Tracking Serbian Mercenaries in Donbas
12 July, 2018

Last year Ukraine’s Security Service revealed more than 300 Serbian mercenaries have fought on the side of the Russian-backed separatists in Donbas. However, according to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (or BIRN), the actual number of Serbians fighting in eastern Ukraine is unknown.

The organization traced around 20 fighters from Serbia and Bosnia who had fought against Ukraine in the country’s east.

The network’s regional director Marija Ristic said many of these fighters took part in the Balkan wars and were traced by photos and posts on social media.

“Most of them were quite open to speaking about what they're doing in Ukraine because according to them, none of the things they were doing in fighting were neither illegal or considered wrong,” she said.

“They simply saw it as paying the debt of the Russian fighters that were fighting in the Balkan wars.”

In 2014, Serbia passed a law criminalizing fighting in foreign conflicts. This made it difficult for fighters to return to Serbia.

“Some of them who returned were actually traced by the Serbian prosecution and made a plea bargain, most of them, and they either served two or one years depending on the profile of the fighters,” Ristic said.

“But a lot of them actually are still in Ukraine, and some of them are in the [Russian paramilitary] Wagner unit, and we were able to trace them also in Syria.”

Hromadske sat down with Marija Ristic during the Donbas Media Forum to discuss what role Serbian fighters played in the war in Donbas.

There is a myth – and not just a myth – that there are foreign fighters [in the Donbas,] especially coming from countries which feel some solidarity with Russia or had a historical connection with it. You made a story about the Serbian fighters in the Donbas. How much do we know about that? What is their role, what is happening with them now?

There are no clear numbers of how many people are in there. What BIRN did was, we tried to trace around 20 of them that we know that went from either Serbia or Bosnia to different parts of Ukraine to fight on the Russian side. The interesting thing is how we got to investigate these topics is that most of these fighters we actually knew from the Balkan wars. These were experienced fighters, fighting on different fronts either in Croatia or in Bosnia. We knew some of them from war crime trials in Serbia, some from different reports. Then we used Facebook to trace where they are and what they're doing because during the Balkan wars, fighters who fought in different paramilitary units tried to take pictures. A lot of these pictures back then, in the 1990s, were not posted online but were saved on cameras and other things. However, they continued the same model in the Ukrainian war, they were just posting pictures on Facebook and online, and basically bragging about how they're fighting and defending the Orthodox brotherhood and the Russian goals in Ukraine.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

This is the initial search that we started and then we actually communicated with them through Facebook, and most of them were quite open to speak about what they're doing in Ukraine because according to them, none of the things they were doing in fighting were illegal or wrong. They simply saw it as paying the debt of the Russian fighters that were fighting in the Balkan wars. So at the beginning of when this started, it was 2014, and at the beginning of 2015 and in between, Serbia adopted a law criminalizing foreign fighters potentially fighting in other conflicts, including the Middle East and Ukraine. This is where it became a problem for them to return to Serbia, and then we tried to trace those who returned. Some of them who returned were actually traced by the Serbian prosecution and made a plea bargain, most of them, and they either served one or two years depending on the profile of the fighters, but a lot of them actually are still in Ukraine, and some of them are in the Wagner unit, and we were able to trace them also in Syria.

If we talk about the Wagner unit, what exactly do we know about what they were doing in Ukraine? Apart from being present.

What is interesting with Wagner is when you compare it with the Balkans, is actually a very similar model which already existed in our war. It's the unit that is paid by a state or different actors close to the state that has very experienced fighters as part of the unit, and that goes from one conflict to another and fights. How we actually reached Wagner is that there was a very notorious unit in the Balkans called [Arkan's Tigers,] and most of the fighters were professional fighters. We, throughout investigation of war crimes, managed to have contact with some of them. And then, we discovered that a few of the former Arkan fighters are now in Russia. And then, some other people who were trying to flee, to go to Ukraine to fight, were telling us "we are in contact with this and this person who is in Russia, he is the only helping us reach Ukraine."

Then we discovered a network of a few fighters, already experienced in the Balkan wars, who were actually recruiting the first group, people who already fought in the Balkan wars and want to fight for money, and then the other group were actually young people, usually members of different far-right groups, some of them actually football fans, who for different reasons also decided to join them. Then when we discovered who were the key people in the Wagner unit from the Balkans, we contacted them and most of them of course denied that they ever participated in any way although we found some of their pictures in Ukraine. But what is interesting is that our final proof that they actually moved to Syria was when one of the Wagner members actually from the town of Novi Sad, which is a town in northern Serbia, actually died in the Syrian war. So his body was moved from Syria to Novi Sad and the last trace we had from him as that he was in Moscow. For us, that was a clear proof of what several other people already told us about how Wagner moves from one conflict to the other.

