Love Thy Neighbor by Peter Maass

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Excerpt Two: A Checkpoint Arrest

(This chronicles my attempt, with two colleagues, to find a secret prison camp.)

A mile before Batkovic, we had to stop at a roadblock. It was not the usual roadblock with soldiers wearing army fatigues and holding Kalashnikovs. Those are the good roadblocks, because the guys with the guns are under a military chain of command in which, usually, there is somebody who is not insane. The Batkovic roadblock was different, manned by four guys who had hunting rifles and tempers hotter than asphalt at noon. They were resting in the shade of a tree, chatting with a couple of village women. They didn’t wear normal uniforms, they didn’t have many teeth, and they didn’t want us there.

“What are you doing here?” their leader said, a barrel-chested guy whose belly flopped over his belt. He was the only one with a uniform of any sort, but his uniform was from the World War II era. It might have been his father’s, or perhaps his own. He was at least sixty years old, his wavy gray hair partly covered by a military cap that I had seen in history books about the Chetniks, royalist fighters. His attitude was rooted in 1389.

“We’re here to visit the prison camp.”

“There’s no prison camp here. Get out.”

“If there’s no prison camp, then why is there a roadblock?”

They said there was fighting ahead, and that we would not be safe if we proceeded. We knew this was a lie, because the area was firmly under Serb control, but our attempt to ask more questions came to a sudden finish. Three rifles took aim at us, and the trigger fingers belonged to drunks.

“Out! Now!”

We obeyed. Among the many rules of survival in Bosnia is one that says you never talk back to the barrel of a gun. The Serbs wanted us to leave, so we left. If they had wanted the flak jackets in the trunk of the car, we would have surrendered them. If they had wanted the car itself, we would have surrendered it, too. Those are the rules. The car, the flak jackets, the money in your wallet, it can all be written off on expenses. But there is one thing you certainly cannot write off, and that is your life.

We drove a mile back down the road and stopped. We had spent two hours getting to this dump, and we were not going to leave empty-handed. If we couldn’t reach the camp, perhaps we could at least confirm its existence by talking to some of the locals. It would be a decent story, though hardly the scoop we had hoped for. A few non-Serbs still lived in the area, so we stopped at a Gypsy house, where the first thing the woman said was, “Oh, are you here to see the prison camp?” She explained that buses full of prisoners with shaved heads rumbled toward Batkovic every day. Everyone knew what was at the end of the road. She pointed out a nearby dirt track that, she said, traversed the cornfields and bypassed the roadblock. We went to a neighboring Gypsy house and got the same story from another woman, whose husband pedaled away on his bicycle soon after we arrived.

We returned to the car and discussed the desirability of heading down the dirt track. Should we give it a shot? The answer was obviously no. Our presence was not desired in these parts, and if we drove down the track we probably would run into another roadblock presided over by men who were even more drunk on liquor and prejudice than the ones we had just met. If the guys at the first roadblock heard that we were still snooping around the neighborhood ... It wasn’t a pleasant thought. We should drive back to Belgrade, repair to the air-conditioned Hyatt Hotel and drain a few beers from my minibar.

And so we headed down the dirt road.

The degree of stupidity in heading down that dirt track cannot be measured. It was way off the chart. Even if we reached the prison camp, what did we expect? The camp commandant was unlikely to greet us at the front gate, shake our hands and say, “Gee whiz, I thought you’d never get here. Good job.” This is not a story that I am proud to recount—it reflects stupidity rather than bravery or cleverness—but it became my first awakening to the fact that the longer I stayed in Bosnia, the more likely I was to die there.

We got only a few hundred yards down the dirt road. The husband who had pedaled off on his bicycle when we arrived at the second Gypsy house turned out to be an informer rushing off to alert his buddies at the roadblock. Jonathan Landay, the colleague at the wheel of the BMW, was the first to notice the red Yugo car that scooted up behind us. I recall his first words as being “Oh fuck.” The gang from the roadblock was in the chase car, and their guns were sticking out the windows, a Keystone Kops sight that would have been comical if it weren’t so scary. They flashed their headlights, honked their horn and ordered us to halt.

I began sweating, not from the heat, but from the fear. There seemed to be little doubt about what was going to happen. We were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by eight-foot-tall cornstalks and a soft wind that would not carry the sound of gunshots very far. The Serbs have a word for an isolated place like that, vukojebina, which means “where the wolves fuck.” It was the perfect place for a killing. And that’s pretty much what I expected when the roadblock gang piled out of their car and ran toward us with their guns leading the way, veins bulging out of their necks as they screamed at us. We coughed up our passports and United Nations press passes and obeyed their order to follow them.

