What I Did on My Summer Vacation
Due to the Thursday capture of Ratko Mladic I keep talking about Scott Anderson and his article about almost capturing a Bosnian war criminal. Here’s the full text behind the Strange Tales editorial feature that captured my attention of a war half a world away.
October 1, 2000, 12:00 AM
What I Did on My Summer Vacation
In which three American journalists–the author, Sebastian Junger, and John Falk–try to get a little R&R in Bosnia, accidentally almost capture the world’s most-wanted war criminal, are hassled by the CIA, and discover why our government doesn’t really want to catch the bad guys after all
By Scott Anderson
ONCE THE AMERICAN lieutenant colonel had finished with his notes–scribbled on a manila envelope emblazoned with the words PASS TO SENIOR CONTROLLER–he slid the pen into the shirt pocket of his dress uniform and leaned back in the car seat.
“The first thing you guys should know,” he began, “is that what you have opened up here is being taken seriously at the highest levels. People are literally rearranging their schedules stateside and coming over here because of this.” He paused, gave a solemn gaze around the BMW sedan at each one of us. “We’re talking powerful people, the type who don’t fly on commercial planes.”
The lieutenant colonel was weird, but he was about to get a lot weirder.
“The second thing you should know is that I am with the Light Side. The guys on their way here, the ones taking over this operation, they’re from the Dark Side.” Another slow, meaningful look around the car. “You all are in what we call the Gray Zone.”
Following instructions, we had driven out to the NATO base on the outskirts of Sarajevo promptly at 5:00 P.M. and joined the line of military vehicles crawling toward the entrance. The lieutenant colonel had suddenly appeared from behind a shed. He was middle-aged, wearing a red beret and carrying a black gym bag, and after a quick nod, he had slid into the backseat of Harald’s sedan. Directing us onto the base, he had steered us to a spot under a tree in a back parking lot and there began to question us about all that had transpired since that day, a little more than a week earlier, when we first drove into Foca and set this whole strange business in motion. It was a complicated story, but I suspect that’s usually the case when a group of friends on vacation are mistaken for a CIA hit team and cause the launching of a transnational black-ops mission to hunt down a notorious war criminal. In any event, the lieutenant colonel had been patient.
“The imperative now,” he continued, “is to get this operation back on track. To do that, we need to arrange a meeting between Boris and the Dark Side, and because of all that’s gone on, we may need your help. You guys have done a great job in the Gray Zone, and we want you to stay there for now, and if you get to Boris before we do, get him to understand what is happening, how important all this is. After that, the Dark Side may want you to stay in the Gray Zone a bit longer just so no one gets spooked over new faces. I’m just conjecturing here, because I’m with the Light Side, but would that be all right?”
It was as if, here in the parking lot of the NATO base in Sarajevo, we’d been transported back to our tree-fort clubhouses of fourth grade. We nodded numbly.
“That’s great,” the lieutenant colonel said and smiled. “You guys are doing a terrific job here, and you can be assured I’ll make note of that in my report.”
As we drove back to the base entrance, he jotted a telephone number on a slip of paper. “Operating in the Gray Zone can be dangerous, and I want you to know that your safety is our utmost concern. We’re already making certain arrangements in that regard, but if any emergency comes up, call this number.” He handed the paper across. “Just so you know, it’ll only work for the next week. Good luck, guys, and hang tight.”
With that, the lieutenant colonel stepped from the car and disappeared behind the shed again.
The drive back into Sarajevo was pretty quiet. I imagine we were all pondering just where this little vacation in Bosnia had gone so awry. Actually, it was easy enough to pinpoint. It had been at a cafÃ© in downtown Sarajevo, on that first night when we all gathered, and, as with most cautionary tales in life, it appeared blame for this one could be traced squarely back to that volatile blend of peer pressure and hard liquor.
IT WAS PLANNED as a reunion of sorts: five journalist colleagues meeting up in their old Balkan stomping grounds, a couple of days knocking around Sarajevo, then heading down to the Adriatic coast for some sun. Flying over from New York, in addition to me, were Sebastian Junger and John Falk. At CafÃ© Cacadu on the night of April 23, we met up with Harald Doornbos and Philippe Deprez, Dutch and Belgian journalists, respectively, who had remained in Bosnia throughout the war and now five years into the peace.
