“For every native word they punished”
“Soldiers of Fortune”. Who are they? Many people mistakenly refer them to representatives of private military companies, so popular in recent years. Only one mysterious “Wagner”, lately, more and more often flashed in the news feeds, which is only worth it. But there are others. However, this is not entirely true.
“Soldiers of Fortune”, “Wild Geese”, “Dogs of War”, all these daring self-confident names referred to French legionaries. The veteran of the Legion shared his memories of the service with the MK correspondent.
– Point me like Laurent, – my interlocutor asked in advance. “That's what they called me in the Legion. That period of time has nothing to do with my real name or my current life.
Throughout the entire time of our acquaintance, Laurent only a few times casually mentioned the Legion, but did not go into details. Until I myself did not dare to ask him to tell everything, from the very beginning. To be honest, I didn't really count on success then, but he agreed.
All ours are there
– There is a legendary and mythical unit in the army of the French Republic, which even today has practically no analogues – the French Foreign Legion, Laurent said. – This is where I ended up in the mid-90s, although I did not plan it at all.
One of the myths is that legionnaires are mercenaries, and serving in the legion is a criminal offense. This is not true. Legionnaires are volunteers who serve in the ranks of the active French army. And the uniqueness of the Legion is that it can be attributed to the rapid reaction forces, and to the rescuers, and to the special forces, and to the special operations forces, and to the construction battalion …
Historically, it is foreigners who serve in the Legion. In my time there were many Europeans, especially from Eastern Europe and the former republics of the USSR, many representatives from the former colonies of France. The Legion's strength was less than eight thousand people, but they managed to fight wherever NATO forces participated.
Of course, there are Frenchmen there as well. After the attempted military coup, for participation in which the first regiment of the Legion's paratroopers was disbanded, a rule arose that at least half of the soldiers must be French.
But all of us were there!
Almost everyone understood Russian, even Poles and Germans from the GDR in conversation switched to Russian, because he was taught in all countries of the socialist camp. Of course, corporals and sergeants made sure everyone spoke French and punished those who failed. Although the Ukrainians were already harmful then, they spoke incomprehensibly, and they had a “godfather” mafia there – they helped their own to pass tests, they interfered with others.
I have known about the Legion since childhood. My parents subscribed to the magazine “Foreign Military Review” for me. I read it all – and I knew about NATO armies and arsenals, perhaps, more than any military commissar. Information was printed there, including on the Foreign Legion. But I had no other information. The Legion did not advertise itself. There was only the most general information about recruitment points. Yes, and I did not plan to serve in it.
Let me remind you, this is the mid-90s, the Internet in its rudimentary form, computers were a luxury, pagers had just begun to spread en masse, and information was transmitted by fax over long distances .
There was a myth that everyone was recruited into the Legion. The main thing, they say, is to be physically healthy, not completely stupid and to be able to get there somehow. And already your past, even criminal, nobody cares. No extradition from the Legion. This image was in the minds of many, and I, of course, thought the same.
But let's start in order.
The dashing 90s were in the yard, if you remember that time, then you understand what I mean now. I lived in the Urals, I will not specify exactly where. The situation developed in such a way that due to “misunderstandings” with an authoritative comrade of one criminal group it was necessary to leave there. My choice fell on St. Petersburg, because the next flight was there. But after a while it became clear that this did not solve the problem and I had to leave Russia.
I have only good memories of St. Petersburg at that time, despite the fact that the city was the most gangster city. There I met people who can be attributed to the tops of the emerging Russian statehood and culture. For example, I talked with Slava Barkovsky, who wrote the bestseller Russian Transit. He thought he was just a writer. I realized who he was only when I later saw the scene in the TV series “Gangster Petersburg” where he and several other authorities of that time played themselves.
All my student life I was engaged in ferrying cars from Europe to Russia. Then it was possible to leave the country quite calmly, visas were given easily. In addition, in order to safely move from Brest to Poland, I bought a Polish passport for $ 25 on the occasion. The first visa I had was to France, there was no Schengen at that time. In France, francs were in use, I had francs. The choice became obvious.
