War Crimes Chapter 14
They were lying in a hide under the trees, about halfway up the steeply sloping valley. From this vantage point they could see the Pristina road and the River Iber winding through the valley below. The two of them had prepared the hide two days previously by making a shallow scrape and draping over the top a well camouflaged tarpaulin. Their hide was indistinguishable from two metres away. Aircraft were rumbling overhead, but otherwise the valley was peaceful, almost idyllic, with very little traffic on the road below.
Minty was on stag, but Edge was awake and gently ruminating on a piece of chorizo sausage and hard cheese, his favourite munchies during the interminably boring OP watches. He cut a piece off the top of the chorizo and offered it to Minty on the end of his Fairbairn Sykes knife. Minty put down the field glasses and shook his head with a grimace. He went into the pocket of his smock and pulled out a slack handful of Haribo Starmix, blowing off dust and debris.
Edge murmured in a low voice: “I’ll kill myself with salt and fat, your choice is sugar and gelatine.”
Minty looked at him, munching on the sweets, “What’s wrong with gelatine?”
Murmuring was better than whispering, because a low murmur didn’t carry as far as a higher-pitched whisper.
“It’s made from the boiled up bones tendons and spinal columns of pigs and mad cow-ridden cattle. You’ll go raving mad, Minty, but worse, you’ll be mooing by the end. You’ll wake up at five every morning, demanding to be milked.”
Minty grinned. When they told him he was going out with Edge, all his mates had commiserated, saying that Edge was a nasty, miserable bastard. In their forty-eight hours of close confinement, Minty had got to know the seething, angry myth that was Sergeant Edge quite well. Minty may have been a signaller and forward air controller, but he was good at reading and understanding people. In a previous life he had been a Registered Mental Nurse with a degree in psychiatry, but became disillusioned with “issues” and the victim culture. He had joined the Army late and qualified for Special Forces even later, against all the odds.
Edge wasn’t angry, at least not all the time. The Edge he was sharing this hide with was considerate, thoughtful and reflective. There wasn’t an anger within Edge, there was a profound sadness. But unfortunately, a Kosovo forest hide wasn’t the place to set out his couch and ink blots.
Edge cradled a .338 L115 A3 sniper rifle, well wrapped with hessian and a LAW anti-tank rocket launcher was lying next to him. Minty had his L119A1/A2 individual weapon, but between them on its tripod was a SOFLAM laser designator and a radio set. They were waiting for Serbian tanks that had been expected to move up from the south and deploy to cover the river crossing. The Serbs had become masters of evading NATO air power by using the terrain and woods to hide, where airborne laser designators couldn’t lock-on.
A laser designator is used to project an intensely focused beam of light a target. This is known as ‘painting the target’. A sensor on an attacking aircraft’s bomb or missile detects the laser beam as it bounces off the painted target. Upon release, the laser-guided munitions follows this aim point, effectively homing in on the beam’s reflection. The laser beam is ‘coded’ which means it shines in specific patterns of pulses. This coding enables the air assets to ensure they are being guided by the correct designator. Laser designators can effectively be used to paint targets for aircraft operating at medium to low level altitudes.
Minty was the forward air controller and he would be directing precision guided munitions onto the tanks hiding under the trees. The only problem was that the Serbian tanks hadn’t pitched up, because they seemed not to have received the memo. He had never directed an air strike in anger before, so Minty was champing at the bit. Edge was far more sanguine. He cut off a chunk off the salty, hard cheese, closed his eyes and remembered being lectured by an undernourished, but infinitely lovely and bitterly-missed Croatian forensic anthropologist, about goodies and baddies in unnecessary wars of choice. Kosovo was the Prime Minister’s second major war of choice and when clueless politicians get a messianic complex, people like Edge had to go out and kill or be killed. He knew the score and would never ask for pity or even sympathy. It was an outdoor life and the cheese was particularly good, while the chorizo was disappointing.
They spent a totally uneventful night and Edge decided to give it twenty-four more hours and then they would bug out. They would be running short of water and Edge’s old kidney and bladder problem, courtesy of a couple of Anglophobic, German policemen would flare up.
The following morning Edge was asleep having been on stag for most of the night. He enjoyed the feel of the darkness and listening to the wildlife, while Minty snored gently. Now Minty was watching the mist gently roll through the valley, following the course of the river. It was beautiful and almost impossible to identify the wooded valley as a war zone. It was too early for the NATO pilots to get out of bed and Minty lay and watched the view, accompanied by the backdrop of bird song. He remembered his previous life and the frustration of dealing with people with “mental health issues,” but really they just had unrealistic expectations of life. The really mentally ill patients were zombified with pharmaceuticals and should have been in secure units that didn’t exist. It was a loss to Minty and his family, why he had ever elected to go into the caring profession, particularly as a Registered Mental Nurse.
