Some reflections about the people I got to know in the war in Bosnia, via old video films shot by ARBiH 7. Corps cameramen. The first is from the village of Turbe where my wing man and I were wounded. The video shows our troops advancing to attack enemy lines. During a brief lull in the shelling some of the fighters stop to display weapons they have captured from the enemy positions: The second video is about my platoon regrouping and preparing to attack enemy trenches during the 1995 summer offensive to Sarajevo. It shows the fire support teams in our rear trying to help us out. The author also makes a brief appearance. Many of the soldiers who can be seen on this video were killed in action. As such, this video is my only visual souvenir of those men: So it’s been eighteen years since the war was over. I returned my gun and uniform in the quartermaster’s store and made it back to Finland. But in the long run, quitting a war is simply not that simple. It’s bit like in that Eagles song: you can check-out anytime you like, but… I’ve returned to Bosnia only thrice after the war and on each occasion found these trips psychologically challenging. Looking back, it is surprising to realize that while being in the trenches was often though, I’ve found the post-war excursions emotionally much harder. It is something that is not perhaps easy to explain in simple terms. The war-time strength of the Bosnian army was approximately 200 000, out of which about half were combat troops. 30 000 – 40 000 were killed – depends on who is counting – while majority of the survivors were wounded at some stage, often multiple times. Come to think of it, it is a staggering casualty figure, even surpassing the statistics of WWII, something which seems out of place during this era of high-tech conflicts but which we, at the time, perceived as a normal state of affairs. To see these ordinary guys march to near certain death and injury in that old video, joking and laughing, now has something futile and absurd to it. Yet it feels like a stoic quality in this modern world where everything is supposed to work on a click of a mouse and where small problems can sometimes seem insurmountable. But how should I write about the front lines without glorifying war? I do believe that any description about the trenches that is powerful and well written will convey the camaraderie and the heroism, but not the negative consequences, the waste and the emptyness that follows. Perhaps José Narosky’s famous comment that in war there are no unwounded soldiers encapsulates it well. And thinking about the soldiers – the enemy – who faced us in the trenches and with whom we engaged in that mutual day-to-day killing frenzy. Were they any different? I don’t think so. Did they deserve any better? I am sure that they, too, did.
Chances are that you have already heard of Marco Casagrande. He is currently one of the most celebrated Finnish artists internationally. The installations of this 42-year old architect have been exhibited (quote from his website) “three times in the Venice Architecture Biennale (2000, 2004 and 2006) and in Havana Biennale 2000, Firenze Biennial 2001, Yokohama Triennial 2001, Montreal Biennial 2002, Puerto Rico Biennial 2002, Demeter Hokkaido 2002, Alaska Design Forum 2003, Echigo-Tsumari Triennial 2003, Taipei on the Move 2004, London Architecture Biennial 2004, Sensoria Melbourne 2004, Taiwan Design Expo 2005, Urban Flashes Mumbai 2006, 7-ELEVEN City 2007, World Architecture Festival 2009, Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennial 2009 and Victoria & Albert Museum 2010 among others.”
Casagrande has also been lecturing in numerous universities, including the Tokyo University Tadao Ando Laboratory, Aalto University, Helsinki University of Art and Design and Bergen School of Architecture. He was a visiting professor at the Taiwanese Tamkang University 2004-2008 and runs a research centre “Ruin Academy” in Taipei in cooperation with the Aalto University’s SGT Sustainable Global Technologies Centre.
He has received numerous grants from the Finnish ministry of education and various cultural funds and won prizes such as the Architectural Review’s Emerging Architecture award in 1999, Borromini Award 2000, Mies Van Der Rohe Award 2001, Lorenzo Il Magnifico Award 2001, La Nuit Du Livre Award 2006, World Architecture Community Awards 2009, World Architecture Festival Award 2009, Architectural Review House Award 2010 and World Architecture Community Awards 2010.
In all, this is a remarkable achievement for a Finnish artist. Not surprisingly, the President of the Finnish Museum of Chicago Athanaum, Mr. Christian Narkiewicz-Laine who presented the European Prize for Architecture to Casagrande, described him as “a model for today’s young design professional of what an architect should be: visionary, aesthetic, intellectual, and socially responsible”.
But something is missing from the picture.
Casagrande’s first creation, a book called “Mostar road hitchhikers – Finnish mercenary in the Bosnian war” (Mostarin tien liftarit – Suomalainen palkkasoturi Bosnian sodassa, WSOY 1997), is absent from his list of works. In his extensive list of publications he doesn’t mention any articles dealing with the book, either. What happened to articles such as “Contract murderer Casagrande”, an editorial in a Finnish NGO magazine (Ilkka Lehdonmäki: Palkkamurhaaja Casagrande, Ydin 2/2001)? Or “Mind of a fanatic”-article in Finland’s biggest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, in 2001? Or their monthly supplement’s feature article “Architect and a mercenary” from 1997? A prestigious Finnish weekly magazine Suomen Kuvalehti also ran a five-page feature story about Casagrande in 1997. But this article, “Hired to kill” (Saska Saarikoski: Palkattu tappamaan, Suomen kuvalehti 11/1997), seems to be missing from Casagrande’s list as well. And there is no mention about Petra Hagelstam’s essay “Soldiers of fortune in Bosnia – the Casagrande Incident” which was published in The Finnish yearbook of international law, Volume 8 (1997). Another study that examines Casagrande’s work from a judiciary point of view, the 22-page long “Finnish mercenary in the war of Jugoslavia” (Petra Naukkarinen: Suomalainen palkkasotilas Jugoslavian sodassa. Oikeus 3/1997), has suffered a similar Orwellian fate.