For some time, the conversation was given over to catching up on personal news, the recounting of old war stories, but it eventually turned to the last great story to be had in the Balkans: the hunt for fugitive war criminals. In the four and a half years since the war in Bosnia had ended, only forty-eight of the ninety-four men indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague had been captured, and among those still at large were the two principal architects of the Bosnian genocide, Dr. Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic.
The topic arose because of a full-page ad in that week’s edition of Slobodna Bosna, a Bosnian newsmagazine. Placed by the U. S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, it announced the $5 million bounties the American government had recently posted for the capture of Karadzic, Mladic, and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. Unfortunately, the notice was also a prime example of why governments shouldn’t be in the ad business; not only were the photographs of the three men out-of-date, but the toll-free informant hot line accepted calls from the United States only–useful, perhaps, should any of them be hiding out in Des Moines.
“It must be on purpose,” Philippe said darkly as the magazine was passed around the cafÃ© table. “The American government couldn’t be that stupid.”
You hear this kind of conspiracy-theory crap about the United States from European journalists all the time. As the only one at the table who’d actually worked for the American government–years ago and briefly–I assured Philippe that Washington was actually capable of far greater idiocy.
Still, it did raise an interesting question. How was it that five years after the war in Bosnia had ended, men like Karadzic and Mladic were still at large, despite the presence of twenty thousand NATO peacekeeping forces in the country and the professed desire of the United Nations and every Western government to apprehend them?
As with everything else in the Balkans, there was no single, easy answer. Some blamed the sheer size of the international bureaucracy that had been dropped onto Bosnia; amid the thicket of UN agencies and NATO peacekeeping detachments scattered around the country, each with its own mandate or zone of control, inertia was the rule. Then there were the varying attitudes of the three powers–Britain, the U. S., and France–that had divided Bosnia into military sectors and called the shots. In pursuing war criminals, the British had been aggressive, the Americans weenies–loath to conduct any operation in which one of their own might get hurt–and the French (now here’s a shocker) downright duplicitous, with a number of those indicted living quite openly in their sector. At least now, with their ad in Slobodna Bosna, it appeared the Americans were willing to throw money at the problem in hopes that someone would rat out the fugitives.
That was pretty much a pipe dream when it came to Milosevic and Mladic–both safely tucked away behind the Serb security apparatus in Belgrade–but Karadzic was a different story. By odd coincidence, the very issue of Slobodna Bosna that carried the bounty ad also had a cover story claiming that Karadzic and his bodyguards were holed up in CelebiÂ´ci, an isolated Bosnian hamlet flush against the border with Montenegro.
But coincidence combined with slivovitz can start to feel an awful lot like destiny, and over the course of that night at CafÃ© Cacadu, a new plan began to take shape: We would go to CelebiÂ´ci, the five of us, and find the doctor. Somehow we would penetrate his ring of bodyguards, haul him to justice, split the bounty money. We’d give new meaning to the term “advocacy journalism.”
The most enthusiastic was Harald, an intensely hyperactive Dutchman. “It’s perfect,” he said. “And of course we can take my car.”
This was enough to give all of us pause. In his eight years in the Balkans, Harald had gone through twenty-eight cars, and while it was true that outright crashes had claimed only fifteen or sixteen of these–Harald could not recall the precise number–his propensity for driving the winding mountain roads of Bosnia at seventy miles an hour made being his passenger a horrifying experience.
“Come on, guys,” he protested. “I’ll drive slow. It’s payback time for that fuck!”
For some reason, all looked to me. To be sure, I saw some logistical details that might require a bit more thought–like how we were supposed to get past Karadzic’s rumored seventy bodyguards without so much as a water pistol between us–but against this was an absurd little philosophy I’d picked up somewhere: that bad things happened only when one actively looked for them. Since we were still technically on vacation and CelebiÂ´ci was a mere detour on our way to the beach, everything should be fine.
“Sounds good to me,” John Falk said. “And God knows I could use the money.”
For the past two years, John had been trying to get a legal-advice dot-com company off the ground, but that enterprise was now in serious trouble. A million dollars poured into the company’s coffers could be just the thing to lure back skittish investors.
Sebastian’s main concern, seeing as he was on his way to war-ravaged Sierra Leone, was that the manhunt not cut too deeply into his R&R time on the beach.
“One day, right?” he negotiated. “And then we go to the coast.”
“Be serious, man,” Harald wailed. “NATO hasn’t found Karadzic in five years, and we’re supposed to track him down, grab him, and turn him over to the authorities all in one day?”
