I Stared Death in the Face and Lived to Tell the Tale
Belgrade, 1999. For most people, January is a time for beginnings and transitions, an opportunity to look back to the lessons of the past, and forward to a positive outlook in the year ahead. It seems that I wasn’t around when the gods were handing out the optimist gene. While everyone else was busy starting on their new year’s resolutions, I was still intent on getting to Africa in my kayak, aiming to finish the journey that I had embarked on the previous year.
During my stop in Belgrade I managed to get the address of Arkan, the man who was said to be behind the cigarette smuggling, a few murders, and several robberies in Europe. He was also reported to be the right hand of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, who was responsible for numerous massacres during the Yugoslav wars.
Overcome by curiosity to find out what a mass murderer was like and how he lived, I decided to pay him a visit at his residence. I was able to locate his house without any problem. I stopped a short distance away from the gate to take some exterior shots of the compound and then took a few more from different angles before heading over to befriend the dogs guarding the property’s perimeter.
At the back of my mind I knew I was probably doing something stupid and also breaking the law, but I shrugged my misgivings aside and addressed two burly guys sporting the current bodyguard fashion.
“Does Arkan live here?” I inquired pleasantly.
“Get out!” One of the clichés in gym clothes bellowed.
Still I persisted, “Can I come back tomorrow?” The answer I got was a foot against my face.
“Okay, I’ll go.” I started to walk away, but I had already lit the fire. The blows and kicks came in rapid succession.
They yelled at me again, as if I didn’t hear them the first time, “We’ll kill you! Never come back!” I could see they didn’t like having guests coming uninvited.
I was finally able to get away. When I rounded the corner I wiped the blood off my lips and thought to myself, “Now I know.”
My freedom was short-lived though. My earlier beating must have fueled their sadistic urges because I suddenly had a black Mercedes creeping along behind me. They grabbed me when I reached a side street. I didn’t even try to escape; it would probably just have made things worse. They practiced their kung fu moves on me, kicking me in my knees and my side. I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to protect my vital organs as much as possible. I never fought back, understanding that I would be signing my own death warrant if I so much as formed a fist.
It dawned on me that I needed to stay on my feet if I wanted to survive. I protected my head and tried to keep myself in motion, keeping my attackers at bay by parrying blows with my arms and legs. Someone repeatedly hammered the butt of an Uzi against my left wrist until the bone broke. I didn’t hear it crack, but I certainly felt the pain. They kept on hitting away, deriving immense pleasure from the power that they wielded over me at that moment in time.
When it felt like the torment would never end, the passenger side door of the Mercedes swung open. I got a brief glimpse of automatic weapons and a man in his fifties wearing a dark suit sitting at the wheel before the kung fu fanatics threw me in headfirst to the back seat. I sat up and got punched in the face for my effort. “Keep your mouth shut!” One of the guys warned. “I…” I began, but another punch and a curt reminder to keep my mouth closed convinced me to do as I was advised. I stared straight ahead and didn’t move a muscle.
Despite my good behavior, they punched me a few more times just for fun. They stripped me of my photography equipment, and I had no choice but to watch while they opened up my camera, wrenched the film out, and tossed all my rolls of film out the window. I did my best to cooperate, realizing that I should not annoy them in the slightest way. If the weapons in the car were any indication, they could easily put a bullet to my head without losing any sleep over it.
The powerful engine of the Mercedes took us to the Belgrade suburbs in no time. The way I saw it, I was facing a potential execution and I could see the possibility of being dumped somewhere in the outskirts of the city. A feeling of helplessness washed over me.
I said out loud to myself in Swedish, “You’ve pulled your last stunt, you idiot,” laughing. I had gotten myself into more than a few scrapes in the past, but it looked like there was no way out of the mess this time.
People have said that right before death you experience a sudden clarity as your entire life flashes before your eyes. While I didn’t get the on-the-spot flashback, I did obtain an insight into how thousands of Croatians, Bosnians, Albanians, Gypsies, and Serbs must have felt before their executions. I understood that neither Chuck Norris nor any other movie hero that could knock out the bad guy’s weapon at the last moment was coming to save the day. Right here right now, only a crude and cowardly reality existed. My life was in the hands of a madman, and in his mind my destiny rested in the way I behaved.
The car stopped. They tossed me out of the car, with my camera and passport landing beside me. “If we see you again, we’ll kill you,” was their parting shot. The kidnappers kept as a trophy my wallet and the money in it.
Shell shocked, I walked to the side of the road and sat on a rock, first holding my head in my hands and then slapping my face in case I was dreaming. I stared down at my feet and then looked up at the passing clouds above me. I started shaking. I didn’t remember how long I sat there, nor did I remember how I managed to get back to the city. I turned my pockets inside out and rummaged through my bag. I was completely devoid of cash. The camera took a hit, but it worked. My left wrist was broken, one or two of my ribs were cracked, and I was sore all over. I wandered the streets of Belgrade in a daze, while pedestrians—or were they angels?—stared at me and wondered what had caused my mishap.
As I told my story in halting sentences, I could feel a wetness stinging my eyes. I looked up, trying to keep my tears in. I will not fucking cry! I knew I was suffering from post-traumatic shock, but machismo and vanity kept my self-pity in check. Or so I thought. But once the words started flowing, the dam around my emotions broke and the tears gushed out.
When my words and tears were finally reduced to hiccups, the angels ordered and paid for a generous portion of vodka, which I badly needed to calm my nerves. One of them even proposed that I go to the police. And what would that accomplish?
I filed a report just the same. However, as soon as I mentioned the name Arkan, fear replaced the concern in their eyes. They didn’t even bother typing up my story.
“You should visit your embassy,” they advised. I didn’t heed their counsel to seek help from the Swedish Consulate. It was my own stupidity that got me into this mess.
An elderly man who overheard the story gave me one hundred dinars, which was equivalent to sixty Swedish crowns. “This is too much,” I protested, holding up the hand that was attached to my good wrist.
“Take it,” his suggestion sounded more like an order. “Just do the same to another person in distress someday,” he continued. I expressed my profuse gratitude, shook his hand, and walked away.
After several stitches and a hip-to-wrist bone transplant courtesy of the Swedish government, I was given a clean bill of health. My body repaired itself and eventually healed, but as I got older, the broken bits of bone that were left behind and forgotten started to make their presence felt, reminding me of that moment of enlightenment in the face of uncertainty, the unexpected reprieve from a seemingly sealed outcome, and encountering decency in unlikely circumstances.