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Sarajevo, early May 1943
Reinhardt shuddered awake, again, clawing himself up from that dream, that nightmare of a winter field, the indolent drift of smoke and mist along the hummocked ground, the staccato line of the condemned and the children’s screams. He rolled his feet to the floor, sitting slumped on the side of the bed with his head in his hands, and listened to the calls to prayer sounding in ones and twos from the minarets as the sun rose across the Miljacka valley. Eyes glazed with fatigue, an ache in his head and an acid churn in his belly, he watched without seeing the crawl of light across his room, his mind still floundering to escape the clutches of his dream. He jerked as he smelled smoke, an acrid sting of memory, and blinked it back. Only a memory, but another sign of the inside leaking out more and more into his waking world. He wondered if he was going mad.
With trembling hands he lit a cigarette. His head swiveled to the side as he drew deeply, then tilted back as he exhaled through puffed cheeks, his eyes closed, the hangover beginning to bite. The smoke swelled up above him, rising, dissipating. Reinhardt watched it for a moment then let his head sag over his fingers, curled like a cage around the cigarette. Gingerly, he ran a fingertip across his temple, feeling the dull bruise beneath the skin where, more and more, the weight of his pistol was the last thing he felt at night.
Someone knocked at the door, and he froze, startled out of the fog of his thoughts. The knocking came again, and his name, muffled through the door. He put a hand on the bedside table and pushed himself quietly to his feet, but his arm felt numb and heavy from where he had slept on it, and it slipped, slid, and bumped the pistol, which clattered and clinked against the bottles and glasses.
Reinhardt stared guiltily across the room in the sudden silence. The knocking came again, louder. He put out his cigarette, gritting the stub into a whisper of ash; put a hand out to the wall to steady himself as his left knee gave its usual twitch; and began to shuffle down the side of the bed. He rested both hands on either side of the door frame, breathed deeply, and rolled his head on his neck, feeling the ache skitter around inside his skull like a steel ball in a bowl, and ran a finger across the bruise at his temple. Another deep breath, and he threw the latch back on the door and flung it open.
A soldier stood in the hallway outside, a fist raised to hammer the door again. Steely eyes regarded him from under the rim of a field cap, a sergeant’s insignia on his broad shoulders. For a moment there was silence, and Reinhardt realized he must make quite a sight, his hair tangled, shirt twisted out of his trousers, and his feet in socks.
Reinhardt looked at him through the spreading ache behind his eyes, half recognizing him. “I think you bloody well know who I am.”
The man put his heels together and saluted. “Sergeant Claussen, sir. I have orders for you to report to Major Freilinger immediately.” The man was built like a boulder, short and squat with his uniform stretched taut over his chest and belly.
Reinhardt stared at the sergeant. “To Major Freilinger?” he croaked. He coughed, swallowed, and tried again. “Freilinger? What does he want?”
“There has been a murder, sir,” said Claussen.
“Murder?” Reinhardt put his hand behind his neck and rubbed it, turning his head from side to side. He thought he saw Claussen’s eyes stray to the mark he was sure was on his temple, and he straightened up. “What’s that got to do with us? This city still has a police force, doesn’t it?”
“Major Freilinger instructed me to tell you that one of the victims is a fellow military intelligence Abwehr officer. Lieutenant Hendel.”
“Stefan Hendel? Freilinger said he was Abwehr?” Claussen nodded. “Very well. Give me ten minutes.”
“Yes, sir. Ten minutes.” Claussen was an experienced NCO. The four green stripes of a master sergeant on his arm were proof of that, and a good NCO knew how to frame a statement to an officer so it sounded like an order. Reinhardt flushed again at the picture he must make, picked up his towel and toiletry bag, and stalked out of his room down the corridor to the bathroom.
He bent over one of the sinks as he felt the churning in his stomach come heaving up. He retched, his head beginning to pound as he doubled over but, as so often, nothing came up, only a sickly rasp of bile, like the viscous residue of his life and work. His stomach calmed, eventually, and he shivered as he stayed bent over the sink, the hammering in his head turning into a dull ache that squatted in the top of his skull.