So where and why did these stories about Casagrande disappear? The artist himself begins the chronology of publications with a newspaper article about a judo event from 1986 in which he was mentioned. But the next one is Catherine Slessor’s piece in Architectural Review in 1999. His book – and in fact years 1993 to 1997 – seem completely wiped out from Casagrande’s CV and portfolio.
Mostar Road Hitchhikers was published by WSOY, at the time the biggest publishing house in Finland. Written under a pen name Luca Moconesi, it depicts Casagrande’s participation in the Bosnian war. Casagrande – then an architect student – was a military fanatic who wanted to experience real warfare. While doing national service in the Finnish military, he experienced what he called “almost a spiritual enlightenment” that he was born to be a mercenary. As there was a conflict conveniently available in Europe, Casagrande travelled to Bosnia and joined the Bosnian-Croatian paramilitary HVO in 1993.
Casagrande’s small “international unit” was part of the Kralj Tomislav –brigade. His team was made up of foreign volunteers, many of whom had an open Neo-Nazi agenda and criminal backgrounds. Casagrande had the time of his life – he sympathized with his anti-Semitic comrades with great enthusiasm and felt almost supernatural powers flowing through him in combat. He fought against the Bosnian government troops in central Bosnia’s Lasva valley, a scene of bitter fighting and ethnic cleansing in 1993, then got back to Finland and continued architectural life. Ordinary life without war and excitement soon bored him, and he returned to Bosnia in autumn of 1995 for the end game of the war, this time participating in the Croatian offensive against Serbs in Krajina. Soon after, he once more returned to the boredom of Finland.
Mostar Road Hitchhikers saw daylight in March 1997. Casagrande – at the time still hiding behind the pseudonym Luca Moconesi – gave media interviews and hinted that he was still working as a mercenary. Interestingly, this time he was in Israel, despite of all the anti-Semitic innuendo of his book. Only war was an option to him, and he’d work for whoever would hire him. (Casagrande later said he was in fact working in a kibbutz.)
Casagrande’s real name was leaked to media soon after the book was published. Due to its numerous references to rape, murder and war crime, concerned citizens and the Finnish police became interested in the book. Casagrande came twice under investigation by the authorities, but the case was dropped as the author claimed that the book – or perhaps selected parts of it – was fiction.
Casagrande’s career as a mercenary didn’t take off. Instead, he returned to Finland, finished his architect studies and begun creating landscape installations. His reputation as a mercenary-cum-artist helped him to gain publicity, and his artworks were featured widely in the Finnish press and TV. He was soon invited to international exhibitions and started gaining attention abroad. The Tamkang University of Taipei invited Casagrande as a visiting professor of urban planning, and while in Taiwan, his international career took off.
Since then Casagrande has been very quiet about Mostar Road Hitchhikers. The Finnish media largely forgot about the book, and as it was published only in Finnish language, Casagrande’s largest audience – the international architectural and cultural community – could not examine it either.
Let’s take a look at Mostar Road Hitchhikers.
The story starts as Luca Moconesi, an architecture student from Finland who has been soldiering in the ranks of HVO in Bosnia, is intercepted by Slovenian border guards when trying to exit Croatia. All sorts of military paraphernalia and knives are found in his luggage. He is then locked up in a Slovenian police cell. Early on, it becomes clear that Moconesi is none of them pansies. His opinion about Slovenians (and Swedes at the same go) sets the tone for the rest of the book:
I know Slovenians are a hysteric nation of shit-pants, the real Swedes of the Balkans…
After a night in the can, Moconesi is freed and picked up by Croatian policemen and given a ride back to Zagreb. On the way Moconesi is remembering his time in Bosnia and how he first met his fellow mercenaries. He has interesting portrayals about them, but reveals also a lot about himself:
20-year old Markus was at that time my great idol, a proud foster of German military tradition. A neo-Nazi, who, according to him, had over a hundred confirmed kills.
– – – –
Kaksikymmentävuotias Markus oli vielä tuolloin suuri idolini, saksalaisen sotilasperinteen ylpeä kasvatti. Uusnatsi, jolla oli oman kertomuksensa mukaan toistasataa varmistettua tappoa. (page 18)
But when it comes to role models, Moconesi has more of them: while still in Finland, he has read news articles about the war and now recognizes another fascist, familiar from a newspaper:
Suddenly I remember a Helsingin Sanomat-story about foreign volunteers in Bosnia and a photograph of a German mercenary. I remember well how great an impression that photo of a hardboiled fighter once had on me, and there the man now sits… …I notice a Klu Klux Klan symbol and a White Power – emblem tattooed on the German’s arm.
[The German:] “And that was when we were taking Slatina [village in Central Bosnia]. That grandma, we call her Superbitch. What a fucking bitch, she just wouldn’t die. I had shot into the room with a PKM (a russian light machinegun), a hand grenade had been thrown in there and when we stormed in, the bitch was still alive. Well, Kurt shot it in the neck with a pistol. What a fucking bitch.” The others around the table laugh at the story and mumble that Slatina was a tough place.
– – – –
Yhtäkkiä muistan Helsingin Sanomien jutun Bosnian ulkomaalaisista vapaaehtoisista ja valokuvan saksalaisesta palkkasoturista. Muistan hyvin, kuinka suuren vaikutuksen tuo valokuva kovia kokeneesta taistelijasta minuun silloin teki ja siinä tuo mies nyt istuu … huomaan saksalaisen käsivarteen tatuoidun Klu Klux Klanin symbolin ja White Power –merkin.
[Moconesin joukkuetoveri:] “Ja, se oli kun valtasimme Slatinaa. Se mummo, kutsumme häntä superbitchiksi. Vittu mikä ämmä, ei meinannut kuolla millään. Olin ampunut huoneeseen PKM:lla (venälainen kevyt konekivääri), sinne oli heitetty käsikranaatti ja kun rynnäkoimme sisään, ämmä oli vieläkin elossa. No, Kurt ampui sitä pistoolilla niskaan. Vittu mikä ämmä. “ Muut poydässä nauravat jutulle ja hymisevät, että Slatinassa oli kovat paikat. (page 24 – 25)
A tough place? Well. Bosnian grandmas can be dangerous if provoked, we all agree.
