So, the secret is out – I have completed the manuscript for my latest book; “Drawn To Danger”!
“Drawn To Danger” is the much-anticipated sequel to; “The Big Yank – Memoir of a Boy Growing Up Irish.” It comes after nearly two years of writing (in a few different international locations) and two years of being asked by readers of TBY; when can we read the sequel?
Although it is a sequel, I was always aware that it would be read by many who would not realize that it followed in the footsteps of The Big Yank. Therefore, I wrote it in such a way that allowed it to be read as a “stand-alone.”
Anybody wishing to read the first memoir book before the sequel can easily find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online outlets (paperback and e-book formats), or by ordering a signed copy from my author site (postage only covers the continental United States).
While the first book covered my childhood growing up in the far North of Ireland, the sequel chronicles my life’s adventures after I left home at the age of nineteen. The chapter which I am including for your reading pleasure is titled; “In the Kill Zone.” It is a story about my years working for the United Nations in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia during the genocidal Balkan wars of the mid-’90s. I gladly welcome all comments, so don’t be shy – let me know what you thought of it!
In the Kill Zone
In the late winter of ’94, Sarajevo city was being shot and blown apart by the Republic of Srpska, otherwise known as Bosnian Serb Army. The siege, which would last for four continuous years, was the longest any capital city had been under siege in the history of modern warfare. As a result, ten thousand men, women and children would perish.
When I arrived in the theatre of operations, Sarajevo had been under siege for two years. My knowledge of the turmoil was limited as I had been working with the United Nations in Mozambique the previous year. Working on the other side of the world and being immersed in the after-effects of a bloody civil war, didn’t leave much time or opportunity to keep up to date with the Balkan crisis. One thing which everybody knew, there were not only horrible atrocities and great suffering in Sarajevo itself but throughout the former Yugoslavia. It seemed as if the Region had imploded in on itself and no area, or people would be immune from the ravages of war.
“First time on a C130?” The Australian accent to my right pulled me out of a dream-like state into which I had slipped.
“First time in this mission,” I replied, adding, “I got a taste of these big cargo beasts in Mozambique last year. The flight wasn’t this rough though. Maybe we had better pilots.” My pilot remark was said in jest, but after I had said it, I wondered if that could be the case.
“Peter Grant, Australia. Welcome to Bosnia, mate.” I returned his firm handshake.
“John Sexton, Ireland.”
“My people all come from Ireland, but I believe they went over in leg irons.”
“Leg irons were considered to be Irish footwear by the English in those days.” We both laughed, but behind our merriment was the knowledge that our ancestors had faced untold hardships down through the centuries.
The military cargo plane jerked as if it had drifted off to sleep, but then realized that it had yet to complete its mission. I fixated on the huge pallets loaded in the middle. Belts and fasteners tied down the load. If the plane got tossed around by heavy turbulence and the pallets dislodged, it would most likely crush those who sat sideways facing in toward the cargo. C 130s were flying workhorses.
Sleep was a good idea. Between the spluttering of the engines and trying to find any kind of comfortable position on these fold away wooden seats, there was little hope of being able to drift off. I closed my eyes not to bring about sleep, but to appear as if I was trying to rest. I didn’t want to engage in conversation. The Aussie appeared to be a nice enough chap, but this mission was extremely sensitive. I couldn’t afford to let anyone know the real reason why I was flying into Sarajevo. As Benjamin Franklin once remarked; “Three can keep a secret if two are dead.”
I also had an ulterior motive for not talking, as it allowed for better concentration on how I would handle this black marketeering ring before the media caught wind of it. I was told it had the potential to turn into a very murky International incident. Luckily for the U.N., I was an adrenaline junkie and could think on my feet. Added pressure often made for better performance. Challenging situations were nothing new, but this one was quite massive. It would have been ideal to have had more time to understand the circumstances of the case, but being a troubleshooter, meant being ready to respond at short notice. God knows trouble was a steady companion – both in my professional and personal life.
