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The Day I Faced Death

THE engine tone of the aircraft above us had changed; the drone had become a dive. Carlos and I looked at one another as, speechless, we realised we were about to be bombed. We scrambled across the rubble on the track in front of us, desperately seeking some sort of cover from the unpromising choices of a towering rock face on our right and the steep ravine dropping sharply to a river on our left.

The deep, menacing and thunderous boom of the bomb exploding came seconds after I crouched against the rock face at the mouth of a road tunnel. The monstrous explosion ricocheted around the surrounding canyons and gorges. Inside the tunnel, heaped high with rubble from an earlier bombing, I could see Carlos Julio, a fellow journalist from Portugal, and Nenad, our bodyguard, trying to shield Elsa, a petite young reporter from Portuguese television who was pleading, "Don't leave me, don't leave me." I was struck then by the stark terror which normally only ever occurs in nightmares, just as you are jolted awake on the brink of what you think will be certain death. Only this time, there was no awakening.

As one aircraft was climbing away, I could hear through blast-dulled ears a second jet homing in for a new bombing run. "Come in here!" Nenad shouted at me from the back of the tunnel. "It is safer here." I could not believe him, much as I wanted to, for it seemed obvious that this tunnel and a second so-far-untouched tunnel a few yards away were the targets of the gleaming warplanes and their deadly cargoes.

We were on a mountain road in southern Kosovo in late May 1999, at a time when Nato was intensifying its bombing campaign against the southern Serbian province. It was more than two months after the start of the Nato campaign and the Alliance had flown thousands of sorties. I had witnessed scores of dead and wounded across Serbia but - until now - I had believed that I could stay in one piece.

The unmistakable "zheeee" sound of a second bomb hurtling to earth robbed me of more time to think. Instinctively I ran from the tunnel mouth - and, inadvertently, directly towards the missile as it slammed to the ground about 20 yards away. This time the deep, rumbling roar of the explosion was accompanied by a pulse of awesome energy, which hit me like a wave. I was sure it would be my last moment of consciousness on earth. Stark terror jolted my brain, making the moment seem to pass like minutes. I cursed the Fates that were ending my life on this rubble-strewn mountain road and prayed that the end would be swift and clean. Shameful to say, I did not think of my family, but of how I was being robbed of the chance to use my last breath to draw on the comfort of a cigarette.

The next sensation was amazement that I was still breathing, albeit flat on my face in a pall of chokingly thick asbestos-coloured dust thrown up by the explosion. It was like being caught in a monumental soot-fall.

I hardly dared believe that I was alive, let alone unmutilated, and wondered for a split second whether I had been so horribly injured that the pain would come only later. Realising that I was still in one piece, I scrambled shakily to my feet as the impenetrable fug cleared to a haze, and saw, in the shade of the second tunnel, one of our two cars.

The last time I had seen it, the gleaming Toyota Carina had been a head-turning marvel of Western technology on the tank and tractor-rutted roads of Kosovo. Now it looked like a drinks can, crumpled and discarded.

At any moment, I thought, our translator Nebojsa's face would appear over the edge of the culvert.

Instead, there were two seemingly enormous Yugoslav Army soldiers, beaming and stretching their hands down towards us. In seconds we were bundled towards a small civilian car.

Panic was to clamp its cold hand more firmly on my brain as the next 24 hours unfolded. When we reached the tiny village of Rekane, men, women and children swarmed on to the street and urgent, concerned faces pressed around us. Chairs and sweetened water were brought.

Most of the villagers seemed to be of Turkish descent and appeared surpisingly at ease with the Serbian soldiers.

But what should have felt a place of blessed safety suddenly became a deathrap in my eyes. The chairs had been arranged next to a small stone bridge crossing one of the streams - and bridge equalled Nato target. "I can't stay here, none of us can stay here," I said, jumping to my feet.

One of the two saviour soldiers explained he was a doctor and insisted on driving us higher up the mountain, to the Turkish-dominated village of Lokvica, where he said he had a small clinic. His name was Goran Zdravkovic and he tended our cuts and grazes in the clean but spartan room which served as an army clinic, and which had witnessed far more serious injuries than ours.

Many weeks later, I was to learn that we owed our deliverance to a shepherd boy on the mountain near the tunnels, who had seen our predicament when the bombing began and had run to Rekane to raise the alarm, telling a Yugoslav soldier there that he thought some people were trapped.

The news was radioed to Lokvica, from where Dr Goran Zdravkovic and his commander had decided to drive down to see if anyone needed help. They did not ask for volunteers to join them, Dr Zradkovic said later, "since this mission looked like certain death." Instead they just made the Orthodox sign of the cross and set out.

That evening, we were told that Nebojsa was dead. The first bomb that afternoon had struck an almost direct hit beneath the car where he was sleeping. While we were in Prizren, he had spent the hours socialising with villagers in Rekane before returning to the road tunnel to wait for us. The power of the bomb had lifted the car and smashed it against the roof of the tunnel, killing Nebojsa instantly.

As with any sudden death of someone you know, my first reaction was disbelief. How could anyone so large and full of life exist no more?

His presence had played a large part in my life for the previous two weeks as we had worked, eaten, laughed and occasionally grown irritable. He had told us that he was divorced, doted on his ten-year-old son and that his ambition was to run a travel agency when the war was over.

 

 

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