War Crimes Part 8
The life could have been idyllic except for Jozica Marić and her irritating ability to get under Edge’s skin. Whenever she was around, cropping up at the other dig sites or talking to Captain Gardner, he felt awkward. He hated the way they would be talking, then suddenly look at him and smile at one another. If he passed her dig site she would look at him and then say something to whoever she was with in Croat and they would share a joke. It was as though he provided her with permanent amusement and he was getting sick of it. She would sometimes say: “Good morning, Hedge,” and then chortle, look, no nasty ticks.
Bored one evening, lying on his bed and listening to the BBC World Service, Edge tried to work out why she seemed to treat him with such contempt. OK, so admittedly he knew absolutely nothing about Bosnia and Herzegovina, apart from what he had been told during the pre-deployment training at Tidworth. It had always been Yugoslavia as far as he was concerned. Edge was willing to bet she knew fuck all about Warwickshire, Bosworth Field (was that in Warwickshire? Edge wasn’t sure) and the county coat of arms of a bear shagging a tree.
He had tried to be nice to her. He had given her his best Gore-Tex jacket. Well actually not his best one. That was an American jacket he’d swapped for six twenty-four-hour ration packs. For some reason the Yanks went mad for them. He’d given her his issue Soldier 95 jacket. And he had spotted that tick and stopped her from burning it off. He suddenly remembered the feel of her legs on his thigh and buried the thought.
And she was an ugly, titless, scrawny bitch. Lank hair, bony cheeks. And she smoked bloody cigars. She had dirty nails. She was patronising, lecturing him like a particular dullard of a student. She was rude, her English was crap and she couldn’t even say his name properly…
And I so badly want to fuck her.
Pull yourself together! Edge went and had another shower, got changed into his civvies and went looking for a bar. He found the Caffe Bar Ključ and ordered a beer. He knew he shouldn’t have gone out alone, but he didn’t feel like socialising with RMPs and Captain Gardner was, well an officer. He sat in a corner and watched a Bosnian quiz show that seemed to involve lovely, underdressed women answering questions to win a holiday with some Balkan studmuffins.
A group of men in a mixture of combat trousers and mufti, regarded him with interest and one of them waved the proprietor over. It was obvious that they were asking him who Edge was. He hoped that nothing was going to kick off, but had taken the precaution of bringing his Browning, which against regulations and all disciplined weapon handling best-practice, was tucked into the rear waistband of his jeans, the barrel pointing down towards the crack of his arse. He reasoned that wearing the holster in plain view would have been asking for trouble. Edge finished his beer unhurriedly, left some money on the table and went out into the night. He waited up a darkened alley to see if anyone had followed him, but nobody did.
Back at the patrol house, Edge grabbed some biscuits brown and tinned meat paste from one of the ration packs in the kitchen. He tossed them on his bed and unloaded the Browning, putting it back in the padlocked ammo box that was D-locked to the bed frame, along with the LSW. He lay on the bed and slowly ate the biscuits and paste, wondering how the hell he was going to pluck up enough courage to make a complete fool of himself.
The following morning Captain Gardner told them he had to go back to Banja Luka for a mail run and to pick up supplies, returning the following morning. He would take the RMP Land Rover along with the RMP corporal. He gave the RMP Sergeant and Edge their daily orders, told them not to have any wild parties and reiterated that the Sergeant was to radio in a sitrep to BLMF at 19:00.
At the dig site, Edge spent more time than usual skirting the encampment north of the road. On his fifth unobtrusive pass he finally saw that Jozica Marić was on her own and that the UN pick-up had gone. In agonies of reticence and under confidence, Edge made a final shit or bust pass, but she wasn’t there.
“Fuck!” said Edge. Where the hell had she gone? He almost physically recoiled as she stepped out from behind the trees.
“Fuck? Fuck, Mister Hedge?”
“Where the hell have you been?” he blurted out.
