On the Backstreets of Vukovar

On the Backstreets of Vukovar

The backstreets of Vukovar were silent…

Blocks away from any food source. I was starving…

Should I drive or walk to find something to eat?

The UN headquarters was closed now. Packed up. Mission ended. Although, I still had access, there was no food. No water. Not much of anything, except for the Russian security guards patrolling the perimeter and a few near-empty buildings. The evening before, I tried to pawn off a couple of my Coke Lights to the Russian Guards, but they weren’t having it. In fact, words escalated just shy of an international incident. I knew better than to push things too far, especially vs. two armed-guards with AK-47’s. My Diet Cokes (Coke Lights) and I, would have lost that battle.

UN HQ in Vukovar.
Long, blank stares continued in-between the Russian gibberish, and I was starting to get pissed!
“Look, if you don’t wan’t my Coke Light…open the damn gate and let me through!,” I said with emphasis.
30 seconds later, I eased up on the clutch as the engine roared on the white Nissan pick-up and I slid through the gate, never to look back on the HQ again. The ambassador was gone. All I had to do now was hang low until my NATO flight arrived in Zagreb on Monday. “Less than 48 hours away,  I’ll be out of here!,” I thought.  Passing by the guards, I gave ’em that smart “Burt Reynold’s smile,” as I said a few choice words (under my breath) as they motioned me through the gate.
Catholic Church, near the UN HQ.

It was Sunday, now. Home, was less than 24 hours away, my stomach was growling, and I needed food, BAD! I had missed breakfast, but wasn’t going to miss lunch. I remembered there was a food stand, 1/2 mile from my residence. I’ll grab my sidearm and just be on my way…on foot.

“I know it’s Sunday, so let’s pray they are open,” as I navigated the back streets of Vukovar.

“It was quiet, almost too quiet,” with the food stand now in sight.

“Hey, there’s someone standing outside…GREAT…they ARE open!,” thankfully, for my stomach’s sake.

I was the lone customer. The man before me now walking off with his sausage and fries into the distance. My Serbo Croatian was weak and rusty at best, so I pointed and ordered in English, not wanting to embarrass myself or mess it up any further.

An Imbissstand, like this one, on the back streets of Vukovar.

Standing outside on the Eastern lines of Croatia, at the end of January, it was pretty cold. Bone-chilling cold. I was doing a “two-step” dance in place trying to get warm. My feet and hands were freezing. I rubbed my hands together hoping to generate enough heat and circulation to restart my internal fire and stay warm. It was only 5 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity…I had my bratwurst and fries and was on my way…

“DAMN, those fries smell good! But don’t open the bag, you’ll let out all the heat!” I thought.

I didn’t finish processing the word ‘heat’ in my thoughts, when…

“What the h*ll?” … less than 50 feet in front of me, a low-continuous thud sound.  I knew that sound. That low, dull thud, repeating over and over. AK-47! “SHIT!” There’s nowhere to go. No cover. No cars. Not even a ditch or a tree. The only thing between me and the gunfire was the outer wall along the tall concrete building that was shielding me from the gunfire. “Do I stay put (in the open, unprotected), and chance waiting it out?”

ALL HELL WAS BREAKING LOOSE: A man was tearing up the walls of the concrete building, less than 50 feet in front of me, and just around the corner up an alleyway.

I was on a dead-end street. There WAS NO OTHER WAY HOME.

“I’m pinned! If I go back, there’s no time to make it back to the Imbissstand.”

I have only ONE choice…

For fear of being stuck in the open, I made a mad-dash toward the alleyway, ‘toward the gunfire!’

I knew better than to pull out my gun. I was not a combatant. I was not being fired upon (yet!!!)! Besides, there was no time. This was find cover time, then assess the situation. There would be a time later to pull my weapon, if needed…

There’s a scene in Rocky III — where Stallone and Carl Weathers are running in slow-motion on the beach…this was THAT moment! Everything slowed down. Twenty-one years later, I can still see every micro-second, frame-by-frame. My feet hitting the pavement, shoes slipping with each stride as they make contact with the gravel crossing the alleyway…legs and arms pumping up and down, glancing out the corner of my left eye…seeing the man standing 40 feet to my left shooting up the side of the buildings that I was now running between. He was turning toward me, eyes locked on like a heat-seeking missile, AK-47 in arms, bullets flying, and now trailing my left-to-right movement…

The sporadic gunfire had now intensified to a loud full-thumping auto, as  I crossed the alleyway.

In football, I was always taught to keep eyes forward, and use your peripheral. That advice couldn’t be more important now. I had the bag in hand, hauling ass, looking forward, it was mad-dash time toward the other side.

The guy with weapon in hand, had other ideas.

As I crossed the open alleyway, the gunfire trailed me.

I could hear the bullets hitting the gravel just behind me, as I motored the 20 yards between the buildings, faster than at any other time before in track & field or football. A few parked cars lined the street on the opposite side of the alleyway. “If I could just make it to those cars,” I thought. The gunfire had not stopped. But neither had my feet. The closer I got to the cars, the lighter on my feet I felt. This was fight or flight time and “I was not going to be ‘struck down,’ in some obscure alleyway, halfway around the world, far away from family or friends…”

My lead foot hit the grass, just as I neared the rear of the car. The gunfire stopped. “That #$@^%! is out of bullets,” I thought, as I ducked and zipped between the two parked cars. The end of the street (and my turn), was just 70 feet in front of me…”keep going,” I thought.

I could hear the man yelling in some foreign tongue, but I kept running.

A few seconds later, I was at the end of the street. Bag under armpit like a football. I darted right, around the walled fence lining the construction yard at the corner. For another half-mile, I kept running, zig-zagging back-n-forth, occasionally darting between parked cars to block any straight shots.

Frustrated, and out of bullets, I imagined he had just given up, or maybe he didn’t…


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