He liked nothing better than the smell of the earth and forest, sharing a covert hide with such a complex, kindred spirit as Sergeant Mark Edge. It was the nature of their job that they might never operate together on a solo mission such as this again, but everyone knew everyone in the Special Forces. Except that is for the boys and girls of the “Det,” who kept themselves very much to themselves. It the truth were known, some of the people in the “Det” frightened the hell out of the Blades.
At 07:30 Minty heard vehicle engines from the valley below. He estimated there were three vehicles, but no sounds of tracks. He tried to peer down into the mist, then used the IR on the SOFLAM, which confirmed an eight-wheeled armoured personnel carrier and two technicals. The imaging was poor through the moisture of the mist, but sufficient to count vehicles. The vehicles’ engines were still running, but they had pulled off the road, under the trees by the bridge. He gently nudged Edge’s boot with his own.
“What is it, Minty?”
“We’ve got company down by the bridge. The wrong kind. Two pick-ups, technicals and an APC.”
“How many bodies?”
“Can’t tell. The IR isn’t powerful enough to pick out body heat through the mist.”
Edge started to pummel his legs to get the circulation going, then peered through the SOFLAM, down into the valley.
“OK, well this definitely wasn’t in the script,” Edge said picking up his rifle, “I’ll go down and have a shufti. The mist should give me enough cover, but if I’m not back in twenty, get the hell out.”
“That wasn’t in the script either, Edge.”
He grinned at him and wriggled out from under the tarpaulin, “Whatever you do, Minty, don’t talk to any strange men.”
Minty sighed and looked at his watch, then tracked Edge’s progress down through the trees through the SOFLAM, until his thermal image was lost in the mist. By the time he made it back some eighteen minutes later, the higher sun was beginning to burn off the haze. Edge wriggled in and pulled off his head-over. He was sweating with the exertion of clambering back up the slope.
“I think either them or us are in the wrong production. They’re bloody Mujahedeen. There must be around fifteen to twenty of them.”
There were around 1.6 million Muslims, 150,000 Serb Orthodox and 60,000 Roman Catholics in Kosovo at the time of the Kosovo war of 1998-99. Once again it had been spun by the US President, Britain’s Prime Minister and a supine and compliant media as a war of Serbian aggression against ethic Kosovars, i.e. Albanian Muslims. As in the Bosnian War this was at best and over-simplification, a snapshot in time of over 500 years, or a deliberate attempt to weaken Serb and therefore Russian influence in the Balkans. The Kosovars attacked Serb military positions and undertook ethnic cleansing, to remove Orthodox Serbs and Catholics from the state. The Serbs retaliated, and it was to this retaliation that politicians arm-twisted an effectively useless NATO that had lost the raison d’etre for its existence, into retaliating. The Serbs were the baddies in Camp David world of high-fiving and towel flicking. The Kosovans were the poor, oppressed Muslims (except the M word was never mentioned in news reports), that NATO had a duty to protect. The more astute cynics noted that the War in Kosovo was more of a tactic to divert attention away from the US President’s penchant, for using the vagina of a young intern as a cigar humidifier. And we all fell for it, hook, line and sinker. Well not all of us. People like Edge and Minty, the people on the ground understood the grim realities of ethnic and religious civil wars.
“What do you reckon, Minty? Bug out or stay?”
“Jeez, Edge. Why do you ask me? I’m the magic fairy who talks to the pilots. You’re the steely-eyed killer.”
“Because we’re a team.”
“Let’s see how it pans out then.”
It was to pan out very badly as it turned out.
By mid-morning the sun had burned away the mist and the two of them could just about see the technicals drawn up under the trees. An attempt had been made to camouflage the APC which was recognisable as a BTR 60 and they could watch the Mujahedeen make a meal and dig in.
“We could call in an air strike to whack ‘em,” Edge suggested belligerently.
“The trouble is, they’re not the bad guys. It’s Serbian tanks we’re after. We can’t break radio silence until the approved bad guys turn up.”
By 10:30 the situation was further complicated when a decrepit Kosovar bus, that looked more like a 1970s British coach trundled down the valley from the north. The armed Mujahideen stopped the vehicle at gunpoint and ordered everyone off.
“Minty, this is going to get interesting in a bad way,” Edge said grimly, watching the tableaux unfolding through field glasses.