She regarded him with puzzled amusement, “Hedge, this is a forest and it’s a long walk to the Portaloos. What do you do when you need to go?”
“Err, sorry. My mistake. I’ll be off. Just worried that you weren’t around. I hope you washed your hands.”
He turned away, his face burning, cursing under his breath. Fucking blown it, haven’t I?
“Hey, Hedge. Have you got any of that tea in your flask that melts dental fillings?”
“Err, yes. You want some?”
He unslung his daysack and they hunkered down under the trees as a light drizzle fell, pooling as huge droplets that ran down the fir branches and dripped onto the needles. They sat against the bole of a tree and she sipped the tea. The steam fogged the air in the suddenly chill morning.
“It is so sweet. Lovely. Reminds me of being a child again,” she pulled out a tin of cigarillos and offered one to Edge. He felt too self-conscious to refuse and he lit them both with a zippo. They passed the time in companionable silence, but he was writhing inside. What do I do now? What do I say? She’s older and cleverer than me?
“Now, Hedge. Why the hurry? You seem to have something on your mind.”
“Nothing really. I was just wondering where you sleep” Damn, that sounded so fucking stupid. “I mean where do you stay when you’re not..?”
“In a hotel. The hotel Ključ, which is about six kilometres up the road from here. It’s a nice hotel, good UN rates and they love having us, because we pay five times more than everyone else. But how I hate the UN,” she said with passion.
“Oh, so where do you eat?”
“It depends. Sometimes the Ključ kod Ramadana or the Kula, depending what the others are doing, so I can avoid them.”
Edge felt his heart sink. I’m trying to chat up a bloody misanthrope, he thought bitterly. He felt his resolve leave him, but remembered Horace Cutler’s words to him at the court martial.
…but you have gone face to face with IRA bastards and prevailed.
“Why are you so concerned about my sleeping and eating arrangements, Hedge?”
“Because I want to ask you if you would like to have a meal with me.” He blurted out again.
Jozica Marić stared at him in surprise, smiled and then began to laugh.
Edge stood up quickly and grabbed the cup of the flask off her, emptied it out and stowed the flask in his day sack.
“OK, OK I know the fucking drill. And I am fucking off right now,” he grabbed the LSW and stalked away.
“Hey, Hedge,” she called after him.
“What!” he yelled turning round.
“I thought you were never going to ask.”
They had shared a bottle of red wine, which was nearly finished, so Edge ordered another one. The meal had been simple consisting of Ćevapi, a form of kebabs served on a flatbread, and meat and rice served in grape leaves. Edge felt the alcohol and her company lift his soul. The Kula restaurant wasn’t busy and they were tucked away in an alcove, which had amused them. They were waiting for the cheeses and Jozica was continuing Edge’s education in European history.
“You English don’t understand how lucky you are. While you were fighting your civil wars, interfering in European affairs and building your navy, the Bosnians were either fighting Islam or ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The Muslims enslaved our people for four centuries, while you were carving out an empire in India and the Americas. We were a frontier province between Islam and the Christian West and we have known nothing but war for over five-hundred years. The Turks were defeated by the Russians in 1877, after the bloody suppression of an uprising in Bulgaria and eventually the Austro-Hungarian pushed back the Ottomans and once again we were enslaved, but with new masters. But the Muslims never really went away. They stayed and “integrated,” but they have never truly integrated.
“And during the Second World War, you English bastards played one off against the other. You armed the Chetniks, Serbs, who killed Jews, Croats and anyone including the Muslim Bosniaks. The Chetniks wanted a Greater Serbia, but the Bosniaks were no better, killing 340,000 Bosnian Serbs with German weapons, forming the first non-German SS Division in 1941. Tito at least tried to form the Partisans along multi-ethnic lines and the Bosnian War of 1992 to 1995 was just a continuation of the wars that have been fought since the fifteenth century. And your fucking John Major sends poor, clueless boys like you, to a place you do not understand the first thing about!”