– No, I had a friend, we once worked together. He was such a “tourist” in life. If we talk about vagrants, then this is about him. He went through Russia, like Alyosha Peshkov, and we walked through Europe with him, and then he became a repatriate in Israel. Here fate brought him together again in St. Petersburg. He had an understanding of how and where to go and what to do. We didn't even think about what we would do there. Just let's go. We stopped in Strasbourg and started hanging out there. There was no specific goal. Three months later, the money began to run out, and I had to think about how to survive at all. In Europe at that time there was no work at all. In Russia, we thought that everything was fine in the West, but in reality it’s not – thousands of refugees came from the former colonies to the metropolis. Plus thousands of refugees from the former Yugoslavia, where the war was going on. Dirt, crime, drugs – this is France of the 90s.
– In fact, everywhere. Sometimes they filmed, sometimes on the street. When we first arrived, it was summer, warm and it was possible to live even in the park, wash in public toilets. It is necessary to wash or change clothes, went to the “Red Cross”. There they will feed, give to drink and give clean clothes. It was fun. Problems began to appear with the onset of cold weather. And then one of the new friends and threw this idea: “Let's go to the Legion.” Well, we went, seven people gathered willing. The reception center in Strasbourg refused us. They were not even allowed to enter the territory. It was weird. The myth said that everyone who got there was taken! And they didn't even talk to us. There is a guy in uniform who is just silent. We didn’t know then that we could come when it changed and try again. So we went by train to Marseille. We found a recruiting point there, and history repeated itself. And that's all. It is getting dark. This is where the knowledge gained from the Soviet military magazine that the base of the Foreign Legion is located in Aubagne came in handy. All recruits from all recruiting points still end up in Aubagne. We got there in the dark and found ourselves on the other side of the barrier without any problems.
From my first vivid impressions – the Legion Museum and a doctor's examination. More precisely, the servant of Hippocrates looked at everyone's teeth. This was the entire initial medical examination. Those who passed the draft board in our military registration and enlistment offices will understand my surprise. All documents were taken away and left to wait until morning.
The next day, we were already given tracksuits, cheap Chinese sneakers, a shaving kit, a toothbrush and paste, and a change of underwear. Placed in the barracks.
To be honest, it was a surprise to me – how many of ours are there. Eastern Europe, CIS countries. Almost everyone spoke Russian. There are many former paratroopers, also from the Soviet army. It was easy to calculate them by the tattoos of the “Airborne Forces”.
Most of all, by the way, there were immigrants from Ukraine. They served as both corporals and corporal chiefs. They had their own Ukrainian mafia, it was hard for a Russian or a Belarusian to wedge in. In principle, I had an advantage, since I entered the Legion as a Pole. I bought a Polish passport in Brest for twenty-five dollars, even when I was driving cars.
Myths began to dissipate immediately. One of them: “you can be any criminal, but if you come to the legion, they will take you.” Nothing like this. The first question was just about criminal records. One recruit was kicked out in front of me because he tried to hide this fact of his biography, and someone turned him over.
The second point is that people are not accepted into the Legion without documents. They won't even pour tea, just adies Amigos. They didn’t take a familiar guy with a driver’s license. Only a passport should be.
In general, many, when they went to the Legion, added originals of documents. There were different rumors, and they said that before accepting you, you must cut your passport. Because from the moment you embarked on the path of a legionnaire, you are a new person. This also turned out to be a myth. You are not a new person, and you do not have any French citizenship.
Legio Patria Nostra
This all of course made us a little sober. After all, we really thought that everything, a contract for three years – and you are French. At that time, in principle, the structure was not very clear to us, we thought that the Legion was only the 2nd parachute regiment, the elite, which participates in all the “kneading”. They are the Rapid Reaction Force. In fact, the Legion is eight regiments, “detachement” and the 13th semi-brigade. At that time, the total number was only seven and a half thousand people. Not so much. There are no heavy equipment at all, no tanks or helicopters. There are light tanks and armored vehicles. I immediately said that I wanted to be a driver.
