Confessions of a Female War Crimes Investigator
Retrospectively, it was all so simple, natural and matter of fact being on a boat restaurant in Belgrade, sitting with, laughing, drinking a two hundred bottle of wine and chatting about war and peace while Ratko Mladic held my hand. Mladic, a man considered the world’s most ruthless war criminal since Adolf Hitler, still at large and currently having a five million dollar bounty on his head for genocide by the international community. Yet there I was with my two best friends at the time, a former Serbian diplomat, his wife, and Ratko Mladic just chilling. There was no security, nothing you’d ordinarily expect in such circumstances. Referring to himself merely as, Sharko; this is the story of it all came about.
It all began as former United States President Bill Clinton spearheaded NATO’s war against Serbia, Montenegro and Slobodan Milosevic (March 1999). Thirty-five years old, conducting graduate study work at the New School for Social Research in New York City in political science, I planned graduating spring 1999 with an area study emphasis in international law and human rights. I was naïve then, still believing strongly in democratic liberal concepts such as freedom of academic thought. Hence, I never anticipated my political views would impede either my graduation or completing my master’s thesis work on whether NATO member states committed gross violations of customarily accepted international criminal law in launching military aggression against Serbia and Montenegro owing to not acquiring United Nations Security Counsel approval prior.
Only having to complete two more classes to graduate, I always thought my future in political sciences as wide open with innumerous possibilities; unfortunately this proved untrue. Plotke told me in no uncertain terms that I was not the type of person the New School wanted walking around with a degree stating the New School’s prestigious name on it.
Ironically, the New School was an institution I attended only owing to its’ placing great pride and emphasis on allowing students complete academic freedom of thought without dictating what is and what is not politically correct to discuss. Yet surprisingly, dismissal from the program and blow to my graduate work should not been completely unexpected since the semester immediately prior, the school refused allowing me to conduct my graduate thesis work on the subject of whether the NATO and Bill Clinton committed war crimes against the former Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war (1999) and internally suggested I write about infringement of Muslim human rights in France.
I suppose with the likes of Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair hanging about the fourth floor of the school at the renown World Policy Institute in 1999, I should have expected the university would not take kindly to student‘s speaking out critically against Bill Clinton and the Kosovo war (1999) he went down in history for advocating. Then again, in 1999 I still believed in the school’s core ideals of academic freedom, especially since I was paying no less than one thousand United States dollars a credit to attend. My civil rights lawsuit against the college is another story in and of itself not deserving extended amounts of space here, except what I already mentioned.
Dismissal from graduate school left me in a complete state of scholarly anomie seeking empathy and solace from my few friends and confidants at the time including many diplomats I studied with at the New School for several years. The list included but was not limited to ambassadors from Iran, Oman and a newly appointed First Secretary of the Bosnian Mission to the United Nations in New York, Darko Trifunovic.
Riddled with uncertainty about my future scholarly status, I immediately applied for graduate study at Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey where I studied an additional two years before encountering similar problems with the graduate school faculty there. Ironically it was only FDU professors whom formerly studied themselves at the New School still in touch with the faculty there, who were later responsible for my having to leave the graduate program at FDU in early 2002.
Between the time of my dismissal from the New School and my dismissal from FDU in the fall (2002), I stayed in touch with many scholars and other politically active persons sharing similar anti-war views as myself regarding NATO’s 1999 Kosovo war including: Professor Barry Lituchy (NYC), Ramsey Clark’s people at the International Action Center, and a couple of new acquaintances I’ve chanced meet online in Serbian political activist forums.
Another event in my life occurring in Manhattan in late spring (1999) was chance meeting Nikola Sainovic; Slobodan Milosevic’s former Deputy Serbian Prime Minister. It just so happened I was in the city attending Ramsey Clark’s anti-NATO lectures immediately after NATO’s bombing campaign against the former Yugolsavia began. I was walking up to the main lecture building and paused at the door momentarily to examine how to enter and where to go when Nikola walked up for me , surprising me from behind, he said “hello, are you here for the lecture also“? I replied “yes.” I was shy, but Nikola kept the conversation going as we walked into the building together discussing the horrendous actions the NATO was currently undertaking against his country in Serbia. Although I did not know then who exactly he was, he was handsome, educated and he wore a very sharp brown suit, tie and wore glasses. His identity is unmistakable to me now viewing the photos of him sitting in the Hague currently awaiting his own trial for complicity in war crimes.During the lecture intermission he again came over to speak with me and asked me my telephone number stating he’d like to get together and talk sometime with me while he was in town; I acceded.
