“You no speak okay?”
I nodded my head and slouched lower in our wreck of a Toyota Corolla shuddering up to the checkpoint. Snow sleeted down the mountain slope to lash through the yellow of the headlights.
I’d already had a lot of practice at this already, about a dozen times through the night. I was about to cross through yet another of the unofficial and always dangerous border crossings and military checkpoints throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina in the last days of the Yugoslav War.
I didn’t bother to ask who this group was. They’d be one of up to a dozen rag tag army militias or freelance brigands out to shake down travelers, hunt rival gang members, and just generally allow their varied psychoses run wild. All armed of course with anything from the standard and almost always rusty AK-47 up to shoulder mounted rocket propelled grenade launchers.
What I was doing was foolish in the extreme and the relief agency I was consulting for had collectively had a heart attack when I announced my plans.
It was a week before Christmas 1995 and I was traveling the length of the Former Yugoslavia with just a driver, headed for the dismal little town of Tuzla. There was no way to get there other than disguise myself as a mute Bosnia/Serb/Muslim – whatever it needed to be in order to get through the myriad of little kingdoms and fiefdoms of a country hell bent on destroying every living thing in it.
The only people moving through this nasty patchwork of armed checkpoints, manned by men who clearly had lost any sense of restraint and who always reeked of slivovitz at any time of day or night, were international peacekeepers, gonzo foreign correspondents, and me.
As we coasted up to this latest checkpoint I mused yet again about my private theory that slivovitz had caused the Yugoslav war and its endless slaughter of its peoples.
You might know slivovitz as plum brandy but the stuff they made during the war was not nearly as nice as the stuff you can get in the liquor store. It had so much alcohol content that you could power an aircraft engine with it.
At the end of that year I’d already spent several weeks in Croatia, Herzegovina, then still a separate and self styled country, before moving into Bosnia. What I was doing involved meeting a lot of local officials, local military commanders, gangsters, and relief workers. Except for the international relief workers, any and all meetings with the others started with a toast of slivovitz brewed under somebody’s unmade bed.
Let me tell you that a shot of that stuff at seven in the morning is precisely like pounding a six inch spike into your forehead. One was always a problem but it would never be the last before the meeting ended.
There were days when I would have to crawl off at noon into some sleeping place I’d found in a roofless building and sleep for several hours before starting all over with the slivovitz at night. No one else seemed to be affected by the stuff at all although they drank it like Russians drank vodka.
I am convinced that the former Yugoslavs turned into such murderous killers because of the toxic effects of slivovitz. But it was a private theory no one else ever bothered to consider, yet it gave me comfort while trying to decode the bizarre twistiness of Yugoslav politics.
A wrap on my window and some guttural Serbo Croat, or whatever the local faction had decided to rename their language. I rolled down the window and my driver leaned across and a highly slivovitzed wave of spirited arguing started. A package of cigarettes got handed to the guard, the Corolla’s clutch shuddered, we moved forward.
At any one of these checkpoints, and I lost count at well over a couple of dozen during that 20 hour journey, I faced arrest, robbery certainly, a beating probably, and if I really came across a crazy I could have ended up with an AK-47 round into the back of my head.
So you ask, “Why dear stupid Mr. Rick were you doing this?”
CNN. That was why.
CNN had bought a house near the road to the Tuzla airbase that the American military were about to start using as they flooded the country with peacekeepers. I wanted publicity for the American aid agency I was advising and the only way to do that was to show up on CNN’s doorstep, try not to act like a Canadian, and offer to help fill their hours of empty airtime before the heavy lifters started landing.
Two other houses at the intersection at the airport had also been sold to media outlets. Somebody bought the forest blocking the camera positions at the houses from a view of the airstrip. The forest disappeared in a day.
My plan worked. I got my employers noticed by the big networks as well as by most of the rest of the international media waiting at Tuzla for the troops.
To the BBC and Sky I was “British born”, to the American media networks I was either a presumed and unstated American or conveniently misidentified with the city of the aid agency paying me. NBC was really creative and I was described coyly thus . . .“Mr. Grant lives near Buffalo New York” (technically true because at the time I lived in Ottawa Canada, a day’s drive from Buffalo).
The first thing the international military did, and most of the work was done by Canadian troops, was to dismantle the dozens if not hundreds of checkpoints throughout the country. A couple of days later I was able to drive south from Tuzla almost without stopping until I reached Split on the Adriatic coast. Ten hours later I was back in Canada in time for Christmas feeling pretty good.
But that nightmare ride through the snow and checkpoints will always sit in my head like some foul little animal that somehow managed to get itself soaked in slivovitz and slowly rot