionnaires drives along muddy roads surrounded by impenetrable jungle, with no locals in sight. Their mission is to gather intelligence information and “distribute aid”. A peculiar and novel way for humanitarian aid delivery.

Occasionally they detect fresh footprints by the side of the road which the legionnaires track like Indians, often leading to a discovery of murderous black men with machetes – or “knife wielders”, as Peters calls them. Many a times, hordes of these psychotically screaming, half-naked, machete wielding savages simply jump out from the bushes to block the road and attack Peters and his men. They are gunned down by the legionnaires – or sometimes just driven over. “The only way to communicate with them is with a firearm!”

Peters’ depiction of both Hutus and Tutsis is interesting. But instead of trying to “cook us in a pot” or attack us upon sight like blood thirsty zombies, I recall how the locals generally had a good rapport with us. We would meet them on the road and in the villages, sometimes exchange military rations for their livestock – for BBQ meat – and discuss the security situation. We never came under attack. Especially the civilians were friendly towards us. When we’d stop to refill our vehicles’ water reservoirs the kids would gather around. But in Peters’ book, the only time they come across civilians they flee into the jungle, scared to death at the sight of French soldiers.

Peters does encounter civilians for a second time, too – this time running for their lives in the town of Butare which is being overrun by “knife wielders”. The town has been burned down. On the outskirts of the city the legionnaires observe a mass grave, with bodies partially exposed because of the heavy tropical rains that keep falling throughout the mission.

Few problems here, too.

Butare is a prefectural capital and at a time a major refugee center. It was not burned down by RPF or anyone else, but did fall into RPF hands in early July. It was just east from the division line, with the French troops in the west of the country – as for Kigali, Peters’ patrol couldn’t have been to Butare, either.

They enter the town of Gisenyi in eastern Rwanda as well. This is OK, as Gisenyi also is a prefectural center and happened to be the base for the northern detachment of the French intervention force. But the trouble is that in Peters’ story,  like Butare, Gisenyi is also a ghost town of smouldering ruins, populated only by crazed “knife wielders”. Who are – as you may have guessed by now – swiftly gunned down.

The rest of Peter’s demographic and geographic description is equally peculiar. They drive to Lake Kivu in the east of the country without encountering people (except for the usual “knife wielders” who are again shot). The shores of the lake are devoid of people. The trip back to Kigali goes also “without encountering anyone”.

Rwanda, however, is perhaps the most densely populated of African countries. Especially by road sides you will find population and small hamlets of houses and huts everywhere. This is true also in the proximity of lake Kivu where approximately 2 million people live, and where in the summer of 1994 hundreds of thousands of refugees had spilled. It would have been impossible to drive any distance without encountering locals. In Peters’ story, however, the only living creatures apart from the machete-zombies are weapons smugglers and other “wandering bands of thugs” – and the man-eating crocodiles that swarm on the shores of lake Kivu (and which Peters hunts with a hand grenade).

Now, I don’t want to split hairs, but lake Kivu is known for the fact that it has no crocodiles – something which was observed by explores already a hundred years ago. Also, lake Kivu has no “border with Uganda”. And when Peters is observing the thugs on the ”opposite shore” in “Congo” with binoculars, could someone please let him know that lake Kivu is 30 km wide, and he should use a telescope instead? And that Democratic Republic of Congo was called Zaire in 1994.

As for the torrential rains that rip open mass graves on the hill sides and cause floods and destroy roads:

June-August is dry season in Rwanda.

I remember how dust was the problem while driving our open top VLRA-vehicles, not mud. The weather data during Operation Turquoise (22 June to 21 August 1994) does not record a single day of precipitation in Kigali.

We could also examine in detail the countless fights between Peters and the “knife wielders”, where dozens, perhaps hundreds of these savages are gunned down.  But you probably guess where that would lead. Instead I’ll just refer to materials already written about Operation Turquoise. The French military has classified all its Op Turquoise reports secret for a period of 50 years. But there is an abundance of other materials available for public such as this very detailed, 1500-page book by Jacques Morel which depicts the few confrontations between French troops and Rwandan elements (and in which Legion units were not involved). The October 1994 issue of Kepi Blanc, the official magazine of the Foreign Legion, is also available online and depicts the missions of Legion units in detail. Someone still in doubt may also read Operation Turquoise commander colonel Jacques Hogard’s book “Les Larmes de l’Honneur” or the French Parliament’s Rwanda report or the countless materials produced by western journalist, IGOs and NGOs, such as this OECD report which encapsulates the operation well:

For a humanitarian intervention force of 3,000, the unit was heavily armed (including air support from four Jaguar fighter-bombers and four Mirage ground attack planes based in Goma, Zaire).This discouraged the RPF from challenging the intervention militarily, even though the RPF feared that the French planned to divide the country and dig in. The RPF instead accelerated its advance so as to secure Butare and Kigali (2–4 July) before the French could do so. After 4 July, a dividing line between the two armies running just west of Butare was tacitly accepted. Apart from two incidents, there were no military confrontations: the French ceased their advance, and the RPF did not press forward into the zone. Effective and early communication between the two parties was instrumental in avoiding an escalating conflict that neither wanted. Established in Paris just prior to the operation and continued throughout, the communications structures permitted careful management of a conflictual relationship.