I had been hastily briefed on the suspected illegal activity by the Chief Admin Officer in Zagreb, Croatia which was the Head Quarter nucleus of the whole UNPROFOR mission. For something that had such damning International potential, they weren’t allowing for much time to prepare a strategy. Then again, the S.I.U. (Special Investigations Unit) was severely undermanned and overworked. At that time, there were in excess of 45,000 U.N. personnel, both military and civilian in the theatre of operations. The S.I.U, which was responsible for every theft, sexual assault, unfair hiring practice, embezzlement, fraud, brothels, counterfeiting of U.S. currency, assassinations and murders, consisted of four International investigators when I got there.
The Danish Army Camp Commander in Sarajevo had made a formal report to the head of mission that some U.N. civilian personnel were purchasing large amounts of alcohol and cigarettes from his camp’s PX (Post Exchange), which was based at the site of the ’84 winter Olympic Stadium and he was suspicious that they may have been selling it on the black market. Covert surveillance would have to be set up in the PX, but why in the hell did the Camp Commander not just throw the suspects out of his PX? That’s what I would have done, had I been in charge. If they were committing a criminal offence, they would not have complained.
My mind was racing even though nobody would have guessed it by looking at me. Footage was needed of the alleged perpetrators, on several different occasions, purchasing their swag from the PX. The Commander could make a copy of the receipt of their purchases. Surveillance on their U.N. vehicle should show if they were delivering the purchases legitimately to the U.N. bar. If not, the surveillance should show where it was going. When it came time to question those involved, they wouldn’t have time to concoct a story.
Be safe. The words were now echoing in my mind as the huge cargo plane started to nosedive toward the ground. I shouted at the Aussie above the roar of the engines; “What the fuck is happening, are we going to crash?”
“No worries mate, Sarajevo airport is under constant shelling and sniper fire, so the pilots can’t afford to land like a regular plane would. This is called a tactical landing. It feels like we will crash because the pilot is giving the snipers on the ground a smaller target to hit. Just as it feels we are about to go up in flames, the pilot will pull it up enough to get us on the runway. Take off your flak jacket and sit on it. Everybody sit on your flak jackets.”
“Why sit on it?”
“Because the airport is on the front lines. Serb snipers are on the other side of the runway and they will shoot up into the plane to hit us. Bullets come up through the floor and if you get hit, it will most likely be in your lower legs or your family jewels.”
We had barely time to get our flak jackets under our arses when the plane made a strange heaving sound. The nose pulled up, as Grant had predicted. I held firmly on to that skimpy wooden seat. They would have to pry it out of my cold dead hands if we crashed.
“One more thing,” shouted Grant, “as soon as the door opens, we dash out and run into the terminal for dear life. The Serbs shoot at us as we get off the plane now, so get behind the cement barricades as soon as you can.”
The plane hit the runway with an unmerciful bang and took a couple of bounces before it made any attempt to slow down. Peter Grant had already taken off his seat belt and was reaching down at his feet for his belongings. He once again shouted out loud enough so that the others on the plane could all hear.
“Quickly put on your flak jackets and your helmets. Grab your stuff and head for the door. Get off the plane fast. If you drop something leave it. Your life is worth more than anything you brought with you.” I admired how calm the Australian was under fire. After a mere week in the war zone, I was definitely feeling tilted. I slung the two rucksacks on my shoulder and ran towards the terminal building at full speed. Large slabs of thick concrete were placed in front of the first couple rows of windows to block the snipers’ vision.
The airport both outside and inside was in pandemonium, or so it seemed. A bunch of people who appeared to be passengers waiting to leave sat with their bags by their feet. Hell, for all we knew, maybe this was an ordinary day in Sarajevo. There were many official looking people rushing around, but they didn’t approach any of us. I was told before we left I would be met by some Danish soldiers and they would transport me to their camp. The trouble was the place was full of men in uniform. I disregarded the uniforms I could identify and instead looked for Danish uniforms. I kicked myself for not thinking ahead. If I had a false identity to hold up inside the airport, it would be easier for them to find me.