It was Mujahedeen SOPs the world over, whether a bus on the Somali/Kenyan border or a convoy in the Lebanon, the armed men separated the passengers into two groups. It wasn’t hard to guess which religious factions the two groups were comprised of. Edge grabbed Minty’s sleeve and talked to him forcibly face-to-face.
“The killing will soon start. They will slaughter all the non-Muslims. Our mission is compromised and we must extract. You will have to lug the designator and the radio and head for the primary pick-up point. If you are in trouble, destroy the Krypto, but you must make the primary pick up. I’ll distract them and head for the secondary pick-up within twelve hours. But you must go now!”
“Bollocks, Edge. We’ll both do this.”
“I’m the steely-eyed killer. Remember, you told me that. You’re the important person now. I’ll wait until you’re clear before I ruin their day.”
“Just fucking go, Minty. And you had better tell them to come and get me. Can you manage the radio and designator?”
Minty who was built like a brick shithouse, glowered at him.
“Good luck, Minty.”
“Fuck you, Edge.”
Edge shook his hand and slithered out of the hide, lugging his sniper rifle and the LAW rocket launcher. He made it down about fifty metres before the first shots came from the road below. He went down behind a tree, half-sitting, supporting the rifle on his knee. He looked down at the vehicles through the Schmitd & Bender telescopic sight and evaluated the main threats. The men from the bus and some of the women were kneeling by the ditch at the side of the road, while a Mujahedeen in a headscarf was shooting them in the back of the head. What he assumed were the Muslim passengers were filing back on the bus. A second group of younger women were partially in the woods and were being forced to strip by two armed men.
Edge took aim, steadied his breathing and the head of the man who was shooting the kneeling passengers exploded. Less than two seconds later. One of the men who was forcing the passengers to undress went face down as the .338 Lupa Magnum round hit him between the shoulder blades. Amid the confusion down on the road, Edge changed position, tracking down left, crossed the river and then sprinted across the road. He was desperately and silently willing the non-Muslims to make a run for it, but they seemed stupefied by events.
He moved stealthily through the trees, pretty sure that Minty should have been well clear by now. He unslung the LAW and knelt behind a tree, extended it, raised the sight and switched off the weapon’s safety. Edged aimed at the APC, the BTR’s commander was in the top hatch of the hull, swinging the heavy machine gun towards the slope on the other side of the road. At around 200 metres, the APC was at the limit of the LAW’s effective range. Edge aimed just above the middle of the wheels and pulled the trigger. The percussion cap ignited the LAW’s rocket motor and the projectile left the tube, its fins unfolding. The missile hit the APC just in front and below the turret at 145 metres/second. At first he thought he had missed, but the BTR 60 lurched and Edge was gratified to see the vehicle commander shoot upwards at the tip of a column of flame from the turret hatch. He threw away the now useless LAW tube, grabbed the rifle and ran north along the side of the road. At last, some of the passengers were running for their lives into the woods.
From behind he could hear the sound of the technicials’ engines starting up. It seemed as though the Mujahedeen attention was now focused on whoever had destroyed the APC. Edge went to ground in a ditch overhung with trees. He couldn’t see anything down the road from where he had come from and sidled forward to peer down just as a technical fired down the road towards his position. The fire was inaccurate, but it was a heavy machine gun and proved that they had a pretty good idea where he had gone. This was bad. He was stuck the wrong side of the river and road, with an enemy that seemed pretty good at their craft, rape and murder aside. He aimed prone at the gunner on the nearest technical and fired. What seemed like a puff of dust erupted from the man’s shoulder and he folded behind the pick-up’s cab. Then he was on his feet and tearing across the road, through the vegetation and down into the river. It was deeper and faster moving here and as Edge held the rifle out of the water and half kicked and swam across to the other side, heavy calibre rounds and tracer streaked and cracked overhead.
He would be vulnerable as he clambered up the river bank and into the trees. Edge looked to his left and saw several Mujahideen fording the river to cut him off. He fired leaning on the river bank and dropped one and fired again at the windscreen of a technical moving up the road towards him. The vehicle slewed to a halt and Edge was up the bank and zig-zagging into the trees. Heavy machine gun rounds and tracer reached for him and a round hit the trunk of a tree next to his head, partially blinding him with wood and bark fragments. This was bloody bad, Edge concluded as he wiped blood out of his eye and ran up the steep slope into the trees.
