When dreams come true: Kazakshtani boy in French Foreign Legion
With a dream in his pocket and loads of youthful determination a Karaganda Oblast, Kazakhstan native Oleg Serov set off for France for the first time at the age of 18 to get enrolled into the French Foreign Legion. In his interview to Kriminalnye Novosti, young Serov told about his training and studies at the Legion.
He has already made friends with two Belarusians and a Ukrainian and the life at the Legion has doubled Oleg’s enthusiasm. “I like French language a lot, and the country is beautiful. I have already been to the Alps and Nice,” he said. The most difficult part for the teen, who had never left his home, was lack of communication with his parents. Despite his homesickness, Oleg is not planning on coming back anytime soon. Though, he admits that he misses “home made food, beshparmak (Kazakh national dish) and halva”.
In five month, Oleg will be able to take part in a military campaign. “It will depend on the campaign. I do not know where it will be exactly, but most probably in Africa,” the young legionnaire said. He was surprised at how rapidly the training progressed. “We already learned how to blow land mines, shoot and parachute,” he shared.
When asked what kind of advise he would give to others, Oleg said: “Take risks if you are confident. But remember, there are no wimps in the Legion. We have had a number of defectors who ran away at night, because they could not handle it”.
Oleg added that French people were very respectful towards the legionnaires. “They smile and give a seat, ask how things are going. There was a situation once when an elderly French gentlemen wanted to give me a sit,” the Kazakhstani said for whom respect towards elderly is a part of his upbringing. “The citizens love their legionnaires, but when you take off your uniform they do not notice you,” Oleg added.
Oleg’s father Sergey Serov, 40 wholeheartedly supports his son's choice even through it surprised him a first.
“It all started with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Lionheart,” the father said with a smile. “I think that for a man to be in the military is the best choice, because I have worked in the military myself. We brought up Oleg to be a real man. Our children never wasted time watching TV or playing computer games, but instead they read good books, trained in sports and learned languages. In his second grade, he could do 140 push-ups and 11 chin-ups, played football and trained in wrestling. Our children have never been exposed to the violence, ads and the money cult that endlessly flow from TV screens nowadays, simply because we did not have a TV. Oleg had Bs at school, but always strived to be the best”.
The father said that his son has never been content with the classic army-mine-marriage-children daily routine. “I wholeheartedly supported his desire to change his life. We sent him to a sports boarding school to train in track and field. The boy adapted quickly and never complained, despite strict school rules. He made lots of friends and became a candidate master in sports. But he did not have athletic talents, basically, he could not become a superstar,” Sergey said.
After graduating from high school, Oleg tried to enter one of Kazakhstan’s military academies and passed a medical examination. But, as the Sergey admitted, the academy asked for a large sum as a bribe, that even if the family wanted they could not afford it.
In the Russian FSB, the boy was denied admission, because he did not have a Russian citizenship. “We have never consider him serving in the Kazakh army to tell the truth. Hearing almost every month about boys dying there does not make one want to sent his son there,” the father said.
Oleg, then, got enrolled into a university and finished his freshman year. But after that, he decided to drop out of the university and apply to the Foreign Legion. “His Mom was horrified, but I started surfing the Internet for information. I read lots of forums of real and “fake” legionnaires, and realized that we have to give it a go. What could we lose if we tried? We wrote an email to the Foreign Legion. In five days they replied in English and sent an application form. This gave us hope, he is needed there, I thought. I told my son, if you decide to go, then go, because you can always return and work here in the mines. But it is virtually impossible for an 18 y.o. boy to go to France from Kazakhstan, because no one would give him a visa. So we got him a Lithuanian Shengen visa and bought a Karaganda-Frankfurt-Marseille-Riga ticket. On January 6 he departed for France. And there it was, palms, sun and heat! The boy who had never been abroad was ecstatic,” Sergey said.
But when Oleg reached his destination, communication ceased. “We did not have any news from him for 2 weeks. His Mom was going out of her mind with worry. After 14 days, his new friend from Moldova called. He and Oleg had agreed that whoever is discarded first gets to call both parents. His friend was denied admission without any explanation,” Sergey remembered.
The father of the Kazakhstani young legionnaire added that no one really knew what criteria were considered for admission. There were, according to Sergey, a number of physical examinations. Knowledge of French was not compulsory. “They would quickly teach you French if you are admitted. There is a test on motivation, but the most important is to pass a so-called “Gestapo”, where, according to rumours, an applicant can even be beaten. At the entrance to the Legion, they took away their documents, made them break their debit cards, driving license and threw away diplomas (…). It made it clear; there was no going back. If one did not make it, then he was returned his passport only and thrown out of the gates, free to do whatever one pleased form that moment on,” the father said.
