Sunday, March 27, 2011

Chapter 2: A Day in Žepa (2/6)

Back in the house, Drago went downstairs to check on the latter group.  Half a dozen young women were sitting on dirty styrofoam mattresses, devastated and frightened, staring into the abyss that their lives had now become.  The youngest was a pregnant fourteen-year-old girl, Salih, cursed with good looks; she was wiping dried blood from her legs with a rag.  The Demons had gathered up their captives in a house-to-house search and took the opportunity to rape the females only hours earlier.  Drago planned to use them for a prisoner exchange and kill the three men they were holding in the living room.

His presence in the basement startled the women.  They had never met or seen Drago before, but they instinctively knew he was the leader before he uttered a word or issued a command.  They all sat there in silence, as Aida, the oldest among them, had already warned them that crying or sniveling might set off their captors.

The guard quickly discarded his magazine and stood up. “Vojvoda!”

“Relax,” Drago responded, gesturing with his hand that everything was okay.  He turned toward the women and stood over them before pulling out another cigarette.

“I hope your families want you bitches.”  He scratched his chin.  “Did you sample these Muslim whores, Miloš? Huh?”

“Yes,” he lied.

“Good. That’s good.”  Drago lit up and took a puff without ever taking his eyes off the women.  As he spoke, Aida stood up, either out of defiance or fearshe didn't know.

“Sit down, bitch!”  She complied quickly, as Drago reached out his hand to grab ahold of her head and shove her to the floor.  The thought of his odious hand on her filled her with rage more than anything, so she temporarily closed her eyes to collect herself.

“You good here?”

“Yes," responded  Miloš.  “Are we rolling out now?”

“Soon.  Miko's got some business upstairs, and we're awaiting orders from...”  Drago became conscious that anything he said about the chain of command might be incriminating evidence.  “....from God.”

“I don't want any trouble from any of you.  Do you understand me?  I will personally slit your throat with Lazar,” he threatened, tapping the combat knife strapped to his thigh with his cigarette fingers.  He named the weapon after a Serbian saint who died in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389.  He had a pension for naming his prized possessions after Serbian saints, warriors, and soccer players.  The one exception was “Nadia,” his beloved Dragunov sniper rifle, which he named after his girlfriend and future wife.  “I sleep with both of them,” he loved to tell anyone who inquired.

“We'll be taking a little trip soon.  You get to see some great countryside.  Serbian land.  Yes!”  Drago spoke as a prophet, for Žepa and the eastern corridor of Bosnia would become part of the Republic of Srpska in a U.S.-brokered peace settlement after the war.

Miloš laughed and dared to participate in Drago's whimsical mood: "We'll be your escorts."

“Yes, yes.  Your escorts.  That's good, Miloš.  You just have to laugh sometimes, huh?” 

Years later, Aida would recall wanting to survive but having no desire to live. This response to her horrific experience made no sense to her at the time. Only when recurring nightmares forced her to confront the past would she try to reconcile these emotions. She didn’t want to give her tormentors—Drago above all—the satisfaction of snuffing out her life. She didn’t want to be a nameless statistic of an insane war, yet the will to continue living had died within her.

Aida had time to reflect on her hell and opted to die, either by her own hand or otherwise. She knew that her father would never take her back.  She would not be able to hide the truth from him.  He would probably assume the worse happened anyway.

She would not find out about the death of her brother and uncle until months later. Had she known what would happen to them in just a few hours at the soccer field, her resolve to take an action that would end her life would have been more firm. And what if she became pregnant?  No, she had no options and fewer prospects.

Full of anger and despair, she had considered jumping the young sentry, for until Drago entered the scene Miloš had not been particularly attentive to his weapon and more engrossed in a muscle magazine. But she didn’t know how to fire a Kalashnikov, or any weapon for that matter; so even if she could grab it from him, it wouldn’t have done much good. If he killed her, she would have accomplished her dark objective; but despite her depths of despair she was unwilling to risk the other women’s lives in such an attempt. In her mid twenties, she was the oldest among the women captives and felt a sense of responsibility.

“So you are our bargaining chips. I’m a gambling man, and rest assured we’ll get our money’s worth out of you.”  With these words, Drago threw his cigarette butt in their direction and turned back up the stairs.  One of his men had been calling for him.

“Those fuckers have already been here!” cried Goran Živojinović, a munitions expert, and one of the few Demons who had a leadership role but no connection to Drago's youth.  He was referring to Vasić’s Jaguars, yet another Serb militia that had already looted the neighborhood.  He had just returned with Krajiŝnik from a Bosnian Serb command center to barter fuel for a couple of shoulder-mounted rocket launchers.  Drago’s father had arranged the deal.  Živojinović promised his wife that he’d secure a dining room set, though of course he didn’t specific how.  (They also had another clandestine assignment, of which Drago was well aware.)

“That's not a problem, Goran,” assured Drago.  “I've got a score to settle with Vasić.  When we're done with this war, your wife will have a new car and a new house!  How's that?”

There was no honor among these thieves.  Only a nationalist ideology and the eyes of the military command from the hilltops kept them at bay. The two groups—Demons and Jaguars—almost came to blows earlier over the spoils of the local mosque. Drago took glee in handing the radio to Vasić so his rival could hear the word from on high: Vasić and his men were to move on to the bridge.  Drago, alone among the paramilitary leaders in the area, had the ear of the political leadership.

As they started to load up the vehicles, the Demons engraved warnings and hateful signs of their presence into the stucco wall of the living room for future occupants: Demons kill the whores of Allah, Doomsday, Long Live Serbia!  Krajiŝnik found a family copy of the Qur'an in a drawer, took it out, and proceeded to urinate on it.