Who are these bastards? Edge asked himself as he raced up the slope, ducking and diving around trees. Part of him knew. These were no Saudis or Syrians looking for a bit of fun-filled Jihad. These had to be Chechens, fighters who loved nothing more than mixing it with the Russians, and Edge concluded that he was in serious shit. He had lost the advantage of range that the sniper rifle had afforded him. He was in the forest where the fighting would be close in and he had the wrong kind of weapon, which had five rounds left in the box magazine and a further ten rounds in a magazine in his chest rig. Once again, Edge’s noble (or stupid) intentions had dropped him in the shit and he was convinced, as he was on many occasions, that God was having a laugh with him. In reality Edge was having a laugh with himself.
He stopped to listen, his pulse throbbing in his temples, chest heaving. Little black dots were dancing in front of his eyes, like thunder flies on a hot, summer afternoon. He could hear the movement of several bodies in the undergrowth down below. No voices or shouting, they were too good for that and then there was silence. Edge felt a cold chill in his guts. They had stopped to listen for him, or at least some of them had, while the others pressed on silently. He did the same, moving as swiftly and as silently as he could, half running and half climbing up the steep slope.
Higher up the forest slope, the trees thinned and he crossed a firebreak or track that showed signs of logging activity, judging by the heavy tyre tracks in the mud. In the trees the other side, Edge went to ground selecting a depression that gave him a degree of cover and from where he could cover the track. He could hear them coming up the slope and thought he saw a figure pause in the undergrowth about 100 metres away, before crossing the track. Edge peered through the sight and saw grass and fern fronds move. He aimed low and sent down two rounds. Two Mujahedeen burst from cover to dash across the track. The first made it, the second didn’t, going down with a puff of bloody dust from his chest. Edge fired his remaining two rounds into the vegetation to keep the others pinned on the other side of the track, then changed magazine. Apart from his Sig pistol, tucked inside his chest rig, he was down to ten rounds for the rifle.
The Mujahedeen bracketed his position with suppressing fire, short bursts to keep him pinned while their brothers worked through the trees towards him. Edge realised that his position had outlived its usefulness, and trying to ignore the rounds cracking over and past him, he pressed on up the slope. By now he was becoming exhausted and debated doubling back, but that would lead him back into danger and away from his pick-up-point. While he was fitter than they probably were, there were at least fifteen of them in pursuit. Edge had woefully underestimated the numbers of Mujahedeen during his first recce in the mist. He decided to find another position, perhaps on the crest of the hills, make a determined stand, then leg it down the other side, hoping to outdistance them. The only problem was, there were more of them than he had rounds.
By now Edges left eye was throbbing with pain and he had lost some of the central vision. A pine martin jumped between two trees as he laboured up the slope, but he knew he was getting near the crest of the hills because the trees were thinning. Before he broke cover he saw the ground clear and gently slope away to a cluster of buildings about 400 metres away, which he guessed was a meteorological station. There was absolutely no cover between the treeline, the buildings and 500 meters beyond the buildings, the forest starting again to slope down into the next valley. The verse from a poem slipped into his desperate thoughts, unbidden, but strangely comforting…
‘Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?’
But it doesn’t work, does it? Edge thought grimly. I need two more. He went into a comfortable firing position and prepared to sell his life dearly. He loosened the Velcro on the inner pocket of the chest rig, pulled out the Sig, cocked it and slipped it back in. That one’s for the end and may God forgive me.
He spotted the first one, just paused by the edge of the forest, about 150 metres away. They are bloody consistent, I’ll give them that. They moved towards him in a skirmish line, staying in the verge of the forest, but spreading out and moving towards the area where they were pretty sure he was. The instant he fired, Edge’s position would be compromised and although he could get two, perhaps three, there were still at least ten and unlike him, they weren’t afraid of death.
One of them leaned just the wrong side of the tree he had been using as cover, and Edge blew off his shoulder and left arm. He killed a second just as he raised his AK47, but then the rounds were coming down. Despite the flash eliminator, they had pinged him, probably by the dust kicked up by the rounds exiting the muzzle. Edge aimed for a muzzle flash whenever he could see one, but figures moved out of the trees on each flank, crawling and using the minimum natural cover most effectively. They had already guessed the limitations of his weapon
“And now I really am fucked.” He mumbled to himself. One of the Mujahideen forgot to keep his arse down while he was crawling, so Edge obligingly shot him through the buttocks.
Can I make 400 metres to the buildings?
Doubtful, but let’s just suppose that you make it. What then?
Fucked if I know.
Edge fired off the last three rounds at the crawling fighters, or at least where he thought they were. He dropped the rifle and leaped to his feet, sprinting in a zig-zag towards the buildings. The Gillie suit was slowing him down. It was like sprinting in soft sand wearing a wet clown’s suit.