Sergey said that when his son was at the “Gestapo” exam, he was asked to break his Visa card. The boy broke it into two without giving it a second thought. “The test was in Russian though a translator. He was asked very strange question that were repeated but put differently each time. “What do you parents do for living? What kind of car do they have? Do you have a dog at home?” and then again “Where do you parents work?” (…) It is very important to tell the truth. They could find out if one was lying. And that meant the end of it all. They even tried to offend his feelings by changing his mother’s maiden name as if it sounded indecent in French. It was a pure provocation. But Oleg pretended he could not hear them. They could hit you or start shouting suddenly. They have professional psychologists who know how to deal with each applicant to test him,” Oleg’s father said in the interview.
After the test the applicants were told if they were admitted into the Legion or not. Oleg made it through.
But that was not the end of the harsh tests. The most difficult one, according to Oleg, was something called “a farm”. “It is a sort of two-week bootcamp. It is very hard. Newcomers break, but this time physically. They do not get to sleep, at least no more than 3 or 4 hours, and are treated very badly, made to run 15 km every morning, get no proper food and no sweets. Oleg was in a hospital during the first week because his toe abscessed. When he brought a package of Bounty bars to the camp from the city, the boys were so happy that they were saying that this would get them through the camp,” the father said.
Learning French was not easy. Oleg for the first time saw someone literally fall asleep while studying the language. But then the sleepy student would be ducked into ice-cold water or even beaten. Sergey said that there was no abuse of newcomers by older soldiers that was very widespread in post-Soviet armies. “Oleg speaks French better than other foreign newcomers. They put two French speaking and two non-French speaking newcomers together in a dorm. They also sing a lot in French,” Sergey said.
But despite the horrendous conditions and shattering training, Oleg made it through, his father said proudly.
At the moment, Oleg is serving in a regiment in Saint-Christol. He is paid € 1200 per month ($1500) and fully supported by the Legion. “There are no taxes and they have a medical insurance. Legionnaires also have a great number of benefits. For example Oleg and his friend went to Nice. France is a very expensive country. A ticket there costs €500 ($650) per person, but they paid only €35 ($45) because of the concession fare. In the Legion they are fed like in a restaurant: they get oysters, any kind of meat, and all types of salads,” Sergey said.
The legionnaires have holidays same as civil French people. That for Oleg means that he can travel across France.
“The regiment is some sort of a boot camp in itself. Soldiers are picked out for specialization. There are 11 regiments with different specialization: jungle, forest, water, underwater, desert and others. They have engineering regiment, rescue and dog handlers. A soldier is asked what he is interested in, because his choice matters. Oleg dreamed of going to juggle in French Guiana, where the Legion protects a space launching complex. But we were afraid that his toe will go worse because of the humidity. He would definitely serve at Guiana someday, it is very exciting to see real tropics! But meanwhile, Oleg chose to specialize in mountains,” the proud father said. The training took place in Pyrenees, where newcomers were trained in skiing with equipment. They had to pass examinations that ranged from 40 km to 80 km and even 100 km. Oleg, as his father recalled, was so tired that he was nearly sleeping while skiing or walking. “But despite all of this he even gained some weight,” the father lovingly said.
The legionnaires are not prohibited from smoking or drinking. But drinking has to be moderate, as the regiment has very strict rules concerning drunken fights. Weekly drugs test are mandatory too.
The Legionnaire also has different ethnic groups. “The biggest group, besides Madagascarian, is Russian. There, all the people from the CIS countries are considered Russian. There are many Slavs, especially in the paratroopers regiment, mostly Belarusians and Ukrainians. There are very few Kazakhstanis. There was one guy from Astana. There are many Portuguese, Romanians and Mongols. Oleg is the youngest among 1000 legionnaires in the regiment. Older legionnaires adopted a patronizing attitude towards him, he is like the son of the regiment there. Many are surprised that he is there being so young. Getting into the Legion is almost impossible at that age. The average age of newcomers is 25-27,” the father said.
Oleg will turn 23 when he serves his full 5 year contract.
“We dream that he will get into The École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr, where only French citizens under 25 are accepted with native French. But he has a chance,” the father explained. After three years of service, a legionnaire can apply for French citizenship.
The French Foreign Legion is a military service wing of the French Army established in 1831. It is unique in a sense that it was created for foreign nationals willing to serve in the French Armed Forces. The Legion is commanded by French officers. French nationals constitute up 24% of the Legion. At the moment, there are around 7500 legionnaires from 136 countries servinging in 11 regiments.
By Gyuzel Kamalova