Thursday, March 31, 2011

Chapter 2: A Day in Žepa (3/6)

Having acquired a working knowledge of English while "networking" throughout the criminal netherworld of Europe, Drago took charge of the situation.  He ignored the officer's question.  “You will be detained here shortly until my command approves of your departure.”

“That’s unacceptable.  We have orders to move out of the area.  You must let us pass.”

“It is dangerous along this road and you might be attacked by mujahideen,” Drago improvised.  The lieutenant knew he was lying, even without Drago's men laughing at their leader's words.  Yet the Ukrainian also realized that Bosnian Muslim forces, if there were any in the area, could very well kill them to make it appear as though the Serbs were responsible and thereby force NATO to intervene with an air strike. Nonetheless, he received the command from his superiors to move on down the road.  Orders were orders, and, for that matter, the lieutenant wanted to get his men the hell out of there.  It had been bad enough for their morale to stand by helplessly while Serb forces rounded up villagers with impunity.

“Do you really want us to stay here?”  The lieutenant was trying a new tack.  It was a good question.  Why should Drago and his men want UN troops to stick around only to witness whatever crimes they intended to carry out in the area?  But Drago had his roving eye on their vehicles and equipment.

“You must exit the vehicles and remain here until I hear from my superiors that the roads are safe.”

“One moment.  I must check with my commander.”  The lieutenant disappeared into the white APC.  Drago’s men could hear radio communications in Ukrainian coming from inside the vehicle.

The absurdity probably didn’t take long to dawn on the lieutenant: he’s requesting orders from his CO, who, he had just found out, is currently having a “tea party” with Serbian captors.  Bosnian Serb forces had already overran the Ukrainian command compound.  Like their Dutch counterparts at the UN safe area in Srebrenica, these blue helmets, outmanned and outgunned, found themselves in a precarious situation.  Over coffee and pastries, a Serb colonel was telling the Ukrainian officers they had no issues with them.  The Muslims, on the other hand, had raped their  women and stolen their  land.  Muslim SS, the colonel continued, tortured his father to death during World War II.  "These people need to be subdued."

Meanwhile at the checkpoint, the lieutenant in the baseball cap reemerged.  “I must speak to your commanding officer.”  Drago threw up his hands in a big V, as if to say I’m the guy you’re going to deal with!

He added words to his gesture for clarity's sake.  “I'm in charge here.  These are my men.  Now, do as we say and we’ll let you live.”  Drago cast a menacing eye toward one of the Ukrainian soldiers nervously gripping his rifle.  As if to echo his buddy's lead, Krajiŝnik made a UN soldier flinch by waving his hands violently in his face.

“Are you threatening us?”  The lieutenant knew he was dealing with a paramilitary group and not army regulars.

“No, you misunderstand," Drago replied, thoroughly enjoying the Ukrainian's discomfort.  “We’re offering you protection from the Muslims.  You can reject the offer and go your merry way and take your chances.”  The UN officer knew what "going your merry way" meant for his men.

“And don’t kid yourself into thinking NATO will send fighter jets this way,” Drago scoffed. He walked over to one of his men, Milan, who had a rocket launcher slung around his back and tapped it with his fingers.  “Besides, we’re ready for those assholes.”

Krajiŝnik, the only Demon besides Drago who spoke some English, taunted the men: “Why don’t you come join us for a Muslim hunt?”

“Who’s your commander anyway?” asked Drago.

“Major Semynozhenko.”

“You’re fucking me!  Yevhen?”

The lieutenant looked confused.

“Give me the radio.” Drago jumped up on the APC and grabbed the radio.  His sudden movement alarmed the UN soldiers, but the lieutenant nodded that it was okay.  “Yevhen!  What’s up?  You crazy bastard!”  Drago spoke loudly so that his men could hear him.  “You like those girls I got you?  Yeah?  More cigarettes?  You got it.  We do business, eh? Listen, we can't let your men down this road.  Yeah, I don't like this situation either.  I'm just following orders, huh?”

Drago knew that the Drina Corps planned to overrun the Ukrainians' compound, but until he spoke with Major Semynozhenko he wasn't aware that it was already a fait accompli.  The Serb colonel took the radio from the Ukrainian commander.

"With whom am I speaking?" he asked.

"Dragoljub Slovac, leader of the Demon Serb Volunteer Guard."