The Nazi reciting the murder story becomes Moconesi’s trusted friend. Fritz, as Casagrande calls him in the book, is Michael Homeister, one of the 10 most dangerous German neo-Nazis according to the Stern-magazine in 2000.
Interestingly, the article which originally inspired Casagrande to become a mercenary has been translated into English and can be downloaded from one of Casagrande’s websites. Perhaps Casagrande wanted to share the story with Homeister. The two still keep in touch, and Homeister also makes a brief appearance in the comments-section of an on-line Casagrande interview.
Ruprecht, another German who Moconesi befriends has more anecdotes of tough battles to share:
The stories circle mainly around rape and execution. He [Ruprecht] tells he has raped five girls in HOS and says it is a soldier’s right – if not a duty.
– – – –
Jutut pyörivät lähinnä raiskaamisen ja teloitusten välillä. Hän kertoo raiskanneensa HOS:ssa viisi tyttöä ja sanoo että se on sotilaan oikeus – ellei jopa velvollisuus. (page 35)
Just in case anyone has doubts about his political orientation:
Ruprecht extends his hand in an accustomed manner; “Sieg Heil – Za Dom Spremni!”
– – – –
…Ruprecht ojentaa kätensä tottuneesti tanaan: “Sieg Heil – Za Dom Spremni!” (page 37)
So by now Moconesi knows that many of the people he is about to go to war with are Nazis and psychos. But he sees no problem with this. He is also aware how the whole organization is comfortable with Nazis. HOS, the military arm of a Croatian right wing party HSP, was alive and kicking in the frontlines where Casagrande served:
In Croatia itself, HOS, which was very active during the early days of the war, is currently a banned organization, but in wild Herzegovina the Nazi sympathies are on a different level. A Nazi Germany -era swastika flag flew in the flagpole of the HOS barracks, until HVO declared that the public display of the swastikas will not be looked favorably upon. The international observers would not be happy with the idea of a warring Nazi army, so they try to act more discreetly.
– – – –
Itse Kroatiassa sodan alkuvaiheessa hyvin aktiivinen HOS on nykyisellään kielletty järjestö, mutta villissä Hertsegovinassa natsisympatiat ovat aivan toista luokkaa. HOS:n kasarmin lipputangossa liehui Natsi-Saksan aikainen hakaristilippu, kunnes HVO:sta ilmoitettiin, että hakaristien julkista esilläpitoa ei katsota hyvällä. Kansainvaliset tarkkailijat eivät oikein sulata ajatusta sotaa käyvän natsi-armeijan olemassaolosta, joten yritetään toimia hieman diskreetimmin. (page 20)
Moconesi understands also the likely fallout of fighting a war with these individuals but that, too, doesn’t seem to bother him:
Sometimes one loses control, the moped gets out of hands. Then women get raped and prisoners executed. These acts can’t be understood, let alone judged from viewpoints based on the morals of civilian life. I don’t want to speak up for war crime, I just state that sometimes things get out of hands. War is war.
– – – –
Joskus kontrolli pettää, mopo karkaa käsistä. Silloin naisia raiskataan ja sotavankeja teloitetaan. Näitä tekoja ei vain pysty ymmärtämään, saati sitten tuomitsemaan siviilielämän moraaliin perustuvista lähtökohdista. En halua puolustella sotarikoksia, totean vain että joskus tilanne riistäytyy käsistä. Sota on sotaa. (page 51)
But Moconesi never speaks against war crimes, either. Instead, he finds perfect logic in getting away with them:
Bismark, who is fluent in Croatian, translates that HOS Tomislavgrad has been cleansing some of the nearby Muslim villages and that the boys are now comparing their rape stories. I get to hear that when attacking the villages, men wear not only their black uniforms but also black balaclavas, so that war criminals cannot be identified later on. Clever thinking.
– – – –
Bismark, joka puhuu sujuvasti kroaattia, kääntää, että HOS-Tomislavgrad on ollut puhdistamassa jotain lähistön muslimikylistä ja että pojat vertailevat nyt raiskausjuttujaan. Saan kuulla, että kyliin hyökätessään miehillä on mustien univormujen lisäksi myös mustat kommandopipot päässään, ettei sotarikollisia voi myöhemmin tunnistaa. Järkevästi ajateltu. (page 51)
Bismark is a pseudonym for Andreas Kolb, a German HVO soldier who served in Casagrande’s unit. He died in action in Gornji Vakuf in November 1993.
After receiving his weapon and excitedly preparing his gear and having had drank lots of beer with his new friends, Moconesi finally travels to the frontlines with his new team. On the way they encounter more jolly fascists:
We pass by a HOS checkpoint, where a guard dressed in a black uniform greets us with a Nazi salute.
Accommodated in an abandoned school building for the night, Moconesi’s English friend shares his mass murder plan with him. Moconesi jumps on the bandwagon:
John Morris sits on my mattress and offers a cigarette. He tells about his plans to demolish a dam in front of Jablanica.
“Fifteen thousand Muslims – all straight to paradise. Fuck, we are doing them a favor. Allah u akbar – fuck them.”
I look at John, amazed. Fifteen thousand dead sounds rather hard core. “Are all soldiers, or are there civilians in the city also?” I ask the grinning Englishman.
“Civilians, civilians, of course there are – and a Spanish UN-base. Well, let’s call them first – they can fuck off, if they don’t want to drown, ha, ha, haa!” John looks at me excitedly and says isn’t it a brilliant idea.
