CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Rob Nixon, do you remember me? You invited me on base. You wanted to show off the cool splat ball setup and maybe trade notes on the missing. Once upon a time, your Colonel Desmond gave a shit and was really remorseful about the Serbs kidnapped under his watch. As long as he commanded this little corner of Kosovo, he cooperated: I asked for army escorts for civilians in the enclave, and I got army escorts. I asked him about follow-up with Bejtush on the Tomislav case, and he explained what and why he was doing, and what and why he wasn’t doing. No fuss. Clean and easy. Then you showed up and said, come on base, come on board, it’s March Madness and didn’t I want to watch the big game?
I’m sure you don’t recall how every Wednesday you made sweet faces at Marina and placed folded newspapers on her kitchen table, plus bonbons and cheese, everything from Belgrade. After you left, I sat down at the table, read headlines I couldn’t understand, and offered her a Marlboro she wouldn’t smoke. She held out disgust. Disgust for one of us, and I’m sure I saw it every Wednesday, her blue eyes red with hope.
Albanski teroristi! she screamed.
Albanian terrorists had kidnapped her husband and were keeping him locked up in a secret cigarette factory with ninety-one other Serbs, and the prison was run by the Kosovo Liberation Army, now protected by the US so-called peacekeepers, who were the patron saints of the guerrillas, and there were many, many such hidden jails in Kosovo, and all the Albanians were in on the action, and the US soldiers, too—this according to the Belgrade papers Marina read out loud.
The same papers said Marina and her fellow Serbs wandered wounded and starving within this enclave of Brezovica, crappy Slavic chattel prodded straight to the cliff by your US, and my UN. On the pages of Politika, we worked hand-in-hand to slaughter already martyred Serbs.
It began when a vicious dog bit Marko, a drunk drunk. Marko aimed his gun, shot at the dog, but hit the local cheese maker in the leg.
Have you had rabies shots? Tomislav asked Marko in the Brezovica clinic.
Forget about him, said the cheese maker. This asshole shot me, and guess what? I’m a hemophiliac.
The next day, everyone in bandages, Tomislav decided the need of the hour was to leave the enclave to retrieve his patients’ medical records from the hospital where he worked before the war. From Gerlica, a town with now no more Serbs.
Would your peacekeepers grant him a military escort, Major?
Grant whom, you ask.
Imagine he’s a Serb who has nothing left, and wants to torment himself with memories of what he once had, and no longer does, but maybe will, in the future—one day, if time stands still, and then goes backwards. And if he’s ready to dream about resurrecting what he lost, prepared to prolong the agony of hope cooed into his ear by the internationals, and if your men with guns are moved enough to spare a day’s worth of four-soldiers-per-Serb: then it’s time for a go-and-see-visit.
He goes and chats for five minutes with his Albanian neighbor of thirty years next to the Zippo-ignited tombstone that was once his home. He pretends that bulletproof US soldiers are not standing three feet behind, and observes how fast conversation with the neighbor gets stuck in subjects well dead. Though nested in US armor, he feels unsafe. The only person happier for him to get back to the dirty Serb enclave where he must belong is this neighbor, now at liberty to build where he’s been forced to vacate.
Let’s go-and-see progress on new house! Marina used to say to me. And to you, Major? Was she ironic with you?
A terrible variant to the go-and-see was the not-come-back. You hadn’t arrived in Brezovica yet, Major, so let me recap the facts. First, your soldiers refused Tomislav’s humble request. They had orders to take-and-show abandoned homes, but nothing concerning this complicated business of hospitals and patients’ files. Would you like to see your house, sir? Tomislav said he’d been back once, there was nothing left, he could never return, let the Albanians take it all. But his patients still lived, and needed treatment soon. Who knows how many heart conditions roamed the enclave?
Your soldiers opened negotiations. We’ll fetch the files you need, they offered Tomislav. Just tell us who and what and where and we’ll bring them back.
You’re not doctors, Tomislav countered. I’m the doctor, responsible for the sick, and I need all the records right here. Let’s not talk about who started this mess, but we’re stuck here now, and all need to be treated before we drop dead.