"Ah yes, Drago's Demons."  The colonel, a Serb from Belgrade, didn't like Drago, a Bosnian Serb.  (It wouldn't matter that he grew up in a border city, Brčko, and that his mother's side of the family came from Novi Sad, one of the great cities of Serbia.)  And he had little love for maverick paramilitary groups; his troops would bombard a town into submission only to have these ragtag amateur soldiers run in and grab up all the loot.  He realized, though, that the regular forces relied on their assistance.  Operation Krivaja, which involved the ethnic cleansing of Žepa and Srebrenica, UN Safety Areas, depended on unsavory militia groups like the Demons.  Out of respect for Drago's father, the colonel remained professional.

"Good work in stopping their movement.  You must not let them pass into the areas...."

"We have the situation under control, colonel."  Drago, having recognized the voice and recalling an unpleasant incident between one of his men and the colonel's aid-de-camp at an artillery post above Sarajevo, didn't extend the courtesy of professionalism.  (The man took offense when a gaggle of soldiers, the aid-de-camp above all, likened his cigarette to a penis.)

"You take care of your prisoners," responded Drago curtly, "and we'll take care of ours.  Over."

In the custody of Serb forces, Major Semynozhenko had no choice but to order the lieutenant and his men to comply with Drago and surrender the vehicles.  His beleaguered company had received no support from civilian and military higher-ups in the UN when the Serbs overran their base, so why should they intervene now?

The soldiers got out of the APCs with their weapons neither drawn nor over their head but merely slung on their backs.  The Demons led the peacekeepersfourteen in numberdown a narrow staircase to the cellar of a building near the checkpoint.

Even as they led the men away, Drago's men swarmed around the two UN APCs like ants on a pill bug.  Losing their vehicles was a blow to the Ukrainian contingent.  It should have come as no surprise perhaps, for both Serbs and Muslims had been stealing their equipment for months.

“Hey, Drago!  Look!” Lukić pointed to a cache of weapons and uniforms inside the lead vehicle.  Drago's men also seized a radio and flak jackets.  They would come in handy, thought Drago.  His instincts were right, for the Demons used the UN equipment to round up Muslims in the area.

In one of the most celebrated ruses of the war, talked about in every Serbian café for years to come, Drago had his men disguise themselves as UN soldiers and drive the APCs into an area where they suspected the Muslims were hiding.  They parked the vehicles in a clearing far from Serb forces.  Sure enough, a dozen bedraggled individuals emerged about an hour later, hoping the Ukrainian soldiers would help them, even though the UN peacekeepers hadn't offered them any meaningful assistance before. They should have known better than to approach vehicles, albeit UN vehicles, sitting eerily in the forest. Moreover, the heavy metal blaring from stereo speakers and the disheveled appearance of some of the “Ukrainians” should have been a tell-tale sign that something was awry.

The Muslim men approached gingerly.  Drago knew they were probably “scouts.”  Having identified their location, he figured correctly that the others were hiding behind a dilapidated wood fence some 300 meters out.  By the time the “scouts” got close enough to the white APCs to recognize the ruse, the Demons, aided by Bosnian Serb regulars, had maneuvered in place to flush out the rest from behind.

Over forty men and boys fell victim to Drago's Demons.  The disappointment on their faces was palpable, especially considering what they had already been through.  Most of them had made a break from captivity the day before, and no doubt not a few among them considered their fortune a blessing from God.  One of the UN buses requisitioned by Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić for transporting male captives to wooded execution sites swerved off the rutted road when the driver tried to avoid an abandoned mule and cart.  The bus was bound for the Ljubovija bridge on the Drina.  The quick turn knocked the driver and a couple armed Serb guards who were standing up in the bus into the windows before it overturned.  With their captors dead or unconscious, those who survived the crash, including Aida’s brother and uncle, whose remains Mustafa and his team would unearth in a forensic exhumation years later, crawled out of the smoldering wreckage and ran deep into the woods.  Their escape was all for nought, however, as they had succumbed to the Demons' lure.

Drago was in his element.  Although he normally wore a serious face in the field, he, like Krajiŝnik and Lukić, could not hold back the glee with which he reviewed his captives.  The ruse demoralized Drago's enemies and at the same time demonstrated his superior intellect.  As his men were patting them down for hidden weapons, Drago jumped onto a stack of large wooden pallets.

"Listen up!  As it turns out, we are not the United Nations."  Demons within ear shy laughed heartily at the statement of the obvious.  "Don't worry," he continued, spurred on by his men's amusement.  "Everything is okay.  You're in a state of shock, for you have been duped by your cunning enemy.  We are now your overlords.  Do as we say, and no harm will come to you.  We are your God."

Drago instructed Krajiŝnik to take the captives to a field they had earmarked earlier for a holding area.  He then headed back to the town to assist his men in door-to-door searches and secure "souvenirs" before other rapacious militas, especially Drago's main competitor, the Jesters, got in on the act.