“Sounds good, but have you spoken with Branković? It may be that the civilians cause a problem.” In my opinion it sounds like we are about to commit a major mass slaughter. A war crime with a capital C. …
“I told Branko that I will take full responsibility. I’ve got madman’s papers from a Croatian hospital. 60-percent fucked up, not responsible for his doings, fuck – I’ll take responsibility!”
I [Moconesi] volunteer to dive, if we really get a permission to demolish the dam.
– – – –
John Morris istuu patjalleni ja tarjoaa tupakkaa. Hän kertoo suunnitelmistaan räjäyttää pato Jablanican edustalla. …
“Viisitoista tuhatta muslimia – suoraan paratiisiin. Fuck. Mehän teemme niille palveluksen. Allah u akbar – haistakoon vitut.”
Katselen Johnia hämmästellen. Viisitoista tuhatta kuollutta kuulostaa aika rankalta. “Ovatko ne kaikki sotilaita, vai onko kaupungissa siviilejäkin?”, kysyn virnistelevältä englantilaiselta.
“Siviilejä, siviilejä, on tietysti – ja espanjalainen YK-tukikohta. No, soitetaan niille ensin – painukoot helvettiin, jos eivat halua hukkua, ha, ha, haa!” John katselee minua innoissan ja kysyy, että eikö olekin briljantti idea.
“Kuulostaa hyvältä, mutta oletko puhunut Brankovićin kanssa? Saattaa olla, etta siviilit tuottavat ongelmia.” Mielestäni homma kuulostaa silta kuin olisimme tekemassa kovan luokan massateurastusta. Sotarikosta isolla ässällä. …
“Sanoin Brankolle, että otan kyllä hommasta täyden vastuun. Minulla on hullun paperit kroatialaisesta sairaalasta. 60-prosenttisesti sekaisin, ei vastuullinen omista tekemisistään, fuck – minä otan vastuun!”
Ilmoittaudun vapaaehtoiseksi sukeltamaan, mikäli todella saamme luvan räjäyttää padon. (page 58 – 59)
“Brankovic” stands for HVO Colonel Željko Glasnović, under whose command Casagrande’s unit belonged. John Morris is a pseudonym for Rodney Morgan, an English HVO-veteran who currently lives in Croatia. He is an opinionated man, and Moconesi and his troops find it very funny:
John raises amusement by telling that he has dipped the tips of his bullets in pig fat, so that the Muslims he kills will not get to paradise.
– – – –
John herättää hilpeyttä kertomalla upottaneensa luotiensa kärjet sianrasvaan, jotta hänen tappamansa muslimit eivät ainakaan pääse paratiisiin. (page 60)
Marco Casagrande (right) and Rodney Morgan happy with their sniping tools in Gračac, Bosnia, October 1993…
…and Casagrande still remembers the “amusing” pig fat -theory, as is evident from his 2011 comment on a Facebook group for foreign volunteers in the Croatian army and HVO.
The unit then arrives to the front line. Few days of patrolling and shootouts follows. Moconesi finally gets his baptism of fire and finds the experience mindboggling and ecstatic. Back in the rear, more Nazis from around the world join Moconesi’s unit:
… three newcomers have arrived in our group. While having beer I meet the American Ed, a middle-aged, moustache sporting mercenary who has a big silver swastika-ring and a Nazi-eagle with a slogan “America aware!” tattooed in his shoulder.
– – – –
… ryhmäämme on tullut kolme uutta tulokasta. Kaljalla tapaan amerikkalaisen Edin, keski-ikäisen viiksekkaan palkkasotilaan, jolla on suuri hopeinen hakaristisormus ja olkapäähän tatuoitu natsikotka sloganilla: “America aware!” (page 83)
Moconesi associates well with the American Nazi, but soon has to defend his non-Jewishness:
The American who avows himself as an absolute Nazi, is an officer from three armies. He knows quite a lot about the ancient German religion and has also read through Kalevala [Finnish folklore], so we got a lot to talk about. Once he mistakes me as of Jewish descent, but we avoid a fight narrowly as Dundee takes up the role of a conciliator.
– – – –
Täydeksi natsisti tunnustautuva amerikkalainen on upseeri kolmesta armeijasta. Hän tietää varsin paljon germaanien muinaisesta uskonnosta ja on lukenut läpi myos Kalevalan, joten juttua riittaa. Kerran hän erehtyy epäilemaan syntyperääni juutalaiseksi, mutta vältämme hiuksenhienosti tappelun Dundeen ottaessa sovittelijan roolin. (page 84)
Other Jew-suspects are also given hard time:
The weird Italian has tattooed a big David’s star on his shoulder, a fact that gets no credit from our German reinforcements. Pietro however denies he is a Jew, and has had to portray his foreskin.
– – – –
Omituinen italialainen on tatuoinut olkapäähänsä suuren Daavidin tähden, seikka joka ei saa saksalaisvahvistuksiltamme kovin suurta kiitosta. Pietro kiistää kuitenkin olevansa juutalainen ja on joutunut esittämään esinahkansa. (page 160)
After combat there is time for some games with a cadaver:
We photograph ourselves with the Muslim and distort the dead man’s rubber-face into funny expressions.
– – – –
Kuvaamme itseämme muslimin seurassa ja vääntelemme kuolleen kuminaamaan hassunkurisia ilmeitä (page 84)
But a unit which is a hodgepodge of eccentric individuals eventually can’t avoid internal disagreements:
The Bowie-man’s freaking out reaches its peak in a bar in Tomislavgrad, where he declares to Otto, Micke and some other Swedes who are accompanying him that he is actually of Jewish descent. This is enough for Otto, a devout Nazi and an anti-Semitic, who slashes the Swedish Jew’s face up with a knife.
