Friday, April 22, 2011

Chapter 2: A Day in Žepa (4/6)

Krajiŝnik, with both his AK-47 and the boy’s hunting rifle slung on his back, held his juvenile captive firmly in a neck lock, practically dragging him out the front door and onto the rutted road that separated the house where the boy hid himself from the tavern.

“Don’t shoot him,” said Vučinić, the tavern keeper, looking on from the shattered window.  “I knew his parents.  He’s a Serb.”

“Oh, is he?  I'll determine who’s a Serb today,” responded a scowling Drago, as he stormed out of the tavern into the middle of the road, a few of his men trailing behind him.  Although Žepa was a Bosniak Muslim enclave, it contained a handful of ethnic Serb residents, some of whom even helped defend the town as the Drina Corps and Drago’s Demons were closing in on it.  The hapless boy was evidently one of them.

“Bring him to me, Željko.”  Krajiŝnik let loose his squirming prisoner.  Finally out of the head lock, the boy, ruddy-faced and momentarily dazed, probably considered making a run for it but correctly calculated his chances.

Drago towered over the boy, eyeing him up and down.  He ignored Krajiŝnik and a few other men gathering around and cursing the young would-be assassin.  With  a studied look, Drago bit his lower lip as he placed his arms akimbo.  He saw in the kid’s defiant face his own lost youth and waved his men away.  “What is your name?”  The boy remained silent.  “Speak up or I’ll shoot you in the mouth.”

“Goran…Goran Tadišić.”

“Goran Tadišić,” echoed Drago, elongating the pronunciation to himself.  “That’s a good Serbian name, huh?  You get in trouble around here for a name like that?  And where did you get this rifle?”  The boy didn’t respond; he just looked around anxiously at the bedraggled women sitting on the ground near SUVs in the distance.

“Where are your parents?”

“They died a few months ago.”

“I can assure you that my men had nothing to do with that.  You understand.”  The latter statement was not a question.  With Drago's eyes burning into him, the boy nodded.  “We live far from here.  Brčko.  You know Brčko?”  The boy shook his head.

“Did Rambo, Rambo Osman, tell you to shoot at us?”  The boy’s face didn’t register the name.

“Ahmet Hadžić?”  Drago mentioned Rambo's real name to see if the boy understood.  Nothing.

“He doesn’t know that asshole, Drago,” said Lukić.  “No one does!  Rambo’s a nobody with a big mouth.  That’s all.”

“You got that right, Miko.”  Drago looked around for a moment, as if suddenly reminded of the 'mission' and the short time remaining to carry it out.  “We’re moving out!” he called out to his men.  “We've been here long enough.  This little man is keeping us on our toes, and on task.”

“Some of the prisoners are taking a piss.”

“Shit.  Those bitches.  Okay.  Hurry it up!  We have a football match ahead of us, do we not?”  Again, Drago referred to the male prisoners rounded up earlier in cryptic language, and his lieutenant, Miko Lukić, was quick to play along.

“Yeah, and the losing team is already lined up!”  The two men laughed like schoolboys up to no good.

As the Demon paramilitaries scurried to their vehicles and started up the engines, Drago led the boy to his Land Rover.  Turning to him, Drago exhibited the same unsettling mixture of coldness and cordiality that both his men and and his enemies knew all too well.  “Don't try to run, or I'll shoot you.”  He saw the boy looking at his reflection in the glossy blue finish of the SUV.  “Like my car?  Compliments of the international community.”

“Listen, Goran Tadišić, if you want to be a sniper, you need to brace the weapon like this, huh?”  Drago flexed his long, sinewy forearms.  “And you’ll need a scope.  You only scratched one of my men with your bullets.”  Miloš, the one who had been guarding the women in the basement, stood nearby with a nicked ear, bloody cloth in hand, trying to hide his anger at Drago's comment.

“I will make you one of my adjutants.  You will get to wear this patch on your shoulder, huh?  That’s cool, no?  It’s a picture of a demon because we come from hell.  I designed it myself.”  In actuality Drago stole the fanciful image wholesale from a motorcycle gang in Bulgaria.

“Miko, get him a flak jacket.  The boy will ride in my vehicle.”  Lukić gave Drago a look.  What the hell?  “Why not?” Drago shrugged.  “We have to look toward the future sometimes, Miko, not just the present.”