Edge put his hand on hers, “I’m not your enemy. I’ve already told you, I’m not at war with you. I’m just here and you lot don’t need any help from me to pick enemies.”
Over the cheese and more wine, Jozica asked Edge about England, where he came from and why he had wanted to join the Army, when the English weren’t at war with anyone.
“Not strictly true,” he told her, “We are at war with Irish republican terrorism.”
“Ireland is not England. Just let the Irish have it.”
So Edge proceeded to give her a lesson on the bitterly intertwined histories of Ireland, Scotland and England and it was her turn to be educated, albeit from the perspective of a humble British soldier. It was nearly 22:00 by the time the wine and cheese had gone. He tried to pay for the meal, but she wasn’t having any of it, explaining that her allowance for one meal was over three times what they had both been charged for it.
“I’ll walk you back to your hotel. The patrol house is over the other side of town.”
She looked at him evenly, a serious and a soulful expression in her eyes, “Hedge, there is a certain inevitability about moments such as these. They are brief, like a shooting star in a dark morning sky. If you miss it, you won’t even know that it was ever there.”
She was lying with her head on his shoulder, her thin body curled into his for warmth. Edge lay on his back, looking at the pre-dawn light above the curtains and decided that he needed a pee. He gently moved away so as not to wake her.
“Where are you going, Hedge?”
“To syphon the python.”
“Huh, some python. Don’t be too long and wash your hands,” she said sleepily.
When he slid in next to her again he regarded her body, so thin but she had a hunger that had astonished him, a very noisy hunger. She went up on one elbow.
“Hedge, what happened to your face? You could be such a pretty boy apart from that nose. It makes you look like a killer and those eyes of yours. When I first saw them I thought you wanted to kill me. You seem angry sometimes, like a volcano waiting to erupt.”
“Some German policeman didn’t like the look of me and decided to re-arrange my face.”
“Germans,” she scoffed, “Biggest bunch of bastards in Europe. They should have been kept partitioned. They will try to take over Europe once again if you Brits and the French let them.”
“Do you know why the French roads are lined with trees?” Edge asked her. She shook her head.
“So the German army can march in the shade.”
She giggled and lay back on the bed, totally unashamed and he traced his finger down over her flat stomach.
“While we’re on the subject of personal questions, Jozica, what do those strange tattoos just here signify?” he asked indicating with the finger just above her mons veneris. To his surprise she turned away angrily.
“Don’t ever ask me that again, Hedge! I don’t want to talk about it. Never again, you understand?”
“Ok, calm down. Just asking. Jeeez.” He looked at his watch and it was half-five, “I’d better be heading back before I’m missed.”
“Please don’t go just yet,” she demanded, wrapping her arms round him, “I can make sure you want to stay.”
And she did.
They were insatiable, the original Martini couple. Edge would try and stay away from her dig site, but she sought him out at lunchtime and they would disappear into the forest. He knew he was being unprofessional, but he couldn’t help himself. As well as the obvious lust, they both had other feelings and tender moments together. He hadn’t slept at the patrol house for nights and Captain Gardner was no fool. One morning as they drove from Ključ, Gardner gently warned Edge.
“I know you can’t keep your hands off each other, but for God’s sake be careful.”
Edge stared at him in astonishment.
“It’s bloody obvious how you feel about one another, but it’s doomed, Edge lad. Enjoy it while you can, but there will be no happily ever after.”
Edge scowled, “You don’t approve, sir.”
“No Mr Edge I bloody well don’t. I’m the officer. I should get the totty,” they both smiled, “But I mean what I say. Don’t disturb the delicate balance of this place, because we’re just passing through while you’re ploughing your furrow.”