– – – –
Bowie-miehen sekoilu saavuttaa finaalinsa Tomislavgradin baarissa, jossa hän ilmoittaa saattajaksi lähteneille Otolle, Mickelle ja joillekin toisille ruotsalaisille olevansa itse asiassa juutalaista sukua. Se riittää Otolle, vannoutuneelle natsille ja antisemitistille, joka viiltelee veitsellä ruotsalaisjuutalaisen kasvot uuteen uskoon. (page 96)
Soon the troubles are forgotten as new combat duties await. Their newly elected platoon leader, American Nazi-Ed, gives the boys some motivation:
Ed looks his mercenaries in the eyes, one after another, and says: “Let’s kick their asses, sieg heil!”
– – – –
Ed katsoo palkkasotilaitaan silmiin, jokaista vuoron perään ja lausuu: “Potkitaan niitä perseille, sieg heil!” (page 102)
And Moconesi loves it:
I have become greedy. I would like to shoot a couple of more Muslims.
– – – –
Olen tullut ahneeksi. Haluaisin ampua vielä pari muslimia. (page 120)
Moconesi also understands the ethnic and demographic significance of their mission:
… It is important to create a single ethnically unified and strong region instead of many detached islets.
Only the capitol of our new republic, Herceg-Bosna, causes more serious trouble. The Muslims who populate the poorer half of Mostar do not want to relocate and instead plead with their centennial roots and long cultural heritage in Mostar. The symbol of Mostar’s Muslim culture is a bridge built by the Ottomans, a world-widely admired and highly reputed architectural creation. The Croatian TV news was there to witness the great moment when the bridge was demolished into the river Neretva.
– – – –
On tärkeää luoda yksi etnisesti yhtenäinen vahva alue monen toisistaan irrallaan olevan saarekkeen sijasta.
Ainoastaan uuden tasavaltamme Herceg-Bosnan pääkaupunki tuottaa vakavampia ongelmia. Mostarin köyhempää puoliskoa asuttavat muslimit eivät tahdo muuttaa pois vaan vetoavat vuosisataisiin juuriinsa ja pitkään kulttuuriperimäänsä Mostarissa. Mostarin muslimikulttuurin symboli on ottomaanien rakentama silta, maailmanlaajuisesti ihailtu turistinähtävyys ja arvostettu arkkitehtoninen luomus. Kroaattien televisiouutiset olivat todistamassa suurta hetkeä, kun silta räjäytettiin Neretva-jokeen. (page 134)
A great moment? An architect cheering at the destruction of a UNESCO world heritage site? Mindboggling is all I can say.
Moconesi also finds the idea of cannibalism attractive:
Otto, the fanatic East German, is familiar to me from the patrols in Slatina and I know that the young Nazi is an able fighter with nerves of steel who has lasted in Bosnia already for a long time. Otto is also wanted as a suspect for some Jew’s murder, so he is in no hurry to leave Bosnia. Otto is a butcher by civilian profession, and we have often profited from the German’s expertise when preparing food from calves or lambs that we have slaughtered. We have also toyed around with the idea of eating a Muslim soldier. What an experience it would be to cut up a deceased and arrange the platoon a feast of a different kind.
– – – –
Otto, fanaattinen itäsaksalainen, on tullut tutuksi minulle Slatinan partioissa ja tiedän nuoren natsin olevan pystyvä ja kylmähermoinen taistelija, joka on kestänyt Bosniassa jo pitkän aikaa. Myös Otto on etsintäkuulutettu epäiltynä jonkun juutalaisen murhasta, joten hänellä ei ole kiire minnekään Bosniasta. Siviiliammatiltaan Otto on teurastaja, ja usein olemme hyötyneet saksalaisen asiantuntemuksesta valmistettaessa ruokaa teurastamistamme vasikoista tai lampaista. Olemme myöskin pyöritelleet ajatusta syödä muslimisotilas. Olisihan se kokemus lyödä vainaja lihoiksi ja järjestää osastolle hieman erikoisemmat kekkerit. (page 159)
Soon Moconesi is elected as a commander of the whole mercenary group. He then gets his big moment as he is tasked with planning and executing an attack to Bosnian army positions with some help from local Nazis:
Diverzancija is present, as are the military police and HOS, who now are obediently wearing snow uniforms. Nazi insignia and iron crosses attached to the parkas glitter in the morning sun. I greet the commander of the Diverzancija and ask if he knows how long we still have to wait.
– – – –
Diverzanzija on paikalla, samoin sotilaspoliisit ja HOS, jolla on nyt kiltisti lumipuku päällään. Anorakkeihin kiinnitetyt natsitunnukset ja rautaristit kimaltelevat aamuauringossa. Käyn tervehtimässä Diverzancijan johtajaa ja kysyn, tietäisiko hän, kuinka kauan joutuisimme vielä odottamaan. (page 186)
Finally it’s all over. Back in the rear Moconesi has some time to relax with the boys:
As we watch the videos Fritz is remembering a funny incident when someone had taken prisoner a bearded and long-haired Serb, a Tšetnik. The bloke had been brought behind the lines and gasoline was poured on him. Eventually of course fire was lit on the hairy man and some joker took a picture of the burning face against the dark night sky. A t-shirt with a big peace sign in the front was made, with the photograph of the burning Serb in the middle. Above the peace sign is a slogan: “Give peace no chance, even mercenaries don’t want to be unemployed!” In the back was a text: “Tchetniks – kill them all and have a beer!” It is being said that the same man who had the t-shirt made, had tattooed on his arm a picture of Allah having sexual intercourse with a pig.