At first they led them off under the guise of a work detail, but the Muslims knew their fate. Their captors cursed and derided them.  Krajiŝnik felt slighted by one man's refusal to look him in the eye and proceeded to beat him to death with a discarded blue UN helmet.

“Are you scared?” Lukić asked one of the other prisoners, an old man, who had been standing near by with his hands bound behind him.

“Of course,” he responded.

The five-vehicle convoy had been moving at a snail's pace, wending its way past a virtual ghost town, on the southern edge of Žepa, when Drago decided to make a stop at a Serb-owned tavern.  He did not need intoxication for what he was about to do at the “soccer field,” but drinking with his friends was a way of ignoring the war and calming his nerves.

“We’ll take some plum brandy,” said Krajiŝnik to the bartender, as he, Drago, and Lukić entered the place.  They took up seats next the window overlooking the road and vehicles outside.  The rest of the men and their female prisoners waited outside.  As the man reached for a bottle under the counter, he looked at them with a pained expression, as if he knew what they had been doing or what they were about to do.

"What are you looking at, old man?"


"War isn't for the faint of heart," Drago said, as if in response to the old man's look of disapproval.

The bartender would frustrate the prosecution during the trial of Drago, Krajiŝnik, and Lukić a decade later when as Witness Z2 he suddenly denied having overheard a damning conversation about a coldblooded execution.  Dusan Vučinić, the old man's name, had told investigators  the three men talked about murdering dozens of Muslims in a soccer field.  But Vučinić did not deliver up the incriminating eyewitness testimony when questioned before the judges.  Those in the courtroom, including Mustafa, wondered whether he feared repercussions for his testimony in the last minute or whether he merely wanted fifteen minutes of fame before an international tribunal with press coverage and never intended to help the prosecution.  They had to prove intent to commit genocide from other eyewitnesses.

“Do you have a fan in here?” asked Lukić impatiently.  “That’s the only thing that makes war shitty: sweat and mosquitoes.”

“Don’t you worry, Miko,” said Krajiŝnik.  “When this thing’s over, we’ll be sitting pretty.”  The war provided an opportunity to expand their horizons, both financially and maybe even in the political arena.  If they could wield power over the helpless, indulge their bloodlust, and give vent to their sex drive, all the better.

“You see this?” asked Drago as he rolled up his sleeve to expose a bite mark on his forearm.  “One of those sluts from the other day did this. I had her gripped like this, right?” He simulated the squeezing of breasts in the air with his hands, proudly displaying his muscular forearms at the same time.  The other two laughed into their glasses of brandy. “And she bit me. You whore, I say, and then I twisted her neck.  It’s my only war trophy, I guess.”

One of Drago’s men walked into the café with the radio.  “Osman’s on the radio!”

“What the fuck?  Give it here,” Drago demanded.

Rambo Osman, as he became known, was Drago’s Muslim counterpart—an underworld thug with an ego as big as his muscles, presumably fighting for the Bosniak army with the hope of carving out a personal empire for himself.  His real name was Ahmet Hadžić and before the war he served as a bodyguard for various Balkan political officials.  Though Muslim in cultural identification, Rambo lacked Drago’s religious commitment; he was in fact an atheist mujahid, a walking contradiction in any other place than Yugoslavia.  Rambo looked more the wrestler, whereas Drago, with his 6-foot-four frame, had the body of a basketball player.  Otherwise the two young men were similar: vainglorious, charismatic, criminal.  Through smarts and ruthlessness, a muscular build and training in martial arts, they both had become celebrity-heroes from humble origins fighting on opposites sides of a nasty war.

The head-shaven Rambo, a hustler by occupation and bodybuilder by preoccupation, had taken upon himself the organization of defenses in towns and villages throughout the Drina valley. That was over a year ago, however, before the Serbs infiltrated the area.  The “Rambo” reference was not of his own doing, but he readily embraced the image, and was rarely seen once the war started three years earlier without his makeshift khaki uniform shorn of sleeves to reveal his 17-inch arms and a combat knife the size of Kosovo.

“So you are the pussy known as Rambo?  You were the big man who was going to defend this area, huh?  Why don’t you meet us at the church, get baptized, get a few whippings, and maybe we’ll let you live.” Before his “Green Warriors” fled the area, Osman, in a vainglorious gesture, promised he would return as protector of the people of Žepa and its environs.

The two started to banter back and forth like drunk fellows in a pub.  “We’ll crush your heads, you uncircumcised scumbags,” came Rambo's response.

“What do you have, huh?  Toothpicks and cowbells?”

