Saturday, April 30, 2011

Chapter 2: A Day in Žepa (6/6)

April 2006

“Your English is excellent, much better than mine. I’m envious.”  Drago leaned forward in his black leather chair, took a Cuban from a pewter box, clipped the end with a cigar guillotine, sniffed it, and sat back.  “I like Abba.  Do you like Abba?  Probably, huh?”

“Uh, yes, they’re good…but I’m Danish, not Swedish,” replied the investigative reporter for a popular television news magazine.  He was trying to get Drago to cooperate for a television interview and not having much luck.  It would air in a few days across Europe.

“Yes, yes. Denmark.  I like the cartoons, eh?  Muhammad was a pedophile, you know.” Drago was referring to the 2005 controversial depictions of the Prophet printed in a Danish magazine. They set off a series of violent protests in the Islamic world. In Drago’s mind this incident was a perfect topic for the interview. Surely the torching of Danish flags by crazed fundamentalists would make the point: we Serbs are Europe’s defense. The journalist didn't respond. Later, on the cutting room floor, the producer decided not to use this part of the interview, even if they had wanted incriminating words from Drago.

“Let’s see,” Drago went on. “Denmark. To be or not to be.  Isn’t that right?”

“That’s Shakespeare.”

“Yes, but he was a Dane. Hamlet, I mean.”

Drago acted like the gentleman he never was nor ever would be; however, his postwar political clout and prosperous chain of luxury hotels brought him status that, he firmly believed, was commensurate with his superior natural gifts.

“No, that’s true,” replied the reporter, who was clearly growing weary of Drago's banter.

“Now what is it you would like to ask me?”

The Dane turned to his crew. “Start shooting!” The reporter was anxious to get on with the interview. Drago had spent almost two hours showing him and the producer his spacious villa, located conspicuously on the corner of a major thoroughfare in Belgrade. A tour of the house would be a nice way to start the segment, they agreed, but Drago had exhausted them with stories of his exploits as he showed him his war memorabilia and personal gym.

He was proud of his home and claimed to have designed and built it himself. His beautiful wife, Nadia, a local celebrity and daughter of a Serbian kingpin, was a gracious host, though clearly submissive to Drago’s whim. During the filming she seemed relegated to the pool lounge, sipping cocktails, and watching television shows in a silky robe that barely managed to cover her enormous breast job.

Some rooms were evidently off limits.  “What about these doors here?” asked the Danish reporter as they were walking through a basement corridor to the “East Wing.”

Drago seemed peeved.  “Those are just guestrooms.”

The reporter’s imagination ran wild. Guestrooms in the basement? Are these war rooms? Are there weapons stored in there or girls nabbed for sexual trafficking?

By the time they set up the lights and cameras for the interview in his office, the crew, which included two Danes and a Czech makeup artist, was exhausted.

“Are you concerned about threats on your life or an army of commandos swooping down on you at any time.  You do things so publicly.  We sit here in your nice office.  You have a line of luxurious hotels in Serbia and Bosnia.  You seem quite comfortable and content.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Interpol, the EU, and others are talking about arresting you.  The tribunal in The Hague issued an indictment on you five years ago or so.  They say you are a cold-blooded murderer and that you and your men executed civilians and raped Muslim women. In fact, some of these charges predate the war.   It’s alleged that…”

“Ridiculous,” cut in Drago. “I have nothing to hide.”

“As you know, almost all of the Serb leadership who participated in the Bosnian War have been captured or died: President Milošević, Karadžić, Šeŝelji, Biljana Plavšić, Arkan, and the list goes on.  They’re closing in on General Mladic, it is said.”

Who says? They won’t find him.  There’d be another war.”

“Is that a veiled threat?”

“No, no.  An unveiled fact.”

“Our sources say that you've provided him body guards to protect him 24/7.”

“Rubbish...though it's true that we provided security for him almost a decade ago now.”

“Did you torture civilians during the war?”

“No.”  Drago shook his head and chuckled.  “What is it with you Western journalists?”  He continued in a slightly different vein.  “You need some bogeyman, someone to kick in the mud.  You tire of atrocities in Africa, so you pick on Serbia, your whipping boy.”  He pounded the desktop for effect.

