Some fought as guerrillas during the bloody Balkans wars of the 1990s, battling powerful tanks and artillery.
Others grew up under the influence of radical Islam that has gained ground in poverty-hit areas in the Balkan countries and regions populated by Muslims.
Today, both experienced fighters and their younger followers are leaving the Balkans to join Syrian rebels on the front line. Many return home in body bags with their families often unaware they had even joined the fight.
Migena Maliqaj, an Albanian, had not heard from her husband Halil since November, when he told her he was leaving their home in Prush, outside the capital Tirana, to try to find work in Turkey. In June, she received a text message from an unknown number saying that Halil had been killed in Syria. Maliqaj was reluctant to talk to AFP.
“Leave me alone, I do not know anything,” she said in a trembling voice, pushing her three children inside a two-storey house.
The first Ermal Xhelo's mother knew of her son's involvement in Syria was when the 35-year-old's remains were brought home to her in Albania's southern city of Vlora. He too had said he was going to work in Turkey.
The Xhelo family also refused to talk. “My son had nothing to do with extremists,” the mother told AFP, abruptly ending the phone call.
Illir Kulla, a security expert from Albania, estimates that “at least 300 Albanians from Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia have left for Syria to fight in the name of a 'sacred war’” over the past months. Their conviction comes from their Islamic faith, Kulla stressed.
“They are not mercenaries, but volunteers convinced that they are fighting for a good cause... prone to religious manipulation that the war in Syria is truly a sacred war,” Kulla said.
A classified intelligence report by Kosovan security services described “Islamic extremists” going to Syria in small groups “claiming they are helping out their brothers.”
They travel in “small groups of two or three, in order not to look suspicious,” said the report seen by AFP.
In May, street signs in Novi Pazar, the main town in Serbia's Muslim-majority southern region of Sandzak, were covered with obituaries for Eldar Kudakovic, a 27-year-old killed in Syria during a raid by rebels on a prison near the key city of Aleppo, reportedly with another man from the area.
“All of us are with them. And all of us are Mujahideen,” read a message posted on a Sandzak radical Islam web portal, praising the victims as “martyrs.”
نستخدم ملفات الكوكيز لنسهل عليك استخدام مواقعنا الإلكترونية ونكيف المحتوى والإعلانات وفقا لمتطلباتك واحتياجاتك الخاصة، لتوفير ميزات وسائل التواصل الاجتماعية ولتحليل حركة المرور لدينا...اعرف أكثر