After fifteen or twenty minutes, I spotted them. Two baby-faced Danish soldiers stood staring at the plane from which we had just bolted. “I just landed from Zagreb, are you guys here to take me to your camp?” Luckily, one of them spoke good English. The name on his uniform seemed to spell something which sounded like “pickled herring.” I didn’t attempt to call him by name in case I insulted the poor guy. In my mind though, I was talking to Private Pickled Herring. The soldier informed me I was the only “package” they had to deliver and we could leave.
“Is it always like this or has something happened that has everybody rushing around like mad?”
The Dane with the fishy looking name answered; “Your plane was hit several times from the ground. They are going to have to bring in cement walls to block it from the snipers so they can unload it. The airport is now on red alert.”
They hit us several times. No wonder the pilot nosedived. Thankfully the pilot had not been hit.
“Remind me again what happens when it is on red alert?”
“Yes, sir. The airport is officially shut down and nothing is allowed to land or take off.” Although I had other things to be concerned about, it fleetingly crossed my mind that the airport would need to re-open before I could fly back out. There should be time since it would take me a couple days to complete the assignment. We went outside and got into a white jeep. The driver pulled out fast and made a quick right turn on to the main thoroughfare.
“Sir, this is the main road into the city,” advised the soldier who had previously spoken. “It is the famous Sniper Alley.” There were remnants of traffic lights at the intersections. They looked like they had been shot out and appeared to be non-functional.
“Just for the hell of it, what speed are we doing?” The driver, who had not spoken previously, understood the question. “130 to 140 km,” he calmly replied.
“Jesus, that’s about 85 mph. Look, guys, I’m not in so much of a hurry we have to drive like maniacs in the middle of a city.” The talkative Dane turned around in his seat.
“Sir, the reason why we are driving fast is that this is sniper alley. It is a long road and wide open, which gives the snipers a clear shot at us. They shoot U.N. vehicles.” Planes, old people and children. Anybody who crossed the street too slowly to make it behind the barriers. They all seemed to be fair game. There wasn’t much time to ease into the dangers which lurked on every corner. Then again, they didn‘t lurk. They were in your face.
“Don’t the police stop people for speeding?”
“No sir, they hide in their Stations. If they tried to stop drivers, the snipers would have a party and shoot everybody stopped on the street.”
Some party. This really was the hot zone. Thanks to the heavy-footed driver, we arrived at the Danish Camp in short time. The camp was set up at the site of the 1984 Winter Olympic Stadium and therefore they were virtually at the top of the city looking down at everything in the bowl which formed from being surrounded on every side by huge mountains. I spotted a running track at the entrance to the camp. It appeared to be pristine. The driver told me it was the running track for the Olympians who needed to exercise during their stay.
It was the athletes’ quarters of the stadium which stunned me. The stadium was a massive structure, built into the side of the mountain. The top of it had been crushed, or more “smushed.” The reason was night time mortars, which had rained down on the city for more than two straight years. As a result, the front of the stadium was now wrinkled and pushed together like a bull dog’s face. I was still taking it all in when the jeep pulled up in front of a pre-fab building where the Commander waited inside. A blocky officer in his early thirties thrust out his arm and welcomed me to the camp.
I didn’t grasp his name, so I looked at the name tag. It looked like Hagan Daz. Am I that hungry, or do all Danes have names that sound like food? Note to self; fight the urge to refer to him as Captain ice cream. The guy was built like the proverbial brick house.
“Investigator Sexton, thank you for looking after me Captain.”
“That’s our job,” smiled the Captain, pointing to an empty chair in front of his desk. “You were lucky to land. The attacks against us are escalating. I was aware of the situation at the airport and there were fears that your plane would be brought down if they got lucky. We got lucky this time. Their bullets missed all the passengers.”
“It was kind of hairy,” I admitted, “but I’m from Ireland and ever since I was a little boy, it was all about bombs and bullets in our neck of the woods.”
“Yes, we follow your war back home in Denmark. The Irish are fierce fighters. Must have something to do with Viking blood in your people.”
“I’m sure it helps,” “but don’t forget that we beat you boys in the battle of Clontarf about a thousand years ago, so we had a good bit of fight in us before you lot ever spread your seed!” We both laughed.