And within a few days everything changed. Edge was watching the main dig when he heard a vehicle on the road come to a halt and the sound of doors slamming. Cautiously he advanced through the trees, the LSW side slung to look unthreatening, but from where he could quickly bring it up into a firing position. The vehicle was a UAZ light utility vehicle, formerly of the Yugoslavian army. About six men were around the UAZ, wearing dark combat clothing, black head caps and armed with LAWs and the ubiquitous AK range of assault rifles. One of the men, the leader was talking to Jozica Marić. The situation didn’t feel right.
Edge moved cautiously into view and he could see the badges of the Serb militia with the two-headed eagle. Some of the men he recognised from his evening in the Caffe Bar Ključ. The man talking at Jozica also had a nasty looking dog on a leash, some kind of Doberman Pinscher hybrid. It was straining on the leash and constantly growling. As Edge moved down towards the road, the Serbian militia unslung their weapons. Edge moved the LSW to high port and undid the sling’s front clip.
“Good morning, gentlemen. Can I be of assistance?”
The Serb leader looked at Edge and grinned, “Hey Englishman. I am talking to my lovely friend here, making sure she does not say any bad things about my brothers, regarding these poor unfortunate people.”
“Nevertheless, this site is under our protection. I think you should go.”
“Englishman. This is my country. It is you who should go,” the dog was growling and slavering, straining to get at Edge, “And even Radić agrees with me, don’t you boy?”
“This site is under our protection and I will take all necessary measures to protect these people.”
The Serb laughed and bent down to slip the dog’s leash. In the time it took to let slip the dog and for it to bound forward, Edge had cocked the LSW and brought it into the aim, not easy given his left hand had to reach across the weapon for the cocking handle. The dog was airborne, jaws open to rip out his throat when Edge fired a three round burst. The 5.56mm rounds were small but travelling at supersonic speed. They began to break apart and tumble as they destroyed the dogs head, causing massive cavitation with the shockwaves. The dog’s entrails and spinal column were blown out of its anus. As the dead animal thudded on the ground, Edge advanced until his weapon was pointing directly at the Serb leaders head.
“Tell your pals to point their weapons away from me, otherwise your fucking head goes the same way as your fucking dog’s. And I will slot you the instant I hear a safety catch going off.”
He accepted that it wasn’t a strictly legal warning, given the wording on his card alpha. But now Edge was in a Mexican stand-off where neither side could back down. Jozica shouted something in Serbo-croat, but the militia leader merely snarled, his eyes never leaving Edge’s. From behind him he heard the sound of SA80s being cocked and Captain Gardner’s voice booming out.
“Stand down gentlemen. You as well Edge.”
He lowered the LSW. The Serbs looked uneasily at their leader and lowered their weapons.
“Be so good as to get back in your vehicle and fuck off. There’s good gentlemen.”
The Serb militia leader indicated that they should comply, but spoke a final few words to Edge in a low voice, “You killed my dog and you will pay for it! I will remember you name, Edge.”
As the vehicle backed up the road Jozica asked him what he had said.
“Just that he didn’t like me very much,” as she turned away there were tears in her eyes.
“God’s sake, Edge,” Gardner said to him once she was out of earshot, “If you’re not fucking the locals, you’re shooting their dogs.”
But Gardner was worried by this development, very worried and reported it on that night’s radio sitrep to BLMF, asking if they would consider sending some extra men. That night Edge and Jozica spent a long tender night together, once the imperative of their lust had been satisfied.
“Who was that Serb bastard this morning and what did he want with you?” he asked and she sighed.
“His name is Jakovljević Milorad and he is a prominent leader of the Army of the Republika Srpska. He and his men were very active during the first of the new wars. He is evil. They have come back and have set up in an old hostel in Velagići.”
“He seems to know you.”
Jozica sat on the edge of the bed and lit a cigarillo, “I wish you wouldn’t smoke those bloody things. It’s like kissing Winston Churchill.”
“Those little marks on my body are Cyrillic numbers. He put them there. I was his Croatian whore.”