“All right,” Sebastian said. “Two days, then.”
Harald felt this should be plenty of time.
It was Philippe, the only one of us with a family, who briefly tried to be the voice of reason. “Do any of you realize how crazy this sounds?” he asked. “Five guys driving into the heart of Chetnik country in a BMW sedan and asking for the doctor?”
Harald gave him a puzzled look. “So you’re in?”
Philippe sighed. “Yes, okay. But I have to come up with something better to tell my wife.”
Though it’s unlikely any of us would have admitted it that night, I suspect our boldness largely stemmed from the conviction that our mission had absolutely zero chance of success. The story in Bosna was so far-fetched, with its talk of a twenty-car convoy of bodyguards in matching orange Zastava sedans, that it had likely been planted by Karadzic’s own people–which probably meant the doctor was actually at the opposite end of the country. We could hunt for our dragon flush with the confidence that we wouldn’t find him.
IN HIS SMALL, DARK OFFICE, Boris* studied each of us in turn. “Sorry, guys,” he said fi-nally. “You just missed him. He was in? CelebiÂ´ci, but he left two days ago.”
We turned to one another with dumbfounded expressions–looks that were to become our signature in the coming days. “So the article was true?” one of us asked.
The UN security official nodded. “Not the part about the twenty orange Zastavas, of course, but Karadzic was definitely up there.” Boris gave a sly smile. “But I’ve got a feeling you guys already knew that.”
A strange comment, that, but we missed its significance at the moment.
We’d left Sarajevo for CelebiÂ´ci midmorning and in the sober light of day had decided to check in with UN officials in the town of Fo?ca before heading into the hills; after all, CelebiÂ´ci stood at the dead end of a long mountain road, and it seemed wise to at least inquire about what might be waiting at the other end. The first place we’d stopped was the International Police Task Force office on Fo ca’s main street.
Operating under the banner of the UN, the local IPTF unit was composed of Egyptians, Indians, and Bulgarians and was mandated to chronicle human-rights abuses and reform the area’s police force. One thing it certainly wasn’t doing was looking for the many war criminals believed to be residing in the Fo ca vicinity.
“Oh, no, we don’t get involved in that at all,” an Egyptian officer told us, looking alarmed at the very prospect. “In fact, we don’t even have a copy of the indictment list.”
But during this conversation, one interesting bit of information did come out. Four days earlier, the officers had been ordered to stay away from CelebiÂ´ci by the UN command.
“We don’t know why,” the Egyptian said. “You’ll have to ask them.”
With Harald at the wheel, we’d headed for the UN security office in a nearby town. It was there that we had our first encounter with Boris, a powerfully built Ukrainian in his late thirties. We got off to a rocky start.
“Who are you guys ” he asked, suspiciously studying us. He took Harald’s and Philippe’s Bosnian press cards, carefully examined them, then turned to Sebastian, John, and me, lurking in the background. “And you three?”
An awkward silence. “We’re Americans,” I offered finally. “On vacation.”
Judging from his arched eyebrow, Boris found this answer wanting, and for the next few minutes gave evasive answers as he continued to warily scrutinize us. Then something changed. Glancing out the door of his office at his staff of local workers, he softly said: “Why don’t we go get a coffee; we can talk more freely then.”
At a nearby cafÃ©, Boris explained that during the course of his tour in eastern Bosnia, he had gradually won the trust of at least part of the Serb populace–aided by his being a fellow Slav and speaking Serbo-Croatian–and had managed to build up his own little intelligence network. It was that network that had told him of Karadzic’s presence in CelebiÂ´ci.
“I told the IPTF to stay away from there because I didn’t want them walking into a shoot-out they would lose. If NATO wants to capture Karadzic, then they should send in a battalion or”–that scrutinizing look again–“a special team. In any event, once that article appeared, he took off, crossed into Montenegro.”
“So there’s no problem for us to go up there?” one of us asked.
Boris thought about this for a moment. “Well, if some unarmed group from the UN asked me, I’d say, ‘No, it’s too dangerous.’ But for you guys–sure, why not?”