Tomislav and the two nurses at the Brezovica clinic called a strike until your command gave in. A one-week strike, Major, and let me tell you, all Brezovica stood behind Tomislav. Marina told him he would get nowhere unless he could have Colonel Desmond’s ear—so he planned the strike.
Were you in Kosovo when it happened, Major Nixon? Somewhere in Kosovo, liaising between the lines, as I suppose a Liaison Officer must? What is your rank? Do you remember when I asked that question? There was nothing on your uniform. No bars, no stars, no eagles, no name. Liaison Officers don’t have rank, you answered. I like to know who I’m talking to, so I picked Major, a rank I could respect. Marina agreed with the idea of a Major. It stuck. I have the general’s ear, you boasted.
Or were you somewhere else, beyond Kosovo? Did Marina ever ask you? She asked me many times: where were you when Tomislav was kidnapped? I was a day away from Kosovo, getting briefed at a breakfast table in Macedonia, spreading fake Nutella on cold toast, calming an argumentative Finn who compared ethnically divided cities to loose cunts and complained his freight had still not arrived from Helsinki.
I told Marina exactly where I was the night your Colonel Desmond came with his last good news, and where I was the day Tomislav left Brezovica. She wanted to know. I can’t remember exactly when you arrived in Kosovo, or in Brezovica, and I don’t think I ever asked.
In the beginning it was just Marina and me.
Her first favorite dream, Major, was to trade an Albanian missing for her Tomislav. But her definition of a missing man was my definition of a detained one. I told Marina, a man in jail is not missing.
Tell me, do you know the real difference? Marina asked. It’s this, she explained: Belgrade admits when they take an Albanian who was jailed in Kosovo, take him to Serbia, and jail him again. Now he writes letters, smokes cigarettes, and everyone knows he’s there, jailed but alive, even visited by good-intentioned internationals like you.
But the Albanian who kidnaps the Serb? He doesn’t admit anything, he doesn’t say where, and the US Army pretends not to know.
Let me talk to a lady Albanian, Marina insisted. We’re gonna sort it out, the two of us. Exchange Tomislav for terrorist.
Marina, Marina, I said. A missing man can turn into a detainee, but until the final answer comes—alive, not alive—missing is missing.
She asked, so Tomislav is a dead man?
I can’t say because I don’t know.
Do you know, Major?
She said, you don’t want it to happen, this exchange. If you really want it, take me to Gerlica and find me an Albanian lady. I know how they think. Or bring her to Brezovica. Security is no problem. I give guarantee.
Marina, I’d be lying if I told an Albanian, Come meet this Serb lady, she can release your husband from jail in Serbia if you tell her what happened to Tomislav. She’ll say, Tomislav who? Tomislav what? And think I’m crazy.
Or she’ll say, Tomislav! Of course, I’ve been waiting for so long. And make wild promises to me and to you—anything to get her husband out of jail. Then I’m a liar, she’s a liar, and everyone’s left with nothing.
Marina said, so don’t say the word Tomislav. Tell her a crazy Serb lady needs to speak in private, end of story. We’ll talk later, me and the lady. You don’t do nothing.
Marina, the truth is Albanian families are only interested in collecting enough money to pay for the bribe to release their family member.
Goody for them, Marina said. So you tell me how much I have to pay. I buy both, Tomislav and terrorist.
Major, would you have set up the meeting with the Albanian lady? I know what you’d say. All the shit no one else wants to deal with, dump it on the Army. Right? Like a garbage disposal. Boo hoo hoo. But guess what: we’re the guys who deal with the dumped, not you. So what about that meeting? Take off your helmet for a moment, put on a name, pick a rank, and let’s pretend.
You’d set off before daybreak and knock on the Albanian’s door. Someone answers. You might say to the person, there’s a desperate Serb who wants a moment of your time. Hop in my Bradley and I’ll take you to the secret meeting place. Remember, Major, you’d have to enforce strict rules between the two ladies. Number one: no politics. A strictly humanitarian matter—trading people. A husband (Marina: teroristi!) for a husband (Albanian: criminal!). Ladies, this isn’t a shouting match.
Do you still want the job, Major?