He rested his head in his hands, eyes pressed into the heels of his palms. Another night and he had hardly slept, and what sleep he managed gave him no rest. Another night spent in the cells under the prison, facing prisoners of war across bare rooms under caustic lights. Another night spent piecing together the puzzles these men represented, pulling together information and intelligence from a dozen other interrogations from the nights and days before them, here and elsewhere. Norwegians, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Australians, Arabs... now Yugoslavs. Partisans. They had all come and gone in front of him since this war started.
The pipes shuddered and coughed a spray of water into the cracked porcelain of the basin. He swallowed a couple of aspirin, drank as much as he could, then carefully shaved, looking through his reflection. He rinsed off and only then allowed himself to look in the mirror. Not quite as bad as he felt, he saw. Dark blue eyes like pits, cheeks gaunt above the tight line of his mouth, the close-cut cap of his brown hair graying at his temples. An average face. One that would go unnoticed in a group of three men, as his old police instructor used to joke.
He wet his tousled hair, combed it, splashed cologne on his face and water in his armpits, and he was done. He looked in the mirror a last time, wiping away the steam to stare at himself.
“As good as it gets,” he muttered, pulling out the light and walking back to his room. Reinhardt shut the door in Claussen’s face, let his trousers puddle around his feet, then peeled off his shirt and let his underpants and socks join the heap on the floor. Outside, the call of the muezzins faded away across the valley that held the town of Sarajevo cradled in its slopes. As if needing to fill the silence, the bells of St. Anthony’s, up behind the barracks, began to toll.
Outside came the squeal of the trams at Vijecnica as they went around the corner at the city hall. He twisted his shoulders into his suspenders, sat to pull on his boots, pausing a moment to stare at the picture of his dead wife in its silver frame on the bedside table, tracing a fall of hair with a fingernail along the glass.
Reinhardt placed the picture gently into a drawer and wound his watch. It was just a cheap Phenix, but winding it always made him think of the watch he had left behind in Berlin with Meissner, for safekeeping. A pocket watch, heavy, old fashioned, a British- made Williamson hunter with an inscription on its silver casing, and the memory of his finding it as vivid as ever.
He shrugged into his jacket, medals and metal clinking dully, closing each button with a firm movement as he stared at the window, thinking of nothing except the day to come and how to get through it. A step at a time, he knew. One after the other. Head down, back bent, eyes no more than two steps ahead, step after step until the day was done. He cinched a wide leather belt around his waist and took his cap from a hook on the wall and his pistol from the tabletop, sliding the gun into the holster with a dull rasp of metal on leather. Looking in the small mirror behind the door he adjusted the fit of his cap, then stuffed a pack of Atikahs and some matches into the pocket of his jacket and opened the front door.
“All right, let’s go,” he said, as he locked his door. Claussen straightened, his eyes flicking to the Iron Cross pinned to the left breast of Reinhardt’s tunic and back to Reinhardt’s face. He saw the change come across Claussen’s eyes as a decorated captain in the Abwehr came out of the room a half-drunk, half-dressed man had gone into.
Claussen led the way downstairs and into the cobbled length of the central courtyard of the Bistrik barracks, built by the Austrians at the start of their occupation of Bosnia at the end of the nineteenth century. They walked to a slope-nosed kübelwagen where a soldier was smoking a cigarette. He stubbed it out and saluted Reinhardt, his eyes looking up and over the captain’s left shoulder. “Corporal Hueber reporting, Captain,” he snapped. He was tall and raw-boned, cheeks flecked with acne.
“Hueber is our Serbo-Croat specialist,” said Claussen as he opened the kübelwagen’s door for Reinhardt. “Major Freilinger said to bring a translator, just in case our Croat friends decide to forget their German.”
“At ease, Corporal,” said Reinhardt. “You speak the language?” Reinhardt had picked up something of the language in his two tours in Yugoslavia. More than enough to follow the gist of conversations, order drinks, and scan the headlines of what passed for newspapers. He shook a cigarette from his pack and put it in his mouth.
“Yes, sir. My mother’s family were from Zagreb.”
“Carry on, then,” he said, settling into the car. The other two climbed in, and Claussen engaged first with a grind and steered them past the sentries in their striped pillboxes and into the street. Reinhardt wedged his shoulders against the rim of the door and put his arm along the central bar behind the front seats, his hand resting on the empty weapons racks. Remembering the cigarette in his mouth, he lit it, drew deeply, exhaled, then after a moment’s consideration offered cigarettes to Claussen and Hueber.
