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Serbian Kids Received Military Training At Russian Camp

BELGRADE -- A group of Serbian children attended a scout camp in Siberia run by Russian war veterans where they fired weapons and threw grenades in 2008, it has been revealed.

Boys and girls aged 11 to 15 were sent to Russia by the Serbian war veterans organization Patriotski Front (Patriotic Front) where their host was the Russian nationalist organization Styag (Flag), which includes Russian war veterans and volunteers.

Patriotski Front at the time published some of the children's literary works about the trip on its site. But the story only came to light in Serbian media in recent days.

"As soon as we got to the camp, we were given sleeping bags and clothes, camouflage trousers and shirts and military boots. We were housed in tents and we were all separated. The next day, we went to the shooting range where we fired and practiced grenade-throwing, and we fired so much that my ear was ringing for three days," one 15-year-old boy wrote.

The boy's father told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that he sent his son with Patriotski Front, which groups Serbian veterans from the wars in the former Yugoslavia, because it teaches children about "traditional values."

Nebojsa Kuzmanovic said that the children did not fire real weapons at the Styag camp, but that he nevertheless wanted his son "to be ready."

"We also had premilitary training where we learned to handle weapons and prepare ourselves for the army," Kuzmanovic said by phone from the northern Serbian town of Backa Planka where Patriotski Front is based. "I do not know whether he will need it but it is necessary for him to be raised in line with the traditions of our people."

One 11-year-old girl wrote how she managed to throw grenades while her 15-year-old friend marveled at how she finally got a chance to dismantle and assemble a weapon, because her father, a career military officer, had never allowed her to touch them.

"With a little will and effort I learned that too," she wrote.

Zoran Vranesevic, the head of Patriotski Front, told RFE/RL his group primarily wants to fight the vices of the present day, drugs and alcohol.

He dismissed some stories as "exaggerations," adding that cooperation with Styag had in any case been terminated.

"First, we saw what they have there and there is nothing new for us. Second, it is too far away and it costs too much."

Andrei Shary, senior broadcaster with RFE/RL's Russian Service, said that Orthodox Christian and Russian nationalist organizations like Styag appeal to veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and the Balkans, where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of volunteers fought alongside Serbs against Muslims, Croats, and Albanians.

"I suspect that Moscow does not have a clue about the existence of such organizations. The level of nationalism in the province is very high. When there are no more wars, these people turn to kids and tell them how they were heroes 15-20 years ago," Shary said.

The Serbian authorities have not launched an investigation into the matter.

Child psychologist Vesna Brzev Curcic admitted that children in Serbia have been growing up with violence around them for two decades.

"Bearing in mind the violence that is already present here and this training of children on how to use weapons, there is a great possibility that these young men will end up as bullies in their own families," Brzev Curcic said.