War Crimes Part 7
Edge hated Banja Luka Metal Factory. He hated the cold, draughty accommodation tents that had been erected inside the factory’s precincts, he hated the boredom, and he hated the dull and monotonous food. But above all other things, he hated having to go out patrolling in the light-blue helmet covers. As one of his section had succinctly put it as they loaded up in the loading bay by the camp’s main entrance, “Tell you what, Corporal, why don’t we paint a fucking target on our backs. Then all sides will know exactly where to shoot us.”
Corporal Edge was sitting at a trestle table under the leaking roof and was writing a bluey letter home to his mother. He knew that she worried when he was on operations and loved to hear from him. Unfortunately he found it difficult to know what to say. Edge had repaid his debt to a corrupt German police department and served his period of Purgatory, while the regiment grew to trust him again. He now had his two stripes and they were stitched on. He had actually enjoyed his brief stint in the Glasshouse, even the repetitive drill and PT, where he didn’t have to think very hard. He left Colchester as fit as a butcher’s dog and had studied back with the regiment where he finally passed his maths GCE as well as O-levels in economics and English Literature. It’s a pity he hadn’t studied European history, which might have been useful for his current tour.
Another of his pet hates was being cooped up in the back of a Warrior APC, stalled at many of the illegal checkpoints the Serbs threw up to hassle and hamper the British IFOR patrols, while the grown-up in the lead command vehicle negotiated with the gangsters. The chief gripe of all the Toms, apart from the lousy food and accommodation, was their pathetic rules of engagement on their Card Alpha, which seemed to have been produced by a Guardian columnist and was an incitement to get abused by the locals. To their east, the Americans in their zone could hose down the local warlords’ private armies, for looking at them in a funny way. Some wag from the paras had produced their own version of the Card Alpha, which seemed to be pinned to every notice board on the base.
Edge looked up from his bluey at the runner from the Ops Room who had blundered into the table. He was a big Fijian lad whose grasp of English was at times colourful and other times hilarious. Out beyond the wire he was a dynamo of a soldier, never tired, never complaining and always grinning.
“Corpse Hedge, Major Ops man wants to see you. Right now, he says, PDQ.”
“What’s it about, Rishi?”
The Fijian private rolled his eyes, “You think he’d tell me Hedgie?”
“No I suppose not,” Edge said agreeing at the implausibility of it. He folded the bluey and put it in his smock pocket to finish later.
The Operations Section in Banja Luka Metal Factory (BLMF) was a number of Portakabins joined together and divided off into offices for the various headquarters disciplines: G1 Personnel and Admin, G2 Intelligence and Security, G3 Operations, G4 Logistics, G5 Plans, G6 Communications and IT and G9 Civil Affairs and Cooperation. G8 Finance and Contracts was co-located with the G9 cell. The G7 training cell didn’t usually deploy on non-established operations.
“Which one, Rishi?”
“G9, at the back.”
Edge went round and found the door marked: Civil Secretariat, no unauthorised entry, and knocked on the door. It opened and he was hit by a blast of hot air as he went into the office. Inside there were four civilians, including a man wearing blue UN body armour, a major from G3, a female lieutenant from G1, Captain Gardner, his “friend” from the pre-court martial and newly promoted. There was also a sergeant and corporal from the Royal Military Police (RMP) who looked at Edge suspiciously as he went in. His reputation had obviously preceded him.
Captain Gardner looked at Edge as he came in and grinned, “Ahh, Corporal Edge, we have all, especially you, been selected for a special mission, that the Major tells us, requires a great deal of tact and diplomacy. As we will be dealing with the locals. I especially asked for you, because of your proven track record regarding the host nation, especially their police forces.”
Edge’s face was deadpan, but the RMP sergeant looked at the captain as though this was no place for levity. Edge often wondered about Captain Gardner. He could be and often was kind to the soldiers, but seemed to view them with laconic contempt. Perhaps Edge might have been surprised to find out that Gardner came from far humbler roots than he did and the lackadaisical veneer was a way to hide the officer’s own anxieties and under confidence. They were incredibly alike.