“Well, I’ve really enjoyed our chat, Captain, but I’m anxious to scope out your camp here. I need to resolve this problem we have.”
“Understood. I will have my corporal show you to your quarters. They are quite basic I’m afraid, but it gets the job done. I have instructed my men to provide you with whatever you feel you need. You can eat with us in the mess hall for each meal and I will have transport standing by. You’ll have a driver at all times and a second vehicle will follow in the rear to provide additional security. The men we suspect of reselling the PX goods come here each day between 2 and 3 pm. It will take them some time to load up their purchases, which will give you time to get your equipment into our vehicles.”
“Oh, one more thing, we get shelled with mortars every night around 1am. The soldier on fire watch goes around and wakes everybody when the warnings begin. Follow the others to the caved-in looking structure. Even though it is badly damaged, we use the passages underneath as bomb shelters. Army engineers have examined it and concluded that it is safe to use as a shelter. If constant bombing for two years has not demolished it by now, it would probably take a nuclear attack to kill it off and nobody thinks Serbia has that kind of weaponry.”
I thanked the Captain again and stepped outside where a corporal was waiting to show me to my quarters. The soldier handed me a military uniform and an I.D. The name may as well have been Greek, but at least it didn’t sound like food. The Captain felt I would blend in better in uniform. When civilians came on to the base to shop at the PX, they wouldn’t get suspicious by seeing a civilian. Damn shrewd. The corporal added that he would coordinate the vehicles when needed. The quarters consisted of two rows of prefab huts, one placed on top of the other. I was on the top floor. When the door closed, it felt as sturdy as a screen door on a porch. It was no wonder they all hoofed it underground when the bombing began.
Dumping my bags on the metal framed single bed, I changed into a tee shirt, shorts and runners. There was no way I could pass up the chance of a lifetime to run on an actual Olympic running track. I wasn’t a big runner, but I had kept fit in Mozambique cycling and working out in the gym. The feeling as I stepped onto that burnt crimson track was surreal. I could imagine the hillside bustling with the top athletes in the world. The sense of accomplishment and no doubt disappointment for some, resonated within me.
After a few laps, I went back to wash and change into the Danish uniform. A thought came to mind. Civilians and soldiers got shot in wars as spies for wearing the other side’s uniform. One had to think devious to catch someone who was devious. I stepped outside. Being on the second tier of this makeshift bunkhouse gave one a good perspective of the camp. The watchtower loomed in the distance. It literally towered above everything. I walked up to it and climbed the steel ladder to the front side and knocked on the door.
The soldier manning the post did not seem surprised to see me. He would have seen me coming from a mile away. After all, it was his job. I introduced myself and informed the soldier I would conduct surveillance from the tower, as it was the ideal location, as it gave a 360-degree, unobstructed view of that southern corner of Bosnia. Between the top of the openings and the ceiling of the tower, there were maps pinned to the walls, the whole way around. Each section of the map had a red circle on it somewhere.
The soldier informed me that those red circles were Serbian sniper positions. He gently tapped the massive machine gun facing towards the maps. He advised if they received incoming sniper fire, they had the authorization to turn the machine gun on those coordinates. Then he told me to look behind. When I did, I saw down into the walled track where I had been running earlier.
“I was surprised to see you out there,” he informed me.
“I couldn’t resist. I’m sure I’ll never get another chance like this again.”
“You’re lucky to be alive right now. We run in pairs, but we wear steel helmets and flak jackets. We also never stop. When we leave, we run out.”
The realization hit me at that moment. I could have easily been picked off by a Serb sniper. From that distance, it would probably be next to impossible to hit a moving target, but when they stopped, they would be a sitting duck.
After eating a hearty lunch with the Danish troops, I set-up the surveillance equipment. The biggest concern was the mobile surveillance out on the street. To ensure the best results, I would really need to drive the vehicle myself. I contacted the corporal before I climbed back up the tower and informed him I would start right away. The corporal told me the soldier in the tower would contact the Captain’s office and let him know when I was packing up the cameras and he would have a vehicle pick me up at the base and follow the suspects. I wondered how they would plan the driving.