“I’m not a monster, no matter how hard you try to make me one in your image.”  Drago all of a sudden realized he had perhaps given the reporter his sound bite, a headline reading I’m not Monster.

“Wait, don’t use that film footage.”  One of Drago’s bodyguards standing in the corner of the room nodded his head to the reporter as a subtle warning.

“I understand,” the reporter responded.  “We agreed to let you see our piece after editing, and it won’t be there.”


“What about the alleged rapes?  Any truth to that?”

“Absolutely not.  As you say, they're alleged, but not true.  Let me ask you something, my Danish friend.  If one of those Muslim bastards—Green Warriors they called themselves—killed your brother and raped your sister, what would you do?”

“I wouldn’t kill innocent people, I should think.”

“No, no.  Nor would I.”

“The war ended a decade ago.”  The reporter wanted to stay on task.  “It looks like Serbia wants to move on and join the European Union.  The nationalists are losing influence in the new ten-party coalition in Belgrade.  You are in fact on the EU’s list of—and I use their words, not mine—criminals for extradition to The Hague.”

“Yes, I know.  It’s crazy.”  Drago lit up his cigar.  He opened the desk drawer of his mahogany desk and pulled out a metallic object.  Behind him were shelves of handsome books he had never read.

“See this?  It means a lot to me.  Get the camera in close here.”  He pointed to an inscription.  “The football club I owned prior to the war won the regional UEFA cup.  Good players.  Most of them were killed in the war.”

“Do you feel responsible for their deaths?”

“I feel responsible for their families, if that’s what you mean.  I take care of my men.  They were brave warriors.   They fought defending their country.”

“Okay, now if I can get back to…”

“I hear they’re going to make a movie about the Demons,” Drago interrupted.  He wasn’t finished, and everything was to be in accordance with his agenda.  A Belgrade production company was in fact floating the idea of a film. 

“Do you want such a movie?”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s alleged that you committed crimes and perhaps even genocide during the war.”

“There you go again.  Absolutely false.  Absolutely!”  For just a flash of a second, one could see the darker Drago penetrate through the jovial, amiable demeanor that he had learned to cultivate in a life of deception and fraud.  “I think it’s a good idea. It would show what real men, real Serbs, do in a crisis situation, yeah? I don’t consider myself a hero at all.  That’s for others to decide, and, well, many seem to think so.  But audiences, and not just here in Serbia, should see the heroic acts of my men portrayed on the screen, huh?  Besides, I think my life is quite interesting.”

“Who would you want to play you?” asked the reporter, figuring that this sideshow still might reveal the true character of Drago to viewers.

“I’m making my recommendations to the director, but I don’t wish to disclose that now.  It’s a surprise.”

The reporter had had enough of Drago’s self-righteousness.  “Are you worried that your hotel business, your wealth, your glamorous lifestyle, hobnobbing with models and pop stars, will come crashing down?”  The interviewer looked over at Drago’s bodyguard to see if the gravity of his boss's situation would at least resonate with him.  He got nothing but a cold blank stare.

“I enjoy life.  What’s the crime there?  And don’t mislead your viewers about the models.  I’m faithful to my wife.”  The reporter had inside knowledge that belied this statement.

Drago looked directly into the camera.  “Hello, by the way.”

“I have to ask you,” the reporter said nervously, “whether you’re a nationalist or a thug.”  The Dane knew that careers in the journalism depend on daring questions, but he felt he might be taking his life in his hands with such daring.

Drago flipped open the lid of his cigar box and directed the cameraman to get a close-up of it.  “Here, get in right here.”  The box depicted the Serbian emblem of a bicephalic eagle. “This is why I fight….for freedom and the defense of my people, our land, our destiny.  You call me a thug?  Well, maybe some people think this about me, corrupt politicians and self-righteous pundits in Western countries.  They lack an understanding of history.  Don’t be fooled by these hypocrites.”

“You showed me the security system to your home,” remarked the reporter, changing gears slightly.


“Do you fear that someone might try to kill you?”