“Do we have to kick your ass again?  You’d better start taking Turkish lessons now. But don’t worry, all you have to learn is  As you wish, Efendi.”

Drago turned to his chums. “Can you believe this cocksucker?  Don’t you worry!  We’re doing you a favor: someone’s gotta satisfy your women.  The poor whores never had it so good.”

“What formidable enemies I have!  Attacking women!  Heaven forbid they should actually fight like real soldiers.”

“Look who’s talking, Mr. Run-Like-a-Frightened-Dog.”

Many had wanted a battle royale between the two opposing titans of the underworld, but it would never come to pass. This bantering was the extent of any engagement between the two men. After the war Drago put out a contract on Rambo’s life, but his men could never get to him.  Finally, in 2008, not long before the apprehension of Drago in Zvornik, Rambo’s own goons did him in when he reneged on an agreement to pay them 50% of the profits in an arms deal. The president of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina had falsely accused Drago of the murder, a charge which he eagerly embraced.

Lukić motioned for the radio to add his two cents to the trash talk, but Drago waved him off.  “You think these so-called UN safe areas are going to protect you?”

“Hey, asshole, I didn’t ask them to fight my battle.  They’re killing more on our side than yours anyway.  I had to take out a couple of blue helmets the other day.”

“Is that supposed to impress...”

At that point the window shattered and a bullet whizzed past them.  The men instantly hit the floor and drew their weapons.

“Fuck! A sniper,” cried Lukić.

“That asshole!”  Drago assumed Rambo had been diverting their attention all along so he could get into position.  He turned his head toward the bartender.  “Who is that?”  Vučinić, crouching behind the bar, appeared momentarily just to shrug his shoulders.  Drago motioned with his head for Krajiŝnik to find a back door. Drago’s lieutenant without hesitation crawled to the bar; the bartender directed him to the backdoor.

A second shot had nicked the ear of one of Drago’s men standing behind the vehicles.  The shot allowed them to locate the location of the sniper. “It came from that house across the street!” someone yelled out.

“You see anything?” hollered Drago.


Suddenly another gun blast rang out from the house.  “I think there’s only one of them.”  Drago barked orders from the window.  “Lay down suppressive fire on my command!”  Other Bosnian Serb militas would have already fired into the house indiscriminately, but Drago had trained his men well.

Meanwhile, Krajiŝnik, taking initiative, ran behind some buildings about 50 meters and crossed the dirt street where it dipped down and was out of the visual range of the sniper.  He then ran up back on the opposite side of the road, hunched down and vigilant in case any other Bosniaks were still in the area.  He snuck around the back of the house and entered through the backdoor with weapon drawn.

Creeping through the house like a cat, he finally spotted the source of the gunfire: a twelve-year-old kid with a hunting rifle. The boy was looking out the window at the convoy of SUVs parked in the road.  His concentration on the targets before him allowed Krajiŝnik to sneak up from behind.  He knocked the boy across the room just as the latter started to turn upon hearing the creak in the floorboard.  The rifle went flying across the room, as Drago’s lieutenant easily subdued the boy and pinned him to the floor with his knees.

“Cease fire! Cease fire!” he called out the window.

Krajiŝnik ducked while holding the kid in a headlock, as a volley of shots hit the back wall of the bedroom. “Don’t shoot, assholes! I got’em!” The men started barking orders to each other about standing down. “It’s a fuckin’ kid!”

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lessons from the Killing Fields

Name me the country that doesn’t have skeletons in its closet! Sadly, the United States has a dark legacy of slavery and ethnic cleansing.  We all know the story of Germany some seventy years ago.  Cambodia, tucked away in Southeast Asia far from international eyes, likewise has a closet full of skeletons—more than its fair share in fact. You'll find them under garden plots, pineapple plantations, rice paddy fields, and inside a high school that was once an Examination Center but has now become a museum of evil. I'm of course referring to real skulls and bones, victims that still give silent testimony to one of the most evil regimes of the 20th century.

In the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge, a radical communist regime led by a small group of ideologues, turned Cambodia into a hell on earth.  Over 1.5 million people lost their lives from murder, torture, starvation, disease, and fatigue—in the name of a bold new society of happy agriculturists unfettered by capitalism and the West’s pernicious influence.

Be wary of those in power who seek to destroy the past and refashion society completely anew if conditions are “right.”  They will ultimately have anyone who benefited from the ancien régime executed, come up with new slogans and banners promoting their agenda, create a one-party system, enforce censorship of the press, erect reeducation centers to inculcate the utopian future, and socially engineer the youth to carry on the dream for future generations. Pol Pot and his cronies acted like kids in a candy store, taking advantage of their power and anonymity to implement ambitious and impractical ideas without regard to tradition and culture. Edmund Burke would have been horrified. On the French revolutionaries (heroes to the Khmer Rouge leadership we might add), he writes: “Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.” No doubt one could draw countless lessons about the dark side of humanity and international politics from the killing fields of Cambodia.