The Ops Major outlined the task they had been given. To the south-west of Banja Luka, near a town called Ključ, the locals had told the UN IFOR forces that there was mass grave in the woods. IFOR had requested a small British military presence as the area lay within the British zone of control, to liaise with the UN team that was investigating the site. Their presence was to be low-key, to have a police presence, hence the RMP involvement and be small enough not to disturb sensibilities in the area. Ključ lay on the fault lines between the Serb, Bosniac and Croat communities and a delicate touch would be required. They would have more robust rules of engagement and Edge was heartily gratified to hear that they would not be wearing the hated, blue helmet covers. There would be the four of them in two vehicles: a Land Rover (camouflaged, not white) for the RMPs and a Land Rover FFR for Gardner and Edge. Edge was surprised to hear he would be drawing an LSW as well as a Browning pistol.
The Major outlined the mission, “You’ll set off at 08:30 tomorrow and rendezvous with a member of the UN team in the Risović Comerce in Ključ. We’ll send a Warrior patrol ahead of you so you don’t have any problems with illegal road blocks. You’ll be accommodated in local housing that’s now empty and you’ll be given an allowance for food. And gentlemen, a mild warning to you. This isn’t a bloody holiday so stay on your toes. I’d like an evening sitrep from you, Captain Gardner at 20:00 every evening and any time you run into any problems.
“What’s the duration of the mission, sir?” asked the RMP sergeant.
“Until the UN team have furnished enough initial evidence. Less than a week or it could be up to a month. Right, if you could stay behind please Captain Gardner, I’ll give you your full orders and you can brief the others later this evening. And don’t forget to pack some civvies just in case.”
The two Land Rovers left Banja Luka and headed approximately due south on the R411. The RMPs were in the lead vehicle, the FFR following 200 metres behind with Edge driving. His LSW was clipped between the two seats next to Gardner’s L85. The LSW was similar to the L85 rifle but had a longer barrel with a bipod for sustained fire. Edge would have preferred to have been issued with the FN Minimi. Gardner was rolling a cigarette and when finished, inspected it. Not too bad. He handed it to Edge.
“Cheers, sir.” He lit it deftly, one-handed with a zippo and slid the side window open, “Question for you, sir. Despite the endless amusement I obviously provide you with, why me for this job?”
Gardner didn’t answer until he had rolled his own cigarette and clicked his fingers for Edge’s zippo, “Because you’re bored, aren’t you? Patrolling for the sake of it and not being able to do anything kills a soldier. It’s killing me. There’s only so many times you can read The Green Mile and Bridget fucking Jones’s Diary. Even the porn is shit. Bored soldiers worry me. Especially bored soldiers like you, Corporal Edge. Just getting away from that dreadful place, can’t you feel your soul lift?”
He had to agree that he could.
“And you never know what’s round the corner.”
And that was true, and probably for the better.
The UN teams were digging several sites in the open and sloping forest. In a clearing they had erected some large tents where the first rudimentary post mortems could be performed. The rains had gone and there was something of an Indian summer. Out of the breeze and in the sun it was pleasantly warm. Apart from the sickly, cloying stench of death.
Gardner was talking to one of the heads of the UN team. The two RMP were helping to record some of the forensics as they had been trained to do. Edge was supposed to be looking after them, so he prowled unobtrusively through the trees, just acting like their eyes. He was briefed that the dig was being conducted over a number of sites, including one isolated site north of the road. Occasionally he stopped and noted some of the wildlife. Biting insects that were so big they seemed to disturb the air as they went in search of his blood. Thank the Lord for Avon’s Skin so Soft, as recommended by his uncle, the Scottish Gillie. As he prowled through the forest, Edge was struck by just how happy he felt. He was alone, trusted to do something in a regime that was extremely relaxed, compared to the miserable existence of BLMF.