This comment underscored an odd current that had run throughout our conversation at the cafÃ©; Boris simply didn’t believe we were journalists. At least a half dozen times, he had made good-natured barbs about our “covers,” and all our equally good-natured protestations of innocence seemed only to further convince him that he had some sort of CIA black-operations team on his hands. We were caught in a curious dilemma, because while it is always hard to prove one is not an idiot, it is infinitely harder to prove one is not an idiot CIA agent. The complicating factor in this case was that the sheer mindless incompetence we’d displayed so far–five guys blundering through eastern Bosnia in a very conspicuous car without a clue of what we were doing–bore an uncanny resemblance to what a bona fide CIA operation would probably look like. On the flip side–and the more devious among us were already appreciating the significance of this–Boris was taking us into his confidence because of his mistaken belief about who we were.
“Perhaps when you return from CelebiÂ´ci, we can have dinner,” he said as we rose to leave. “I might have information you will find useful.”
Sure enough, we found no sign of the doctor or the twenty orange Zastavas in CelebiÂ´ci, and our inquiries after them were met with either stony silence or mirthful derision from the residents.
“Karadzic here?” one elderly man in a bar whispered nervously. “Why would he ever come to a little place like this?”
The answer was obvious enough: Just fifty feet from the bar was the border with Montenegro, a bent pole stretched over a dirt track with one tiny guard shack next to it; all a fugitive in CelebiÂ´ci would have to do if the authorities were closing in would be to step around that pole and he’d be in the clear. Still, there seemed little point in pressing the matter, and, after angering a goodly cross section of the populace and getting written up by the local police commander, we decided our work there was done and trundled back down the mountain.
In our absence, Boris had honed his suspicions of us. Over dinner, he seemed satisfied that Harald and Philippe were real journalists–perhaps he’d checked their credentials with Sarajevo or simply realized Harald was too much of a goof to be anyone’s spy–but that still left the three American agents “on vacation.” He’d also clearly decided who was running this little operation. Perhaps due to our close-cropped hair, vacant stares, and somewhat athletic builds, he’d pegged Sebastian and me as the goons and the heavier-set and balding John as the mastermind. No doubt fortifying that conclusion was John’s dress: With his khaki Dockers and golf shirt, he was in the precise “civilian uniform” that CIA agents and American military officers wear throughout the world when trying to blend in and failing.
“There is someone here who wants to meet you,” Boris finally whispered across the table to John. “He knows what you want and is willing to help. You will meet him tomorrow, in another town.”
We all looked at one another in puzzlement–all except John. Growing into the role in which he’d been cast, he gave the Ukrainian a quick nod. “That’s outstanding. We really appreciate you coming on board like this, Boris.”
After dinner, as we prepared to check in to a local hotel, Boris walked us back to Harald’s BMW and watched as we took our things from the trunk.
“Best not to leave your guns in the car,” he said softly. We couldn’t see his face in the dark, couldn’t tell if he was joking, so we all laughed.
“LET’S JUST CUT THE SHIT,” the Serb in his early thirties said to Harald and Philippe. “I know you guys aren’t journalists, and I sure as hell know those guys”–he jabbed a finger in the direction of Sebastian, John, and me–“aren’t here on vacation. I’ve been around long enough to know a CIA hit team when I see one, so let’s stop bullshitting around.” He cast a quick glance around the restaurant, leaned closer over the table. “You want Karadzic? Okay, I can give you Karadzic. But for that to happen, I’m going to need a new life. I need protection, I need safe passage out of here for me and my family, and I want a cut of the bounty.”
This was an interesting development. The man that Boris had led us to–I’ll call him Dragan–had claimed to be a high-ranking Serb secret policeman, and with his hard eyes and baggy sweat suit, the favored dress of all Balkan thugs, he certainly looked the part. I also suspected, given the bulge on his right hip, that he was packing a pistol. Considering all that, it seemed a bit churlish to contradict his analysis of the situation, of what had brought us to this meeting with him in a small town in eastern Bosnia. After a moment’s hesitation, Harald gave Dragan a reassuring pat on the arm.
“All that can be negotiated,” he said. “As I guess you’ve figured out, we’re not playing around here.”
Over the course of that morning’s meeting, and with Boris sitting discreetly by himself at a nearby table, Dragan told the tale of his journey from Bosnian Serb ultranationalist to a man ready to sell out the leader of his people, Radovan Karadzic. He was also quite open about his ulterior motives; for the past year, he’d been making a tidy sum smuggling cigarettes and liquor across the Bosnian border, but he was now being squeezed by Karadzic’s lieutenants.
“So part of it,” he said, “is that I now see Karadzic and his men are scum. The other part is that I know they are going to come after me very soon.”