The Cambodian genocide reminds us to take the words of diplomats and journalists with a grain of salt. Reporters with a leftist bent initially praised the Khmer Rouge as peasant revolutionaries finally bucking the evil legacy of Western colonialism. They would of course eat their words later, when the gruesome facts emerged. The way the United States dealt with the aftermath of the genocide teaches us a time-honored truism about American diplomacy: the enemy of our enemy is our friend. The Vietnamese, traditional foe of Cambodia, invaded Cambodia and essentially stopped the genocide. However, the communist regime of Vietnam was our enemy, and we were still sore over a bitter and unsuccessful eight-year war with them. So we recognized the murderous Khmer Rouge as representatives of Cambodia at the United Nations assembly because they, like us, hated the Vietnamese.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Independent Thinker

If you think you’re independently minded, you’d be wrong.  Should you fancy yourself a free thinker, you’d be mistaken.  If you pride yourself on assessing the validity of two opposing views and presenting each one fairly, you are delusional.  Were you to claim dispassionate objectivity on a given issue, you’re even worse than I thought.  I’m sure you’re a nice person, someone who wants to do his or her part in ascertaining truth and fighting against social injustice.  You might be the rare type of person who owns up to your partisan bias.  I don’t know.  But if you like to present yourself as a sagacious person who knows all sides of an issue and whose final judgment on a certain matter is presumably a sound position, you’ll be unhappy to know that I see through you.  I have a keen nose for bias.

I still don’t know which kind of person I like less: the openly partisan individual who castigates the other side and tenaciously holds the party line or the self-professed independent thinker who likes to build mystique around his or her pronunciation as if it’s the gospel truth from the Oracle at Delphi when he (and it's mostly he) utters it.  I, Der Viator, your humble correspondent, am of course exempt from such foibles and peccadilloes that plague our species.  Yes, I’m probably the only independent thinker around.  So stay tuned to this blog, because you’ll be blown away by my analytical prowess and relentless pursuit of the truth.  Fortunately you have someone like me to provide you with objective viewpoints and non-partisan insights.  You're welcome in advance.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Going off the Grid

I'm going off the grid.  Soon.  I'm gonna unplug and disengage.  Don't bother looking for me.  I know you won't.  Besides, where I go, you cannot follow.  I'm going off the grid, I tell you.  I don't have any coordinates for you to plot on a map.  But I'll return, not like MacArthur in victory or Jesus in glory.  I'm gonna crawl inside the hollow of a huge tree in a mountain hideaway.  I will weep and laugh so hard that my voice will reverberate inside the tree until the breeze carries it aloft.  Eventually I will wait there in silence.  I won’t come back with answers.  I won’t come back with new insights.  I’m going off the grid.

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.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Vertraue Niemandem

Back in the fall of 1996 I presented an academic paper at an international symposium on the Reformation.  The conference took place in Augsburg, Germany, and I already knew that one of the participants, a professor at the local university, was going to be brutal. Who is this American graduate student to tell us of our history? I was a bit nervous, as my German wasn’t up to snuff.  I was staying at the apartment of a friend, Helmut, who told me to see a buddy of his.  “Wolfgang can help you with your problems,” he assured me.  “Yeah, is he a therapist or what?”  “You could say that.  He’s a healer.”  I had one free day before the conference started, so I figured I’d see what he could do for me.   It turns out that Wolfgang was a witch, that is to say, a neo-Pagan practitioner of ritual magick with the gift of healing.  His preferred method was a combination of aromatherapy and gem healing.  He had me lay down on a couch and placed amber, topaz and jasper on my head for about a half hour.  He was talking about the Mother Goddess the whole time, but I couldn’t really understand him because he spoke in a thick Swabian accent.  “What brings you to Germany?” he finally asked.  I didn’t want to tell him that I’m studying the Reformation, because most pagans take a dim view of anything pertaining to Christianity.  After the session was over, he looked at me squarely in the eyes and said, "Vertraue niemandem (trust nobody)!"