But I can make this, I can fucking do this! He couldn’t.
The 7.62 round passed through his left side at around 700 metres per second. Fortunately it missed his kidney and descending colon, but the round nicked the top of his hipbone’s iliac crest. The sonic wave and cavitation ripped his side open like he had been hit double-handed with the blade of a claymore, and that is exactly what it felt like. Edge was bowled round and dumped in the dust.
Unconsciously he grabbed the Sig, held himself up on one elbow, knowing that the round’s damage made further running impossible and made ready to die. He didn’t bother with any, why me, or bemoan the damned unfairness of it all. There was a Mujahedeen within fifteen metres approaching him cautiously with one holding back, covering with his AK. They obviously wanted him alive, which boded badly for his future health and probably meant a special appearance on Al Jazeera, wearing an orange boiler suit.
Edge dropped the nearest with two shots and fired at the second, who went to ground. He closed his eyes and stuck the muzzle of the Sig in his mouth.
Sorry, Moira my love. It wasn’t to be and you had a lucky escape.
Be with you shortly, Jozica. Get ready to have your bones rattled.
Receive, Lord, your servant into the place of salvation, which he hopes to obtain through your mercy.
The bursts of fire were closer now. Fast but very controlled, too fast for an AK 47. Edge opened his eyes and stared into the dead eyes of a Mujahedeen who was glaring into perpetuity. A man approached, a bloody big man. Every so often he would pause and fire at something on the ground, constantly going down and sweeping the tree line. As he got closer he looked at Edge.
“I’d put that down if I were you, you might hurt yourself.”
“Minty? I thought I’d told you to fuck off.”
“Oh, don’t bother thanking me, Edge.”
Edge slumped down, shaking with fear and sudden exhaustion. The Sig fell from his hand, “My rifle, it’s over by the trees. Could you get it for me please?”
Minty cut away the Gillie suit around the spreading and impressive patch of blood and applied Edge’s first field dressing, “That might not be such a good idea, Edge. There may be one or two still knocking around and I doubt they’ll bill you for it.”
“It’s on its way. I’m the magic fairy who talks to pilots, remember?”
Within minutes they could hear helicopters and Minty activated a smoke flare to mark the landing site and wind direction. A CH-53 Sea Stallion swept along the tree line, hosing it down with its miniguns, before flaring into land. The SEAL team went into all-round defence while the medical team of four approached with a stretcher. They continued to work on Edge in the back of the cab back to the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt and he was operated on in the ships Role 2 enhanced medical facility, to debride the wound and stitch it back up with a drain. He was also given an injection of broad spectrum antibiotics. Edge had been extremely lucky apart from a bone chip that was removed and some muscular damage, his vital organs were untouched. He had fragments of wood removed from his eye and wore a patch while it healed. Minty visited him that night in the sick-bay’s ward.
“Ahahahahaaarg. How are you feeling?”
“OK and thanks, Minty. I owe you big time,”
Minty pulled up a chair and sat next to the ward bed, “I can’t stay long. A chopper’s going to fly me to Gioia del Colle and then home with any luck.”
Edge looked at Minty out of his good eye and smiled. Once again, it was a different Edge, the kind and sad version.
“Sorry you didn’t get to do your job and talk to the winged master race. I know you were looking forward to it. But you more than did mine.”
Minty had wanted to ask him about why there was such melancholy in Edge’s life, and why it seemed as though he had wanted to kill himself. But he lost his nerve.
“Err, it doesn’t matter.”
After their reports, specifically Minty’s, Edge was recommended for the Military Cross. This was blocked at Prime-Ministerial level, because Edge and Minty had been fighting and prolifically killing the “wrong” baddies. Edge for his part, insisted that if there were to be any awards, they should go to Minty. The political spin machine had reckoned without the very forcible intervention of the Regiment’s Colonel-in-Chief, who threatened to raise the spectre of the whole flawed reasoning behind the Kosovo War and British involvement. Edge and Minty were Gazetted in September of that year. Edge was awarded the Military Cross and Minty was Mentioned in Dispatches. Edge always maintained that if anything, it should have been the other way round.
He was admitted for a short rehabilitation at Headley Court and went to Devon on sick leave. Moira spoiled him and called him, (when he showed her the medal with its purple and white ribbon) “her brave little soldier.” Edge would grimace at her and try not to think about just how terrified he had been. Foolishly, he never told her about the constant, drawing ache in his side. It takes the human body a long time to heal from the cavitation caused by the transit of a high velocity bound through subcutaneous tissue. He married Moira in the October of that year.
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file