– – – –
Fritz muistelee videoita katsellessamme hauskaa tapausta, kun joku oli saanut partaisen ja pitkätukkaisen serbin, tšetnikin, vangiksi. Ukko oli tuotu linjojen taakse ja hänen päälleen oli kaadettu bensiiniä. Lopulta karvaiseen mieheen oli tietysti isketty tulet ja joku irvileuka otti palavasta naamasta kuvan mustaa yötaivasta vasten. Valokuvasta teetettiin t-paita, jonka etuosassa on suuri peace-merkki, jonka keskelle on asetettu tuo kuva palavasta serbistä. Rauhanmerkin yläpuolella on slogan: “Give peace no chance, even mercenaries don’t want to be unemployed! Älä anna rauhalle mahdollisuutta, edes palkkasoturit eivat halua olla työttömänä!” Selkäpuolelle oli kirjoitettu: “Tchetniks – kill them all and have a beer! – Tšetnikit – tapa ne kaikki ja ota kalja!” Kerrotaan, että samainen mies, joka oli teettänyt tuon t-paidan, oli tatuoinut käsivarteensa kuvan siasta sukupuoliyhdynnässä Allahin kanssa. (page 192)
Nothing lasts forever, and finally Moconesi has to return to Finland. On the way, in Sweden, one more opportunity to kill people presents itself when someone who Moconesi takes as a homosexual approaches him:
The faggot asks me to stay overnight at his place. I think it is a good idea to do the guy in and take his money.
– – – –
Hintti pyytää minua luokseen yöpymään. Ajattelen, että on hyvä idea lyödä ukko vaikka kylmäksi ja ottaa tämän rahat. (page 199)
Sensing danger, however, Moconesi’s would-be victim chickens off and the mercenary has to return to Finland without any gay-blood on his hands.
The book ends with Moconesi painting a picture of his future mercenary career and pondering where to go next. Africa? Burma? In the Baltic states he might get to fight against the Russian Mafia? Or perhaps it would make more sense to work for the Mafia?
The above mentioned quotes are of course just a selection of the Nazi-innuendo and murder-fantasy Casagrande’s book has to offer. But bridge them together with two hundred pages of badass talk, war bigotry, gun-porn, vague claims about “honor” while mocking Bosnians, Serbs, Slovenians, Swedes, homosexuals, Jews, the UN, civilians, refugees and pretty much everybody except Moconesi himself and his Nazi-friends, and you’ll get a picture of what sort of reading experience Mostar Road Hitchhikers is.
The book does serve as another testimonial of what sort of foreign individuals gravitated towards the Balkan wars. Similar descriptions of misfits, psychos and losers have been penned before. While Casagrande uses pseudonyms and has probably changed or does not remember accurately some of the events or his comrades’ doings, the bulk of the text is an authentic grass roots level depiction from the Balkan war and a documentary of Casagrande’s personal history. At times he has sharp-eyed observations about soldiers and the frontline, not easily apparent for someone who hasn’t been there and done that. At times Casagrande exaggerates his own and his small unit’s importance in the war. At times the low intensity of the combat and the abundant time spent hanging in bars in the rear is peculiar. Having myself served in the Bosnian army on the central frontlines, I remember the experience as a grueling maelstrom of trench warfare where days in a bar were few. But then again, that was with the government troops – Casagrande’s HVO unit did not have its back against the wall, but against the supportive territories of mother-Croatia.
The story of Casagrande’s murder-galore and subsequent rise to fame is an interesting example of spin doctoring and damage control. Casagrande was geared for a life as a mercenary. But his success as an artist changed the plan, and suddenly the fascist war bravado didn’t tick the boxes anymore.
In an interview of Kalpa, the Finnish military academy’s student magazine, Casagrande was asked about the morals of war. He put the blame of his troops’ bad reputation neatly on guys in the rear:
“In the background of the troops that were doing the actual fighting in Bosnia acted troops which, in the absence of battle, were seeking for feeling of robustness through obscenities. He (Casagrande) sees that with their crime spree those troops were carrying out cruel therapy for their traumas out of feelings of inferiority.
– Those troops know they are doing wrong, and its manifestation is the negation of collectivism and bee-spirit. Anyone can realize that it is by no measures militarily efficient to go kick in doors of some grandma’s.”
Fine words in a row. But this is not what Casagrande said prior to gaining reputation as an artist. Remember the Superbitch-incident involving his own unit? In reference to that, here is a quote from the 1997 “Architect and a mercenary”-article:
HS: Do you make a difference between civilians and soldiers?
Casagrande: According to the possibilities. If you assault a house and hear movement, you throw a grenade and can’t tell if there happens to be some poor grandmother.
HS: What if there happens to be?
Casagrande: Well that’s a pity.
Both of these interviews were toothless and failed to bring up any of the obvious aspects which cry for explanation, such as the accounts of murder or comments about ethnic cleansing and destruction of cultural heritage. Instead, Kalpa is sure to mention that “the Balkans region is known for its prolonged hatred, but the men of the international unit stayed away from it surprisingly well”.
Really? Could anyone spot any hatred in Moconesi’s and his soldiers’ comments? But Casagrande ends the interview with a joyful message: “Interfering with war crimes has taken huge leaps forwards. That is awesome.“
Clever thinking, perhaps?
It is interesting to note how big an influence the story of the executed grandmother has had on Casagrande – and how the theme pops up in his work. An example can be found from his 2002 Anarchist Gardener –performance:
“Old people are not shot as they should be according to economical laws. People sense it is not kind to kill the old people and kindness is real reality. Kindness is kindness, concrete. Real reality can not be financially speculated, or otherwise – it is concrete.
Real reality, values and ethics are always finding a way to push back. They are like the air around us, we notice it when we are running out of it. New air always comes in – the corners are windy. Today’s void in the valueless society will be filled with ethics. People are good in the end – that reality is now depressed by material nonsense.”
