Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Chapter 2: A Day in Žepa (1/6)

July 1995

Atop the hills overlooking the town of Žepa, Serb artillery units commanded a panoramic view of the cleansing operation below. Armored vehicles and a tan Land Rover slowly muscled their way up the precipitous dirt road that winds to the summit. From a hawk’s view the little convoy looked like a worm inching along the edges of a lush vegetable garden. If one ignored the smoke ascending ominously from red-tiled roofs, and if one could block out the sound of “March on the Drina” blasting from large speakers mounted on the bed of a pickup truck, the natural course of things would appear undisturbed. The branches of the birch trees and black poplars still swayed in the breeze; the waterwheels continued to gobble up and spit out sparkling water into little canals along stony paths; and stray livestock had resumed their divinely appointed task of chewing grass.

The heavens did not darken. Mustafa’s reflection on the juxtaposition of evil and beauty when he began the investigation in Žepa years later might have already entered the minds of those looking on from the hilltops that day, except that these men thought of themselves as victims finally avenging the injustice of history, certainly not perpetrators of evil—unnecessary evil at any rate.

Upon reaching the lookout post, a high-ranking officer on forearm crutches, a man in plain clothes, and military adjutants stepped out of their vehicles. The 50-something civilian official glanced at his Patek Philippe as an assistant handed him binoculars. Through the lenses he espied scenes in the village at variance with the countryside described above, such as a blackened, shell-scarred mosque surrounded by camouflage-clad ants scurrying about with automatic weapons. He swiveled his upper body slightly westward and spotted a mortar-ravaged bridge over which paramilitary units were tossing bodies into the Drina. He arched his head back in an easterly direction and made out a makeshift roadblock where soldiers were turning away international reporters who had come from Sarajevo smelling blood and a story.

Handing the binoculars to one of the guards, he nodded his head in approval before turning to the general without a leg to express his satisfaction. The civilian man had aphasia and spoke in a slurred voice, agonizingly slow for military men accustomed to communicating thoughts and decisions quickly. They had learned to listen patiently while he struggled through his words. Before he could finish, a crackle of gunfire reverberated in the valley below. “Get me the radio!” barked the general to an adjutant.

Hours earlier, somewhere in the town, and too insignificant and fleeting for a lookout post to observe with field glasses, a small red-and-white box hurdling in the air found its destination in the gloved hand of a man in a camouflage jumpsuit and black bandanna. His long torso turned back from the stone porch for the catch and now followed the rest of the body forward through the doorway.

“Kill the fuck already, Miko!” he exclaimed upon entering the house, sweat dripping from his brow. Drago was growing impatient with his lieutenant, if that’s what one could call him. Miko Lukić, Drago's friend since grammar school, was wielding an electrical cord menacingly in front of three Muslim men.  Bound, bruised and bloodied, the captives sat helplessly on the floor of the living room with their heads turned downward.

Drago pulled off his sunglasses and fingerless glove to draw out a Marlboro.  Only close up could one detect the faint trace of sandy blond bristles shading his shaven head.  Before the war his hair had flown over his bangs and across his shoulders.  Now he shaved it to project a military image.

“Miko, come now!” Drago did not bother with matters of rank and protocol during military and “military” operations unless he and his men were under direct enemy fire. In those critical moments they would instinctively kick into “Yes, sir!” and “Right away, sir!” Though insistent on discipline (and the Demons, relatively speaking, stood out in this regard from other Bosnian Serb and Serbian death squads), he called his men by their Christian names. In front of reporters they would refer to Drago respectfully as vojvoda, captain, but otherwise they had little use for formal commands.

Membership in the Demons, after all, had less to do with military background and experience than with neighborhood associations. Most of the men had grown up together in an ethnic Serbian suburb of Brčko; only after the war began did they reminisce about being “surrounded” by Muslims.

Drago turned to one of his men, an eighteen-year-old with a buzz cut and something to prove, who found himself keeping his weapon on the captives while Miko taunted them, his prey. “Miko likes to play,” Drago said under his breath with a grin.  Sensing the young man was nervous, he tossed a cigarette his way.

As natural selection would have it, Drago was a born leader. Unschooled in an academic sense, he despised university students and rightly, if arrogantly, knew he was their intellectual superior. He proved himself most adept at turning his juvenile pranks and petty criminal activity into a profitable empire of prostitution houses and gambling casinos, an enterprise helped in no small part by his father, a leading member of the Serbian Democratic Party in Bosnia with ties to the Russian mafia. Twenty-nine years old at the war’s outbreak, Drago had become something of a well-known figure in Europe’s netherworld, wanted by Interpol and the Austrian government for theft, robbery, and extortion. He had also made a name for himself as an assassin, but the rumors never turned into incontrovertible evidence. He covered his tracks well.  His street credibility in the murky world of organized crime spoke volumes for a wild-eyed, lanky youth tucked away in a small corner of Europe with little education and no ties to the military.