Claussen drove over the Latin Bridge to Kvaternik Street, the old Austrian Appelquai, then followed the trams down to Vijecnica. They traveled past the jumbled Oriental warren of Bentbaša with its uneven cobbled streets and Ottoman houses with white walls and red roofs, and back through the city, past Bašcaršija with its cafés dotted around its cobbled sweep. The air was cool this early in the morning, underlaid with the smell of coal and wood smoke, but the clear skies promised another scorcher of a day. Up at the top of Vratnik hill, beyond the jumble of roofs and minarets, the white walls of the old Ottoman fortress stared blankly down on the city.
“What more did Freilinger tell you?” asked Reinhardt as Claussen sped up again down King Aleksander Street. The city’s latest masters, the Independent State of Croatia—the NDH—had renamed it Ante Pavelic Street after their version of the Führer, but everyone, even those in charge, still called it Aleksander. At a crossroads, Ustaše policemen— Croatian fascists in black uniforms with rifles strapped across their backs—were pulling down Communist Party posters that must have been put up overnight. The walls on both sides of the road were covered in scraps of white paper where dozens more had been pulled down. More Ustaše stood guard over a group of men kneeling on the pavement with their hands on their heads. Two bodies lay in the street.
Claussen squinted around the cigarette smoke spiraling up into his eyes and slowed to bump the car over a bad patch of road. “The major only said the murders had occurred at an address in Ilida.”
“Ilida?” said Reinhardt. “That’s a bugger of a drive. And I need something to eat.” He scanned the road ahead and motioned for Claussen to pull over while he jumped out and bought kifla off a trader in baggy black trousers and a red waistcoat pushing a handcart. The man kept his head down, his eyes sliding over him and past, as if around an absence, but Reinhardt was used to that now.
The bread was warm, soft, and salty-sweet as he chewed and watched the city go by. Down past the gutted ruin of the Sephardic synagogue, past the yellow arches of the city market, past the Imperial façades of Marijin Dvor and the old State House where the general staff had its offices, past the tobacco factory, the white exterior of the National Museum, and the long stretch of wall that hid the Kosevo Polje barracks, and then they were leaving the main part of Sarajevo behind and driving almost due west, the Miljacka valley opening out to north and south.
There was space here you never seemed to find in the city’s hunched streets. Orchards and fields running away from the road in long rectangles, the rolling countryside speckled with the four-sided roofs of traditional houses. The old Austrian road was dotted with horse carts, donkey carts, sheep and goats, tradesmen, farmers, women in twos and threes wearing long veils who turned away as the car went past. At the other end was the spa resort of Ilida, nestled at the foot of the forested swell of Mount Igman, a sort of smaller, cleaner, more spacious counterweight to the city that lay behind them all squeezed in and jumbled up the slopes of the mountains that pinched off the eastern end of the valley.
The drive was a fairly long one, and despite the best efforts of the engineers, the road was not standing up well to the constant pounding of the military traffic along it. Claussen was forever slowing, braking, and swerving around ruts and potholes, but the drive gave Reinhardt time to think, time to recover from his binge, and time to start feeling ashamed of himself. He found his fingers again brushing over the spot on his head to which he had put the pistol, his mind opening again to the emptiness he struggled each night to encompass. With an effort, he tamped down on it, pushed it away, but it was becoming harder not to let the depression and despair he felt at night overwhelm him during the day. Again, he caught Claussen looking at him out of the corner of his eye, and he clenched his right fist tight and held it on his leg.
He tried to think instead about the victim, Hendel. In Sarajevo for three months or so. Prior to that with the Abwehr in Belgrade. He did internal army security and before that was in technical work—radios, cameras and such. Spoke the language fairly well, Reinhardt recalled. Liked the ladies and got out on the town whenever he was off duty. That was pretty much all he knew about him. He could not talk to either of the men with him in the car about anything Hendel might have been working on, so he put his head back and closed his eyes.