North of the road Edge came across the smaller dig. A little tent had been erected and three people were excavating the site, two women and a man. The man looked up at Edge and nodded, before going back to photographing the trench. The elder woman was hefty, difficult to tell her age because of the scarf wrapped round her face because of the smell. The second woman was dark-haired, tied back but some of which fell into her face. She was wearing a t-shirt and dirty shorts and seemed to be concentrating at something in the earth. She looked up at Edge who smiled. She scowled and went back to her work in the trench.
Charming, thought Edge, and went back to his slow, random and thoroughly enjoyable patrol of the site. An hour or so later he was back at the same spot again. The man had gone. The older women was sitting against a tree, smoking a cigar Edge was amused to see. The other woman ignored him.
“Afternoon, ladies,” he said pleasantly.
The younger woman turned to the other one smoking under the tree and said something in a language he couldn’t understand. They both cackled with laughter. If Edge could have given a shit he would have been embarrassed. Instead he meandered off to enjoy the afternoon, the smell of the forest away from the graves and the dappled sunlight coming through the trees.
Captain Gardner had insisted on an established routine. They would all meet at 18:30 for a report on the day, any update on their orders and then have a communal meal. From then on when Captain Gardner went to do his daily sitrep on the radio to BLMF, the time was their own. The house they were staying in was large, although partially damaged in the fighting of three years before. Gardner had his own quarters. The RMP sergeant should have had his own, while the two corporals shared the largest bedroom. But the scuffers had elected to stay in the same room, so Edge had his own room with a proper bed. The local café kindly provided coffee, tea for their flasks, rolls meats, cheeses and pastries in the morning, before they drove out in the two vehicles to the dig sites. To Edge, this life was heaven on earth.
Even the return of the rain the next day couldn’t dampen his spirits. He prowled the forests with a new resolve, his LSW front slung so he could spot the wildlife with the weapon’s SUSAT. Inevitably he was drawn once again to the small site north of the road. The old Babushka was carrying items from a UN pick-up on the road into the small tent. The man of the previous day was not there, and the other woman was in the trench, oblivious to the rain and the mud that had plastered her hair to her face. Edge went closer and smelled and seemed to taste the stench at the back of his throat. He looked down into a jumble of twisted limbs, tangled and matted clothing, bones, skulls partially covered with flesh, with the rictus grin into eternity. This was no heaven, this was the inner reaches of hell in a Balkans forest.
“Jesus!” said Edge.
She rocked back against the slimy side of the trench and looked up at him, a trowel in her hand, “Are you glad you’ve satisfied your curiosity? Happy now?”
Her English was good, clear but heavily accented. He looked at her properly for the first time. The wet t-shirt clung to her thin, oh so bloody thin body. It was obvious just how cold she was. Her pinched face looked at him like she felt hatred for him and his kind. Her eyes seemed to bore into his soul.
“Now you’ve had a look, why don’t you fuck off.”
Edge stepped back, unslung the LSW and his daysack. He crouched down, opened it and pulled out a Gore-Tex jacket, putting it on the parapet of the trench.
“OK, I’ll fuck off. But this is for you to wear. You’re bloody freezing and if you want to join them,” he indicated to the corpses, “Then crack right fucking on. Don’t bother thanking me, because me and my kind have done shit jobs like this for hundreds of years, so I don’t, I really don’t need your fucking thanks.”
Edge moved away feeling a strange emotion, like anger but more of a kind of disappointment. He remembered his words to her and began to feel a little bit precious. She watched him move away into the trees until he was lost in the rain. She picked up the Gore-Tex jacket and pulled it on. Predictably it was too big for her.
The next day Edge avoided the site north of the road, skirting it but keeping it within his patrol area. Captain Gardner noticed that Edge seemed rather quiet and over a tea asked him what was wrong.
“Nothing really, just that bloody woman digging in the site on the other side of the road. What an unfriendly bitch.”