More fine words in a row, though I’m not sure what Casagrande just said. All I know is that the civilians who Moconesi’s comrades murdered and raped in Bosnia indeed got a lesson in real reality. But Casagrande didn’t write about values and ethics this eloquently in 1997.
Another spin doctoring operation was an interview of Casagrande and his architect partner Sami Rintala, published in Finland’s third largest newspaper Turun Sanomat in 2001. It deals with Casagrande’s hardships after his university comeback, as the other students despised Casagrande for his book.
– People are so terribly ready to judge, Rintala said. But Rintala believed in his old friend and started a partnership with him. Marco was a changed man now. The article tells us how Casagrande started to change already in Bosnia:
“ In the fall of 1995 Captain Casagrande’s platoon got into an ambush. The man ducked into the roadside. Every few minutes a sniper’s bullet zipped over Casagrande’s face. The firing cut an aniline-red flower from the shoulder of the road onto the man’s chest. He waited six hours for the dark, staring at the flower.
– It was then that I thought, even life in the gutter is more beautiful and better than this. ”
Well this is a moving story. But let’s go back to the book – an account which Casagrande wrote after the flower-incident. As said, it ends with Casagrande returning from the war, only to excitedly contemplate where to fight next. Let’s also look again at the interview where Casagrande says it’s only a pity if bystanders and grannies get shot:
Interviewer: “Which war would you like to go to?”
Casagrande: “Zaire would be really interesting, good business. It’s a war organized by the western countries, stable salary, lots of pals. They have written me that there are 600 – 700 mercenaries, good gear, all have combat experience… And on the opposing side there are rebels that have not been trained that well.”
Obviously the pacifying effect of the aniline-red flower had already faded.
A recent and perhaps the most bizarre example of Casagrande’s damage control strategy is from September 2013. In the Dublin-based European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies’ press release celebrating Casagrande’s European Prize for Architecture -award, Mostar Road Hitchhikers is presented as an anti-war art performance:
The book chronicles his experiences in the Bosnian Civil War and is based as an autobiography for which the major protagonist (him) commits war crimes against humanity. Casagrande’s effort here was to expose the vulgarity and irony of these senseless contemporary European atrocities as those seen in the Bosnian War. In his book, he expressed his views condemning war crimes: “Those troops know that they are doing wrong. This is the very opposite of constructive collectivity and group spirit. Anybody can understand that it is by no measures militarily efficient to go kicking the doors of an old person’s home.”
As said, this quote – which is about plain military efficiency not morals – is from an interview in Kalpa-magazine, not from Casagrande’s book. In the book, not a single anti-war statement or sentiment can be found. WSOY did not market the book as an anti-war protest either, but as “a brisk, laconic and moralizing-free document about men who abandoned conventional life and chose the medieval way as Grim Reaper’s henchmen.” (“…reipas, lakoninen ja moralisointia kaihtava dokumentti miehistä, jotka hylkäsivät sovinnaisen elämän ja valitsivat keskiaikaisen tien viikatemiehen kätyreinä”. WSOY 1997) But in the European Architecture Center’s press release no words are spared when praising Casagrande’s contribution to humanity. Casagrande also has his say: “I want to design shelters in nature for honest people”.
In the light of Casagrande’s book and his post-war statements I don’t quite believe in his sudden affection for collectivity and war crimes prevention. Especially considering that Casagrande has talked about the subject of war only when asked. Even then he has found the war in Bosnia just a wonderful event. An example of this is the 2004 interview in City-magazine:
One thing that is important in war, is that it composts the degenerate society. It is a law of nature. If the going gets too slack, the vacuum that has been created by babbling either dies or gets taken over. It’s the normal flow of nature. If you think of, for example, the post-war Finland. Fantastically energetic and productive country. No babbling. Or the Bosnian war. Here all the newspapers babble how things are wrong there, but there everybody is satisfied with Croatians, Bosnians and Serbs having their own states. The compost of society. The city has to be a compost, in constant state of fermentation, producing energy.”
One thing: the Bosnians are not exactly happy about their families having been composted in mass graves. Another point: they still don’t have their own country as such, not with the previously multicultural state broken up by war and ethnic cleansing and with the deep post-war divisions between the Bosnian Federation and Republika Srpska, the Serb Republic. They are not happy with the unemployment and the everyday hardship. And there’s something familiar about this notion of war wiping out the degenerate and leaving room just for the powerful – one could read this from Mein Kampf.
It resonates morbidly with Casagrande’s other comments about war, such as this statement in a Finnish TV program “Musta laatikko” in 1998 when Casagrande elaborated on his motives to fight in Bosnia:
We needed to create an ethnically clean Herzeg-Bosna.”
Luckily for Casagrande, the Finns are rather lax regarding Nazi-innuendo, perhaps a legacy of strong military support to Finland from Germany during WWII. In the 2004 City-magazine’s article reporter Jaana Rinne starts by saying “when he (Casagrande) walks to mid-floor to greet me, World War II –era German soldiers come to life and the picture of Kekkonen (President of Finland in 1956-81) that has been hung on the wall seems to smile”.
This makes me doubt if she had ever read Casagrande’s book. Maybe she was just being naïve, a quality which I appreciate to a certain extend in an individual – but not in a reporter. In any case, Casagande has never been grilled over his book. There are no HARDtalks or Larry Kings in Finland, and why bring up that awkward Nazi-stuff when you can discuss the bright side? Casagrande’s mercenary background has been presented merely as something exciting and exotic. Like Jaana Rinne put it, he is a “one man’s adventure novel”.
But Casagrande has also been protected by the fact that Mostar Road Hitchhikers was published only in Finnish language. Had the International audience been able to critically appraise it, I believe that the architecture and art critics would have raised a few questions. Similarly, it has been impossible for foreign reporters to read the book.
