In the summer of 2017 a young Serbian man died in Syria. He was the first Serb to die 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 Sasa 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.
In 2014 demonstrations and street battles in Ukraine escalated into open warfare. The pro-Russia east declared independence as Novorussia. The Ukrainian government saw the secession as a Moscow power play aimed at keeping the EU out of Russia’s backyard. Men like Karan saw it as a heroic stand by fellow Slavs against an unholy alliance of globalism and liberalism.
In early 2015 Karan left Novi Sad to join a small group of Serbian mercenaries fighting for the eastern separatists. The Serbs were part of a scattered international brigade of foreign fighters.
‘He was a brave young man and a good fighter,’ said his sergeant, former police spokesman Radomir Počuc. ‘He had a baptism of fire in January 2015 in Donetsk. He stayed in Novorussia after I left, and later I heard that he married a Russian in Moscow and had a child with her.’
Počuča heard right. Karan liked what he saw of Russia in the separatist territories. After service in Novorussia he headed for Moscow to drink from the original well. He married a good-looking local girl with long blonde hair. They had a son.
His friends from Firma last saw him in August 2016 when Vojvodina Novi Sad played Dinamo Minsk in the Belarussian capital. Karan came to see the match. He seemed happy and in love.
He was dead less than a year later.
The Syrian Cause
The civil war in Syria had been ripping the country apart since 2011. Bashar al-Assad‘s government was popular with the international right and became more so after Islamic State birthed itself in the chaos.
There were rumours of foreign volunteers from both sides of the Ukraine fighting heading to Syria to join the government forces; the Russian media wrote about recruiters offering financial sign up incentives to separatists, local and foreign.
Karan’s path to Syria was more direct. He joined the Russian volunteer forces sent by Putin. Moscow was supporting al-Assad’s government with air strikes, advisers, and small numbers of ground troops. Karan was one of the men backing up Syrian government forces in the front lines. In early June 2017 he stepped on a landmine and died in hospital.
His Firma friends put up photos and some heartfelt messages on Facebook. The story got picked up in the Serb media and some international outlets printed a few paragraphs. Posts on a Muslim forum claimed revenge for Srebrenica. Posts on Serb forums glorified Karan as a modern knight fighting a crusade against a hydra-headed enemy of Islam, liberalism, globalism, and neo-nazi Ukrainians. A few lone voices thought he should have stayed home with his wife and son.
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