Scout on Patrol
by thadd presley
Sergeant Jaime Scout Willis adjusted the straps of her ALICE pack, the Kentucky native slowly suffocated in the humid shade of the Bosnian pines. Her six-man patrol had split from the larger British contingent at the crossroads. She was tasked with sweeping the main road south of Srebrenica for Serb activity. The air was thick and sticky. The scream of the cicadas was a jarring counterpoint to the ever-present tension.
“Think they’ll stick to the script today, Sarge?” Corporal Ramirez, a wiry kid from Brooklyn, cracked his knuckles.
“Hope so,” Scout muttered, eyeing the densely packed streets. Every shadow held the ghost of sniper fire, every rustle brought back the echo of mortar detonations. The summer of ’97 was simmering into its most brutal phase of the war. So far anything the had done as peacekeepers was only self-administered harm to an already festering wound. War could be described as a chronic affliction that appears in a nation and a people who ignore a shared trauma and refuse to let it heal.
The path of the American squad meandered through a village, houses sat silent and skeletal against the harsh sunlight. A gaggle of preteen girls waded barefoot in a scummy stream, splashing each other. Their laughter oddly shrill in the heavy air.
As they approached, the girls scrambled up onto the bank, brown eyes wide with curiosity and a little fear.
At the village square, Captain Mullinix, the strong Brit leading the patrol, halted his section and took two steps back. A stench, metallic and thick, assaulted his senses and then everyone got the airborne memo and backed away.
The smell of death emanated from a squat, two-story house. The windows were boarded shut from the inside and the door was crossed with rough planks.
His hand went up to his radio. “House check,” Mullinix ordered, his voice tight. “Scout. On me.”
Scout’s stomach churned. This wasn’t on the intel report. Her team cautiously fell in with the larger British section and approached the building. Their weapons trained center of the boarded windows. Mullinix pointed at Ramirez. “Knock it in.”
Without a second thought, the sad excuse for plywood was knocked into the building. A chattering groan echoed from within the stillness causing everyone to look. It was at this moment that nearly two million plump flies erupted through the window and directly into the eyes, nose and mouths and ears of every soldier. Mullinix gagged and coughed. But, the moment his mouth opened, it was immediately filled with hundreds of flies, fat from year old, rotting human remains.
Scout covered her head with her scarf and the other soldiers fell to the ground covering their faces. It was only Mullinix who stood upright, stumbling in a circle. No one realized just how bad his condition was becoming. As he choked on a throat full of flies, he watched the bright sun dim and darkness slowly close in around him.
Just as he knew he was done for, Ramirez was behind him. Lifting him from the middle of his stomach in what had to be the most violent Heimlich maneuver ever administered. Then, they were both down and Ramirez used two fingers to clear his airway and began to blow into his lungs. But, right before receiving a second lung full, Captain Mullinix sucked in a deep breath and came wide awake flailing and fighting.
It took three of the British soldiers to hold him while he slowly came back to the real world.
“That was a mistake.” Captain pointed out. “Knocking the window in, like that. Worst mistake of my career.”
Ramirez was standing behind Mullinix. “Where’s the American who saved me?”
“Here, sir.” Ramirez stood at attention.
“Thank you. I owe you one. A big one. But I hope I’ll never have to repay you.” He stuck out his hand. They shook, bonded for ever.
“That’s why we’re here sir. To have each others backs.”
“Next time, no tongue.”
“O.K. But only if you promise the next breach is wired with H.E.”
“You got a deal.”
The soldiers could not enter the building. Inside, the air was so thick with gases and moisture, it was more like a physical blow. Millions of flies still buzzed the massacred Muslims. They seemed to dance around the source of the stench. Rotted bodies were stacked up to ten and twelve bodies high. Arms, half-legs, and bones eaten clean white by the flies were sprawled in every direction. The darkness did little to conceal men from women and children from babies. Their faces forever contorted in silent screams, some skulls were gaping open, clean and empty down to the white of the cranium. The winter chill that clung to their frozen forms spoke of the months, not weeks, since their demise.
Scout heaved into a gagging fit, bile rising in her throat. Ramirez went to her.
“Save it for the glory hole, Sarge.” SFC Wilson joked. “We’ve got movement on the mountain.”
A strangled curse under her breath and she was assessing defensive positions. Private Evans, a farm boy from Iowa, suddenly stumbled back, tears shimmering in his eyes. “This is not right. All those people were killed for nothing.” He was walking backwards, not paying attention to his surroundings. Even the seasoned veterans like Staff Sergeant Davies paled in times like these. A soldiers face is worn as a grim mask, but that’s all it is. A mask. Once it comes off, we become ordinary people, who love talking to their grandpa and eating mother’s fried chicken. Evan’s mask had just shifted and the real man underneath shone through.
“Easy, Private. This is all wrong. You’re right. But, it’s before us now and we must see to it. There is no one else to handle this situation.”