They carved their knives into framed family photos on the wall. And just in case the Jaguars weren’t thorough, for good measure they ransacked the place from top to bottom, overturning furniture, emptying drawers onto the floor, and ripping open sofas and mattresses. They found nothing of value.

Before they fled, the occupants of the house had taken the precaution of burying their valuables in a wooden crate in their backyard.  They placed 900 Deutsch marks and jewelry into a plastic bag. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, no one from the family returned after the war to retrieve these items. It would have been difficult for them anyway, for Serbs now lived in the house. Years later, the new owners would have the backyard dug up to replace rusted irrigation pipes.  They were quite happy to find the crate, an answer to their prayers during an economic downturn.

With an eightth level black belt in Tae Kwon Do, Drago liked to pretend he was in a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie and used the captive men to display his kickboxing skill.  But he soon tired of this display and, mindful of the task that lie ahead, decided to kill them now and get a move on. “You’re gone, you balijas!” He threw a discarded table cloth over the head of the man who told him to go to hell and shot him execution style.

"Who's next?"  Drago looked at the eighteen-year-old who had been assigned to watch the male prisoners.  The young man walked over to one, threw  a bloodied table cloth over one of them and shot him in the head.

"I don't care about the blood," said Miko, who shot the third man without covering the head.

Krajiŝnik stepped into the lead vehicle, a former UN Land Rover barely disguised in blue with its new paint job, as Drago, Miko, and the men in the house starting dragging the half-dozen women from the house with blindfolds on and shoved them into the back of the van.

“We got some prime whores for a prison exchange in Tuzla," said Miko.

Drago grabbed one of the women by the hair and redirected her. She cried in pain. “No you don’t, cunt, you go in this vehicle. Hey, Zoran!” he yelled to one of his men. “I got one for you.” He turned to the woman,  “You do good for my Zoran, huh? And I’ll give you one of these cigarettes, okay?"

The soldiers ushered the six traumatized women into the van. Aided hesitated. “What’s wrong with you, bitch?” snarled Miko, as he pointed the muzzle of his gun upwards and stabbed the air with it in a threatening gesture.

She froze in front of the sliding door of the van.  She couldn’t face her family after having been gang-raped, and with the prospect of carrying a Serbian child within her. She would face death anyway, socially and maybe even physically.

“No, I will not,” slid the words from her mouth. One of the soldiers wearing two crisscrossing bullet belts across his chest like a Mexican outlaw knocked her to the ground. As she lie there, she saw one bright red geranium in the flower garden of her parents’ home, the only that hadn’t been trampled under the boots of these invaders. He pulled her up, but she remained defiant.

Krajiŝnik came over and didn’t bother to expend energy on any beating, but pressed his pistol into another girl’s temple. “You want this?” he asked in a high-pitched tone to bring out sarcasm.

“Get in the van, Aida!” cried the woman.

"Yes, get in!" echoed Krajiŝnik.

Engines roared and dust swirled as the five-vehicle convoy headed out amid smoldering homes and storefronts with broken windows. Žepa was a ghost town.  The Demons waved to Drina Corps soldiers on armored vehicles heading in the opposite direction along the main road. One of men warned them about possible snipers in the area and to keep a vigilant eye.  The Demons’ destination was a "soccer field," which was code talk for an execution site.   Krajiŝnik and Živojinović had assembled sixty men and boys just outside the village after they had completed their mission at the Serb command center.  Gunmen guarded them until Drago’s convoy would arrive.

"So, Zeljko," asked Drago, "are we going to have a good game up the road there or not?"

“Yes, we're on the offensive.  We’re assured a victory!” Krajiŝnik responded.


The rounding up of these hapless souls involved a large-scale sweep operation earlier in the morning. The token Ukrainian peacekeeping troops in the area could no longer continue the chirade. They had threatened the Serbs with a NATO air strike, but no such attack was forthcoming.  The Serb forces quickly closed in and took over their compound. The Ukrainians weren’t about to enforce UN mandates with little will from higher-ups; rather, they seemed content to sit back and hope that things didn’t spiral out of control.

After they confiscated the weapons from the blue-helmeted soldiers, the Bosnian Serb commander invited the Ukrainian commander to sit down and discuss their present dire situation over tea and pastries, a scenario as much surreal as Machiavellian. The shamed commander could do nothing else but play the game. They were the mice, and the Serbs were the cats.

Drago and his handful of men, however, didn’t engage in the façade of pleasantries. Their part in subduing the UN forces was to seize two UN armored personnel carriers (APCs) that the Serb intelligence discovered had been ordered moments earlier to leave their observation post and head toward the UN Headquarters in Sarajevo. It was too late for those in the compound now under virtual house arrest, but some of the international forces figured they could make a run for it.

Drago received a radio message that the two vehicles were stopped at a checkpoint. The Demons jumped on this. Once they got to the checkpoint they found the nervous Ukrainians and Drina Corps commandos manning the barricades pointing their weapons at each other. Drago knew that they had no orders to fire upon anyone. He got out of his SUV and walked into this Mexican stand-off.

“You speak English, yeah?” asked Drago.

The Ukrainian lieutenant sporting a UN powder blue baseball cap was visible from the chest up from the hatch, brandishing a pistol in one hand and radio in the other. The APC gunner manning the mounted .50 caliber to his left was exposed from the crotch up. A couple of other Ukrainians stood next to an old Soviet T-34 tank, a relic that might have seen action forty years ago but was in poor shape now.

“Yes. These men will not let us pass and I’m trying to tell them that we have orders to leave the area. Can you tell them that?” The Ukrainian lieutenant was exasperated and had probably concluded months ago, not long into his term of duty, that he and his men must have been sent to this hellhole as if to a gulag to be punished for their transgressions.