The reporter was alluding to an assassination attempt on Drago at a pizzeria in Zvornik nearly a month prior.  The police didn’t find the assassins, but it was understood by everyone that elements in the Serbian mafia, unhappy with Drago’s lack of loyalty, sought both revenge and the protection of its business interests.  There had been speculation that he had found and killed those who were responsible, but he of course kept this fact away from the public eye to protect his informants.

“I fear nothing.  These people, whoever they are, will not succeed.  Never.”

“Are you worried about being arrested?  You’re a wanted man. What if police forces were to arrest you?”

“You talk foolishly.  This won't happen.” As it turns out the Danish reporter’s words were prescient, for three weeks later, on April 19, EUFOR and Serbian police nabbed him, Lukić and Krajiŝnik in a joint commando operation that occurred simultaneously in two locations: Zvornik and Dubrovnik.  A bullet grazed the ear of one of the commandos, as Nadia quickly seized a pistol from the glove compartment and shot off a round.  Otherwise, the carefully-planned operation went surprisingly without a hitch.

Drago ignored the question. He stood up, walked toward a round table, and lifted the stopper off a lead crystal decanter.  “Care for a drink?”

The film crew took him up on the offer, considering the grueling day in Belgrade and the efforts they had put in trying to get a decent interview. Drago, not fully appreciative of the journalist’s intention, was hoping to uplift his profile across Europe and show a more human side; for their part, the reporter and his producer aimed to show an arrogant and evil man living a decadent life, unrepentant of the suffering he caused innocent victims of the war.

Later that evening, as arranged, the film crew followed Drago to a rock concert where his favorite Serbian band was playing. His wife barely left much to the imagination in a revealing dress, only a mink fur partially covering her generous cleavage. They were quite the celebrities and once the band caught wind of their presence, the vocalist called out Drago's name.  To honor his appearance, and to make an impression on the foreign film crew they observed trailing him, they kicked into a heavy metal version of Marš na Drinu, a World War I era march. When the drummer hit the introductory marshal notes on his snare and cymbals, the crowd went wild, as if it were suddenly a Red Star Belgrade match. The front man, Brogan, with bushy beard and straggly hair, looked like a cross between a young Ian Anderson and a Chetnik. “Kosovo is Serbia!” he exclaimed to a highly responsive crowd. He held up a clenched first and belted out the time-honored lyrics with sweat streaming down his forehead:
Sing, sing, Drina, tell the generations,
How we bravely fought
The guitar’s power chords sliced through the concert hall like a bayonet. The mixture of metal and an anthemic march couldn’t help but strike the Danish film crew as rather cheesy. The predominantly male audience clapped exuberantly to the beat of the pounding bass drum. With a smile as wide as the Adriatic, Drago and a new postwar generation of Serbian youths shared a euphoric moment of national unity; everyone was ready to defend hearth and home against their persecutors.

The soldiers sang, the battle was fought
Near the cold water
Having draped himself in a tricolor banner thrown up on stage, Brogan turned the microphone out to the crowd, an energized mass of inebriated patriots.  The film crew looked at one another in puzzlement. When do metal heads bring flags to concerts?  Drago reached out to some youths to sing arm in arm before the camera. His obsequious wife stood to the side and looked on proudly with her hands clasped.

Blood was flowing
Blood was streaming by the Drina for freedom
Ironically, Drago lost his freedom on the bank of the Drina.  En route to his hotel in Zvornik for a business meeting, Drago drove into a trap set by EUFOR commandos.  An Eagle B-Hunter UAV on loan from NATO had been tracking the movements of his navy blue Lexus.  A Land Rover with bodyguards followed about 200 meters back.  The commandos disabled the vehicles with spikes in the road and managed to cut off the Land Rover from the Lexus by ramming into it with weapons drawn. Drago’s men were too stunned to react. Their leader exited his vehicle, leaving the driver behind, and made for straight for a cluster of trees not far from the cross-border river bridge.  Fortunately for his captors, Drago was unarmed for the first time in his adult life. They spirited him secretly out of the country with the complicity of Serbian police forces. Drago was already in The Hague before his family and business associates knew what had happened.