The voice of reason got through to Evans and he bend down and puked.
On the bank, the girls watched silently, their laughter long extinguished. Villagers were initially hesitant, but slowly began to gather. Their faces were hardened by defiance and suffering. An old man, who looked to have seen a least a hundred winters, stepped forward. “These men,” he rasped, his voice raw and low. “They were taken from their homes, murdered in cold blood.”
“The butchers. Who else? During the coldest night, all the men called out all into the square. They began to shot them until no bullets remained, then their hands were tied. They were hacked until they became martyred.” Tears were in his eyes. “My three sons…” Then the old man fell into speaking the Bosnian Language.”
“Translate that, Fielding. Quick!”
PFC Erin Fielding was a 21 year old mother from Sussex. “He says. Uh?”
“O.K. yeah. It’s like, think not of those who are slain in Allah. They live in the presence of their Lord. They rejoice in the bounty provided by Allah. And with regard to those left behind, who have not yet joined them in the glory. On them is no fear, nor have they any reason to grieve.”
“Sounds like the Bible.” Private Evans remarked.
“It’s from the Quran.” Fielding corrected. “He’s telling us his sons are in heaven with God.”
Mullinix knelt before the elder, his own face etched with grim understanding. He pointed to his British Flag. “We will make sure the world knows that your sons died with dignity and honor. I promise to you,” his voice barely audible over the buzzing flies. “The faith they showed will be known by the world.”
The old man grimaced, turned, and walked away.
“Did he just smile at me,” Captain Mullinix asked.
“I don’t think so, Cap.”
“Rhetorical, Fielding.” He stood back up. “But, he did smile. I saw at least five teeth and three were back teeth.”
Hours crawled by as they dug into one of the thicker walled homes and set up. Captain Mullinix radio intel and documented the days patrol. The energy in the air crackled with urgency. Motor Pool had already relayed securely that they had dispatched hummers for the high-ranking NATO delegation. They were en route from Camp Eagle to secure the scene. It would a two hour wait. By helicopter, it could have been cut to twenty or thirty minutes depending on the route taken, but the threat of being shot down was too high.
A sudden boom shattered the oppressive silence. A mortar shell exploded nearby, showering them with shrapnel and dust. Chaos erupted. Villagers scattered and young girls began screaming. Every notion of sanity was swallowed by the cacophony. The soldiers scrambled for offensive cover, adrenaline masking the stench clinging to their clothes and skin.
More explosions cracked the day wide open, followed by the screaming of artillery shells. The explosions bracketing their position. Scout found herself pinned down behind a crumbling wall, where she watched in horror as Captain Mullinix fell forward, a crimson stain blooming on his back. Davies managed to get to him and drag him behind a low wall for cover. But, there was no helping. The face of the captain was contorted in a silent scream as his pupils dilated and he stopped breathing.
Fielding was lying in the dust. Both of her legs and her left forearm missing. A huge puddle of blood circled her. Three others were laying still against the wall of a house.
Then, the attack subsided as abruptly as it began. A tense silence settled, broken only by the groans of the wounded and the panicked cackle of chickens.
Scout lead nine soldiers away from the battlefield. They stayed low and moved in single file. “NATO will be here soon.”
“Why the fuck haven’t we called in air support?” Ramirez questioned.
“Do the British even have planes?” Scout answered.
“We get to a safe place and then we make the call.” Private Evans explained. We have to be sure not to target the civilians.
“It was the bleeding civilians whose doing it.”
“Not true.” Evan contested.
“Doesn’t matter. We are all dead anyway.” The British soldier looked in the direction of the East. A large contingent of Serbian Soldiers were waiting for the small squad to notice them.
“Fuck.” Scout yelled.
“Should have called in a strike.”
The Serbian Soldiers marched forward as a unit, rifles raised, yelling in Serbian Language.
Four hours later, after dark, when the high-ranking delegation finally arrived on the scene, the only evidence of the massacre was the lingering stench and the stories of the villagers. No bodies were in the house, no witnesses would come forward and admit to knowing about a truth too horrific to acknowledge.
Major Helstrom of NATO command stared at the shelled out and empty house, the weight of the missing bodies a crushing burden. Was it simple denial or a desperate attempt to rewrite history? Or something more sinister. Ever day, he found another chilling reminder of war’s secret corners, where truth became a casualty and justice was just a fleeting mirage shimmering far-off in the Bosnian heat.
He walked around and looked into the vacant windows of the homes nearby. They were silent as a tomb. He knew that most everyone knew of the bodies. Even the children knew they were there, but no one said anything. And now it was too late. The screams of the murdered would forever echo in silence as another horror settled beneath a beautiful land shattered by religion and politics. The people would bear the silent scars of this day forever. Each haunting memory was another surcharge, adding to the immense debt of human indifference and unspeakable evil.