In retort to Wagner, 'Mozart' wants to save lives in Ukraine

Volunteers attending a training session with the Mozart Group, in Ukraine's Donetsk region on Sept 22, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

DONETSK REGION, Ukraine - A volunteer organisation run by ex-soldiers, Mozart says it wants to save lives in Ukraine by offering aid and military training - choosing its name as a "tongue in cheek" nod to the notorious Russian paramilitary group Wagner.

The two might both be named for famous composers, but those offering their efforts in Mozart say that is where the similarities end.

The group is staffed by volunteer army veterans giving humanitarian aid, medical evacuation and training Ukrainians in combat.

"By no means do we conduct military operations like the Wagner group does," says 52-year-old Steve, walkie-talkie in hand.

Steve - who served in the Marines for 23 years - is at the wheel of a Jeep filled with food supplies from the NGO World Central Kitchen.

The three vehicles in his convoy are all filled to the brim with food for a village in the Ukrainian-controlled part of the Donetsk region.

After arriving, 260 parcels are piled up on the stage of the theatre in the village centre, to be later handed out to residents.

"It doesn't seem like a lot. But we're a small organisation" he says.

Mozart can reach places "where bigger organisations won't go", he says, because it is more agile.

"Humanitarian aid helps us a lot," says Maksim, a man in his sixties holding a loaf of bread.

"I'm living off my small pension, it's hard to survive in these times (of war)."

The emptied cars can now also offer to take civilians to safer areas away from the frontline.

Steve and others in the group - which varies from 10-25 members - are able to "evacuate civilians, adults, children, their pets."

Their mission seems remote from the Russian Wagner group.

Little is known about the shadowy paramilitary group which is believed to be linked to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is himself an associate of President Vladimir Putin.

The presence of Wagner paramilitaries has been documented in Libya, Mali and Syria, among many other countries, as well as in Ukraine.

Naming the group Mozart was "a tongue in cheek" retort to the group, according to Andy Bain, a former US marine reserve officer.

Mozart - which was set up after the war started by an ex-US commander and is funded by donations - provides military training, but Mr Bain says what they teach is really "a lot of common sense."

"A lot of these soldiers have never fired a weapon before," says group chief operations officer Martin Wetterauer.

"Weapons are obviously very dangerous in the hands of people who don't know how to use them."

The Mozart Group is staffed by volunteer army veterans giving humanitarian aid, medical evacuation and training Ukrainians in combat. PHOTO: AFP

In a field in the Donetsk region, Mozart's foreign instructors take a group of around twenty Ukrainian soldiers through their paces.

"The enemy is there! Bang, bang, bang!" an instructor shouts from the other side of the field as the soldiers advance into the open.

The soldiers swiftly throw themselves on the ground and simulate firing back.

After the exercise, their performance is reviewed by instructors who try to correct mistakes.

"What's so complicated? In essence, what you have to do is just fire at the enemy!" one of the coaches shouts in English.

"Don't hold your weapon like this, it's not a guitar!" his interpreter tells a soldier.

Georgii, a 32-year-old soldier in training, says he feels that his skills have improved through the course.

"That kind of training is very useful because even with combat experience, we can always learn new stuff," he says.

The Mozart Group's name is "a tongue in cheek" retort to the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group. PHOTO: AFP

But a lot of the soldiers are beginners.

Former Marines officer Wetterauer explains that a lot of Mozart's training revolves around "battlefield survival ability" and "basics training".

This includes knowing how to wear a bulletproof vest correctly, protecting yourself from enemy artillery by digging shelters, or providing medical care.

"We have a very small impact strategically on the outcome of this war, we know that," Mr Wetterauer says.

"But for us, it's about saving lives." AFP

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