My memory of Operation Turquoise is well in line with these observations. It was mostly a calm intervention. During my attachment to the 3rd Company of 13. DBLE we had no incidents in our area – a world away from Peters’ war fantasy.

The massacres of 1994 were a horrific genocide where France’s pro-Hutu stance has been seen as controversial. Investigations and committees have been set up in order to find out what happened and who supported what.

My concern now in 2013 has not so much to do with Rwanda or France, but with my own country. As I said, are the Finns really so dumb that they believe this Peters-baloney?

Certainly in some circles in Finland there is a deep-rooted culture of glamorization of war, something which dates back to the days of WWII and beyond. But our veterans are getting old and few. Perhaps the nation now needs new war heroes, and caporal-chef Peters has entered the stage to fill this gap conveniently. Maybe this syndrome – a war trauma by being born too late to participate – blurs the perception of the likes who read Legionnaire Peters –series?

Nonsense. One doesn’t even need personal experience from Africa or Legion to be able to judge a book like “Legionnaire Peters in Rwanda” and to realize that it is a hoax.

Earlier this year when Peters was promoting his books in national TV and radio, he claimed to have killed 100-150 people during his time in the Legion – an obvious lie. But the interviewer didn’t even flinch. No reaction from the public, either.

When I brought up the fictive nature of Peter’s book with a reporter from Finland’s biggest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, it turned out that they had known about it all along. Another journalist who had read this blog wanted to interview me about my army experiences for a Finnish military magazine. I declined this as irrelevant to readers, and suggested she could explore the curious case of Legionnaire Peters instead. She wasn’t interested.

Perhaps nowadays it doesn’t matter if a “nonfiction” book is actually a load bollocks, as long as it is entertaining. What a dreary idea.

If the Peters-series were marketed as boyish war novels, I would not probably be writing this. Every country has their genre of crappy war fiction. But selling fantasy as non-fiction is another thing. And if that is a piss poor performance, then what should I say about military historian Kaarnakari, who admitted in an e-mail that he didn’t use any kind of background materials in the book writing process, but everything is based solely on what Peters told him?

Well. I can put aside the disturbing racism of the book and the depiction of Rwandans as cannibals and psychotic murderers. I can ignore the fact that Kaarnakari and Peters have fabricated a piece of alternative history and sold it in book stores – with generous marketing support from the Finnish media. But it’ll be harder to shake off the uncomfortable notion: So is this the Finnish standard nowadays?

Chef’s recommendation for a digestif:

EPILOGUE : RUMBLE IN SARAJEVO (On Fool’s Day 2014, a propos)

As Tammi Publishing prepares to roll out the 10th “Legionnaire Peters” -book, I managed to read another of these adventure memoirs.

This time Caporal-Chef Peters is in Sarajevo as a UN peacekeeper during the Bosnian war. The book is ominously named “Legionnaire Peters in the sights of a sniper”.

I was one of the men of Legion’s 2nd Infantry regiment who came to replace Peters and his paratrooper regiment in Sarajevo in summer 1993. For half a year I manned the same observation posts and ran the same patrols in and around Sarajevo airport that Peters had, so it was again interesting to compare our experiences.

In this book, Peters describes the physical surroundings in a somewhat familiar way, so he may have actually participated in the UNPROFOR-mission. However, as usual, artistic license gets the better of him, distorting his memoirs beyond all proportion with imaginary mayhem and absurd gung-ho action.

The plot briefly: Peters and his squad keep guard in observation posts at the Sarajevo airport. Their positions are surrounded by murderous Serb terrorists who are at war with the UN, killing legionnaires at will and sending teams of saboteurs to infiltrate the perimeter with backpacks full of explosives at night. In the course of six months, Peter’s squad gets all but annihilated.

This time Peters gives occasional dates for some of the events, too. So let’s look at his story bit closer and compare it with what the UN has to say. Unlike with the French operation in Rwanda where all military reports were classified, this was a UN mission where incidents involving UN personnel were meticulously logged and reported in a transparent manner.