He must have dozed off to the vibration of the car because Claussen woke him up as they arrived in Ilida. Reinhardt’s mouth felt thick, but the few minutes’ sleep he had snatched seemed to have refreshed him. Claussen turned left at the crossroads in front of the Hotel Igman, another of the Austrians’ neo-Moorish constructions, and continued south. Past the twin Austria and Hungary hotels, staring at each other across the round sweep of their lawn where an old gardener in a white fez watched them go by. Several staff cars were parked on the drive in front of the Austria, big, shiny vehicles with pennants at the front and motorcycle escorts. Just after the hotels, Claussen turned onto the beginning of the long alley that led up to the source of the Bosna River. The alley was bounded on both sides by rows of platane trees and by large, elegant villas standing on swaths of lawn. Ahead, on the left, several cars were pulled over between the trees or on the shoulder. A policeman approached as they drew up.
“Tell him we’re here to see Major Freilinger,” said Reinhardt to Hueber. The corporal leaned forward in his seat and spoke to the policeman who saluted and motioned them forward. Claussen pulled over behind a Mercedes with Army plates. Beyond that was a pair of local police Volkswagens and an ambulance with a driver behind the wheel.
“I’ll go in and find Freilinger,” said Reinhardt to Claussen. “Take Hueber and see if you can find the chief uniform in charge here, or the unit that responded first. See what they know.”
“Sir,” said Claussen. “On me, Corporal.” Reinhardt walked over to the gate in the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the house. Built in the Austrian Imperial style, it had cream-colored walls and two floors above the ground floor. A garage was built on one side of the house, its doors open and a white sports car just inside. A motorbike and sidecar with German Army plates was parked against the wall to the right of the front door, where a policeman stood guard. He was clearly unsure whether to let him in or not, so Reinhardt fixed him with his eyes and nodded to him as he went past and into the house, ignoring him but with his back suddenly tensed, as if for a blow.
Forcing himself to unwind, he stood for a moment with the light breaking to either side of his shadow. The hallway was dim after the clear day outside and he gave his eyes a moment to adjust, removing his cap as he did so. A staircase curved upstairs at the end of the hall, and doors opened off the hallway to left and right. Framed photographs hung on the walls. From somewhere toward the back of the house, he heard the clink of china and a woman crying.
The wooden stairs creaked solidly under his weight as he went up toward the sound of voices. He breathed deep just before he reached the top and felt it, a gag that pinched the back of his throat as he caught the smell of putrefaction. Breathing slowly, Reinhardt tucked his cap under his arm and walked up the last few stairs.
The stairway opened into a living room, sumptuously furnished, a sofa and armchairs in warm brown leather gathered under a chandelier of washed blue glass. There was a low coffee table, with a bottle of French brandy and two tumblers, atop an Oriental-looking carpet. Two doors led off from the room, to the left and right. Directly in front, cabinets and tables in dark wood lined the walls beneath and between tall windows, and a clock kept soft time on the marble mantelpiece below a huge mirror in a worked gold frame. A portrait photograph of a man in a black uniform stood next to the clock, with a black band running laterally across the bottom right corner.
More Oriental carpets were laid out in other parts of the room, some of them rumpled, stained with the alcohol that had run from the bottles smashed across the floor from where they had fallen out of the liquor cabinet, itself lying facedown in shards of glass. A lamp on the floor, pokers strewn around the fireplace. One of the leather chairs askew, out of line with the others. And everywhere, lingering underneath it all, incongruous in this setting of refined luxury, was the smell of death.
Hendel’s body lay just to the right of the stairs, against the wall, with its torso slumped partly upright. A spray of blood and something darker had dribbled and dried down the wall above his head. He had been shot just below the nose, and from the burn marks around the wound the gun had been placed against his skin. Reinhardt’s right hand began to rise again of its own volition toward his temple and to the mark his own pistol had made there, but he covered it with a move to adjust the tuck of his cap under his other arm.
There was another smear of blood on the wall next to the door to the left. Freilinger was standing by that door with a big man in a dark but ill-fitting suit, both of them looking into the room beyond, which seemed to be brightly lit. Freilinger turned and saw Reinhardt standing by the hallway door. The major’s bullet head of close gray hair almost glowed in the strong light. As Freilinger’s eyes met his, Reinhardt suppressed a flinch at the sudden smell of smoke, there and gone just as fast. Swallowing, and looking left and right, Reinhardt walked across the living room, the parquet squeaking under his steps. His feet crunched on glass. Looking down, he saw a crescent of broken bottle with a Hennessey label, gold on black, like a piece of flotsam on the parquet floor.