– No, they didn't ask directly, of course, but they were interested in who can do what. I had a great time in Aubagne. I volunteered in the vineyards, training at the stadium – running, pulling up, training in the pool, and volunteering again. I always tried to get to work in the vineyards. The Legion has their own.
Another interesting point, the motto of the legionnaires “Legio Patria Nostra” – “Legion is your Fatherland.” You do not serve anyone, neither France nor Russia, only the Legion. So, the Legion on the base among the vineyards has a type of hostel, a nursing home in other words. There, veterans can meet old age. If you are unlucky in life, you can come from any country, and if you are a former legionnaire and you have a completed contract, you can safely live out your days there. Volunteers will take care of you, feed, dress you.
– Yes, if you want, you can. But this greatly complicates life, since in order to obtain citizenship, you will still have to present the originals of all the documents that are necessary for this. For example, a birth certificate. And there is no secret that you are in the Legion. Under dictation, you write a letter to your family that you have become a legionnaire, and it is sent to your home by mail. You must have really very good reasons to change your personal data. The Legion may issue you documents under a new name at the end of your contract, but this does not happen right away. First you need to apply for a residence permit. While you are in the legion, you automatically have this right, as soon as you flew ahead of schedule – you lose everything.
– The salary was in francs. While we were volunteers, we were paid an amount equivalent to 32 US dollars a day, almost 1,000 a month accumulated. Then, already serving in Djibouti, they received $ 1600-1800 a month, and when they returned to France, they received $ 1000-1200.
I was lucky – they checked me for a long time. It wasn't until two weeks later in Aubagne that I started taking tests. Three kilometers had to be run in 12 minutes, pull-ups, push-ups. Most of all they paid attention to running. Then the stage, which among themselves was called the “Gestapo”. These are conversations with officers, psychologists about everything, various psychological tests. For me, everything somehow went very easily. In time it took me almost two months.
After Aubagne was sent to Rouge. In the training, which is located in Castelnaudary, 4th regiment. Our stay there began with intimidation that if we spoke Russian, they would begin to punish us. Moreover, not only the guilty one, but the whole company at once. One hundred push-ups for any word not spoken in French.
None of us spoke French. Even those negroes who were from Algeria spoke in such a way that the officer could not understand them. We began to master the language with the charter. You should have known him, as well as the Legionnaire's code and the Legion's anthem. The training was very interesting. You sit, and one of the “older brothers” points, for example, to the shoe, and calls, and you repeat. And so any subject. Easy to remember. The charter has been learned.
They also frightened us with ten kilometers of night marches, promised the horrors of mountain training in the Alps, but in fact there was no tin. But they did shoot a lot. Of everything the Legion has in its arsenal. This assault rifle of the legionnaire Famas, grenade launchers, barrels, snipers, anti-tank systems …
It is still not very clear to me why the Famas rifle was adopted by the French army. This is an accurate, but far from the most reliable and convenient weapon.
Four months passed in this way. They literally hammered into us the foundations – legionnaires are always together in any situation, the Legion is your family, your homeland, your fatherland, you serve France, but the Legion is above …
And that's it.
– No, there were no women at all. Even among civilians. Men also worked in the kitchen. Speaking of the kitchen, I can't help but note that the food was always very good. And more. Food was not limited. Breakfast – bread, fruits, cereals, muesli, yoghurts, cheese, meat. For garnish – different vegetables. Drinks – coffee, juice, cola. For lunch, soups are different, meat, cutlets, potatoes, often pasta. Dinner is like lunch, but no soups. In addition, crackers, coffee, cola are all available and sold on site.
Joke fired back
Upon completion of the training, they received a legionnaire's cap-blank – and again to Aubagne, where distribution to regiments began. I was sent to Africa, Djibouti.