He claimed to know the intimate details of Karadzic’s security detail, when and where he moved around the countryside, and was willing to pass that information along to us, the black-ops hit team.
“But I want to make something clear to you right up front,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re planning exactly and I don’t care, but I want you to know that I won’t personally participate in any abduction or assassination. That’s not my role.”
John gave the Serb a disappointed look, stifled a sigh. “Well, I guess we’ll just have to work around that.”
At the end of that first meeting with Dragan and Boris, we arranged a second–at the CafÃ© Paris in Sarajevo in six days’ time–and at last set off for the Adriatic coast. While trying to enjoy ourselves on the beaches and in the cafÃ©s of Dubrovnik, we found we couldn’t stop speculating about what we had become involved in.
The most obvious conclusion was that Dragan was just another Balkan hustler, looking to roll some Westerners or find an escape hatch out of Bosnia. On the other hand, if he truly believed we were bounty hunters or CIA operatives–and it certainly seemed he did–he had to figure that this was a very dangerous hustle. Then there was Boris’s role in all this. Among the five of us, we had nearly two decades’ experience watching the UN in action–or inaction–in Bosnia, and the idea of a UN officer acting on his own initiative to try and do the right thing was something none of us could readily accept. Was Boris truly a courageous lone wolf, a complete nutcase, or was he trying to work some fiddle of his own? Returning to Sarajevo, Philippe was intrigued enough to approach a senior UN security official to discreetly ask after their man in eastern Bosnia.
What we did not spend much time pondering was any journalistic ethics we might have violated. After all, none of us had ever actually claimed to be CIA agents or anything other than what we were–and it was not our fault that all our protests to that effect were laughed away. In fact, what seemed unethical was to walk away from what could potentially be both a major news story and an important human-rights event: the capture of the architect of the Bosnian genocide. Obviously, if everything panned out, we would at some point have to hand off this little enterprise to the real authorities–people who could actually protect Dragan and grab Karadzic–but that point hadn’t yet been reached; for our second meeting with Boris and Dragan at the CafÃ© Paris, we had no choice but to stay in character.
For the occasion, Dragan had changed his sweat suit for black Armani pants and an electric-blue silk T-shirt. He had also given some thought to his demands: at least 20 percent of the bounty; American passports for him, his wife, and their four kids; protection for his escape out of Bosnia.
“But maybe you still don’t believe I am genuine,” he said with a slight smile, after showing a fistful of laminated identity cards, all of which matched. “In that case, you can come to Trebinje the day after next. The mayor there will be meeting with some of Karadzic’s people regarding a shipment of cigarettes coming in from Montenegro. You will recognize some of them from the [indicted war criminal] list. That may help you believe me.”
We passed on the outing to Trebinje but agreed to meet again in a few days, this time after dark and in the parking lot behind the Sarajevo Holiday Inn. From there, we would take separate cars to our “safe house”–Harald’s apartment–where more details would be discussed. As Boris and Dragan drove off, we all had a slightly uneasy feeling. In Dragan’s manner and march of details was the suggestion that we had now stepped into something quite serious.
BORIS’S CALL CAME shortly after noon, the day after the meeting at the CafÃ© Paris.
“Meet me at Restaurant Fontana right away,” he told Philippe. “We’ve got big problems.”
Racing to the Fontana, we found Boris by himself at a corner table, methodically eating a pizza with a knife and fork. His fingers trembled slightly.
“I’ve been dismissed from my post,” he whispered at last. “I have to be out of Bosnia in forty-eight hours.” He looked up, and there were tears in his eyes. “The Americans tapped our meeting yesterday. I don’t know how, guys, but they heard everything. Everything.”
Over his pizza, Boris explained that no sooner had he returned to his base the previous night than he got a call from his boss, ordering him back to Sarajevo first thing in the morning. When he got to UN headquarters, he was told he was being dismissed for involving himself in our “operation.”
“Anyway,” he said, pushing away the empty plate, “I don’t care what happens to me, but now we’re all in shit. We stumbled too close to something big, and now someone–I don’t know who–is cutting away the pieces, and it started with me.” Boris imitated a pair of cutting scissors with two fingers. “You guys are next.”
Along with our shock–and sense of guilt for having endangered both Boris and Dragan–was a tinge of embarrassment, because we quickly deduced precisely how the Americans had come to bug the CafÃ© Paris meeting. The UN security official that Philippe had approached a few days before to inquire after Boris had suggested that the American embassy be notified about the shadowy goings-on in the Fo ca area. Philippe had agreed, figuring that if Dragan were for real, we would have to turn the Karadzic-grabbing operation over to the Americans anyway. What none of us had anticipated was that the Americans would suddenly display such industry as to record the meeting, and we certainly hadn’t foreseen that any of this could somehow blow back on Boris.