Gardner pinched one of Edge’s cigarettes, “Oh that’s the lovely Ms Jozica Marić. She doesn’t really get on very well with the rest of the UN people here.”
“Really, sir. You do surprise me. Now why ever would that be?”
“Well it’s all these people in the mass graves. The UN desperately want it to have been the Serbs who slotted them, but Ms Marić has a different take on it and what’s worse is that she’s a local. It’s all politics, Mr Edge.”
“So she’s a Serb.”
“No, she’s a Croat from the University of Sarajevo, some sort of forensic anthropologist. She was involved in the war between the Croats and Serbs back in the early nineties. Complicated isn’t it?”
A few days later Edge swung in past the site north of the road again. The woman was supervising the moving of the bodies from the trench, into cardboard coffins then onto a truck. When it was full the truck drove off and she sat against a tree alone.
“Is that all the bodies?” Edge asked. She looked up at him, not exactly brimming with friendliness, but at least she didn’t scowl at him.
“No. There’s another grave over there we’re just starting to excavate.”
“Who were they, Ms Marić?”
“So English soldier. You’ve found out who I am. Did they tell you all about me?”
“Only the nice bits.”
She frowned then looked away. Edge could tell she had the beginnings of a smile, “Are you really interested?”
“I could always fuck off if you want.”
“They were Bosnian Croats. My people.”
“Were they killed by the Serbs?”
“Is that what they told you?” she asked suddenly animated.
“No. I made an assumption.”
She looked at his asymmetric nose and cheek bone that gave him a brutal look, but there was something else behind those eyes that weren’t cold any more, “OK English soldier. You know my name, what is yours?”
“Hedge,” she repeated having a problem with pronouncing the vowel at the beginning of his name.
“No huh, just Edge.” He grinned.
“So you think it so funny how I speak.”
“Oh please wind your neck in. I’m not at war with you.”
“I’ll tell you what, Meester Hedge, assumptions are dangerous round here. You all come here with your pre-conceived notions, poking your noses into something, hoping it will fit your agendas. You don’t know the first thing about our countries our people and our history!”
“I’ll tell you what, lady. I really can’t be arsed listening to your pathetic whinging. We all have our jobs to do. I think your problem is you’ve spent too much time with dead bodies and can’t relate to real people any-more,” He stalked off in a state of high dudgeon.
“Hey, Hedge, do you want your jacket back?”
“Keep it! Stick it up your scrawny arse, and the same goes for the record collection!”
That afternoon Edge was lying on a hillock from where he could observe the main dig site, their vehicles and the road. His LSW was resting on its bipod and he was eating a cheese and sausage bread roll he had pilfered from the café that morning for his lunch. He was upwind from the smell of death. There seemed very little birdsong and even the wildlife gave this place a wide berth. He was enjoying looking at the dappled sunlight dancing through the trees and then stiffened. A familiar figure stalked into the site from the other side of the road. Edge watched her seek out Captain Gardner and engage him in an animated conversation.
After a few minutes, the woman strode off and Gardner yelled: “Corporal Edge, on me!”
“Fuck!” said Edge and lugged up the LSW, doubling down the hill towards the Captain. “Sir. What did Dracula’s daughter want?”
“For some bizarre reason she wants you, Corporal Edge.”
“Apparently she was trying to explain something to you, when you took the hump and disappeared. Ms Marić would very much like to speak with you, to further your education, as she put it.”
“Captain Gardner, she’s completely mental.”
“Better not keep her waiting then.”
Edge reluctantly trudged away and sought out the dig site north of the road. Jozica Marić was sitting on the tailgate of a UN Toyota, legs swinging and she was smoking a small cigarillo.
“What do you want?”
“Corporal Hedge, you flounced, is that the right word? Flounced off while I was trying to explain something to you. I want you to understand something about this country and us. I want to explain to you why everything isn’t black and white.”
“Why the cigars?”
She looked irritated because he had put her off her flow, “They stop the smell so you stink of cigars instead of… Well you know what.”
