Fascinated by war - an Austrian in Donbass | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 04.05.2017
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Fascinated by war - an Austrian in Donbass

He is well known to authorities. He has found himself in many of the world's danger zones. Who is the man who had been posting photos on social media of his "war adventures?"

An Austrian citizen suspected of war crimes in Ukraine's war-torn Donbass region was arrested last weekend by Polish border police. A European arrest warrant was issued a few weeks ago for the suspect, whom Austria wants extradited as soon as possible.

The 25-year-old is accused of "having killed soldiers involved in fighting at the Donetsk airport who had already surrendered and/or of having killed civilians," said a spokesman for the prosecutor's office in Wiener Neustadt, in the northeastern province of Lower Austria. The suspect was already being investigated for violating the controlled substances act.

Thrill seeker

Officials have not made additional personal information public due to the ongoing investigation. The Austrian daily "Kurier" has reported the suspect in question to be Benjamin F. from a village in the western Austrian state of Vorarlberg. He was a successful student who played violin and wanted to be a ski instructor. He was a member of the local volunteer fire department.

Übersicht Kleinwalsertal (Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen/Steffen Berschin)

Benjamin F. left his home town on Austria's German border for dangerous challenges abroad

At 17, Benjamin F. joined the Austrian armed forces and served in Kosovo, where he complained that while French troops went out on missions, the Austrians stayed in the barracks. "I was bored to death," he said in an interview.

In search of riskier challenges, the young Austrian set off for Somalia, where he accompanied ships in pirate-prone waters. He tried unsuccessfully to enroll in the French Foreign Legion, then returned to Austria to work in Vienna as a security guard.

When fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine, Benjamin F. connected with like-minded thrill seekers on Facebook, and joined them there. In his interview with Kurier, he described the Donbass region in 2014 as pure chaos. Many soldiers were regularly drunk. The Minsk Agreement turned fighting on the front into boring trench warfare "with alcoholics and junkies," he said.

Syria, Iraq and back to Ukraine

Benjamin F. moved on to Syria, fighting against the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) - first for the Kurdish YPG militia then for the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq, when he found YPG fighters too religious. "Everything is more alive where there is death," he said in the interview.

He returned to Ukraine as part of Task Force Pluto, a volunteer unit founded by three Americans and an Austrian he had befriended during his army service.

Polen Österreicher wegen Ukraine-Kriegsverbrechen gefasst (randbild photography/Timo Vogt)

Volunteer fighters from the self-made battlegroup Task Force Pluto

"They went to Ukraine with a nationalist conviction to support Ukraine against Russia," Timo Vogt, a German photographer, told DW. Vogt accompanied Task Force Pluto to eastern Ukraine in 2016 to document foreigners in Donbass.

The three Americans and two Austrians have matching arm tattoos symbolizing their camaraderie: Molon Labe - ancient Greek for "come and take [them]." It is a classical expression of defiance, reportedly uttered by King Leonidas I of Sparta, when the Persian King Xerxes demanded his forces lay down their arms in 480 BC.

Polen Österreicher wegen Ukraine-Kriegsverbrechen gefasst (randbild photography/Timo Vogt)

Task Force Pluto members express their bond with a tattoo reading 'Molon Labe,' Greek for 'come and take [them]'

Vogt was with Benjamin F. in a trench less than one kilometer from the Donetsk airport. "I saw him reach for a weapon and fire without hesitation," Vogt said. "He fought for those whose worldview he supported. When that was no longer the case, he'd move on."

Benjamin F. is far from the only person to go searching for wars to fight in, and in Ukraine it can be for both sides. In Austria alone, 300 native-born or naturalized citizens are taking part in foreign conflicts, according to information provided by Austria's Interior Ministry.

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