How would Marina have planned it? Did she have a strategy, or did she think she could bulldoze her way to an answer for Tomislav? Would she remain poker-faced, unleashing deadpan questions until she was satisfied the Albanian woman could deliver Tomislav—and only then begin negotiations? Or, would Marina walk in assuming her interlocutor had information about Tomislav, offer money, promise to secure release of the Albanian woman’s husband?
Marina woke up every morning with her three axioms. The Albanian woman knew where Tomislav was being kept. I withheld news, good and bad. And you, Rob Nixon, withheld the truth.
Major Nixon, I stuck up for you. I wouldn’t have told you then, but I can say it now. Did she ever tell you her theory about Colonel Desmond? She said she felt it, deep down: that the US Army took Desmond out of Kosovo because he knew too much about what happened to Tomislav. Why else would he leave? He was so good at his job. He calmly told Marina, we’ve arrested Bejtush, suspect number one. The investigation is on-going, and we hope to have something soon. The result? Marina noticed one fine day Desmond had vanished. You were the one who came and said goodbye to Marina, on behalf of the departed Lieutenant Colonel. She had a lot of time to think and wonder why. Apparently, she was compelled to tell you the whole story from the beginning. Tomislav is my husband. Tomislav is a doctor. Tomislav was given a military escort to Gerlica by the US Army. Supposedly, Desmond had already briefed you; but when Marina put to you questions of a specific nature, you proved ignorant. What was the name of the new Lieutenant Colonel? I can’t remember off the top of my head. But Marina believed the US Army took Desmond out, and brought you in. Sort of like his replacement, but different. She saw a cover-up. She couldn’t say how or why, but she smelled a conspiracy to the core, and assumed you were part of it. What did I think? I stood up for you, and said transfers take place all the time in the Army. It’s nothing unusual. It could mean anything. It doesn’t necessarily mean what you think.
After getting Desmond’s green light, your soldiers gave him a military escort from Brezovica to Gerlica. The post-war government had downgraded the hospital to ambulanta, and Bejtush was promoted to director. He and Tomislav had been colleagues for twenty years. Of course, the war changed everything. Still, they were like old friends.
Tomislav insisted he go in alone. Your Captain in charge said, I have my orders to accompany you. Tomislav told the Captain to study his Geneva Conventions: no guns in hospitals. And, he added, I know everyone inside. I delivered half these nurses. If I can’t go alone, I won’t go in at all. Desmond gave me the green light to retrieve my files. Do you want to take me back to Brezovica without them?
I had to break the news to her, Major. Do you think I enjoyed telling her? Did you think I’d stick up for you a second time? I came in, sat down, saw the newspapers, the bonbons, I knew you’d been there, but didn’t have the heart to tell her. Did you want me to do it? Leave it to me?
Marina asked, how could they let him go?
Next time, Major, try asking about her nice son, the one in Belgrade. Try asking about when she and Tomislav first met. Don’t ask her questions that start with: Some people say that Tomislav used to … Marina doesn’t like it, and what does that have to do with the fact that her husband’s missing?We ask very different kinds of questions, you and me. Never mind if our answers sometimes sound alike.
Marina used to be a teacher, you know, in Gerlica. She taught Serbian to all the Albanian kids in town. Don’t you think it must be hard to teach a language your students have been taught to hate? Those Albanian kids won’t need Serbian now, unless they’re doing business in Serbia. Otherwise, speaking it may be punishable by death. Do you think, say, ten years from now, any of those kids will even understand it?
Let’s assume for argument’s sake it was your idea to hire Marina as a translator in the US Army Information Center in Brezovica. She may have been the most qualified, and there may have been zero connection with the disappearance of her husband. Her English was good, but not great. But, let’s face it, there weren’t many great English speakers in that enclave. Maybe it was an act of compassion, or an act of contrition, an attempt to make up for the kidnap of her husband right under your nose.
You had her translate US Army decrees and directives to be disseminated throughout Brezovica. Rabid dogs will be shot on Monday so please stay indoors between noon and four. Immediate resumption of US Army mobile medical clinic, pending immediate cessation of strike by Association of Serb Displaced Persons. Round one of civil registration suspended until investigation completed into disinformation campaign by Radio Brezovica.