Yet what was now happening to Boris was just another illustration of the hypocrisy of the entire peacekeeping structure in the Balkans. For years, NATO governments and the UN had been proclaiming that true peace could never come to Bosnia until fugitive war criminals like Karadzic were caught. At the same time, most had done absolutely nothing to bring that about, fearful of the unrest that might ensue and give the lie to the charade of peace and nation-rebuilding they had created. Boris was a man who had taken the UN’s proclamation on war criminals at face value and risked his own life, and the organization was now paying him back by destroying his career. In the process, the UN had also seriously messed up Dragan’s life, because in the wake of his dismissal, Boris had told Dragan to go into hiding. “I had to,” Boris explained at Restaurant Fontana. “I’m very close to this guy. He went out on a limb for me, and if the Serbs find out about all this, they’ll kill him and his family for sure.” With that, he rose from the table, threw some deutsche marks down on the bill. “I don’t know which end is up anymore, guys. I’m going to church to pray.”
We watched him walk listlessly across the parking lot, a man defeated.
It turned out, though, that events had already begun taking another turn, as we learned when, attempting to rectify the situation, we called the UN official Philippe had met with.
“Come over right away,” the man said. “There’s been a change in plans.”
Indeed there had been. At the same time Boris was being dismissed from his post, the security officer explained, it seemed the Americans had begun tracking through their tapes of the CafÃ© Paris meeting; they had now come to the conclusion that Dragan was a valuable contact who should be worked.
“Wait a minute,” John said. “You mean Dragan really is a high-ranking secret policeman?”
“Very high-ranking,” the UN man said. Again, the dumbfounded expressions among us.
There was a beautiful irony in all this. From our first meeting, Dragan had never believed we were here on holiday, and we had never truly believed that he was a secret policeman. In fact, all of us had been telling the truth all along, and this in the Balkans, the land that practically invented treachery and deceit. Not that there was time for any of us to savor this little paradox; things were happening too fast. As the UN officer explained, the Americans were now scrambling to get Boris reinstated to his post, with hopes of then persuading him to call Dragan out of hiding. Toward the first goal, the UN high command was being leaned on; toward the second, the Americans were very interested in talking with us. In his office, the UN security officer reached for his telephone while raising an admonishing finger.
“After this call,” he said, “we are out of this, you understand? I don’t know who you guys are, but this is not our job.”
The voice on the other end was that of the American lieutenant colonel, directing us to the NATO base outside Sarajevo. “You’ll see a small shed by the entrance. Just pull up and look for a man wearing a red beret and the silver oak leaf of a lieutenant colonel.” He paused, then added, “That will be me.”
The days after that first meeting with the lieutenant colonel were an odd combination of tense and tedious. As he had requested, we remained in the Gray Zone–whatever the hell that meant–and tried to locate Boris, but despite leaving a series of phone messages, we didn’t hear from him and knew nothing of what might have happened to Dragan. As for the phone number the lieutenant colonel had given us “if any emergency comes up,” there never seemed to be anyone on the other end. As Boris had warned at Restaurant Fontana, it appeared we were being cut out of the picture–but that didn’t mean we were being ignored altogether. One evening, Philippe noticed a sedan with British plates and two crew-cut occupants tailing him as he drove his in-laws home. He managed to lose them by cutting down side streets, but when he returned to his apartment, the sedan reappeared, slowly trolling by his courtyard before speeding off into the night. Was this part of the “arrangements” for our safety that the lieutenant colonel had talked about, or something completely different?
Still, through sources at the UN and at several embassies, we were able to piece together at least some of what was happening in our absence. It was from them that we learned, five days after our meeting with the lieutenant colonel, that the Dark Side had made contact with Boris, but, by all accounts, the initial encounter hadn’t gone smoothly.
“Why the fuck should I talk to you guys?” Boris was reported to have asked when the top-shelf Dark Siders tried to debrief him. “I’ve already told everything to your top people.”
Finally convinced that the specialists flown in from the States were at least as important as the journalists on vacation with whom he’d first met, Boris agreed to call Dragan out of hiding and into the Dark Side fold. Which, of course, meant we were pretty well screwed, because now that the two sides were linked, we were no longer needed. All that was left was to see exactly how the Americans would administer the double cross–and we didn’t have to wait long.