Friday, March 25, 2011

Cats and Me

Because of my feline nature, I have a way with cats.  We have three male cats in this household, one of them, Marty, having clearly set his heart on my youngest daughter Monika as his companion.  But I've enjoyed countless hours with the other two, discussing history and literature, whatever strikes our fancy.  Granted, I'm doing most of the talking, and usually I let a piece of string or yarn dangle from the book I'm citing just to retain their interest.  Moreover, I often smear a little yogurt—Peter's favorite treat—onto my laptop while I'm giving them a PowerPoint presentation on, say, the Ottoman Empire.  Enter this convivial and erudite setting a black lab pup named Balt, a bête noire from hell, who has shat over, chewed, and urinated on just about every square inch of our cramped home.  I don't think this canine Philistine and tail-wagging juggernaut appreciates the finer things in life, as do my feline friends.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Twist of Fate

In her wildest imagination Nileema Tabuk never thought she’d operate, let alone own, a franchised hotel in the United States.  “Don't give up on your dreams,” she told her nephew, as she sipped a blueberry cosmo, heavy on the vodka, with gusto.  It wasn’t exactly a childhood dream to operate a Days Inn in Reis Lake, Nebraska, but having been born and raised in India and betrothed to an abusive Serbian man almost twice her age when her family moved to Abu Dhabi to find employment, she felt she had not only entered paradise but had done quite well for herself.  She admits that her second husband, Anoop, a naturalized U.S. citizen, helped her tremendously in the early years.  Nowadays Nileema, who became a citizen a few years ago, identifies herself completely with America.  She's active in the community, an avid viewer of American television programs, and points with pride to the Huskers stickers all over her Jetta.  When given the opportunity, she'll talk your ear off about the U.S. Constitution or her son's studies at the University of Nebraska.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Turning Point in German-Jewish Relations?

Medieval Europe was rarely kind to its Jewish inhabitants whenever war, plague, or economic downturn loomed. True, some crises or epochs generated more violence and hate than others. One thinks of the massive pogroms against Ashkenazi communities along the Rhine during the Crusades and the Black Death.

For their part, Nazi jurists and propagandists knew their history. They appropriated it, learned from it, and of course distorted it. As far as the last of these goes, I think of the Nazi movie “Jud Süss” (1940), which is a rabidly anti-Semitic retelling of an unfortunate episode in early modern Germany. In 1738 the duchy of Württemberg executed its “court Jew” Joseph Süß Oppenheimer on a host of charges. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which restricted Jews in business and relations with Aryans, had precedents in church decrees of medieval Christendom. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, for instance, issued a canon that required Jews to distinguish themselves from Christians by their dress and thereby prevent miscegenation.  For the moment, let's pretend we don't know what happens in the early 20th century.

As Europe inched ever closer to the Enlightenment, mass attacks on Jews in Western and Central Europe gradually diminished. I’d like to focus on one would-be massacre of the seventeenth century. In 1614 an artisan named Vinzenz Fettmilch led a mob of shopkeepers to attack and loot the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt am Main, the largest Jewish community in Germany at the time. The artisan guilds of the city had complained about high interest rates from Jewish bankers, but the burgomaster and wealthy elite dismissed their complaint as unjustified. Fortunately, only a few people died in the melee. More significantly, the outcome of the anti-Semitic riot was not business as usual. Instead of rounding up the hapless Jews and burning them, rather than spreading the pogrom to other Jewish communities in the region, the burgomaster sent in armed troops and escorted the Jews safely out of the city. Then, the emperor had Fettmilch and the other rabble-rousers arrested and executed. The city received the returning Jews with fanfare and an imperial safeguard. Moreover, the “media coverage” of the riot, if you will, did not include the usual rants against Jews. Nachum Gidal, in his book Jews in Germany, also points out that visual representations of the riot, such as the one above, did not portray Jews in typical fashion as ugly and grotesque. Was this a turning point? Well, for a time. Alas! We know what would happen three centuries later.

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.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Jim the Psychopath

I’ve known Jim for years, or at least I thought I did. As I look back now, though, I realize that we had never been close friends; I’ve never visited his home and we rarely did anything that wasn’t ultimately work-related. I considered the social outings at the Riverton Club, even the ad hoc brainstorm sessions at the Starbucks across the square from the office, a part of the job. It’s in these settings that Jim’s personality drew me in; I’d go drinking with him anytime. Still, ten months after his arrest for fraud and embezzlement, I'm seeing a therapist to deal with the pain he’s caused a lot of people. I’m getting ahead of the story.