That is not to say that the Demons lacked combat skills. To the contrary, they received paramilitary training in martial arts and small arms. Drago, like any self-appointed militia commander, might operate outside of convention, but he would never scrimp on battle drills and tactical prowess. Membership in his clubhouse involved a bizarre combination of soccer drills and combat exercises.

The young men proudly displayed both of these skill sets in 1993 for a French film crew making a documentary about the war. In that film Drago, a cross pendant dangling from his neck, is sitting at a desk and with a wry smile and streetwise bravado discussing his men’s’ readiness to take on any mission the higher-ups should give them.

Now, in the living room of a bullet-scarred house in the middle of Žepa, he had no need for such diplomatic language. “It’s no use trying to knock some sense into this asshole, Miko! They’re all Muslim SS scumbags. You know what those fuckin’ Turks did to Zeljko’s grandfather in ’45, huh?” Drago, like many of his compatriots in the era of Milošević, referred to Bosnian Muslims as Turks.

“And what about your family too! Huh?” Drago had a way of punctuating almost everything he said with an interrogative grunt, an immediate way of co-opting assent to his viewpoint. “Don’t forget what happened in Brčko! All of them butchered in the church courtyard. Eyes put out. Ears cut off. Genitals lopped off. Don’t ever forget that! The priests, nailed to the fence, with cocks stuffed in their mouths.” He looked down at one of the men on his knees with hands tied behind his back and now bowing his head in acceptance of his fate. “Where’s your fucking Allah now, huh? You fuck!”

Another one of the hapless men, covered in blood, and perhaps figuring he was a dead man anyway, responded: “Go to hell!”  As Drago walked towards him, one of his henchmen, the eighteen-year-old tough, beat him to the punch and fisted the man squarely in the jaw. Drago got down on his haunches next to him and nodded with a bemused look on his face.

“So I’m going to hell, huh? Yeah? Hmm? So you can just come into our communities and fuck our women? You think I won’t hunt down the rest of your family…Ibrahim?” Drago glanced at the man’s Bosnian identity card lying on the floor to get his name.

"Huh? Listen to me. I’m not going to kill you now. Huh? Yeah? I’m going to cut your balls off with this knife and watch you eat them. What? You think you’re going to heaven where 72 fucking virgins will suck your fucking cock, huh?”

“Look, I don’t believe that shit,” responded Ibrahim. “Don't kid yourself with this bullshit about religious...” Drago slapped him in the face before he could finish.  He then started laughing so hard that the laughing ended in a barrage of nicotine-induced coughing.

“You're done!” exclaimed Drago.  Drago and Miko looked at each other; their intentions needed no words.  The Demons leader whacked one of the other captives hard on the back and neck with the butt of his gun as he walked toward the kitchen and poked his head in the door.

“Anything good in here?” he said as he entered.

“Jesters ate everything. Sons of bitches,” responded a soldier leaning up against a counter and adjusting his cartridge belt. The Drina Jesters, Drago's main competitor for the military command's ear, had beaten the Demons to the booty.

“No problem. We got the women, right?” Drago looked around.  Someone, he observed, had stripped the kitchen fittings. A carpenter by trade, Drago was thinking about the renovation required to make the home suitable for new Serbian occupants in the future. He observed bloody handprints on the counter and a big hole in the wall. “What happened there?” he asked, pointing to the hole.

“Miko got mad,” explained the soldier, not sure how Drago would take the news.

Drago took a long drag of his cigarette and blew out the smoke with an amused look on his face. “When does Miko not get mad.” He laughed and the soldier responded in kind.

Meanwhile, half a dozen of Drago’s henchmen stood near two Toyota Land Cruisers, two vans, and an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) waiting for their comrades to finish their business in the house. Three of them were smoking while listening to Luna, a Serbian pop group, and letting the pounding beat take their minds off the dangers they had faced earlier in the day. Two other men were sitting on a stone fence getting into a ridiculous debate about the best vocalist for Van Halen. As it turns out, the soldier advocating David Lee Roth over Sammy Hagar had cousins in New Jersey; he thought instinctively his view in things pertaining to America was more authoritative. They seemed oblivious to Drina Corps commandos torching a warehouse about two blocks away.

Smoke and cordite lingered long in the air from the day’s operation. A large brown dog, clearly agitated by the sound of gunfire earlier, was sniffing around for food on the periphery and rightly wary of Drago’s men. One of them, perhaps to relieve tension, threw a piece of metal pipe like a tomahawk at the hound, hitting it in the back leg. His comrades chuckled as it yelped and scampered away.  Encouraged by the ghoulish howls, the young man raised his fist in the air and yelled triumphantly: Muslim dog!

Personal items littered the roads in every direction: a broken generator, shoes, a wheelbarrow, glass shards, a refrigerator, various articles of clothing, tiles, bricks, and shattered walls from destroyed homes.  Most of the inhabitants had fled the area before their invaders and erstwhile neighbors arrived; some of them, like the hapless men in the living room and girls sequestered in the basement, were not so fortunate.