I was in the tower post an hour early. I figured it would get frantic when it was time to go mobile, so I wanted to get settled and calmed well in advance. The military phone rang in the tower when the third UN vehicle pulled up. As predicted, the suspects arrived inside the time frame and the corporal notified the tower. I zoomed in on the faces. They appeared to be only six inches away.
There were two of them. I committed the faces to memory, making a mental note of the squinting eyes and ruddy complexion of the older looking of the two. He appeared to be around 40 years of age, had straggly ginger hair and appeared somewhat weather-beaten. He kept looking around him, depicting a hint of nervousness. The younger one was doing the heavy lifting. I nick-named him as the helper. The helper looked to be in his early 20’s. He was lean and fit. He had the appearance of a young Bosnian male.
After taking several clear shots of the heavy boxes being loaded into the van, the tower received a call from the corporal to the effect that the suspects were about to leave. He was ordering the drivers to the base of the tower. I grabbed the camera and the lenses, placed them into one of the emptied-out rucksacks and threw it over my shoulder. I climbed down the ladder. The WOLF Armored Personnel Carrier pulled up within a minute of the suspects driving past. A second one was right behind. It was truly a huge metal beast. The front was upturned. If they ran over a landmine, it would diffuse the blast away from the vehicle. The corporal jumped out of the passenger side and directed me to a metal door in the rear.
“You want me to ride in the back of this thing?”
“You’ll be safe in here, sir.” I climbed into the belly of the beast, hoping for the best, but thinking it would be impossible to observe the vehicle when completely enclosed by metal. The only way to see was from the machine gun turret at the top and it was being manned by another Dane. It was heavy and slow to get moving. This is madness. I knew the driver had probably lost sight of the van, but they kept on driving regardless. It was frustrating as hell, but I decided to bite my tongue and wait for the APC crew to admit they had lost them. After a few more minutes the vehicle slowed to a stop. The soldier in the turret climbed down and asked if I knew where the men in the van had gone.
“I’m stuck down here like a fucking sardine in a can and you are asking me where they are?” I had bitten my tongue for long enough. The situation was ludicrous and far worse than I expected. “You should let me up in your turret if I am to have any chance of being able to direct the driver.” The soldier was noticeably uncomfortable.
“Sir, the Captain said we must keep you alive.” They meant well. Alive was good, but that alone would not get the job done.
“Just go back to base.” When we got back, I went to the Captain’s office. “Captain, I appreciate you assisting me with this, but there is no way I can conduct surveillance when I’m blind in the bottom of an APC. I need to be in a vehicle I can see out of.”
“I understand, Mr Sexton, but your safety is our first concern. The operation you are conducting is on one of the deadliest streets in the world. If something happens to you, it will most likely happen there and we must protect you to the best of our ability. I will arrange for a different vehicle tomorrow.” I thanked the Captain and got ready for the evening meal. That night I lay on the small metal bed reading and thinking about the day’s events. I didn’t expect that it would run perfectly on the first try. Hopefully, tomorrow would be more successful.
I didn’t realize that I had drifted off to sleep until the loud banging on the door and a loud siren woke me. The sirens warned of incoming mortars. I wiped the sleep out of my eyes, grabbed my coat and stepped out into the cold darkness. Soldiers headed to the underground bomb shelters. We all walked in silence. Underneath the stadium was pitch black, cold and damp. Water dripped down in places from the cavern ceilings. I had no idea how long we would be there. I didn‘t understand a word since they were all speaking Danish among themselves.
After a little over an hour (which really felt like half the night), the siren sounded which was the “all clear” and everybody returned to their bunks. Between the botched surveillance and being woken up to flee to a bomb shelter, I didn’t fall back to sleep for a couple hours. When I awoke, I felt disoriented. Most people would not experience in a lifetime what I had experienced in just one day. I remembered my brother’s reaction when I told him I was going to war-torn Bosnia. “I am convinced you have a death wish, you crazy bastard.”