We started out as co-workers, the kind of wide-eyed and ambitious MBAs that you’d see in the movie Wall Street for example. When the board appointed him regional CEO within a year, I of course didn’t think anything of it. In fact, I thought that, despite his age (he’s one year younger than I), he deserved this position.  It was not a mystery even back then as to how he rose to the top.  Jim was quite the charmer, no doubt about it.  I remember his first day with the firm.  Marcia, our HR guru, was singing his praises, especially after he complimented the way she facilitated the board meeting and made  a seemingly earnest remark about her "pleasant demeanor."  Who knew that a guy from rural North Dakota with just an associate's degree could effortlessly work the system and impress everyone around him, like a supermodel walking down a runway.  Nobody could know at the time that Jim falsified almost his entire resume.  He had neither a graduate degree from Brown nor a few years of experience as an investment advisor in New Delhi.  He portrayed himself as a worldly-wise, well-travelled sophisticate and whiz kid on investment with such conviction, and everyone bought it.

It took some time, but eventually a number of us in both the New York and Philadelphia offices discovered a common source for the backbiting and tension that had been going on ever since Jim's employment with the company.  He stopped at nothing to rise up the corporate ladder and all the while portray himself in the most positive light.  He would use underlings, higher-ups, and colleagues, such as myself, to get the next promotion, ultimately landing the lofty position mentioned above.   Until the FBI caught wind of some of his schemes, thanks to some brave souls willing to risk their jobs, Jim would probably own the company by now.  Having ingratiated himself with the firm's power brokers, who shall remain nameless pending another lawsuit, he would plant rumors and sow the seeds of discord behind the scenes, like an evil puppeteer manipulating the strings.  If he sensed trouble, if he suspected someone might report on his questionable practices and tactics, he'd stir the pot.  But nobody ever suspected Jim's divide and conquer strategy, not for years anyway, even if he struck some of us as rather paranoid at times.  Behind that infectious smile, the soothing voice, those carefully scripted words, and a thoughtful brow hid a psychopath.

I feel foolish for having been duped for so long.  As you read my account, you probably think I'm gullible, easily led astray.  That's not the case.  I'm usually a good judge of character, I assure you.  I have a minor in business psychology and am usually good at reading faces.  I know this will sound strange to you, but I feel violated and abused.  Having spoken with others in the office, I realize that I'm not alone.  We were mere pawns for him to achieve his objectives, namely a zero-sum game that involved the promotion of the Self and a corresponding abasement of others.  It's as if he got inside my head, set up shop there, and used the sacred interior of my soul as a base of operations.  Jim's defense attorneys argued that he has no interior of his own, as if that's a defense!  I hope he burns in hell someday.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Spring is now upon us, and it’s long overdue.  I had a great autumn but a mediocre winter.  So I’m hoping on a wonderful spring and even better summer.  I have nice trips lined up for the season: a junket to St. Louis for a half-marathon in April and a weeklong Army course in Atlanta a month later.  I hope to park my melancholy ass under a Jacaranda tree in a park next to a glistening body of water.  I’m going to soak up the sun as I read a book and ponder life’s riddles.  Once I read my fill, I want to run through woodsy trails and meadows, smelling the lilac and feeling the sun on my back.  Where do I go wrong?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Cameron's Bead of Sweat

Sun rays peer through the window blinds and disclose dust particles swirling about like lost souls drifting in a meaningless universe. A card table, stacked with papers that flap and flutter from a slight breeze, stands next to the window. The breeze only momentarily alleviates the sweltering heat in the room and wafts in the acrid smell of exhaust and diesel. Sounds of urban life pipe in from the street below. The television is on low. A local news program competes with the din just outside this small third-story apartment.

Across from the window is an oakwood bookshelf, neatly organized, except for a highball glass and a half-empty, uncapped bottle of rakı, a Turkish liqueur, which is perched on the third shelf. Only two books are missing, and they lie pell-mell on the floor, their pages a few feet away, torn out and crumpled up near the wastebasket, not having reached their ostensibly intended destination.

A man crouches between a divan and the coffee table. He is holding a .45 semi-automatic pistol and has no expression on his face, neither vexation nor calm. His name is Cameron, but that doesn’t matter. The other hand lies on the floor. His thoughts at this moment, muddled and dark, contrast with the banality of the room.

Behold a man on the precipice of life and death. Regret and loss seep in like bane.  (Momentarily, the sound of a siren passing by takes him from his eleventh-hour reverie.) The vague incoherent thoughts that are pouring out of his soul cannot transport him anywhere but to the ceiling, no higher. He slowly pushes the barrel of the gun into his mouth. Ghosts and goblins in his mind flicker into sharper focus. He thinks about his life, his family, the life he has known, and now his departure from it. When you no longer have meaning for your life, he asks himself, what else do you have? Nothing. Nothing but the dwindling minutes that only postpone Cameron's imminent physical extinction.  So he's merely expediting the process.