Freilinger and the other man stepped away from the door, motioning Reinhardt over to the fireplace between the two tall windows. Glancing left, Reinhardt looked into a bedroom, saw part of a huge four-poster bed hung with silk, dark wood floors. He turned back to the two men, came to attention.
“Reinhardt reporting as ordered, Major.”
“This is Chief Inspector Putkovic, of the Sarajevo police. We have a problem, Reinhardt,” said Freilinger, getting straight to the point as always. Freilinger had always maintained some distance between himself and Reinhardt, despite the common connection they had in Meissner, going back to the first war. “A double homicide, and one of the victims an army officer. Not only that, but an officer in military intelligence.” He spoke quietly, his voice underlaid by a low, hoarse rasp, the legacy of a British gas attack in the first war. Speaking was painful for him. “This causes some jurisdictional problems, as you can well imagine, but I think the inspector and I have been able to come to a suitable arrangement.”
The inspector in question did not look like he felt a suitable arrangement had been reached at all. The man was big, in the way so many men in the Balkans seemed to be big. Lots of fat on big bones. A taut paunch sagged over his belt, and his fists were like hams, the knuckles indented in the flesh. A fleshy, porcine face, flat eyes that looked like anvils. He smelled of sweat and alcohol. “There is no need for German involvement. My men can handle this.” His German was good, although heavily accented. He spoke to Freilinger, but his eyes bored into Reinhardt. “We are professionals.”
“Quite frankly, I don’t care, and I’m getting tired of saying it,” rasped Freilinger. Putkovic’s face went florid with his anger. “There are agreements and protocols for this sort of thing. I don’t care who the dead girl is. A German officer is dead. The two seem to me quite obviously to be linked together, however much you might not want them to be. You’ll work with Captain Reinhardt, who, I will remind you, has nearly twenty years as a detective in the Berlin Kriminalpolizei. Homicide and organized crime.” He paused for breath but raised a hand to forestall the next protest from the Croat. “You will extend him every courtesy required. If you still wish to debate this, tell your commander to take it up with the general. Otherwise, we’re done.”
Putkovic’s jaws clenched. He stuck out his jaw, nodded, and then started for the stairs, clattering down them and hollering something to someone on the way out. Freilinger breathed out, shaking his head and putting his hand on the mantel of the fireplace. “God, what a bore.” He looked up at Reinhardt. Freilinger was a small man, wiry, with piercing blue eyes. His skin was leathery and creased from a lifetime of soldiering. “This is no picnic I’ve landed you in, Reinhardt.”
“What do you have going at the moment?”
“Third round of interrogations of the Partisan officers captured after Operation Weiss.”
“It’s the way I work, sir,” wishing, as always, he did not sound so defensive about it.
Freilinger stared down at the carpet. “Very well,” he said. “Hand them over to the camp authorities.”
“Sir, I’m not finished with them.”
“You are now. You won’t have time for them anyway.” Freilinger lifted his eyes, flicked them around the room. “The reason I want you on this is Hendel was one of ours, and we keep this investigation close. I’m having Weninger and Maier go over his files, see if anything pops out that would link him to the dead girl.” He paused as he took a small tin of French mints from his pocket, which he swore were the only thing that helped his throat, and popped one in his mouth. It was, as far as Reinhardt knew, the only habit or vice he had. “The dead girl is Marija Vukic.” Reinhardt’s eyes widened. “You’ve heard of her?”
“Marija Vukic? Yes, I have. I even met her once.”
“Sort of a cross between Leni Riefenstahl and Marika Roekk?” Reinhardt shrugged, nodded. “A filmmaker. A journalist. Well connected. And with a film star’s looks?” Reinhardt nodded again, remembering the one time he had met her, and the impression she had made on him. “The Croats want whoever did this to her for themselves. I’m not sure they’re too bothered about Hendel, but if they can find a way to embarrass us with his death, they’ll probably try. They already have their list of usual suspects. I don’t doubt they’ll be breaking bones down at police headquarters fairly soon.”
“I can perfectly understand the Croats’ preoccupation with finding the killer. Are you saying we’re in competition for suspects?”