I mentally prepared myself for a re-try of the surveillance. Once again, I would position myself in the tower, take photos of the suspects and then hopefully follow them. Just as they had done the day before, the same two males arrived at the PX in the same U.N. van and around the same time. I quickly got the photographic documentation taken care of and then packed up the equipment to make for a fast exit. I was on the first rung of the ladder going down, two seconds after the soldier gave me the “green light.” My heart sank when I once again spotted the APC. I was about to complain when the corporal walked up from behind the steel monster.
“Sir, we have your vehicle here.” We walked around the rear and he saw a soft top jeep with no doors. There was a young soldier behind the wheel. Behind the jeep was another APC.
“The jeep will be escorted in front and behind?”
“Yes, sir. If the jeep takes on sniper fire, the APCs will shield you.” It occurred to me the Danes must be scared shitless I would be killed on their watch and they would be blamed for not protecting me well enough. Once again, I had little faith this three-ringed circus would give the results I needed. The big brute in front of their jeep took its time ploughing forward. By the time we got onto sniper alley, I didn’t know which way the suspects had gone.
“Go around them,” I ordered his driver.
“Sir?” asked the confused driver.
“Drive around them. How the hell can I see anything when they are blocking me?”
“Sir, I can’t. My orders are to stay in the middle.”
“Screw your orders.” The young soldier gripped the steering wheel tighter and didn’t reply. He was most likely wondering; who was this madman they had to protect? He held on to the wheel for dear life just in case the crazy civilian tried to drive.
“Stop, stop!” I yelled. The driver slowed down.
“Don’t slow, Stop! We are going back. If you stop, they will have to stop behind you. Sooner or later the ones in front will get the picture.”
When we got back to camp, I headed straight into the captain’s office. The corporal was photocopying papers and attempted to approach me, but I walked past him and straight into the Captain’s office.
“Mr Sexton, is everything alright?”
“No, Captain, it is not. Everything is screwed up and I need to unscrew it. Look, I know we are in a war zone and I know your soldiers probably know nothing about surveillance, but I do. If I had a vehicle, I could probably have captured all of the evidence I needed on the first day, definitely by today. We can’t keep doing the same damned thing and expect different results. I need a vehicle to follow these bastards and it can’t be an APC. I need a vehicle that doesn’t take two hours to go from zero to sixty.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t give you a vehicle to drive yourself. You would have to get that from the civilian motor pool. Our SOP is that an APC will be part of every convoy. The best I can do is to give you the jeep with a driver and an APC will follow behind.” I knew this was about as good as I could expect. There was a chance of success if I could direct the soldier driving the jeep, but it was imperative for the tank to remain behind us.
“That sounds like it may work, thank you, Captain.” “Could you please make sure that your men know they need to stay behind us at all times? Correction, behind us, unless we are taking direct fire.”
“Yes, I will make sure they are clear on that.”
“And one more thing, the driver today seemed a little scared. I know he is young and maybe it’s his first time away from home, but he needs to follow my instructions. There will be times when he will have to pull back and other times when he needs to speed up. Driving 130 Kilometers down Sniper Alley won’t work on this operation.”
“I’ll instruct him, personally,” the Captain promised, “but you need to give me your word you won’t lead him into anything dangerous.” I studied the senior soldier for a few seconds before I broke out laughing. The Captain wasn’t laughing. I pulled myself together.
“Sorry, I thought you were cracking a joke there, but apparently you were serious. It’s just that we are in the middle of a region where three countries are fighting tooth and nail at the same time and not just to beat each other, but to annihilate one another through genocide. Then inside that region is the most dangerous city in the world and in that city is a highway of death where snipers wait a few hundred meters away shooting down humanitarian planes and vehicles. I think the driver is already in danger.”
“Yes, you are right,” agreed the officer, “but as a civilian, you can go across the front lines into the Serb controlled sector. If we did that, it would constitute an act of war.”
“Now, I understand, Captain. Have your soldier point out the front line and I promise I won’t make him drive me across. If I need to follow these pricks into a no-go area, I’ll get out of the vehicle and go on foot. Which reminds me, I need to get out of the Danish uniform and into civvies in case that becomes a possibility. Can you imagine the mess we’d be in if I, an Irishman went across the front lines in a Danish military uniform? I’d probably be shot as a spy.” Once again, the Danish officer was not amused.
