Balkan mercenaries continue to die in the Middle East for fake humanitarian groups

The site of explosion (photo: Masam Project)

On 20 January, early on Sunday morning, five foreign technicians working for a Saudi-funded project died when a device exploded in Yemen's Marib Province. According to the official version, a landmine blew up as the team was preparing to move hundreds of similar devices cleared from sites all around the province. The munitions were to be taken to a remote area for disposal. A source at the scene told the media that a mine exploded, starting a chain reaction which set off other devices so the mines continued going off for more than 30 minutes. Among the dead were two South Africans, Johan "H" Den Haan and Peter Schoeman, as well as three persons from the Balkans: Damir Paradžik from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Goran Vekić from Croatia, and Agim Hoti from Kosovo. "Experts have lost their lives trying to bring security to Yemenis and their service to humanity will not be forgotten," said officials of the MASAM project, a self-proclaimed humanitarian group that is part of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief). But who really are the victims, what are they doing in Yemen, and what is the purpose of the Saudi project?

Damir Paradžik, a 49-year-old BiH citizen and well-known demining expert, participated in the Sarajevo siege during the war that took place from 1992-1995, and later worked in Sudan, Cyprus, Somalia, Afghanistan and Lebanon. He lost his leg while he was trying to save his wounded colleague and local farmer in Lebanon in 2006, as a worker of ArmorGroup, a British-based private military company and subsidiary of the security giant G4S. Because of this act, British Princess Alexandra, as Queen Elizabeth II's official representative, handed him the Medal for Courage in 2007. Immediately after the recovery, he returned to the dangerous job of removing mines around the world. Agim Huti, a 43-year-old Kosovo citizen, also worked for the G4S between 2011 and 2012. He later worked in southern Iraq for Ubique Solutions, a 100% British owned and led company based in Dubai.

A third one, 38-year-old Goran Vekić from Croatia, worked for local demining companies until 2018 when he became an employee of SafeLane Global, yet another British-based private military company, formerly known as Dynasafe BACTEC and Dynasafe MineTech. SafeLane Global provides international trainers and mentors to the Saudi MASAM project, and is closely related to the G4S, working together in South Sudan, Mali and elsewhere. The MASAM project itself is implemented with Dubai-based Dynasafe Middle East Project Management. As their official website proudly point out, the MASAM project is also Dubai-based but strictly a Saudi one, with funding and supervision being provided by Saudi Arabia, without any involvement on the part of any international body, including the United Nations.

Local media in the Balkans did not deal too much with the fact that their citizens were killed working for private military companies, or that the alleged humanitarian mission took place in the middle of an active war zone. Instead, media was more concerned with their old charity role in the Balkans, claiming they were doing the same in Yemen, or with expressing condolences to grieving families, given that both Paradžik and Vekić left behind four children. No journalist has wondered why, according to the words by victims' family members, the MASAM project provided a scarce report about the incident, without any technical details. The report suggests that five experienced deminers are actually a bunch of charlatans. No one has also wondered why the MASAM, a self-proclaimed humanitarian project allegedly concerned with human lives, did not publish the news of their own worker deaths on the official English-language website, but only on the Arabic-language pages. The reason is very clear; the English news could discourage new greedy fools, needed to replacing the old ones.

Nothing but lucrative motives are confirmed by Mario Barjaktarić, a vice president of the Croatian Humanitarian Demining Association, who explained that deminers in Croatia are employed with a salary of around 8,100 kunas (approximately 1,100 euros), while abroad salaries are three times larger. He added that at least forty Croatian citizens are currently working abroad, including in war zones like Syria, most frequently employed by British and American agencies. Contrary to the recent media reports, this implies that five dead were not humanitarian workers, but mercenaries. They could choose one of numerous demining programs supported by the United Nations (UNMAS) that are now active in peaceful areas around the world, however, they did not.

Humanitarian demining serves the citizens and is always carried out after war ends, because if it is conducted in the middle of conflict there is always the possibility that demined area will become mined again. Considering that the fighting in Yemen's Marib Province continues, the MASAM project is far from a humanitarian mission, it rather represents the military operation and serves only the Saudi-led coalition, not Yemeni civilians. This is confirmed by parents of Damir Paradžik who spoke with him last time a day before the accident: "He was unhappy and told his wife that a chaos is happening there, there was so much shooting that night, that he did not know how they manage to survive," his mother said. Therefore, there is a possibility that five deminers have been killed in the rebel attack and that Saudis have been trying to keep it secret.

Given also that tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians were killed in the Saudi-led coalition's attacks and that their military intervention caused the world's worst famine in the last 100 years, it is ironic, to say the least, that Saudi Arabia has done anything humanitarian there. In fact, the whole story tells us about the worrying trend of rising private military contractors and their role in the Middle East. Such companies are mostly in British and American ownership, all have a very controversial past (from Blackwater to the G4S), their regional hub is in Dubai, and the main user of their services is Saudi Arabia. The cannon fodder of these giants comes mainly from poor countries, from Africa to the Balkans, where workers with military experience apply for lucrative mercenary jobs. A high life risk is often suppressed with plans of a short-term contract and with hopes that accidents happen to others. Today, three large families in the Balkans are victims of such miscalculations.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak is a social anthropologist and human rights defender with more than five years of experience in the Open Society Institute (OSF), an organization campaigning for human rights and reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia. His research interests include law and religion, human rights, comparative ethics, and international relations. Born in Osijek, he lives and works in Zagreb.

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