“Possibly. Possibly not. Maybe Hendel was killed after Vukic. But on the bright side, Putkovic has agreed to have Hendel examined by the police pathologist. It’ll save us time. We’ll know more then.”
“Yes, sir.” Reinhardt nodded, feeling a sudden sense of trepidation. In the hollow at the base of his spine he began to sweat. “Sir, shouldn’t the Feldgendarmerie have this one?”
Freilinger stared at Reinhardt, his chin moving as he rolled the mint around inside his mouth. “I’ll make sure the military police know you are leading this investigation, and that they give you whatever assistance you require. They’ve got enough on their plate with Operation Schwarz coming up, I would think. All eyes and effort’s going to be on that, on prizing the Partisans down from out of their mountains and smashing them once and for all. And, like I said, Hendel was one of ours. We’ll take care of it.” He paused, his fingers rubbing his throat. Thumb on one side, forefinger on the other. “I don’t know who the police’ll give you to work with, but try to be civil, and try to be quick.” A swallow, the mint clicking against his teeth. “No one’s pretending the ‘Independent’ in NDH means anything anymore. Especially now that just about every soldier they ever had that was worth anything is dead at Stalingrad.” If he noticed Reinhardt’s discomfort at the mention of that city, he did not show it. “Relations are tense. Let’s see if we can’t keep these on an even keel.”
“I’ll do my best, sir.” Freilinger nodded. “One thing, sir. You do know that I haven’t attended a crime scene in over four years.”
The major looked back at him, his blue eyes like chips of glass, and a sudden flare, like a fire, deep within them, and again there was the smell of smoke in his nose. “That will be all, Reinhardt. I’ve assigned Claussen to you. He’s Abwehr, so you can talk freely with him. He’s also ex-police. He’s a resourceful man, and even if he does not look that way now you’ll appreciate having a friendly face around. Report to me at the end of the day.”
“Do I wait for Putkovic’s man before starting?” The major walked to the window over the alley. Heated words were being exchanged out there.
“I’m guessing Putkovic’s man is being briefed now.” Reinhardt looked down at the big detective talking loudly with a handful of policemen, one in a suit. Putkovic emphasized whatever points he was making by slapping one fist into the palm of the other. Even from up here, Reinhardt could hear the meaty thud they made. There was a space around the man the others would not, or could not, enter. Not surprising, given the animal ferocity the man gave off. Freilinger shook his head. “Get going. Let them catch up.”
With that, he was gone. Standing alone, Reinhardt put his hands on the mantel and breathed deeply. He hung his head down between his arms, feeling the strain in the back of his neck. His headache was still there, heavy along the base of his skull. He looked at the portrait. A father? An uncle? A quick breath, and he stepped into the bedroom.
Posted June 18, 2013
WWII crime novel with plenty of history and politics. The characters are wonderful, especially Captain Gregor Reinhardt and there's plenty of depth to the plot. Thoroughly gripping and engaging. I definitely look forward to the sequel.
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Luke McCallin's The Man from Berlin is a great crime novel. The writing draws you in and keeps you turning the pages. The characters are all very interesting and the plot is gripping.
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Posted August 31, 2013
Luke McCallin's first novel set within the complexities and confusion of Bosnia and especially Sarajevo during WW2 is the perfect place to be introduced to Captain Gregor Reinhardt, ex-Berlin Kripo detective and now with the Abwehr. He is as complex and troubled as the many streams of ethnic groups who are struggling against enemies without and within. McCallin slowly begins to reveal both the land and the man, each with deep and troubling pasts coming to terms with their own present lives. I came to "The Man From Berlin" through the Phillip Kerr Bernie Gunther novels. If you enjoyed those you will certainly enjoy McCallin's new novel about a detective who, though he shares some similarities to Bernie Gunther, is even more complex. What sets this novel apart from those is the author's deep connection to the city of Sarajevo and the way he makes the place and the time a character of the story itself.
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Posted January 23, 2015
Good insight into Yugoslavia during WWII
My, what a conflicted place this country was during the War. So many different nations and people groups thrown together in mass turmoil. Of course this is fiction, but it exposes how brutal the War was in this region which we Americans haven't usually been exposed to. No surprise that ethnic civil wars followed the breakup of Communism in the early 1990's.
Oh, by the way, the story line was interesting, if a little far-fetched.
Posted August 2, 2013
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