“No secrets, Edge. I was used as his whore until I escaped, but you never really can properly escape. He wants me to say that those people in the graves were killed by Croats and Bosniaks.”
“But I thought you said that they were, well some of them”
“He is paranoid, and you today, killed the most important thing in his life.”
“This country is fucked up. Why don’t you leave?”
“And go where, Hedge?”
Come back to England with me. I’ll come and get you when I go on post-operational leave. We’ll meet in Dubrovnik and you can lecture me all about its history.”
“I will, I swear it, I love you!” he exclaimed and then felt foolish. She was too intelligent for the likes of him.
“Perhaps I do as well. You never know. It might work…”
The following morning she still hadn’t appeared by 10:00 and Edge was worried. He asked the Babushka in the trench and the old lady shrugged. She still hadn’t appeared by the evening and Edge ignored Gardner’s instructions and went to the hotel, where eventually he tracked down someone who could speak passable English.
“She left this morning and hasn’t returned, mister. Sorry, I don’t know where she is.”
The next day Edge was frantic, pacing anxiously round the site. He couldn’t eat and he was operating on nervous energy. Gardner tried to placate him with no avail, and even the RMP were considerate towards him, telling him not to worry.
At 11:00 that morning, a UAZ swept past on the road, slowed down and a bundle was dumped out of the back, before the vehicle sped off. Gardner yelled at the RMPs: “Sergeant Clements, Corporal Waring, find Corporal Edge and make sure he doesn’t come anywhere near this. Arrest him if you have to!”
Gardner went down onto the road and stared in horror at the naked corpse of Jozica Marić. There wasn’t an inch of her frail body that hadn’t been burned, cut or bruised. A piece of paper had been rammed into her mouth and he pulled it out and unfolded it. It said:
YOU KILLED MY DOG. I KILLED YOUR BITCH. WE MADE SURE IT TOOK A LONG TIME FOR HER TO DIE. REMEMBER THAT.
Her dead eyes stared at him from eternity and he gently closed them, pulled a poncho out of his day sack and covered her remains.
Edge picked up the keys of the FFR from the kitchen and lugged the LSW out to the Land Rover. He placed the LSW in the passenger’s seat and as he climbed into the driver’s seat, the spare magazines in his smock pocket clunked on the metalwork. He was going out to die that night, but Jakovljević Milorad and as many of his henchmen as possible were going to go with him. He put the vehicle keys in the ignition.
“Don’t do this, Edge,” said a voice from the rear of the vehicle.
“With all due respect, sir. Fuck off and let me get on with it.”
“Sorry, Edge. I can’t let you do this,” Captain Gardner placed the muzzle of his Browning in the nape of Edge’s neck, “I will use it if I have to.”
“Why?” Edge demanded hammering the dashboard with his fists.
“Because I’m not letting you off the hook in suicide by Serb. You have to live with the consequences of your actions. You killed that woman as surely as if you had put a gun to her head.”
“But what else could I have done?” Edge almost howled in anguish.
“Probably nothing, but every decision you take in life has a consequence. You should know that as a soldier. That’s why it’s such a shit job. It’s called the butterfly effect, chaos theory and this place is a perfect example of chaos theory in action. Except you didn’t step on a butterfly, oh no, you blew a warlord’s dog’s brain out through its arse.”
“I loved her,” he said miserably too ashamed to weep.
“I know you did, lad. And she loved you. She told me that almost from the start. She so wanted you to speak to her, but she was shy as well, probably why she gave you such a hard time. That’s why we used to laugh, every time you haughtily stalked past, looking like the universal soldier. I really am so very sorry, Mark Edge.”
“What happens now? How can I live with this?”
“You unload your weapon, give me the Browning and we’ll discuss your options. I have a bottle of good quality malt in my room. You can help me finish it.”
He patted the young soldier on the back because he knew that Edge was silently weeping. He also knew that the Mark Edge who would leave that Bosnian forest was a very different man to the boy who had entered it.
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file