He offered to drive me up to the spot in his fancy brown Jaguar. I had never really been in a Jaguar before and it drove really smooth. Nikola and I spent several hours just chatting about Serbia and the illegal NATO actions undertaken against his country and when we commenced, he drove me back to my car waiting by the restaurant and we decided we would meet again for lunch in about a week; he would give me call soon.
I was attending Montclair State University for one semester that summer so when Nikola call me in about a week for lunch I recommended we meet at about 4pm at the 6 Brothers Diner on Route 46 by the university. Nikola never made any unwanted advances towards me and we just like to chat about war and peace. He told me, ‘Jill, I like to come talk with you because I can trust you. I can let down my hair so to speak with you and not worry about you wire tapping me or stabbing me in the back.” I thanked him for his compliment and company. He told me his daughter lived in Tarrytown New York and when we parted that day, he told me this is where he was headed. He gave me his business card bearing his name, Nikola Sainovic. I forget the business it listed, it might have just said Prime Minister but I think it said something else politically related but I can’t remember now. I took it and thanked him. Whomever I did meet, they also gave me photos and showed me a brief portfolio of their news ideas in the space saving architecture and additionally gave me some photos of their work and a business card for what I remember as a German PASSOS company. It had to be be Nikola. We actually had a great chat about what I thought about his new architectural ideas. I loved them telling Nikola I believed he would be extremely successful in his new endeavors. I think we may have had lunch one additional time and then I never heard from him again.
Darko arrived first, his very beautiful wife, Bojana, arrived as expected about one month later after he was settled. Darko greatly impressed me at the time. Being a former political advisor to the to the former female President of the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia, he had a degree in international law, diplomatic immunity, was a writer, handsome, was extremely brilliant and fun to just hang-out with and work. The three of us became extremely close friends and confidants.
I even became voted in as the executive director of the Law Projects Center Yugoslavia in New York . The Law Projects Center was a United Nations accredited NGO and offshoot of the Yugoslav Coalition to Establish and international criminal court. Darko and some political people originally founded the organization in Belgrade Serbia prior his arrival in New York City in diplomatic capacity.
http://members.fortunecity.com/lpca1/I worked fervently legally registering the organization in New Jersey as a legally filed non-profit successfully.The Law Projects Center and its activities demanded Darko, his wife and I often stayed the night over each others’ apartments often; many times working days at a time with very little sleep. From winter (1999) until fall (2002), Darko, his wife and I worked daily at the Bosnian Mission to the United Nations in New York City co-authoring two books: 1) The Bosnian Model of Al-Qaeda Terrorism and; 2) The Srebrenica Massacre. As a young student of war and peace in the former Yugoslavia, I was in scholarly heaven accessing the United Nations to work with Darko daily. This enabled my meeting many of the most fascinating people in the world. I vividly remember Senator Bill Richardson at the time giving nightly press interviews on television about meeting with OPEC members states, “setting them straight about lowering oil prices in 2000.” Yet when I’d chit-chat with the Iranian ambassador in the city before class asking him about it he would say to me something to the effect as,” We at OPEC are so angry about former colonialism by England and America, OPEC will continually attempt bringing both the United States and England to their financial knees on energy issues…And by the way Jill, Russia does not in any manner intend to halt weapon sales to Iran.”
http://www.slobodan-milosevic.org/documents/srebrenica.pdfIn fact Amir and I, notwithstanding our theological differences, got alone well. We’d often sit together before class acceding on a great many matters. In particular I remember us sitting one night and looking me square in the eye stating, “You know Jill, I will never believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” I replied, “And I Amir will never convert to Islam.” Now that we got that out of the way, we both smiled at one another getting down to discussing real issues.