How could they let him go, Marina asked me.
Marina closed her eyes for almost a minute, the closest I ever came to seeing her cry. Marina, I told her, yesterday the US Army released Mr. Bejtush Krasniqi, director of the Gerlica Ambulanta, suspect number one in Tomislav’s disappearance. You later explained it was against US military law to hold someone for more than ninety days without making a formal charge. Sure, you’d held Bejtush for one-hundred-and-twenty-eight days, which wasn’t ninety days, but you told Marina there were no charges, lack of evidence, so your men were forced to let him go.
Lack of evidence? Marina had the whole plot memorized, starting with the moment Tomislav left Brezovica. After passing through the Ukrainian checkpoint at the southern end of the enclave, the convoy entered the village of Firaje. There, the Albanian shepherd must have seen Tomislav, who was peering out the window of the Humvee. The shepherd had surely been to Gerlica to the hospital before the war and still recognized Tomislav. He quickly relayed information to the ambulanta that Tomislav was on his way. Major, your convoys moved slowly. Albanian news travels fast. I sometimes got stuck behind your convoys in my Land Cruiser, mile after mile nearly melting in second gear, watching your rear-facing gunner lean against the Humvee’s roof lid, bazooka trained right on me. Your Army, more than the others in Kosovo, thought the best way to display armed might was to keep moving. Never allow a close look. I never saw your men in a restaurants eating stuffed cabbage with the locals and sipping sweet tea. No sir. Always moving—but moving slowly, and by the time Tomislav’s convoy had passed the Ukrainian checkpoint, had rumbled through Firaja, wound down through the Hani valley, past Silovo, into the busy streets of Gerlica—by then, according to Marina, the news had already reached Bejtush, and Tomislav’s fate was sealed.
Bejtush was sitting in the office of the Gerlica ambulanta when he got the message from the shepherd that Tomislav was on the way, and, like a machine, these Albanians, as Marina said, Bejtush made all necessary arrangements. As if he’d been waiting his whole life for Tomislav to walk into that ambulanta to retrieve a dozen boxes of medical files. Bejtush called his friends, or cousins, or brothers, or maybe they were already there, relaxing with him in the director’s office, a group of ex-Kosovo Liberation Army fighters who couldn’t wait to snare a Serb.
Do you believe Marina’s version, Major? Was Bejtush waiting, waiting, waiting, like Marina waits today? An Albanian shepherd by the Ukrainian checkpoint? I can just picture your round face, skin pocked to hell from shaving too hard, shaking your head: no, no, no. It’s ludicrous. But in all seriousness, Robert Nixon, please answer the question. Did Tomislav Mihailovic walk into the Gerlica Ambulanta on September 28, 1999, while your men were standing guard outside, and not walk out?
The abduction happened so fast, they had to have been waiting. Who? Clearly Albanian ex-KLA who wanted a Serb, any Serb. Or did they want Tomislav in particular? This is where we part company, Major. Don’t worry, I assure you I am extremely curious about who Tomislav is, and what he used to do, if anything, besides being a doctor. Do you remember when you asked to speak with me in private after the all-agency meeting? You said you’d heard a few things about Tomislav. Something new? I asked, thinking there’d been a breakthrough. You said: well, my friend, it seems Tomislav was a big fan of Mister Milosevic. That’s how you put it, I remember your words—a big fan of Mister Milosevic. I remember my impression was that you expected me to bristle with excitement at this discovery. Do you remember what I told you then, how I responded? No? It doesn’t matter. I never had trouble finding fans of Slobodan Milosevic in Brezovica. Maybe people opened up to me more easily than to you. Where did you think you were working? Srebrenica? Our Serbs were just hanging on, man. Most were through with the dream of a Greater Serbia, if they’d ever had it in the first place. Saturday laundry trips steeled loyalty to Mister Milsosevic for but a few. As for the rest, being stuck at the mercy of the US Army to be escorted sixty miles on Sunday somewhere safe to wash undershirts meant that the big dick dream was finished. I cared to the extent I’d better know who’s who and what’s what in local politics. I was curious, and it was part of my job. But for you it was like an ante-mortem blame game with a victim not yet dead.