“Okay,” came his friend's laconic response.  Lukić was of course involved in his own “youth program” before, during, and after the warnamely, the trafficking of girls and young women to the highest bidders in Turkey and the Caucasus.

Drago then looked at the boy with a hardened face and warned, “Don’t you ever shoot at me or my men again,” only to lighten up immediately thereafter.  “For we are all fellow demon warriors now.”  Drago's studious demeanor returned like the flick of a switch.  “We shall call you Princip, for you will be our assassin someday.  Miko!  You teach this boy what you know, huh?”  Lukić took a final drag of his cigarette, flicked it to the ground, and nodded.  Had his dashed aspirations to shoot in the 1992 Olympics come to this?  He wondered.

The five-vehicle convoy was again on its way toward a bloody destination.  A few kilometers from the town they spotted an old Muslim woman in a pale blue headscarf, alone, bracing herself up with a wooden cane at the side of the road.   The strange sight provided a moment of levity for Drago’s men as they drove by.  “Go home, grandma!  You bitch!”  Her singularity, odd stance,  and the expressionless expression on her face would provide an abundant source of humor after the executions, perhaps an image less funny than warranted but a way of distracting Drago’s men from talking about the dark deeds they were about to perform.

Further up the road the driver of the rear vehicle, Krajiŝnik, saw two male figures off to the right side, barely visible were it not for an orange t-shirt that one of them was wearing.  Able-bodied males had to be pursued.  The two figures suddenly froze like deer ready to shoot off into the woods.  It had been too late for them to hide as the vehicles zipped around the corner.  A middle-aged man was wearing a polyester shirt and vest and carrying a small brown suitcase.  Next to him was a boy with a rucksack on his back.  They instantly disappeared into the brush. 

Krajiŝnik and Lukić, not bothering with the radio communications, pressed on the horn to stop the convoy, jumped out of their vehicle, and ran lightening-speed to Drago who by this time had spotted the two individuals as well.  “We’re on it!” yelled Krajiŝnik to the Demon leader.

“Go!  Hurry!” came Drago’s response.  “You!” Drago motioned to a third soldier named Miljević.  “Move!”  Firearm drawn, the young man charged into the woods behind the other two.

Sweating profusely in the summer heat, the man and boy ran into a clearing on the other side of the woods from the road.  Their heavy breathing and muffled steps through the brushwood broke the calm of the countryside.  Overhead a blue-grey sky with patches of clouds looked indifferently over the predator and prey below.

“Hurry, papa!  Please!” The boy's father was trailing behind and wheezing.  They knew the clearing wasn’t the best place to lose their pursuers, so they made a dash for the nearest tree line.

Having left his assault rifle behind, Krajiŝnik brandished a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other.  He was thoroughly enjoying the pursuit, especially knowing that the Zvornik Brigade had already conducted a sweep operation and he didn't have to worry about armed Muslims in the area.

The man and his son chanced upon an old mining compound probably abandoned in the 1970s and dating back to the Austro-Hungarian empire.  At the entrance to a dilapidated building near the gated entrance, the man nearly collapsed from exhaustion.  He realized it was hopeless for him.  “Go!” he cried to his son.  “Run!  I’ll hide in here,” he gasped, stooping over with his hands braced on his knees.  The boy turned back to his father, but the latter was insistent.  “Run, damn it, run!”

While the convoy had come to a standstill on the road, Drago received a radio communication from the Drina Corps commander, General Krstić.  He had recently returned to duty only weeks ago after undergoing physical therapy for a severe landmine injury that cost him his right leg.  Like his superior, General Ratko Mladić, he was bent on revenge.  He would have the dubious distinction of becoming the first person of the Bosnian War convicted of genocide in the International Criminal Tribunal in the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

“Where are you?  Have you taken care of the operation at the soccer field?”

“Sir, we are on our way!”

“My men reported gunfire in the last half hour.  What’s that about?”

“A couple enemy combatants in the area.  We dispatched them, sir.  No casualties on our side.”  Drago mentioned neither Princip nor the women.

“What’s your soldier accountability and how many vehicles have you?”  Drago knew the general and deputy commander were in the process of requisitioning buses and trucks to transport civilian captives away from the eyes of demoralized UN troops and to their appointed fate.  He didn’t want to lose any of his vehicles for this operation.