– In general, the combat missions of the Legion are the protection of the French and citizens of allied states in extreme situations and the implementation of UN peacekeeping missions. Djibouti was at one time a colony of France, and a military base of the Legion was always located on its territory. After gaining independence, the Legion supported the government of the Republic of Djibouti. There was a training ground where instructors trained fighters from friendly tribes, allies and paratroopers of the 2nd regiment in the war in the desert and in the jungle, the 13th semi-brigade. The 13th is something like our special forces. Sappers, which are similar in functionality to the American “green berets”. They travel to villages, demolish enemy fortifications, build bases, strongholds, look for mines, naturally, interact with the population.
The reconnaissance of the 13th semi-brigade is such a death squad – guarding outposts, communications, raids in troubled territories. They are constantly on the move. Infantry, a whole regiment, which is located at outposts and in fortified areas. Everyone is constantly busy with something: change at checkpoints, delivery of humanitarian aid, protection of the civilian population.
We drove army trucks and delivered equipment, water, humanitarian aid … We got into small skirmishes when food was transported to checkpoints or humanitarian aid was delivered. But that was not often the case. In response, they shot, rather, for fun. I have never felt any threat to my life. The only thing was that they immediately warned us not to contact the local women, that's where the real threat lies. Diseases can be caught such that then you yourself will not be happy. But this did not stop anyone. About a year later, we were returned to France.
– In my memory, no one was buried. I was there in a relatively quiet time and did not hear that anyone died in Djibouti. In general, the outposts there are very well equipped. Sappers set up tents and modules so that you cannot be seen from anywhere, while you have an almost ideal view, as far as possible for such conditions.
There were injuries sometimes, but more often there were different injuries. Especially for “parachutists” – sometimes dislocations, then sprains. If something serious happened to the guys, they were immediately sent to the Legion hospital in France. I know there were people killed in Rwanda, but that was before me. In general, for the Legion, the death of a soldier is a real emergency. The commission immediately arrives, the investigation is carried out. Even serious injuries are carefully checked, under what circumstances, who is to blame.
– There was no such goal. Legionnaires are not punitive. Our task was just to prevent the locals from chopping each other with machetes and shooting them out of cheap Chinese Kalash. Basically, they performed the tasks of the UN. Therefore, if there were corpses, it was only local, and not at the hands of legionnaires. To kill a European, I have not even heard this at all. Although the “batch” was constant. The Legion carries out peacekeeping missions there. But tough.
– I just served. Studied as a mechanic. There was nothing interesting at all. This is good for sappers in France. They perform the functions of the Ministry of Emergency Situations there, extinguish fires, fight floods or droughts, remove cats from trees. And after the rotation, I was bored there, and there was less money, since the African combatants were removed. It has already become clear that a career in the Legion is being built for a very long time, it does not bring money, and there is no reason for me to receive French citizenship, I also need to change my name. There is not enough money to rest on the Riviera, just to ride in France on weekends and on vacation – which I have not seen there. Besides, this is the 90s. Then no one was still a fan of legionnaires, and in the social pyramid you are at the very bottom. This means that it is practically impossible to find a life partner in the form of a legionnaire. And it became boring there after Africa. At home, in Russia, everything was more or less settled down, and I decided to leave.
– Yes. The Legion did not even pursue deserters. I wrote a report for family reasons. It was embarrassing for me to take it and leave in front of the commander, friends all the same. By the way, no one asked me about the reasons and did not persuade me to stay. I decided – your right. A week later I received the calculation and the documents with which I came. And that's all. To the station – and to Berlin. There I bought a car – and to Minsk, then returned to Moscow. The guys who were in Africa just left with the ends. Then, through the guys, they said that everything was in order, there was no need to look, and went home. And it is clear that they went to “their friendly” PMCs to squeeze out wells in Nigeria.
If I am ever asked to briefly describe my path as a legionnaire, I will say this: It was cool!
I was not going to serve in France, but it happened. The skills I acquired there, not that they would save my life, but they make me feel confident. I keep in touch with my friends. Although over time everything is forgotten.
I do not dream about the service, as many say, I am not nostalgic, but I would not mind being there again. It is in Djibouti. Although, I was young, and probably that was the coolest thing.