I thought, that’s funny, Major Nixon is more naïve than his name and face would suggest. It’s not like you unearthed a state secret. If you wanted to know someone’s political stripes, all you had to do was ask around. The nastiest nationalists toned down their act in front of us internationals—and probably even more around you. Wouldn’t you do the same? Maybe you didn’t know how to be discreet when poking around. Don’t bother with the next-door neighbor, but try a few blocks away. Hey, which party does that Tomislav belong to? Presto, you’ll find out. So what if he was for Milosevic? Maybe a lot, if you’re doing the investigation. But that’s not why you told me. Remember, Rob? Think. You said we got ourselves a Mister Milosevic Man, and then I said something, and then a helicopter flew overhead, and I couldn’t make out over the noise what you said exactly, but I think it might have been: maybe the fucker deserved what he got.
No matter what I did, Marina thought I was hiding something. I told her everything. Can you say the same thing? You had access to the interrogation report of Bejtush. I would have been curious to see it, but I didn’t need to. I’ve seen plenty of your reports. Is it possible he confessed to killing Tomislav but said: OK, now find the body? Did Bejtush say, you’ll have nothing to charge me with? Maybe you interrogated him yourself; after all, you had the general’s ear. That would be quite a service for Marina, and one I know she would have been delighted with: her own personal interrogator for Bejtush. Each morning, she’d give you a scrap of paper with the questions written out, neatly, in her teacher’s handwriting. Her questions would be easy to remember, since there’d only be one: where is Tomislav?
Why didn’t the Captain in charge of escorting Tomislav secure all the exits of the ambulanta after he allowed Tomislav to go in alone? This question has been bothering me for a long time. Tomislav had persuaded the Captain to allow him to do as he wished, and enter alone. But it seems it would have been prudent to post a soldier at each exit. Don’t you think it was dumb not to? The worst they could have done was kill Tomislav inside. But they never would have gotten away. As it happened, when Tomislav didn’t come out for half an hour, the Captain ordered two of his soldiers to search the ambulanta.
The soldiers exited with Bejtush in custody.
Why did you assume I liked basketball, Major? I do like basketball, in fact, but I worried about my image and the UN’s image, a lot more. Image is security. What would Marina have thought if she saw us in some cozy officer’s quarters on the US Army base, watching sports together? Introducing me as your buddy from Brezovica. You were younger than me by a few years. I hope you didn’t take it personally, Major, when I declined. I said it over and over: we work independently from you. I don’t think you understood, much less valued our independence. Desmond did, but you didn’t learn anything from him, if you had even met the man at all. For you, anyone’s independence was only a nuisance.
Marina didn’t understand what our independence meant until you released Bejtush. She closed her eyes for one minute, and when she opened them, she would forever look at me through one eye, and you through the other. (Yes, I did pick up some local expressions that, admittedly, don’t translate well into English.) That was my impression about Marina’s change in behavior. And yours? You kept coming back every week, faithfully. By then, once a week was more often than I could spare. The less frequently and less regularly I came, the harder it was for Marina. Not because she missed my company, but she took it to mean Tomislav wasn’t as important anymore—not to me, not to the UN. Instead of visiting every Wednesday, I’d come more erratically. I had no choice. Maybe every ten days, maybe every two weeks. I didn’t feel good about it. My unpredictable visits surprised Marina and signaled something special—I must be bearing new news, she’d think. You were right to come every week: regular didn’t create the same expectations, or any at all.
Marina cooked up a new fantasy after Bejtush was released. She insisted I visit him in his Gerlica home and, as she put it, examine him closely. I would succeed where the US Army had failed. I could win his trust, Marina said, just as I had won some form of hers. It was an entirely new kind of pressure, Major. Did you feel that pressure when Bejtush was in your custody? How did you cope with it?
I coped badly, slipping thoughtlessly closer to Marina and her dream. I repeated to myself what I always told her: it’s up to the police to investigate; we’re not the police. Our mandate and expertise lay elsewhere. But on the drive to the field in the morning, and back to the office at night, I wondered: what’s there to lose?