On Dec 31 1992 Peters is manning an observation/guard position at the side of the airport runway. Throughout the afternoon and evening, artillery shells land around his position and on the tarmac.

Reality check: the UN did not report any shelling close to the airport during Dec 31.

On Jan 17, “the airport comes back to life after a long pause”.

Check: French health minister Bernard Couchner arrived in Sarajevo via the airport on Jan 16. The same afternoon, the runway was closed for 30 minutes due to fighting in the proximity. Otherwise, the airport had remained open for air traffic.

In the “end of January” three legionnaires from Peter’s squad are shot and wounded at the airport. An intense firefight ensues. After less than two months in Sarajevo, the other squads are also undermanned, presumably due to combat casualties. On Feb 1 Peters’ remaining group is dismantled and men assigned to strengthen other squads. Peters himself is assigned to 4th Company, 1st platoon, 3rd squad, where the previous squad leader has suffered “a nervous breakdown” and two soldiers have been “wounded in legs by shrapnel”. By now, their positions are riddled with bullets and shrapnel so that they “resemble Swiss cheese”.

Check: No French casualties were reported in Sarajevo in January.

Later that afternoon, heavy artillery and machinegun fire falls on the airport and forces Peters’ group to huddle inside their bunker.

Check: the UN did not report any fire targeting the airport during Feb 1.

Night patrol at the side of the airport runway: Peters encounters a “group of Serbs sneaking around” in the darkness. His trigger finger itches as he hopes the UN rules would allow him to finish off the “saboteurs”. Instead, the infiltrators open fire with assault rifles against Peters’ group.

In reality, the Serbs forces would have had access only to the end sections of the tarmac. The Bosnian government troops were dug in along the sides of the airport, in Dobrinja and Butmir. Armed Serbs wouldn’t have had any business on the airport anyway. Sure, there were lots of people sneaking around at nights – all of them Bosnian civilians trying to flee the besieged city. For them the only way out was to cross the runway and to run gauntlet with the Serb machine gunners. At the busiest nights, French troops reported hundreds of attempted or successful excursions. One of our regular tasks at the airport was to intercept these poor people. The Serbs who had surrendered the control of the airport to French troops had demanded that no-one was to be let across, and the French played along. This mission, codenamed “Crossing”, was considered the most dangerous of our jobs. The Serbs were enforcing the ban with machine guns, and many a nights we pulled wounded civilians inside our armored personnel carrier (APC), while getting exposed to the bullets ourselves, too. However, Peters doesn’t describe or mention “Crossing” in his book in any way.

In summer 1993, when the government troops finalized a tunnel which run under the tarmac and connected Dobrinja with Butmir, the numbers of attempted airport crossings fell. Our mission of “Crossing” was nevertheless continued and a few Bosniaks still intercepted on a nightly basis.

Next day’s afternoon, Peters’ squad is reinforcing their positions with sandbags. Serbs open fire with a machine gun. One legionnaire is wounded in the ankle.

Check: The UN did not report any French casualties for Feb 2.

From here Peters fast-forwards the story to the end of March. By doing so he also skips the only real fatality of 2 REP: on Feb 11 a stray mortar shell hit a French APC, wounding three legionnaires and killing one – legionnaire Ratislav Benko from Czechoslovakia. No other legionnaires were killed until 1995 when Sergeant Ralf Gunther of Legion’s 1st Cavalry Regiment died in Sarajevo.

March 20, Peters drives downtown Sarajevo with his group in an APC. The day seems calm – until they pass locals queuing up for food provisions. Serb snipers open up, killing civilians. An old woman is shot in the head. As the legionnaires flee the scene, their APC gets peppered with heavy machine gun fire. Peters reports the civilian casualties, and another rescue team is sent for the wounded. Back in the base the guys count the bullet impacts in their APC.

In reality, the areas near the airfield were under heavy shelling on March 18-21, while tank and infantry battles raged in the vicinity. On March 20 the UN counted 3000 artillery shell explosions in the district of Stup alone, just a kilometer from the airport. It was everything but calm. Peters would not have been allowed to exit their base, let alone drive around on a routine patrol on such day.

So, does Peters remember the date wrong? More likely it’s just another imaginary event to spice up his book. While the Sarajevans did die under sniper fire, it’s obvious that food distribution points were not set up in areas vulnerable to sniping. Usually people who were killed while queuing up for something died of shelling. Multiple civilians died every day during March 18-21. On March 22 a thirteen-year old girl was reportedly killed by a sniper. On March 20, however, no incident such as the one Peters describes was reported to the UN.