This must be one of Casagrande’s greatest fears – an international journalist sniffing around his book. A Taiwan based writer, James Baron, once tried. When I tipped him off, Baron went to meet Casagrande to ask directly. Casagrande calmly denied that the book contains any fascist or Nazi-sympathies. When asked about the quote where Moconesi is toying with the idea of cannibalizing an enemy soldier, Casagrande flatly denied that he had written such a passage. What, eating a Muslim? Was Baron mad?
The Bosnian community in Finland is of course aware of Mostar Road Hitchhikers and Casagrande’s later statements about Bosnia. Many of the Bosniacs who arrived in Finland as refugees are now fluent in Finnish. For them, the awards and acclaim that Casagrande gathers only underline the bizarre sentiment that the majority of Finns and the international cultural community are perfectly OK with what Casagrande has written and said about their country and people. Talk about adding insult to injury.
In many occasions, usually after yet another article of another award given to Casagrande appears in the media, the Bosniacs in Finland have tried to have their voice heard by sending letters to newspapers’ editors, calling for discussion about Mostar Road Hitchhikers. To my knowledge, these attempts have not been successful.
But what about the Marco Casagrande of today? Is he the socially responsible intellectual that he has been portrayed as?
Judging from Luca Moconesi’s character, one could argue that there is a level of psychopathy involved here. When shooting an enemy soldier, Moconesi isn’t just killing – he himself calls it “murdering”. Also the ease with which he orders – now in the role of his team’s commander – a good friend of his to be murdered is striking. It evokes as much emotion in Moconesi as dropping a candy wrapping on the ground would. Similarly, the murder plan of 15 000 civilians and the accounts of executions of prisoners and civilians rather seem to inspire than shock Moconesi. He smuggles an assault rifle from Bosnia to Finland. He gives his passport to Fritz – who is wanted by the police – so that he could travel to Germany and back (Michael Homeister was later arrested in Germany in possession of Marco Casagrande’s passport). This complete disregard to human life and law, the lack of empathy and remorse combined with proneness to boredom would ring bells at any psychiatrist’s office.
Pathology or not, there’s certainly a whiff of opportunism around Casagrande. When the Finnish police started to investigate Mostar Road Hitchhikers, Casagrande claimed it was a work of fiction. After the threat passed, he came out to declare that “it was an accurate description”. Then the farce of police investigation and denial was repeated. It must have hurt Casagrande’s mercenary pride to deny his work, but he was pragmatic in the face of impending murder charges, after all. The trouble is that the same smell of opportunism hangs above Casagrande’s current talk of humanism and collectivism.
Then what should I say about Casagrande’s obsession with destruction, ruins and anarchism – perhaps they are reflections from his days in Bosnia or just manifestations of his natural character. Perhaps he is emphasizing his image as the one man’s adventure novel. Whatever the case, Casagrande certainly uses plenty of military innuendo in his works.
Take for example his Who cares wins –emblem (left), fashioned after the badges of a Croatian “International unit” (middle) and the HOS unit (right) that fought alongside Casagrande’s mercenaries. Instead of the “U” for Ustaša, the WWII-era Croatian Fascist movement, Casagrande’s badge features the anarchist’s “A” – or perhaps an architect’s compass. His motto is of course borrowed from British specials forces’ “Who dares wins”.
In some of his performances the black-clad troopers also remind me of the HOS fighters in their black uniforms. And is there something ominious about that C-Lab sweater with its color scheme reference to the National Socialist flag, or is it just me?
The soldiers posing with Casagrande’s jewellery continue the military theme. And I must say: were these swastikas in someone else’s comic strip I’d probably take them just as Buddhist symbols for goodness, but when it’s Casagrande, I can’t be sure. Perhaps I’m just biased by experience: when I look for example at Casagrande’s Land(e)scape / Slaughter carnival with its fleeing, burning hay barns, I see the burning houses and fleeing families of another slaughter carnival, Lasva Valley in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1993.
People like Moconesi hardly change. So the question is: where does Casagrande stand when he and Moconesi are one and the same? The denial of his book’s contents in Taiwan all but unmasked him. And how about Mostar Road Hitchhikers, how accurate is it? Only Casagrande knows for sure. Was the book worth police investigations? Definitely, if the account of Moconesi ordering the murder of one of his friend is true. Did Casagrande commit actual war crimes in Bosnia? No, not according to his book, at least. And working as a mercenary is not illegal according to Finnish legislation, either. Practically, the 50-200 Deutchmarks that the HVO “mercenaries” made per month doesn’t really count as a salary against machinegun fire. Being an unpaid volunteer isn’t criminalized either, and the nation still remembers the thousands of foreign volunteers who were warmly welcomed in Finland to fight against Russia in WWII. Who would I be to criticize volunteering anyway, having been a volunteer in Bosnia myself? For motives, attitudes and actions, that’s a different matter.
Regardless of the truthfulness of Casagrande’s book, the insult and obnoxiousness remains. If stupidity and obscenity were crimes, Casagrande would be doing life.
Well, time is a bitch, and my bet is that time will prove my point. The bigger Casagrande-phenomenom grows, the more pressure there will be to examine also his earliest contribution to the cultural scene. Casagrande himself has had – and will have – many opportunities to come out proactively and talk about the details of his book, but so far has chosen not to elaborate.
I believe that art can’t be completely detached from its surroundings and framework. The responsibility for past writings accumulates along with awards and acclaim. In a Finnish radio interview in 2011 Casagrande stated that honor is the basis for everything in the mercenary world. But it’s also pretty honorable to stand behind one’s own actions and words.
I also know that in a war an intellectually honest person will learn to fight bigotry, above all. War has this guaranteed quality – it changes something in a person, either for better or for worse. And I am not sure what Casagrande took home from Bosnia.
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:
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)
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.