“Yes, let us make sure that doesn’t happen.” That night, my mind was racing. I had to make a couple of different back-up plans. As much as I tried to dismiss it completely, one of those plans involved getting the Danish driver out of the jeep. I needed to do my own covert manoeuvers. I knew the young man wouldn’t be stranded. He could always jump into the rear vehicle. I was still awake and thinking when the warning siren sounded at one-something in the morning. A few minutes later, there was a bang on my door telling me to head to the bomb shelter.
“Nobody’s home,” I shouted at the door and pulled the blankets tightly over my shoulders. I had no intention of spending any more time in a dark, damp underground cave in the middle of the night. If this was the night I was to be blown up, then so be it. I had no intention of living forever. The next day I decided that there was enough photographic evidence, so I got together early with the driver and drove out of the camp a few hundred meters. The camp would radio us when the suspects were leaving.
“There is no way we are going to lose them today,” I told the driver. “We are NOT waiting for the APC. It is that driver’s responsibility to keep up with us. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” I was itching to get stuck into this surveillance. Two anti-climaxes were more than enough. Today we would get this bastard. A message in Danish came over the soldier’s walkie-talkie. It was show time. I instructed the young driver to let the U.N. van pass a short distance before following them.
“We never want to be right behind them,” I told the driver, “If they slow down, then we slow down. When they speed up, we speed up. Just for the time being, I need you to forget you are on sniper alley and focus on our mission. I believe the Serb front line is over the bridge to our left. If their van goes there, stop at the bridge and I will jump out and pursue on foot. I won’t have any way of being contacted, so that stopping place will be our rendezvous point. Is that clear?”
The soldier nodded in silence. The adrenaline was coursing through my veins. I could taste success. After driving for about five minutes, the van in front of us pulled into a little shopping area. The van disappeared. It must have pulled around the back.
“Stop,” I roared. We were at a bridge and to our left was the Serb controlled side of Sarajevo. “You drive in front of the buildings here, where you’ll be safe, but don’t go as far as they went. I will walk over the bridge and try to see them.”
“Sir,” shouted the young soldier, as I grabbed my rucksack and jumped out of the jeep, “It’s not safe, I can’t leave you here.”
“Yes, you can, soldier. Tell your Captain I jumped out of the jeep when you slowed down and I will confirm that’s what happened.”
I gave the worried soldier a quick “thumbs up” and walked towards the bridge. The suspects should be on the Muslim side of the river, as there was no bridge where they turned in. I moved towards a corner building. Focusing on the direction where they had turned in, I scanned for their van. I couldn’t believe it when I spotted them. They were unloading boxes, but I needed to get out the camera with the long-range lens to zoom in and see more clearly.
With the lens now affixed, I held the camera with my right hand and cupped the lens with the other. I cradled it firmly and zoomed in on the van. Jesus, the lens was incredible. I could make out their faces as clear as day. I grabbed photos of the two suspects and the other man who was apparently the buyer. There were approximately seven boxes being unloaded. I tried to keep a mental count, but wasn’t too worried, as the photos would help identify them. The “helper” closed the rear door of the van, but I kept the camera still trained on them.
What I saw and captured next made me feel like a child on Christmas morning. I caught the buyer handing over cash to the older U.N. employee. I couldn’t make out how much, but it was a cash deal. I kept taking photos until they backed out of sight. I couldn’t help smiling to myself when I took the camera away from my face. It was only then that I thought to look around. I felt my stomach drop when I realized that I was only a matter of steps from the front line and had absolutely no cover or concealment between me and the snipers across the river.
I tried to swallow but my throat was too dry. Looking straight ahead and frozen to the spot, I could feel crosshairs on my face. I willed my body to move. I considered running but didn’t know if I was able. I was afraid it might only attract more attention. I slowly turned and walked towards a building to the left. I kept looking at the ground, expecting to see it move up to my face at any minute.
I had played Russian roulette in the kill zone and got away with it.