“Am I really thick and in need of education?” Edge asked, not ready to declare a cease-fire just yet.
She sighed flicked the butt of the cigarillo away, “Why not sit next to me and put that gun down, you make me nervous.”
Edge reluctantly complied, but he leaned the LSW next to him within easy reach.
“Did they tell you anything about Bosnia and Herzegovina before you came out here to save us from ourselves?”
“Not really very much,” Edge admitted, “Just that it was an ethnic mix and that Tito had kept the lid on you lot, until he died.”
“Croatia and Serbia?”
“Some things about Greater Serbia and Serbian ethnic cleansing.”
“And the Ottoman Empire?”
“Nope, nothing. Oh I remember from school that Archduke Franz Ferdinand got slotted in Sarajevo and that started the First World War.”
Jozica Marić sighed again, “So basically, we all lived in peace and harmony for hundreds of years, until a tired old communist dictator died and like naughty children, we were at each other’s throats.”
Edge looked away slightly embarrassed, “Pretty much, Ms Marić. So who killed all the people in this forest and who are they?”
“They are mainly Croats, a very few Serbian women and children. As to who killed them, it’s obvious that some were killed by Serbian militias, but just as many were likely to have been killed by Bosniaks, or Mujahideen who have infiltrated in through Kosovo and Macedonia from Turkey. There are some Bosniaks buried over there where we’re just starting to excavate. They were probably killed by Croats. Not so easy to pick sides now, is it, Hedge?”
He looked away knowing that it was a rhetorical question. He was interested, but annoyed that this woman was lecturing him like a student.
“And of course these mass murders have to have been committed by the Serbs, because the Serbs are the current bad people. Be in no doubt, Hedge, some of the Serbs are evil, just as evil as the Mujahideen or the Croats who shot those people at the edge of the graves they made them dig. But only the Serbs are allowed to be evil in this new world order, President Clinton and your Prime Minister Major have decreed it.”
As she brushed hair out of her eyes with annoyance, Edge regarded her profile. She could have been attractive, but never beautiful, if only she didn’t have an air of perpetual annoyance and impatience. How old was she? Older than him, that was for sure but not by that much. He looked at her body in shorts and t-shirt, but by god she did look undernourished, seeming to exist on cigars and nervous energy. He looked down her legs, the scrawny side of muscular and caked with dirt. She turned to look at him and saw he was gazing at her legs.
“Like my legs, Hedge? Just as well you’re not a tit man, you would be disappointed.”
“You’ve picked up a tick on the back of your left calf, just above the sock.”
She lifted her leg to have a look at it, “Little bastards. I’ll burn it off with my lighter.”
“No,” Edge said urgently unslinging his day sack, “As it dies in agony, all the shit and diseases in its body will be regurgitated into you. That’s Lyme disease and encephalitis and you could end up with an infected sore.”
He pulled a tobacco tin out of his day sack, opened it and found a pair of surgical tweezers. “Hold this tin and put your leg on my thighs. You’ll have to turn away so I can get to it.”
She complied and while he had a good look at the tick she went through his survival kit in the tin. There were fish hooks and line, a wire saw, flint and striker, windproof matches, four-by-two weapon cleaning flannelette, puritabs, modelling knife blades, para cord, trip wire from a claymore for snares, suppositories, antiseptic wipes and a couple of condoms. She waved one in front of his face.
“Ohh, Hedge. You are well prepared, like a good scout.”
“Shut up. This might pinch your skin a bit,” He pressed down on either side of the tick and grasped its head, then rotated it as he pulled it out. He held it up for her to see, its tiny legs wriggling under its growing body.
“Eagh,” she exclaimed with disgust. He threw it down and stamped on it. Edge wiped away the small bead of her blood with an antiseptic wipe.
“Thank you, Doctor Hedge,” she said but at least she was smiling. He smiled back awkwardly, suddenly feeling shy.
“I must get on,” he said.
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file