That same day, according to Peters, a Polish legionnaire is shot through the neck at the airport. Peters implies that it was a fatal shot.

Check: no such casualty was reported to the UN in March 20, or in any other day. On March 3 UNPROFOR reported that a French soldier was hit by shrapnel while on the runway at the Sarajevo airport. On March 22 another French soldier was flown out of Sarajevo after being shot in the arm.

On with the show: “Many nights in a row” Peters is attacked by the saboteur-infiltrators who are sneaking around the airport and who “open fire without hesitation when caught red handed”. According to Peters, “more than ten peacekeepers had been killed by bullets and shrapnel. In addition to that, over twenty legionnaires were out of the game after being wounded”.

Check: by summer 1993 in the whole of ex-Yugoslavia eight French peacekeepers had been killed including those perished in mine explosions and an officer who was killed when a helicopter he was traveling in was shot down in Croatia. As mentioned above, Legionnaire Benko was 2 REP’s and the Foreign Legion’s only fatality during Peters’ alleged time in Bosnia.

But the rumble goes on, of course. This time Peter’s paratroopers are given a pioneers’ task. The Serb saboteurs have planted mines around their perimeter during the night, and Peters’ group now has to dig them up. Sure enough, Peters himself unearths the first toe-popper with his dagger. But while the group is fixated in their de-mining operation, the Serbs open fire and kill an Italian legionnaire. Someone else gets wounded. A massive firefight erupts. The medevac-APC gets riddled with bullets.

In reality, no such incident or casualties were reported.

Peter’s group then drives east of Sarajevo on a reconnaissance patrol. They arrive in a burnt-down Muslim village, where angry and aggressive crowds blame them for not doing anything to stop the Serbs from torching the village. Peters and his men are forced to flee the scene. They then stop at the border of Kosovo for a coffee break.

However, whenever UN troops reached destroyed villages or other sites of atrocities, the surviving population would usually approach us pleading for assistance. A show of unprovoked hostility such as the one Peters describes seems very unlikely.

And oh – Bosnia has no border with Kosovo.

Next stop, a Serb town! Peter’s group is immediately confronted by aggressive, armed Serbs at a checkpoint. The legionnaires escape the situation by driving their vehicle through the barricade, while the Serbs open fire with everything they’ve got. The APC pulls around a corner of a house just seconds before a Serb with and RPG has a chance to annihilate it. The legionnaires later count over 100 bullet hits on their vehicle.

Back at the airport, and now it’s Peters’ turn to man a checkpoint. His men stop an evading Serb van by shooting its tires. Peters then shoots open the van’s back doors when the driver fails to produce keys. 30 boxes of Kalashnikov rifles are confiscated from the enraged thugs. On the way back from the checkpoint the Serbs open fire with a heavy machine gun, killing one of Peters’ men and seriously wounding another.

Check: no such incidents or casualties reported. Our strict rules of engagement would have prevented shooting at any evading vehicles or at locked car doors, for that matter. What is more, the ammunition we carried was all counted for, our rifles’ bolts sealed with lead stamps, and if a weapon was fired for any reason a full investigation would have taken place. And again, legionnaire Ratislav Benko was 2 REP’s only fatality.

On June 30 Peter’s unit is finally replaced and the caporal-chef returns to France. So, Peters claims that in six months two legionnaires were killed and five wounded from his team only –  another preposterous fantasy. While I can’t find any official UN records of the French casualties available online, this Wikipedia article lists accurately all the French who were killed during the UNPROFOR mission.

There are of course plenty of other peculiarities in Peters’ story, as usual. Some are minor (No, the French military rations do not have tobacco in them), some major – Peters for example talks of “unrest in Kosovo” and how they “hear horrifying rumors of executions and mass murders around Sarajevo and in Kosovo”.

The first signs of paramilitary activity in Kosovo came in 1996. The situation was further inflamed in the aftermath of the chaos in Albania in 1997, and the actual war in Kosovo started in 1998, five years after Peters’ nonsensical Sarajevo adventure. Claims like these, when penned with an assistance of a military historian, are nothing short of bizarre.

In all, “Legionnaire Peters in the sights of a sniper” is another piece of fabricated history which is nevertheless sold as non-fiction for the Finnish public. As of Fools Day 2014, I’m still waiting for either Kaarnakari, Pietiläinen or Tammi publishing to come forward and declare that these books should be moved to the fiction -department where they belong. I’m not betting on that one.

However, should Pietiläinen one day prove that his books’ events are real, I promise I’ll do “Werner Herzogs” and will publicly cook and eat my shoe.