Desmond was the first to tell me, after the arrest, that Bejtush was the Gerlica head of a powerful new Albanian political party in post-war Kosovo. The US Army had to be cautious, Desmond told me, after arresting Bejtush—otherwise Albanians would take to the streets against the Americans. But I’m optimistic we’ll find out what happened to Tomislav, Desmond continued. I thought of an easy pretext for my visit to Bejtush: to inform him of the kaleidoscope of activities we in the UN were doing in Gerlica, and to give him a chance to introduce his new political party.
You asked what Marina and I talked about, Major. I never told you then, but now I don’t mind sharing. The later visits began with Marina and me face to face, drinking coffee (and occasionally sljivovica, I admit), a few strands of her wiry red hair springing free from her bun. I suspect she didn’t wear her eyeglasses for you, Major. I didn’t think the glasses were ugly, but she’d put them on only after you’d left. They were round, like her face, and very big, as if she could see more with such broad lenses. By then, if you’d been following the newspapers from Belgrade, Major, you’d have noticed they were devoting less copy to speculation about miserable or missing Kosovar Serbs. Marina still read what was written. Stories of secret detention were losing ground to grainy photos of alleged mass graves. These stories she resisted—but don’t think Marina wasn’t prepared to accept a body. No one longs for a dead body, Major, but there must be a verb that comes close.
How did you prepare her for Tomislav’s possible body? I didn’t want to, but I had to say something. That’s what we talked about. Mine came out sounding like I was offering Marina facts about the shelf-life of fruit. The longer he’s missing, I said, the less likely he’ll be found alive. I added codicils: anything’s possible, each case is different, I say this only because of our vast experience with the missing. Don’t get the wrong impression, Nixon. I wasn’t preparing her for an end I knew wasn’t near. But it was my way of reminding her she had the right to expect one.
I’d let Bejtush talk first, Major. Don’t you think that’s smart? After all, the visit would be about him, not me. I’d ask him about his party’s platform. He’d begin with number one: unconditional release of Albanian war hostages held in Serbia. Number two: arrest of Serb war criminals in Brezovica. Number three: thank you very much NATO and Bill Clinton and we Albanians will never forget the UN and Tony Blair, but, number three: full independence for Kosovo, without the UN. No UN, Rob? That would be my cue. Thank you, Bejtush, you know we are monitoring the conditions of detention of the Albanian prisoners, number one, and of course we support due process for all accused war criminals, number two. And I’m sure you know all about it already, but just in case, would you happen to be familiar with our work on the disappeared?
You couldn’t stay forever, Major Nixon. No one can, except the Kosovars. One school of thought says it doesn’t matter how you say goodbye, since leaving is leaving. I imagined that one night you got your orders you had to leave first thing the next morning. Maybe you were already asleep and someone shook you awake in the middle of the night—Nixon! Nixon! The Army can be tough like that, no? I imagined by 0530 hours you were on an Apache helicopter to somewhere, and by 0700 you’d boarded a C-130. Destination?
I didn’t know, Marina didn’t know, and Krebs didn’t say. Did you ever meet Krebs, your replacement? We asked him when he first came to present himself, and he answered, yeah, I know Nixon, in a way both Marina and I thought sounded dishonest. Marina made sure to give him a full briefing, starting from Tomislav is my husband, and ending with your promise to personally examine Bejtush closely at his home in Gerlica. Do you remember, Major, saying you would visit Bejtush, that you were still very suspicious about his involvement in Tomislav’s disappearance, that you had never supported Bejtush’s release, that you’d like to ask him a few more questions? Marina seemed to remember it all quite clearly, and I didn’t contradict her as she calmly informed Krebs. He methodically took notes then quietly left Marina and me alone.
My own meeting with Bejtush didn’t go according to script. I told him what we did with the missing, the written interventions we submit to those allegedly responsible for the deed. I told him that we ask for answers on behalf of the families, strictly on humanitarian grounds. That our appeals likely go unanswered, but not always, not forever. This is what we do, I told him. I didn’t get Bejtush to confess—if he had something to confess at all. So I left, Mister Nixon, thinking some things are better left to you.