Master Sergeant George Hand US Army (ret) was a member of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, The Delta Force. He is a now a master photographer, cartoonist and storyteller.
“Well, they sure favor their Earth tone clothing over here; every color is … dark, dingy, and just… gray. It’s like this whole city is trapped inside a gray balloon,” my brother observed and commented. “What the hell is with all the dark clothing, seriously?” he puzzled. “I mean is there some kind of extra import tariff on $hit that is red, yellow, or orange — the longer wavelength colors — always with the shorter waves, Moriarity; ALWAYS WITH THE SHORTER WAVES!”
Sarajevo is the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina in former Yugoslavia. The boys and I came here shortly after a United Nations (UN)-induced cease-fire. The tide of homicide, genocide, fratricide, and suicide along the countryside… had all just become so, so, so over the top for the world theater’s pallet.
The suffering on the ground was hellish but what the real world didn’t know and we only learned on the ground was that we were here because of a doll. Yep, that’s right journalists were placing dolls in the scenes of carnage which when seen by coffee-talkers around the world sparked global outrage — time to send in some troops!
“They’re ripping babies out of mothers’ arms and then gunning both down right there in the streets… and I think that’s just wrong, you know?” bleat the crestfallen Gladys Pumpernick of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. “Oh, but what of the children??”
And so it went; that’s how me and the boys ended up in a C-130 Herc out of Germany, junked-up with body armor and helmets. Ground fire was an indeed thing in and around the Sarajevo airport. No slow shallow glide to the flight line; that would lend undue exposure of the aircraft to ground fire. Ours was a fast approach with a sudden steep dive and flare onto the tarmac.
Air Force likes to tell you that a dive gives you a chance. The Army tells you to throw on body armor. Despite both schools of wisdom, you’re still stuck in a metal tube with absolutely nothing you can do. We looked and felt stupid in our armor, with nothing protecting us from bullets coming up through the floor of the aircraft.
“In Nam the Air Cavalry sat on their steel pots!” recalled a brother, and we all quickly removed our armored vests and helmets. We lay our vests on our red nylon seats, the K-Pot helmets on the vests, then sat on top of the combo, grinning back and forth at each other the grin you grin when you have saved your testicles for yet another day.
Once on the ground, were attached to the in-country commanding general’s group of the UN-titled Implementation Force (IFOR). All soldiers from all nations wore the IFOR badge on their uniforms. Our badges, being with the command element read “ComIFOR” the Command of IFOR, a title that lent prestige in countless areas as well as free parking spots.
We wore only functionally rugged civilian clothes and carried a concealed M-1911 pistol on our person. Parking along a curb on our first day we were immediately approached by a fireplug of a hateful U.S. Military Police person. She huffed and she puffed and sought to blow us down:
“You can’t park there!”
Our team lead, D-man, neatly closed the driver’s door of our SUV as he replied: “Yes we can.”
“No you can’t — IFOR!” huffed the MP as she jammed an indicating index finger into the IFOR badge on her chest.
D-Man tapped his badge on his chest: “Yes we can — ComIFOR.”
The MP’s eyes flashed a “been-got” flash, and she stewed momentarily. “Well, don’t take all damned day!” was all she had.
“Yeah, we’ll be sure and not take all damned day, sweetheart,” was how D-Man dismissed our host.
I can tell you that it was dark in Sarajevo at night, so dark. My first night there I counted from up high a grand total of five lights coming from some sources in the city, not even bright ones. Two of them were traffic lights… just two traffic lights on main street in the entire city. It was dark in Sarajevo at night, yeah.
Night in a shopping district of modern-day Sarajevo
The country’s infrastructure was simply destroyed from the years of bombing and shelling. There was no dependable electric grid, fuel or transportation was rare. People were forced to spend long days well into night, mostly on foot just trying to take care of their basic needs.
And at night our headlights revealed the ghost people as they moved through the streets. Clad mostly in black; light black and dark black. A splash of gray to compliment the dark something-or-other, an ensemble pulled together with a black pleather jacket.
And the women, dark on dark with pallid skin, long raven hair, black lipstick, and dark eyeshadow… looking like a hoard of listless Morticia Addams’ sulking their way to somewhere. They shuffled as singletons or couples arm in pleather arm. Goth was just the untimely trend for the young there. It just made for an even more macabre ambiance in the city at night.
The original Morticia Addams
Back at our little compound, I had a chance to meet one of the ghost people face to face: Rado, short for Radovan, had been a newspaper editor before the war in just his early 20s. He was since rounded up by Serbian troops and held for many months in a barn with the other men of his neighborhood and tortured beyond logical description, to the brink of a ghost person.
Subject to his calamity he became as simple as a little child in both thought and action. He did odd jobs around the American Embassy for food and pennies. He smoked like a meat house and wore the same unlaundered pullover sweater the entire three months I was there.
The team and I really came to question the ghost people: why were they walking in the street at night in dark clothes, in the middle of the street even?! It’s like they’re begging to be killed… they’re stoned freaking crazy — all of them! Yes, it sure seemed that way to me too. I have to reckon that after all they have been through these last years nothing really lights their fuses.
What can I tell you? These souls have been treading in Lucifer’s backyard for over four years now, the longest siege of a major city in modern history. Day after day of pacts with the devil to stay alive, scratching and screaming to stay living, promising all and everything to the Creator for just one more day above ground… do we honestly expect them to worry over their dark wardrobe while they stroll the street shoulders of their peace-time home??
An American Colonel gave Rado his used New Balance running shoes the day he signed out; he just walked up and stuffed them in Rado’s chest and walked away. Rado stood stunned, gradually sinking to the ground crying and hugging his now most prized possession, his (used) American shoes. “Even and they are my number!” he cried out in fractured English, meaning they were just his size, “Even and they are my same number!”
Driving on patrol or even on the base was always a challenge for us with the Ghost people lurking in the shadows. “I swear to God “Sarajevo” is the Bosnian word for ghost people! They need to move out of the freakin’ way!!” =HONK — HONK — HOOOOOONK= “I’m going to run one of these sons-of-bitches over and it’s not going to be my fault!” Tough talk, but we would continue to always yield to the ghost people, our rage notwithstanding.
Rado got hit by an IFOR HMMWV (hummer) and died on Alipašina Ulica (street). It was night, and the street was dark. Rado was dark and too simple, the driver American and so irate, irate with the ghost people of Sarajevo.
I didn’t see the accident, but I raced there when I heard the news, as it was very close by. Rado lay still where he died, wearing his same rancid pullover sweater, and now the Colonel’s used running shoes, his same number, Rado’s, the simple child… Rado, the ghost of Sarajevo.
Radovan Bozhić served his sentence in Hades. He was finished with his sentence, and now it was time for him to live; it was someone else’s turn to stagger the green mile to death for a fair spell.
Somewhere, somehow, some clerk made an errant entry in the wrong row, the wrong column of a divine dispatch log, and mistakenly put Rado wrongfully back on the mortal path… my, but I did hate it so.