In the summer of 2017 a young Serbian man died in Syria. He was the first Serb to lose his life fighting Islamic State. The international news didn’t notice. His fellow supporters of football team Vojvodina Novi Sad put up a tribute on Facebook.
Dimitrije Sasha Karan (Димитрије Саша Каран) was 24-years-old when he stepped on a landmine. He had a wife and a young son.
His path to the battlefield started in the terraces of Novi Sad. Born in the Bosnian town of Foča, Karan moved to Serbia as a child to avoid the civil war that wrecked Yugoslavia in the 1990s. He got involved in the Novi Sad football scene as a teenager.
The team had a fanatical fan group called the Firma (Фирма). Chanting, flares billowing smoke, drinking, expensive casual clothes, nationalism, the occasional fight. A Serb version of Italian ultras and British hooligans.
Karan loved the life. He became a Firma leader.
I’ve been writing books, articles, and blog posts for a while now. My subjects are mercenaries and extremists, smugglers and peacekeepers, lost causes and short-lived countries, and the kind of writers who hammer out words on a busted typewriter with a 9mm in their belt and a bottle of vodka in the ice box.
Recently I wrote Lost Lions of Judah, the strange, untold story of the Nazis and adventurers who fought for Ethiopia against Mussolini’s invaders. And it’s all true.
That’s one of the revelations in non-fiction narratives. Almost everything that appears in a novels has already happened to someone real somewhere else. And it was weirder and wilder than you can imagine.
There are plenty of non-fiction writers out there with the talent to take all their research and interviews and summon up a living, breathing, technicolor world. Here’s six non-fiction books that do the job very well.
In January 1921 hundreds of bonfires began burning in the hillsides around the Mongolian capital of Urga. The Bloody Baron had returned.
Baron Roman Feodorovitch von Ungern-Sternberg had first besieged Urga the previous October. Four attempts by his Asiatic Cavalry Division to take the town were beaten back by Chinese troops.
The Division retreated back into the steppes to regroup, recruit fresh troops, and make contact with Mongolian nationalists. Few locals liked the new Chinese overlords who had moved into the power vacuum left by the Russian Civil War. Rumours spread that a clique of lamas in Urga, close to the Living Buddha, were plotting to help the Baron’s men.
The Chinese tightened security; some Russians in the town were imprisoned, others were shot. In the hills, the Baron waited for his fortune tellers to tell him the best time to attack.
My book about the foreign mercenaries, adventurers, and crusaders who fought for Ethiopia against the Italian Fascist invasion is out on Thursday 15 June. Here’s a taste of the introduction … .
When the first bomb exploded, Vienna’s finest trauma surgeon was elbow deep inside a patient’s guts somewhere in northern Ethiopia. Dr Valentin Schuppler kept his scalpel steady as shock waves blew in half the hospital windows. The Red Cross on the roof was being used as a target by Italian airplanes.
Dessie hospital was an unhygienic pile of bricks in a backwater town whose best feature was its juniper trees. Any patient mobile enough had gone running for the hills when the first Fascist planes appeared. Schuppler stayed in the operating theatre and worked on a patient who was going nowhere without a mile of stitches and a dose of morphine.