With the theme song from the Teletubbies blaring from the speakers, the lieutenant colonel strode purposefully across the Restaurant Fontana terrace. If there was any lingering doubt that our status had changed, it was dispelled by his dress; instead of his uniform, he was now clad in civvies and a BMW baseball cap. This was to be an unofficial meeting, and the lieutenant colonel was going to play good cop–bad cop all by himself.
“Let me address my fellow American first,” he said, turning to John. “The Dark Side wants you to know that you are going to jail for impersonating a government official.”
“What are you talking about?” John said. “I never impersonated anyone.”
“Well, that’s not how they see it, and I will be making a notation to that effect in my report. Apparently, Boris is still convinced you guys are the real deal, and the Dark Side isn’t at all happy about that.”
“So they’re going to bring charges because their egos got bruised?” John asked.
The lieutenant colonel shrugged. “I’m with the Light Side; I’m just relating what the Dark Side said, what’s going in the report.”
“I want this to go into the report,” Harald said, getting irate. “First of all, none of us ever claimed to be CIA or anything else, and it’s not our fault what went on in Boris’s or Dragan’s head. Second, we stayed involved in this because we want Karadzic caught. We find someone who might help–someone you people apparently haven’t been able to find for five years–and for that we are threatened? What kind of bullshit is that?”
The lieutenant colonel gave an involuntary wince–he hated profanity–but he wasn’t about to take this kind of shit from a Dutchman. “You know what the Dark Side calls you?” he asked, pointing at Harald. “They call you Milosevic Junior-Junior, because Milosevic’s son wrecks a lot of cars, too. I observed you driving into the base the other day. Even though the speed limit in there is clearly posted at six miles an hour and I pointed that out to you on several occasions, you couldn’t bring yourself to go less than ten. That shows recklessness, a lack of discipline. Now, that’s fine if that’s how you want to live your life, but you have to understand there’s consequences out there.”
We looked at one another in confusion; it appeared the lieutenant colonel had been asked to play psycho cop as well.
“What about our safety?” Philippe asked, recalling the sedan that had tailed him several nights before. At this, the lieutenant colonel frowned, scratched the back of his neck.
“Well, basically you’re on your own. The best thing you can do is stay on your toes and keep quiet about all this.”
“What about that business of our safety being your utmost concern?” John asked.
A weary sigh from the lieutenant colonel; he was tiring of us. “The problem here, guys, is you have tried to operate in the Gray Zone.” He leaned over the table, suddenly emphatic. “There is no Gray Zone. A bullet doesn’t know gray; a bullet only knows black and white. If I get an order to kill, I squeeze the trigger and I don’t think about the Gray Zone; I let the bullet decide.”
It was hard to tell if he was threatening us or just experiencing some synaptic glitch.
“You guys want to be safe? The best way to do that is to keep this to yourselves, let the Dark Side do their work. I certainly wouldn’t go around talking about this or, heck”–he chuckled at the very thought–“writing some article about it. As long as that happens, I don’t think you’re going to have any problems.”
Before leaving, the lieutenant colonel briefly slipped back into good-cop mode. Asking for our telephone numbers at home, he assured us that we would get the inside story if the Dragan connection led to Karadzic’s capture–and, of course, that would also mean we’d be in line for a share of the bounty. To our jaundiced expressions, he tried a friendly smile. “You guys are way too cynical; you have to have faith that I’ll do the right thing by you.”
As he stood, he briefly gazed across the Fontana terrace, then turned to us. “You know, in my twenty years of service, this is the strangest thing I’ve ever been involved in. It’d make a helluva movie. If that ever happens and you guys win an Oscar, would you mind giving a little salute to the lieutenant colonel up there?”
In the four months since that last meeting, the lieutenant colonel has not called, and Radovan Karadzic remains at large. This silence and inaction has led some of us who were on that fateful vacation to wonder if perhaps our take on the Dark Side’s mission was precisely wrong: that rather than use Boris and Dragan to apprehend Karadzic, they had been dispatched to close down a channel that just might achieve that and disrupt the Bosnian “peace.”
The U. S. State Department disagrees. A source there says that the American commitment “remains unchanged,” and that action will be taken when “tactical considerations permit.” When that might be is difficult to say; the Dark Side does not return phone calls.