He notices a single bead of sweat sliding slowly down the barrel of the pistol. He observes it closely. How can he not? He’s transfixed by it, as it moves at glacial speed along the top of the barrel. He’s aware that the bead dripped from his nose. Once it reaches the ejection port, it slides off and dissipates. A crucial moment has come....and gone.  Cameron puts away the firearm and decides to carry on with life.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Maker's Mark and Me

It’s now late afternoon Friday.  The time has come, my friend, to release you from the glass pantry that imprisons you.  You are lonely again and so am I.  I’ll be gentle with your fine glass frame as I lift you off the shelf and bring you to the dining room table.  Gentle as a dove.  I’ve neglected you long enough, a week in fact, and for that I’m so sorry.  Let us commingle and make merry.  Let us revel in the thrill of intoxication so that I don’t know where you end and I begin.  Come, let us set sail on the sea of oblivion.  We shall solve the world’s problems this very evening, or the devil take us!  I can sense your eagerness, your anticipation, as I twist off your waxy top, my Army shot glass and a glass bottle of Mexican Coke standing at the ready.  I long for you, as the gazelle pants for water on a desolate savannah.  You tease me with your playful trickle down my gullet.  I shall leave aside the Coke on this first round, for I want you to myself.  I want to savor your amber sparkle as I hold you up like a prism to behold the last bit of sunlight through you.  I see a better world and a bright horizon on the other side, a place of rest and repose.  Everything else is darkness.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Kissing the Blarney Stone?

I’m still waiting for a pot of gold at end of the rainbow.  Why not?  I deserve it.  Do the math.  I’m partially Irish.  Really, I’m just an American mutt, but given my fair skin and hotheaded nature, my genes probably lean in an Irish direction.  Santa Claus is complete bullshit, the Easter bunny is a sham, and the Tooth Fairylet's face itis a bona fide disgrace; but I do believe in Leprechauns.  I like those little red-haired guys a lot, even if, truth be told, I like Leprechauns in the way you’re not supposed to like them.  Liam Neeson is one of my favorite actors.  Heck, I've been  eating Lucky Charms every day as preparation for an upcoming half-marathon in Rapid City, South Dakota.  I think I’ve made my case.

But here’s the thing.  Despite my Irish credentials, I think St. Patrick’s Day is overrated.  Am I wrong?  I mean, corned beef, cabbage and a pint of Guinness?  Really?  I’d rather drink piss and eat shit and leaves.  Besides, in all due respect, what did the Irish ever do for us?  At least the Frenchies helped us in the American Revolution, you know?  The Poles gave us those wonderful sausages.  And the Germans?  Well, I guess they gave us sausages too.  And what’s this whole "kissing the Blarney stone" thing, huh?  It’s merely an excuse for wisecracks at the office to make phallic references.  If I had a nickel for every dumbass who placed the possessive adjective into the phrase: “Hey everyone, who wants to kiss my Blarney stone?”  My, my, aren't we hilarious!

Here’s a popular misconception: Most people think that the color of St. Patrick’s Day is green because of Ireland’s lush viridescent landscapes.  Wrong!  When in 1810 an Irish noble by the name of William O’Callahan presented the English Queen Charlotte with a silver-plated crest from the Belfast Order of St. Patrick, the days-old pistachio pudding that he had consumed hours earlier during the banquet worked its magic on his bowels.  Had it not been for the crest, O’Callahan’s verdant vomit would have ruined Her Highness' imperial white muslin dress.  To this day we wear green on St. Patrick’s Day to commemorate this dude's puke, whether we realize it or not!  You just can't make this stuff up!  I know what I’m talking about, okay?  First off, I’m more or less Irish.  And secondly, I’ve been to Dublin, albeit I was on a one-day layover from Istanbul and never ventured outside the Starbucks in the airport. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I know the Irish have had a rough go of it in their checkered history.  I for one have never forgiven Cromwell for Drogheda and Wexford.  And the Potato Famine two hundred years later was one of the worst tragedies of the nineteenth century, an era known for tragedies (and only to be outdone in the tragedy-department by the subsequent century).  My sympathy only goes so far, though, because I did a little research.  It turns out that those adorable little Leprechauns, the ones I lauded at the beginning of this piece and whom I had once fantasized about during lonely nights in hotel rooms, are nothing more than money-grubbing gold-mongers.  Those buggers spend all day counting their gold coins and selfishly hiding their loot at the end of the rainbow.  So much for finding a pot of gold for me after all these years of waiting!  I’ll never look at rainbows in the same way.  Thanks, Irish!  Seriously.  You can kiss me frickin' Blarney stone!