We don't know the exact number but really it's about what they are doing. Are they trainers?

The group that is called the "experienced fighters" are fighters from the Balkans. You have to know, as I mentioned, there is the Arkan unit. Their model is basically the same. There is part of the unit that trains the staff, the soldiers, and there is part of the unit that are actually soldiers. So even back in the Balkans, they had their own training camp, and from there they recruited soldiers and the soldiers were going there. In these training camps, there were several people who were leading members of the camp, and it appears that some of these members of the unit are actually now in Wagner, some of them as trainers, some of them as fighters.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

They would never say they are training for a war, but if you know who these people were in the Balkan war and if you have other people claiming that they were their contacts to go into Ukraine and from there they reach out to Ukraine as a contact point, then it's also clear what their role is now.

Can you give us a couple of examples of the people whose past you can call dubious to know what they are teaching here can be pretty "questionable"?

One of those that we found is Dragan Savicic, he is called "Wolf", that is his nickname. Of course, I have to say that he denies everything. He was a member of the Arkan unit in the early 90s, he fought in the war in Bosnia, then he lived for a long time in Montenegro, and while he was in Montenegro he was actually indicted for various criminal activities. Shooting, mafia wars, and things like that. However, he managed to escape Montenegro and fled to Russia. His official story is that in Russia, he works for a construction company, and he never went to any kind of war.

Some of them, for example, there was an interesting case that I followed of a war crime trial in Serbia for Kosovo crimes, and I interviewed this former member of the Arkan unit. At one point of the trial he just disappeared. Then we managed to trace that he fled the war crime trial in Serbia and that he fled to Ukraine and joined Wagner.

But all other members that we talked to were either former members of the Arkan unit or different paramilitaries or different members of the criminal gangs. But when we say criminal gangs, it's not like Italian criminal gangs, but in the Balkans criminal gangs actually erupted after the end of the war when most of the soldiers couldn't fight anymore, but then they formed these gangs. Most of the gang members were former fighters. This was just another way to do criminal activities, and then at one point as I said, the situation in Ukraine, it appeared to them to be very similar to the one we had in the Balkans, and they found a way to earn money not just to fight, because that's also an important thing is that these units were not just fighting but doing a lot of robberies and a lot of additional criminal activities, trafficking and different kinds of criminal acts.

The obvious question from a Ukrainian then: okay, these people are coming to our land but what happens with them after the war? For instance, why they were from the beginning free? Why would they come? Had they served their time? No?

I think this will also be important for the Ukrainian prosecutors because it was very difficult for the Balkan and international prosecutors to prove these crimes, and to prove the commander's responsibility. These units were very smart, they often wear masks, they were often going to areas where no one knows them, they often try to destroy every possible link with their funders and sponsors, so it was always very difficult for some of them to be prosecuted. The other aspect is that they remained very well connected to the police, to the army, to the different aspects of the ministries, especially in Serbia. Different protection units that are now operating, so they always manage to evade justice. I mentioned the case of a guy who was even on a war crime trial and managed to escape to Ukraine to fight. This is the level of absurdity, I would say, we have in the Balkans when it comes to the prosecution of very important people who commit war crimes.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

One of the questions that is not so debated now, it's early, but coming to the place is a question of amnesty, in case of any kind of reconciliation or agreement Ukraine might ever have. There is always a distinction that in the end, the people who fought and had blood on their hands won't receive amnesty and the people who didn't would. And we just recently talked to the Colombian Interior Minister, who had this practice and explained how it worked. But my question is, how do you define, how do you prove, that the guy "A" didn't kill anybody, and guy "B" killed somebody. Because if the person used to be in the military unit during the war, it's very hard for a person to imagine, how can the police prove who was the person from the unit committing the crime, and who was just on the checkpoint?