They drove deeper into the cornfield. I don’t recall any conversation in our car. Jonathan, myself and our female interpreter, Vlatka Mihelic, knew that the odds were against us and there was nothing we could do to change them. If we suddenly reversed gear and tried to back out of the cornfield at full speed, the guys in the Yugo would just start blasting away. In moments like that you want to close your eyes, hang your head and sob. You’ve blown it, no doubt about it, everything is finished. You feel weak, like you’ve just been punched in the groin and the guy who did it is winding up for another huge blow. You just want to survive, and you figure cooperation is the best option. Perhaps your captors will take pity, perhaps they don’t really want to kill you, perhaps the cavalry will arrive. Nobody in the BMW argued for ramming it into reverse and trying to escape.

The Yugo began slowing down and made a U-turn, a glorious U-turn which meant that they, and us, were heading back to the main road. We followed. This was great news. Perhaps as they drove deeper into the cornfield they realized that they should probably get permission to punish us. “Damn journalists,” the barrel-chested leader might have said. “They deserve to die, but, shit, we better get the commander to approve it first.” The U-turn didn’t mean a pardon, just an appeal.

One of the mysteries of Bosnia’s war is why so many good people stood by as evil deeds were committed in their name. Why, when the would-be dictators of the world start barking their songs of hate, do so many people sing along rather than stand up and say, simply, “No”? It’s a cliche to point to the “good Germans” who followed Hitler into his madness because their duty was not to question but to obey. What about the Americans who buckled under to McCarthyism? Or what about the joggers in Central Park who fearfully run past someone being mugged?

I was hardly alone in feeling righteous about Serbs who supported, in their silence, a dirty war. If I was in their shoes, I would speak out. Or so I thought until I was put into their shoes.

The Serbs led us back to the main road and stopped in front of a run-down cafe. One of them went inside and made a phone call, apparently to their commander. The leader, whose nickname was Voja Chetnik, had gotten out of his car and didn’t seem to mind that we did the same. He wandered onto the cafe patio and suddenly started shouting at a thin, middle-aged Muslim who was sipping a cup of coffee in the shade. It was one of the odd features of Serb-controlled territory that while Muslims were being tortured at a prison camp a mile down the road, others who had sworn their loyalty to the local Serb warlords remained at liberty, though precariously.

“Ramiz!” Voja roared, “I told you never to come here! Get out of here, you filth!”

Voja grabbed a beer bottle and slammed it against Ramiz’s shoulder. Broken glass flew in all directions, dripping bits of blood. The shirtless Ramiz didn’t even have a chance to get out of his chair because Voja started punching his head, kicking him, keeping him down. Ramiz tried to raise his hands to protect his face, but it did no good. Voja kept slugging away. When he got tired of that, he slammed the muzzle of his rifle into Ramiz’s chest and undid the safety catch. An execution was moments away.

This was happening ten yards from me. I did not plead with Voja to spare Ramiz’s life. Neither did Jonathan or Vlatka. I don’t think any of us considered doing so. We fell silent. Voja was going to do what Voja wanted to do, and anyone who got in the way, especially journalists who were only one order away from their own execution, would likely be shot alongside the Muslim. Jonathan and Vlatka looked on. I turned around and walked toward the car, preferring not even to watch. Witnesses to war crimes rarely survive to tell about it. If my back was turned, perhaps Voja would think I hadn’t seen the killing and wouldn’t write about it, or perhaps he would think I simply wasn’t interested in the fate of a “filthy” Muslim. Ramiz was on his own.

Ramiz’s wife appeared out of nowhere and threw herself between Voja and her husband. Voja cursed and kicked Ramiz a bit more and then let him scamper away, like a tormented mouse freed from the claws of a bored cat. We had made the right decision not to intervene, but it didn’t feel very good. I told myself that journalists are not supposed to get involved in events they cover, which is true. It’s also an alibi. A man was on the verge of being executed in cold Balkan blood, and we stood aside because it was the prudent thing to do. Was it much different from the Serbs who prudently kept quiet as their Bosnian neighbors were shot or packed off to prison camps?

Love Thy Neighbor by Peter Maass

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