January 16, 1998.
The clock struck twelve.
“Crap, we’re late…we need to go,” I said to my partner.
By the time we said our goodbyes, got our coats and made our way to the truck, we were leaving the party 10 minutes late. The End of Mission Ceremony had concluded hours earlier signifying the end of the Balkan War in the Former Yugoslav Republic (FYR). It was humbling to rub elbows with some of the world’s very well-known dignitaries, I thought, but was relieved it was over.
With 16 days left in the country, I still had plenty on my mind, even with the primary mission complete, there was still much work to be done, most-importantly providing comm support for the Ambassador, until he left the country.
The lights of Osijek were now fading in the rearview mirror. We were about a dozen miles outside Vukovar – the road dark, lonely and very narrow. Our headlights had seen their better days and inefficient. To make matters more interesting, there were land mines littering both sides of the highway. I was tired but reminded myself, “this is no place to fall asleep or venture off the road.”
As the lights of Osijek disappeared in the distance, we approached Klisa, a small checkpoint about half-way between Vukovar and Osijek. For weeks, I had been waved on by the guards at all hours of the day and night without ever once being stopped. Things would soon be different.
Like a scene out of the Cold War.
Downshifting and backing off the throttle, I slowed the truck to a crawl, just as two security guards, dressed in long overcoats, wearing cold weather caps and armed with AK-47s flagged us to stop.
Two large spotlights next to the small guard shack flanked a pile of sandbags offsetting the road. For miles in every direction, it was pitch black, not a star in the sky, only the spotlights shining brightly on our faces. I could tell by the look on both guards’ faces, they meant business. Both had weapons raised, pointing squarely my way. “This is definitely not good,” I said, gradually letting go of my grip on the steering wheel and reaching with one hand between my legs.
My 9mm was holstered and flush with the seat, just below the steering wheel. I flicked the leather strap loose, inserting my pointer finger into the trigger housing, and clicking the safety off with my thumb, slowly pulling the pistol 1/4 way out of the holster.
“Lock the door,” I said.
“What?” my partner said.
“Lock the door!” I said louder.
We had diplomatic immunity throughout our mission, until midnight. The UN Mandate had just ended, our immunity was now over. Sh*t was about to get hot, real fast…
No sooner than releasing the weapon’s safety, the lead security guard bull-rushed our truck screaming at the top of his lungs. Rifle raised, pointing squarely at me, now inches away from the passenger’s window he continued to scream at a feverish pitch in Serb-Croatian. We could not understand a word he was saying.
The adrenaline was really pumping now. I could feel the heartbeat in my throat. I took a deep breath. “There won’t be any answers, if the bullets start flying So play this cool,” I thought.
As he approached the window, I slowly removed my hand from the weapon and placed it back on the steering wheel where the guard could see both of them. He continued in his violent rant, then tried to forcefully open the passenger door. Thankfully, he had not seen my gun.
“What in the hell is he saying?” my partner said nervously.
“I think he wants us to get out of the vehicle.” “Don’t you dare unlock the door,” I said.
“What should we do?” my partner asked.
“Eyes forward. Just, be cool,” I said.
I had already run through a mental checklist. The window to open fire…gone. Punch it and risk getting shot…foolish at this point. Slam it in reverse, somehow avoiding the gunfire, and hope for the best to miss the landmines…an even bigger mistake. There was only one play here…stay and play it cool, and wait for an opportunity.
The guard continued to scream louder, now circling the rear of the truck. He approached the driver’s door, inches away from my face. AK-47 pointing directly at my head. He began to violently tap on the window with the muzzle of the weapon. I was sure the glass would shatter or maybe foolishly, he would discharge a round. [Military bearing]. “He’s just trying to intimidate us, eyes forward and play this cool,” I thought.
As the pounding on the glass continued, among the gibberish, I heard the word, “papiers!”
Around my neck, I carried three forms of identification. My UN ID. My NATO ID. And my US ID.
Slowly turning my head, I mimicked the words, “papiers?” and nodded. “Papiers?,” I asked again.
He backed away from the door one full step, keeping the rifle squarely on my head. Finally, quiet.
I slowly lifted both hands off the steering wheel, keeping my hands raised to where the guard could see them, moving both hands slowly toward my chest and repeating, “papiers?” and nodding, until the guard nodded in return. I moved my hands to my neck, and pulled out my UN card and moving it to the window.
The guard stepped forward and again became unhinged, screaming violently a thousand words per minute. Among all the loudness and the anger I heard the word, “papiers!” again. I repeated the word “papiers?” and did the head nod, slowly moving my hands to retrieve this time my NATO ID card. He repeated the step forward and between the verbal attacks and spitting on the glass came the word, “papiers!” again.
“Last chance,” I thought while pulling out my US ID, placing it on the glass. I was out of cards to play, and I knew this would set him off…and it did. He approached the front of the truck, joining his partner, now both standing at the 1:00 o’clock position, with solid glares and guns raised.
My partner at this point was shaking in her boots and about in tears.
I wasn’t convinced.
Firmly, I told her, “everything’s fine. If they wanted us dead, they would have shot us by now. Just play it cool.”
I barely got the word, “cool” out of my mouth and the lead guard leapt forward toward the passenger door again.
“Sh*t,” I mumbled, “I spoke too fast.”
Screaming, he pounding on the passenger window. My partner now crying, let out a scream of her own, “what do you want from us?! ” She paused and then said the basic phrase, “Molim” (please) in Serb-Croatian. The guard took a step back and stopped yelling. Lowered his gun. Said a few words to the both of us. Motioned and yelled at the other guard, who lowered his weapon. Within seconds, his comrade raised the candy-striped gate and waved us through.
Both exhausted, the ride back to Vukovar was silent, neither of us wanting to speak.
For the remaining two weeks, outside the general, “We dodged a bullet. I’m glad we’re okay,” we didn’t talk much about this incident again.
It’s been almost 20 years.
Rarely a week goes by, that I don’t think about those times in Vukovar.
I am thankful for the best pre-military survival advice ever given by my step-dad…
“God never gives us anything more than we can handle.”
That advice is as true today, as it was way back then in, “Midnight in Osijek.”