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!”