The Bosnian mission to the United Nations in New York City in 2001 was an extremely interesting place. Reflecting the rotating ethnic presidency existing in Bosnia unto present, Mission employees were comprised of people of completely bipolar ethnic, theological and politically ideological viewpoints.
The Head Ambassador of the Mission post 9-11 was then combating rumors of his soon becoming persona non grata in the United States for allegedly giving Osama Bin Laden a visa to travel through Bosnia illegally when previously stationed in Italy in 1993. There were also rumors he confessed to the United States Department of State of running international arms trades in connection with Al-Qaeda.
Darko Trifunovic confided in me that Al Qaeda Algerian militant Abu Mali, worked in the Bosnian mission to the UN in Manhattan 2001-2002 after the war under a Bosnian name, Safet Catovic. Darko Trifunovic and I worked together at the Bosnian Mission to the United Nations in NYC in 2001-2002 together and I, Jill Starr,l verify I used to work on Mali's computer at the Mission because it always was getting fouled up with computer viruses at his request.
The number two man at the Bosnian mission, the First Ambassador was Serbian, Orthodox Christian and a doctor of medicine by university degree. The First Secretary of the Mission was my friend Darko, the Consulate department was headed by an ethnic Muslim lady from Bosnia, and there was an ethnic Croatian woman floating around with other various diplomats being of Roman Catholic Croatian descent. He became extremely suspicious of who Catovic really was because he spoke poor Bosnian. As a result, Trifunovic said he lost a job in the mission and moved to Belgrade.
My time at the Mission was primarily spent fixing Darko’s laptop computer which became daily infected with computer viruses he continually claimed emanated from other employees at the Mission who were allegedly trying to sabotage him because of his ethnic Serbian background. I vividly recall the constant bickering between all the mission employees; always accusing each other of committing war crimes and giving each other computer viruses making it virtually impossible for any of them to get along. The Croatian diplomat usually stayed to herself with her office door shut while the others present usually just listened to Led Zeppelin rock music on their personal CD-ROM players. They told me repeatedly they had nothing else to do with their time at the United Nations beyond an occasional meeting except for listening to music and playing computer games.
Sad and ironic was the few things I noticed all the Bosnian mission employees agreeing upon was their undying love for the rock band, Led Zeppelin.
A year had come and gone while I totally immersed myself into political inquiry as to just who was guilty of committing war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. My favorite subjects of inquiry included:
NATO, Kosovo & Metohia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and persons of interest such as Mladic and Hacim Thaci (Albanian Leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army). It was not enough for my merely taking in nightly news reports from CNN and other mainstream American media; to conduct an investigation for inquiry of social fact, I needed to go to Serbia and investigate for myself.
Several seasons went by and now it was spring 2001. Darko and his wife Bojana had time off which they spent visiting friends and family in Serbia for about two weeks. Because of this Darko was unable to function in full diplomatic capacity. In spring 2001 there was a preparatory commission meeting of plenipotentiaries to establish an international criminal court at the United Nations in New York City. Topics of the meeting included but were not limited to defining interstate acts of aggression, court financing etc.. Darko asked me if I would sit in for him at the meeting taking as many notes possible owing to the Law Projects Center possessing United Nations accreditation as a NGO (non governmental organization) with full observer status at the United Nations; I acceded.
Darko faxed me all necessary paperwork enabling my application attendance at this crucial meeting; I filled out the necessary forms and faxed them to the appropriate United Nations office for approval. It was an extremely exciting time for me. My close friend and colleague, Arnold Stark (History professor and Columbian University PhD) drove me into Manhattan walking me through the United Nations main entrance and security the day of attendance.Professor Stark himself was an old foreign service man from way back in the day and he told me I never looked as professionally sharp as I did on that day; I wore a navy blue pin striped suit. I must admit, I looked good.
Only post attending that day did I truly understand the total lapse of security existing then at the United Nations in New York City. I say this owing to the social fact that the Law Projects Center was indeed registered as an United nations accredited NGO it is true. However, closed meetings of this sort meant attendance was strictly limited to head ambassadors of valid United Nations member state missions and non governmental organizations possessing observer status were not allowed.
Unto present, I’ve yet understood whereby I gained entrance into this privy closed meeting consisting of only United Nations ambassadors, but I did. Walking to the basement floor of the United Nations building that day, I merely wore a visitors badge given to me at the front desk in no manner indicating that I was an ambassador of a United Nations mission; least of all the Bosnia mission as required for entrance. Totally unaware I didn’t possess necessary credentials to enter the meeting, I walked confidently towards the entrance door and past the guard stationed outside it. The guard never bothering to examine the type of badge I wore around my neck simply said “good day Madame” and urged me into the meeting; it was just about time to begin.
I looked fervently around the room seeing no seats indicating seats for United Nations observers anywhere. The last thing I wanted to do was to embarrass myself by taking the seat of an important ambassador; I noticed a couple of men seeming from some African state grabbing some meeting paperwork nearby so I inquired of them.
I told them I was a newbie and inquired where to sit and what I should do. With heavy African accents one of them said, “just grab a bunch of these papers, sit there and look like you are busy,” so I did. In fact, I grabbed as many extra copies as I could without looking conspicuous when noticing another peculiarity.
The meeting papers indicated they were for restricted for the eyes of state mission heads’ only (chief ambassadors of countries) and allowing other persons and/or United Nations employees to view them was a punishable offense. Uncertain what to do, and with the meeting beginning, I merely sat there stunned. My seat and the one the African gentleman next to me took seemed extras because they neglected having any indication regarding country origin in front of them on the table; I felt safe.
As totally immersed and interesting as I found the topics, the African ambassador seated found boring. I say this owing to noticing during the entire meeting he was merely doodling nonsensical pictures on some legal pad. I think that no one took more notes that day than me. I was especially interested in the interstate bickering about financing the international criminal court should and when it came about. Spain was particularly forceful in vocalizing its opinion that the countries giving the most monetary contributions to the court itself ought have more power over both its staffing and its innocent and guilty verdicts as well as judges appointed. My suspicions’ equally shared by scholars such as Noam Chomsky and former attorney general, Ramsey Clark were now fully justifiably confirmed. The court itself was a great travesty of justice and I was actually witnessing quarrels between countries insofar as controlling the courts judges and verdicts based on financial contributions rather than on law and true international justice.
The most shocking point of the meeting for me was when the Israeli ambassador admitted openly to the other attendees that Israel was indifferent to war crimes, crimes against humanity and would in no manner support any international structure limiting its’ ability for practicing war and peace against any other state and/or party it considered a threat to its national interest.
The ambassador representing the United States that day strongly and equally explicitly backed the Israeli position making clear American attendance was more for information gathering purposes and show than true concern for international law, world peace and social justice. When the meeting ended I slipped quickly out the front entrance of the United Nations; notes and papers in hand; I would read them in detail later that evening. When I attended these Preparatory Meetings at the end, the First Ambassador to the Bosnian Mission in NYC (The Serbian Doctor with glasses) came in but only stayed a short while as my witness to my being there.
It must have amazed Darko upon returning from Serbia I actually gained entrance to the ICC preparatory closed meeting because within a week he invited me to the city to attend another important meeting at the United Nations comprised of diplomats from some very selective and prestigious NATO member states. I don’t recall the date but by his return fully I understood the definition of a closed meeting. Upon approaching the meeting door I became at once cognizant the meeting stated “closed meeting,” on the door. I did my best to point this fact out to Darko who told me to go in with him anyway; we did. Darko obviously thought because I gained entrance to the ICC meeting I ought not have in his absence, perhaps if I were with him, he covertly could gain access this closed NATO meeting; no dice. Upon entering the room, immediately some important looking man called him over and diplomatically informed him that “Serbia was not invited.” Darko pointed to me explaining that he was with the American lady but he was asked politely to leave; I followed him out the door embarrassed.
The following year was mundane. Filled with activities like shuttling back and forth to FDU for graduate school, fund raising for the Law Projects Center and co-authoring two book with Darko. The fateful day of 9/11 and the attacks by Al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center Towers in New York City changed my venue forever.
Post 9/11 Darko became a man on a personal mission seemingly unrelated to the Bosnian mission itself.
He told me it was the utmost importance to publicize the alleged fact that the head ambassador of the Bosnian mission was in his estimation involved with Al-Qaeda.
Asking me to fervently work on editing a book on which topic was meant for exposing the head ambassador of the Bosnian mission at that time; I acceded. The publication was later published by the Repubika Srpska information agency in Bosnia. The Serbian government in the Republika Srpska in Bosnia then was seriously pressing Darko for a fast publication so we stayed up many nights over his apartment in Forest Hills, New York working to do so. The book was entitled, ”The Bosnia Model of Al-Qaeda Terrorism. It can probably still be found and read online. Last time I checked it was posted on the website: http://www.analyst-network.com/profile.php?user_id=240.
Darko always told me I possessed full rights to this and other publications we worked on together. Although I edited and co-authoring the Al-Qaeda work, a few years back I noticed Darko removed my name on the inner front cover page as editor replacing it with the name of a Serbian editor. When questioned about it Darko told me he kept my name from being published because of the death threats and dangers to my life that he himself encountered because of its publication. I do vividly remember Darko receiving a great many death threats and threats towards his wife at the time, Bojana, so it is possible he was telling me the truth.
Even prior completing our work on the Al-Qaeda book together Darko was obsessed with manifesting the Bosnian Chief ambassador at the time as a terrorist. At the time I had no reason to doubt Darko’s word and assisted him in rabidly writing an open letter to all the United Nations member state missions exposing him as such. I surmise this is when Darko’s job at the United Nations as First Secretary of the Bosnian mission became jeopardized.
Today I surmise Darko’s employment at the United Nations genuinely became compromised owing not only to the inter-ethnic conflicts existing between him and the head ambassador then, a proud Muslim man, but also owing to the fact he forged birth certificates to acquire his position in the first place later becoming a social fact from the interior ministry in Bosnia. It was an emotional shock when Darko informed me a by summer 2001 that he lost his job and he and Bojana had to immediately return to Belgrade to work out the matter in court. This was also a great emotional blow to me also owing to the fact that I always possessed a crush on Darko and he knew it. This was a social fact I never publicly admitted previously to writing this book. I once even asked Darko if he wanted to have an affair with me but he declined stating he would never be unfaithful to his beautiful wife, Bojana. This left me in an extreme morally uncomfortable position because Bojana was my best friend. I continually told myself being attracted to her husband Darko was a non-option. Working so closely with him on an almost daily basis however made my attraction to him difficult to overcome.
I was also engaged to Professor Arnold Stark at the time and wore the ten thousand diamond ring he bought me on my finger. Arnold became increasingly jealous of Darko in time and eventually forbid me to work with him altogether. Notwithstanding, I continued working with Darko against Arnold’s wishes. This coupled with my trip to Serbia and Montenegro in 2002 eventually led to my breakup with Professor Stark and after almost an entire decade, my relationship with Arnold never fully recovered.
Darko tried keeping his job in diplomatic capacity at he UN as long as possible but the bipolar friction and hate existing between himself and the chief ambassador at the mission proved too much. The chief ambassador in contact with the Bosnian government at the time in Sarajevo eventually had Darko dismissed as first secretary of the mission. To the best of my recollection Darko was no longer receiving a monthly salary from Sarajevo by spring or summer 2002 (approximately).
I often came visiting Darko and Bojana’s apartment in Manhattan then situated on a side street within walking distance from the UN to help them out financially by buying them inexpensive dinners and such in Manhattan and chauffeuring them around (they did not own a car for the majority of their stay in the States).
In July 2002 as I remember the three of us spent many memorable moments going to the beaches outside the city and just spending time talking etc.. At the time and owing to my being in graduate school at FDU, I had plenty of extra money to burn owing my taking the maximum GSL student loans totaling about twenty thousand dollars a semester. Then one day that summer Darko informed me he and Bojana were only awaiting the Bosnian government to wire them a sum of five thousand dollars to pay off their American bills, last month rent and they would make a hasty exit back to Belgrade permanently. I was emotionally crushed.
Desperate not to lose contact with Darko because of my personal feelings towards him, I told him my summer classes at FDU were about to end August 2002 and although the fall semester was about to begin, I wanted to visit him in Serbia as soon as possible. Soon for me meant as soon as I received a check from the United States government for the total of that semesters’ student loan money in the amount of about ten thousand dollars.