“Sir, we’re currently at eighteen men,” he lied, “and we’re stuffed into five SUVs.  We have no armored cars.”  Drago couldn’t lie about the number of vehicles; he was keenly aware that they his superiors could watch his movements from an observation post overlooking the valley.  The general knew he was lying, but he bridled his tongue out of respect for the civilian man with aphasia standing next to him.

“Hold on, soldier.”  The general gave the man the radio.   He asked Drago how he was holding up and ended the transmission once he got a reply.

Meanwhile, in the woods, Drago’s men came upon the mining compound soon enough.  Krajiŝnik, with a nose for the hunt, motioned for Lukić and Miljević to continue on, suspecting rightly that his prey had split up and one of them remained in the shack that stood before him.  He sheathed his knife and slowly entered the structure toting his sidearm.

Hiding behind an inner door of the building, the father noticed that part of his suitcase was partially visible from the entrance and a tell-tale sign of his presence.  He tried to pick it up, gently and slowly, but the handle made a click sound.  Once Krajiŝnik heard it, he simply fired a few rounds into the door.  When the bloodstained man staggered out, Krajiŝnik walked toward him and shot him again at point-blank range through the nose.  The back of the man’s head exploded upon the bullet’s impact, causing blood to gush onto the dusty, wooden floor even before his lifeless body slumped back against the wall. 

“Fuck!” exclaimed  Krajiŝnik.  Blood and bits of flesh sprayed onto the right side of his face, his arm, and his chest.  He liked the idea of returning to the convoy to show the men evidence of his handiwork, but he didn’t care for such a mess.

He went back to the entrance door to make a brief scan of the area, in the event the boy was hiding outside nearby, and then returned to his victim.  The suitcase was open next to the body.  Returning the pistol to his leg holster, he hunched down and started to rifle through it for valuables.  He found articles of clothing, family photos, and other personal affects that would have only sentimental value, but no money.  Krajiŝnik cursed at his unresponsive victim, as blood continued to ooze from the corpse’s disfigured face.  “Fuck your green mother!”  He uttered even worse profanities when he realized his knee and pant leg were touching the crimson puddle.

Just when he thought the cigarette lighter he pocketed would be his only consolation prize, Krajiŝnik espied a wad of Yugoslav dinar banknotes held together by a rubber band in the inner pocket of the man’s vest.  He thumbed through them hastily, fishing out a couple of 20 Deutsche Mark bills from what he assumed were mostly low banknotes, before tossing the stash into the pool of blood.  Had he looked more carefully, he would have discovered that the center bill was a 5,000 dinar banknote.  While Krajiŝnik exited the old building, a bespectacled Marshal Tito looked on in a thoughtful gaze as the maroon edges of the bill seeped in on him.

Drago turned to Princip, who was sitting in the backseat of the SUV with the window rolled down.  He had been pacing back and forth outside the vehicle.  “Don’t fight for these bastards,” he said, shaking his head and straining his eyes.  “And those women you see,” he continued, angling his head toward the vehicles, “are nothing but breeders to infest our land, the land God has given us.  You’re too young to know better.  It’s about family, blood—it’s about protecting what is dear to you.”  He glanced at Princip’s face to see if he was paying attention to this impromptu lesson in Serbian patriotism and loyalty.  Why exactly he took interest in Princip isn’t clear. Perhaps he was doing his part to realize a Greater Serbia by recruiting the next generation into the nationalist struggle.

Suddenly gunfire crackled in the distance.  Drago raised his head up with thoughtful countenance, recognizing the shots as coming from Krajisnik’s sidearm.

One of the men yelled out, “Hey, Drago, this bitch bit me!” Drago caught himself about to respond with a playful remark about socking the woman in the face, but he refrained; he was trying to make an impression on the boy.

“Don’t let this coexistence of peoples trick you, huh?  The short life you’ve lived is not what it appears to be.  Those people hate you.  They hate me.  What did they do to my grandfather? They butchered him so savagely…what you see here, the thing we’s nothing compared to their crimes.”  Drago, like his compatriots, had convinced himself of this dubious script.  The lecture on hating thy neighbor came to a conclusion as an armored Jeep pulled up. A thin 30-something man with long hair approached Drago’s Land Rover.

“Who’s the boy?” he asked.