A lot of the prosecutions are focusing on foot soldiers. For example, international criminal tribunals for former Yugoslavia that was established actually focused on commander responsibility, which is much easier to prove. You simply have an appointed commander, you have his area of responsibility. Were crimes committed in his area of responsibility? Yes. Then you have a person who is guilty because according to the Geneva convention, he should have prevented the crime. So you as a prosecutor should actually focus on the people who are behind the chain because for them the crimes are very easy to prove. You have an experience of Germany who actually at the late stage, changed prosecutor strategy and said, "look, we don't want to focus on these foot soldiers, because they were part of the chain. Let's focus on the commanders." If you change the strategy and focus on these people, then it's much easier for the prosecution to prove it. The problem in the Balkans was that the ICTY was going really after big heads, and the local prosecutors, because of the political pressure, went only for the foot soldiers, which is very difficult to prove, and then you have this middle part of people who are still very powerful in the Balkans who are free. They still control the army, they control the police, they constantly put pressure on the prosecution, and you basically don't have quality war crimes prosecution.

What do you do with foot soldiers? It's no question that the commanders have to be held responsible. But now, for instance, the amnesty, potential amnesty, is the thing which is about justice. Still, for the people, it would be very hard to comprehend. They want both the commanders but also the people who killed somebody to be prosecuted, not just to be free.

The amnesty story is a story about peace, and that's the debate also about journalism, whether journalists should contribute to peace or not. My personal opinion is that peace is not necessarily linked to journalism. You as a journalist are obliged to report about injustice, irregularities, important things for your democratic society, but you don't necessarily need to contribute to the peace.

For us, our job was always to document and pinpoint the alleged war criminals. For foot soldiers, in some cases in the Balkans, it was easy when they were neighbors. In some of the war crime cases, for example, we had neighbors shooting at each other, so it was easier for prosecutors to prove the case. You'd have five witnesses from one village who said, that and that person committed a war crime. This is how foot soldiers were convicted in the Balkans. Others could not be identified.

You mentioned the case of Serbian fighters in Donbas. I wonder how much trace we have of participation of Serbians in the case of the annexation of Crimea. As I personally remember being in Crimea during the time of the annexation, sitting in Sevastopol with a group of guys coming from Novi Sad. We've been to the same restaurant, they definitely look like fighters: big tall guys and definitely not just tourists coming to Sevastopol. So at that time of course there was no pure "war" but it was an annexation and force was used. There were threats against the people, that's how the annexation happened. What do we know about that?

In the case of Crimea, I think it was even more extreme because Serbia never hid its own agenda in Crimea although our president just three days ago said that we respect Ukrainian integrity. Besides the fighters in Crimea, we also had our parliament members, official Serbian parliament members, going to Crimea for the election observing. For me, this was also one more example showing that the narrative of Serbians fighters is something that is more or less something that is actually the official narrative of the state because these members of the Serbian parliament were members of the ruling party. So it's obvious that you will have people fighting there if you have parliamentarians going to Crimea and accepting the Russians.

One of the questions where, for instance, the position justice in Ukraine today is the most important at this moment is prisoner exchange. We understand there is no concept in the law where a human should be exchanged for another human. It's overall hostage exchange. We have this issue with Russia, and we know that our courts had to take the decision to free some of the people to get back Ukrainian fighters or just political prisoners. In that regard, what kind of framework would that be where we go with this clearly illegal process while it's the only process? Honestly, anyone would welcome the process if there is a chance to exchange prisoners.

Well, as you rightly said basically, the problem with the transition of justice is that there are some elements which are defined differently. UN conventions, different laws, the Geneva convention. But in essence, the field is not regulated. You have one experienced from one conflict to another. In the case of the Balkans and in other conflicts there were exchanges of people. We have different areas of the Balkans and different concepts. In some cases, it was just a pure agreement. Two politics leaders agreed to exchange people, and they exchanged. In some cases, it was even a law where it said these people will be freed and not prosecuted again. But what happened after is that even when these people were released, and when they were exchanged, and although there were no pledges that there will be no prosecution, the prosecution still happened. So even though people were told that they wouldn't be prosecuted, they were. There were also extreme cases in Bosnia where people would agree to an exchange, it wouldn't happen and people would get killed.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

And now a case, it even happened with people already behind bars in the official courts. So the courts are forced to come up with a statement and pardon the person. They are already behind bars, the court can't just throw them out.

We have the same case in Serbia with the Kosovo political prisoners, and that was one part of our democratic transition, if you want to call it that. Serbia passed a law where it said that all political prisoners will be released because this was part of the agreement, and they were released. There were cases later where they would be arrested on the border, but as I said it was regulated through an act. So I think it was actually pushed by the international community at the time because when the Kosovo war ended, there were a lot of people in Serbian prisons accused to terrorism and different acts, and in 99% of cases, these were all political cases, there was no evidence, it was basically just at that point terror of the Serbian state over an Albanian ethnic minority.

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk