About the Author
After serving with the U.S. Army overseas, Albert Ashforth earned a B.A. from Brooklyn College and a M.A. and a Ph.D. from New York University. He worked for two New York newspapers before returning to Europe as an instructor for the University of Maryland's Overseas Program. He also served at the German Military Academy training NATO officers and as an instructor at the 10th Group Special Forces headquarters in Bad Tolz. As a military contractor, he has done tours in Bosnia, Macedonia, Germany, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. He is the author of three novels and numerous articles and short stories. His novel The Rendition won the Military Writers of America Bronze Medal. Ashforth is on the faculty at the State University of New York and lives in New York City.
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By Albert Ashforth
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2012 Albert Ashforth
All rights reserved.
Monday, March 19, 2007
It was just before 2400 hours, and it was the kind of chilly night you get in the Balkans in late March. Scattered patches of snow on the forest floor and a few small drifts were the last remnants of winter. After nearly three hours, my jacket had become caked with mud, and the muscles in my shoulders and upper arms no longer just ached — but were now numb. I was in a slight depression in the ground, in a grove of scrub pine and 150 feet from the house, peering through my night-vision goggles, which transformed everything I could see into an eerie shade of green. I was becoming more restless with each passing minute.
I had the feeling we could use more backup. One more guy would make a difference. Two would make one helluva difference. There were just three of us, all dressed in field jackets and black coveralls for the occasion — Larry Scott on the far side of the building, and Angel in the woods about thirty yards away. Angel and I were covering the door we expected them to use when they heard the big bang and came tumbling out of the house. But things were taking longer than planned. Or maybe I just had the jitters and wasn't all that good at this sort of thing anymore. No way could I admit that, of course — not even to myself.
When Buck asked me, I could have said, "No. Absolutely not. Find someone else." If I had, I'd be back in the States, and whatever I'd be doing would beat chasing around in the woods and playing soldier the way I'd been doing for the last two days. And if it had been anyone but Buck Romero, my old partner, who'd asked me, I would have said just that. "No. N-O. Absolutely not. Find someone else."
That's the worst of owing people favors. They usually expect you to repay them.
I took another slug from my bottle of water and continued to peer toward the house. There was faint light inside, maybe from some candles, but thick curtains were drawn across the two windows in my line of sight. Scott should have gotten things rolling before this. If the people running this rendition had thought to provide us with some Semtex or C-4 along with the weapons, it wouldn't be necessary to improvise a Molotov cocktail. Still, how long does it take to light a Molotov cocktail and toss it under a car in the garage?
Making sure the volume was down, I decided to break the radio squelch. "What's going on?"
Scott's voice responded, "It's gonna happen. There's a padlock on the garage. I gotta get it open."
Angel was impatient too. "How long does it take to pick a goddamn padlock? The car should have gone bang at least ten minutes ago."
"You guys hold your water."
Angel said, "I been pissing in my pants five minutes already."
After the explosion, our plan called for them to charge out of the house in this direction — and into the sights of our automatic weapons. I had an M49 machine gun set up on its bipod, and my left hand firmly around the magazine, but the position was becoming more uncomfortable with each passing minute. Again the thought occurred to me that I hadn't fired one of these babies since I last qualified on the range at Fort Bragg. How long ago was that? Ten years? Longer. Time flies.
Hopefully, I wouldn't have to fire it now.
We'd had these people under surveillance for nearly twenty-four hours, watching them come and go. Just three of them were in the building now, doing what I had no idea. Sleeping, probably. What we were aiming to do was execute a quick flushing operation, the kind of thing we had drilled into us at some point during our urban-warfare training. When people are surprised, their responses tend to be pretty predictable.
Duck! Look for the nearest exit! Shout and scream! Start shooting!
I've even known people to pray.
We were interested in only one of the people inside, an individual named Ramush Nadaj. It was never explained to us just why someone somewhere wanted Nadaj so badly that they were willing to pay us a bundle to bring him in. In fact, we didn't have even the slightest idea who it was who wanted him. But when you work in intelligence, you get used to things being "compartmentalized," which is another way of saying the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. During the flight over, we kicked the subject around a bit, but we'd each learned a long time ago that's mostly how it is in this business. Which, of course, doesn't mean we weren't curious as all hell.
The house, which sat on a wooded hill a couple of miles from Pristina, Kosovo's capital, was rectangular, had maybe six rooms and, like most buildings in Kosovo, was built from bulky red cinder blocks. The roof was red slate. An outhouse was in back and the wooden garage with the Opel in it was on the far side. Houses in this part of the world are built for utilitarian purposes. The utilitarian purpose this house was serving was as a hideout for Ramush Nadaj.
Kosovo is probably Europe's poorest country. Although it's technically still a province of Serbia, that situation is due to change if the Kosovo Liberation Army has anything to say about things. From what I could see, with undocumented Albanians streaming in by the busloads and joining the ranks of the unemployed, Kosovo was becoming poorer by the day. Despite its eagerness to break free from Serbia, I doubt that a declaration of independence will have any effect on the province's poverty problem — or its crime problem.
We had a VW van sitting off the road a quarter of a mile away. Once we got our man, we'd give him a stiff shot of Thorazine, shove him beneath the floorboards, and hustle him back in the direction of Camp Bondsteel, the U.S. Army installation in Kosovo. But in the same way nature abhors a vacuum, the American government also abhors this kind of extraordinary rendition — or at least says it does. And because there couldn't be any official recognition of what was going down here in the Balkans, military facilities were off limits.
"Completely and totally black," is the way Buck described the operation for us just before we flew out of Dulles last week.
We'd bring Ramush Nadaj to a helicopter pad located less than a mile from the installation, where a Black Hawk chopper would be waiting to carry him away into the wild blue yonder — and eventually to Jordan, Romania, Bulgaria or perhaps to "the salt pit," the less than cozy prison our government runs just outside of Kabul in Afghanistan. Before the helicopter ride, they'd exchange his clothes for a jumpsuit in the event he might have a weapon concealed somewhere, stick some more Thorazine into his arm to help him relax, and jam an enema and some Pampers into his ass to keep him occupied after he wakes up — and after all that happened, he wouldn't be our worry anymore.
It was a variation of the operation we ran some years back out of Tuzla, in Bosnia, when we extracted Slobodan Milosevic from the friendly confines of his Belgrade apartment. At the time, he was watching the tube, drinking raki and, as he angrily complained in accented English, "not bothering anybody." That was an undertaking I was also involved in, but in a slightly more peripheral way than I was in this one.
I don't know which I heard first — the twig snapping or our Molotov cocktail exploding.
I must have heard the twig first because I was already moving when the big bang came from the garage. And then I felt a gun barrel thrust so hard into the small of my back that I let out a loud shout. Even as I rolled over and was trying to get my KA-BAR out of the sheath on my hip, I knew it was too late. Someone crunched my arm with a boot, picked up the KA-BAR and barked something at me in guttural Albanian. At that moment, two of the three occupants of the house came scrambling down the stone steps and began running in this direction.
When the barrel of an automatic weapon smashed into my face, I realized that things weren't going down exactly as we'd planned.
Still on the ground, I was able get my arms up, and the second and third hits were less direct. I vaguely remember the shouts, Albanian curses, and then I was being half dragged, half carried back into the woods. When I tried to resist, somebody aimed a boot in the neighborhood of my kidneys. Briefly, I blacked out. There was the sound of automatic weapons, but I wasn't sure who was shooting them. I thought I heard Angel's voice, and he could have been shouting my name.
When I tried shouting back, another boot smashed into my mouth.
I later discovered I had a mouthful of loose teeth.
And then they had me by the legs and were dragging me again. There was the distant sound of an automobile engine, but maybe it wasn't as distant as it sounded. Someone was using me for a punching bag, and something came down on my head. Hard. When I awoke, I hurt all over. Since my brain wasn't processing information with quite the efficiency it normally does, it took maybe thirty seconds to figure out that I was in the trunk of someone's car, which stunk of engine oil and seemed to be bouncing and bumping over a washboard dirt road. It was a safe bet we were on a dirt road since 90 percent of Kosovo's roads are still unpaved.
Although Mr. Nadaj seemed to have turned the tables very nicely, I did my best not to dwell on that fact.
It was a bumpy ride. We rode for what seemed like three hours, but when you're squashed into the pitch-black trunk of a vehicle with your knees only inches from your jaw and wondering how the hell you got into this mess, believe me, time drags. Particularly, when you're in the kind of rattletrap vehicles people drive in this part of the world, where probably four out of five cars on the road are either unregistered or stolen. For all I knew, we could have been underway for only forty-five minutes. After we stopped, I could hear people jabbering and moving around. Finally, someone pulled open the lid of the trunk and from out of the pitch darkness shone a flashlight into my eyes. Although my first impulse was to kick the two guys who reached in to grab my legs, I decided that discretion might be the better part of valor. As it turned out, I was wrong. They yanked me out of the trunk and over the bumper, then let me drop to the ground.
"For cryin' out —" I never finished the sentence.
"Shut up, asshole." I still wasn't tracking too clearly, but it sounded like someone was familiar with the English vernacular. It also sounded like the voice of a woman.
Before I had a chance to look around, a bearded guy wearing a green jacket and brown work pants and with a white rag on his head, whose breath stank of garlic, dragged me to my feet and sent me stumbling into a pitch-dark shack. When I said "Keep your goddamned hands to yourself," he responded by jamming his weapon into my back and shouting something in Albanian. I figured him for the individual who'd come up behind me and smashed my face with the butt of his weapon. Naturally, I also figured I owed him one, more than one. All right, so I'm vindictive.
After someone got the room's one lightbulb turned on, he motioned to me to remove my field jacket. First, he patted me down, looking for a weapon. Then he went through the jacket pockets. I watched silently as he carefully placed what he found onto the room's one table. There wasn't much: besides the KA-BAR, I had a couple of hundred euros, a handkerchief, a Leatherman, a bottle of liquid soap, a pocket comb, my passport. He told me to remove my G-Shock wristwatch, which he tossed to the guy who seemed to be in charge. That was Ramush Nadaj himself. I knew that because before we left we were given an array of his pictures, full-face and both profiles, which we'd committed to memory.
When you're running a rendition, you don't want to bring back the wrong guy. It has happened. More than once.
After he'd examined it, Nadaj tossed the watch on the floor and started pounding it with his rifle butt and then with the heel of his boot. I knew what he was doing — making sure the watch, in case it contained a transmitter, wouldn't be sending a signal to a satellite and giving away our location. With the watch in pieces, he held up a tiny component attached to a wire and flashed a triumphant smile. When he heaved it in my direction, I ducked, and then he barked something that seemed to mean I should put my hands on my head and sit down on the floor. I guess I didn't react quick enough to please his majesty because he immediately swung the barrel of his weapon at my head. Again I ducked, but when I tried to grab the gun, he was too fast for me. He swung it again, opening a gash on my left cheek, which immediately began to drip blood.
He smiled when he saw the blood, said something I couldn't understand, and swung his weapon in front of my nose. His smile was kind of goofy, reminding me of a couple of the individuals I encountered during a visit I once made to a facility for the criminally insane. Then he jammed the weapon against the side of my neck. I froze. As he held a brief conversation with the woman, I steeled myself, waiting for the inevitable. With the safety off, he didn't have to do anything more than squeeze the trigger.
Then I heard her say, "Mos shti'ni." Don't shoot.
After half a minute, he relaxed the pressure on the gun — and I started breathing again.
It was my passport that interested them most, and they all gathered around to take a look. I wasn't surprised when the guy with the droopy mustache tossed away the soap since, in Kosovo, they haven't yet heard that cleanliness is next to godliness. The individual who'd clobbered me — the one with the white do-rag around his head and garlicky breath — sat down on a cot and began playing with the Leatherman, an all-purpose utility tool, as though he'd never seen one before, which he probably hadn't.
When I saw Nadaj jam the wad of euros into the pocket of his field uniform, I had no doubt who was the boss here.
As they spoke, I looked around. The building wasn't much more than a small shack, sparsely furnished with a couple of cots, a wooden chest, a table, and some rickety chairs. It had two small windows, one of which had a broken pane, a flat ceiling, and a wooden floor. I could hear a humming sound from the generator supplying current for the single lightbulb.
After removing her fatigue cap, the woman turned her attention to me. With the cap off, her dark hair hung to her shoulders. She had very blue eyes, a thin straight nose, and a long pale face. Like Nadaj, she was dressed in black "cammies" — camouflage fatigues — which fit so loosely it was hard to tell what kind of figure she had. In other circumstances, I might have thought of her as mildly attractive.
With my passport in her hand, she said, "All right, Alex Klear, tell us why you're here. Who sent you?" Her English was accented but fluent. "Are you with KFOR?" KFOR is the designation for the NATO stabilization force occupying Kosovo, the army with the thankless mission of keeping Serbs and Albanians from one another's throats — peacekeepers, so-called.
I gave her the standard jive. "I'd like to speak with someone from the American Embassy."
"Tell us what we want to know. Then you can speak with your embassy."
"I'd like to —"
"UNMIK? Are you with UNMIK?" UNMIK is the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, which is headquartered in Pristina, the capital. UNMIK has the next-to-impossible task of trying to administrate the lawless province.
I said, "I can only give you my name, rank —"
"Cut the crap, asshole! I don't want this name, rank, and serial number bullshit."
She looked at Nadaj, said something in Albanian, obviously letting him know I wasn't being cooperative enough. Nadaj pointed toward me, made an upward movement with his fist. When she turned back to me, she had a strange smile on her face. "You don't answer our questions, we can make you wish you did." She stepped forward and aimed a kick with a muddy boot that struck against the inside of my thigh. "Next time I don't miss. And then I cut them off. You won't be able to get it up after that. It'll just hang there." She sneered. "No matter who the bitch is, it'll just hang there. You fuckin' understand me?"
I did understand her — well enough to know I was in a very bad situation. I made an enormous mental effort not to think about just how bad it was.
"Do you understand me?"
"I understand, but I don't see why I can't speak with the American Embassy."
Excerpted from The Rendition by Albert Ashforth. Copyright © 2012 Albert Ashforth. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
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