Darko, hesitant at first soon gave in to my constant petitions to visit him. The day I brought them both to JFK to return to Serbia permanently, Bojana whispered something in Darko’s ear as we hugged saying our goodbyes all three of trying to hold back tears of parting and Darko looking me in the eye said something to the effect, “Jill, don’t worry as soon as you can afford it call me and we’ll arrange your visit.” Darko never could stand to see me cry which on many occasion I did owing to the loss of my two children and other personal challenges in my life. They turned and boarded their plane to Belgrade as I drove back to New Jersey.
Driving home I felt an odd combination of extreme sadness at the loss of my two best friends mixed with the cheerful prospect I would shortly be boarding a plane myself destined for Serbia and Montenegro by mid August 2002 when my student loan check arrived. Upon arriving home I immediately began making all necessary arrangements for my forthcoming trip.
The day following Darko ‘s departure, I bought a great many prepaid phone cards for the purpose of calling him owing to both my missing him and also my primarily wanting to began making all necessary arrangements facilitating my forthcoming visit from JFK to Beograd. I had countless questions such as: how much money will I need, how will I obtain a VISA being an American citizen with all the US State Department warnings against US citizenry traveling to the region, etc., etc., etc.. I had already obtained a valid United States passport many years ago which I always carried with me. I’ve always held the strong opinion that having a valid passport with you at all times is just a good idea. It enables one the necessary freedom to go to the airport and catch a plane going anywhere at anytime.
Darko told me that I need not worry about all the complicated VISA requirements listed on Serbian government website required of other Americans that he would handle everything. I was told merely to bring with me about five thousand United States dollars in cash spending money and it was a done deal. I went to buy some new suitcases and clothes for my trip in Wayne, New Jersey during the first two weeks in August 2002 in preparation. Packing was always a problem for me as Darko can attest to owing to my medically diagnosed attention deficit disorder. I had a difficult time deciding what to bring, so I tried to bring everything I thought I needed. The day of my departure my suitcases weighed way over the weight limit restrictions indicated by the airline.
Getting to JFK for departure in mid August 2002 proved to be an almost insurmountable task in and of itself owing to my heavy luggage and everyone I asked to drop me at the airport that day had strongly held views against my going.
Arnold Stark declined to bring me owing to his personal jealousies insofar as Darko and everyone else had one or another excuse rooted in the anti-American sentiment in Serbia at that time and danger involved.
Undeterred, I finally convinced Archbishop John LoBue, my priest and confessor at the Holy Name Orthodox Christian Church in West Milford, New Jersey to take me as far as the Port Authority in Manhattan; from there I took a bus to JFK managing myself.
I loved flying JAT! Not only was I completely satisfied the flight from Paris to Belgrade was many times more secure since JAT searched boarding passengers more thoroughly than JFK, the hospitality, food and drink was excellent. I say this owing to my being a well seasoned traveler having previously visited places such as Indonesia, Thailand and Hong Kong, etc.. It was extremely laid back on the flight. People moved around switching seats and chatting with good friends and the food was the best!
My favorite Serbian food and drink were served and all airline employees shoed me the highest level of hospitality. I was extremely pleased with the professionalism and service on JAT I later began an online blog about it on Yahoo360.
Upon my flight arriving in Beograd, all passengers left the plane in the usual manner except Serbian citizens were shuffled through customs quickly merely showing their passport. All others including myself were asked to relinquish their passports and told to wait an unspecified amount of time in a holding area at the airport. An airport security officer went around confiscating our passports afterward leaving us merely standing there not knowing what to expect next. No other announcements were made; I did the only thing possible I relinquished my passport to the Serbian custom official along with the other western Europeans and/or Americans (if there were any) which I surmised like myself were attempting to enter Serbia from countries that were NATO allies in the Kosovo war against Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. There must have been about twenty persons with me just waiting.
All types of nagging thoughts plagued me such as “perhaps my friends were correct that I ought not have taken this trip…was it really too dangerous to travel to Serbia with all the anti-American sentiment and what would happen if Serbian customs decided I was an American spy, kept my passport and I ended in some unknown jail and/or murdered….who would find me…what could I do about it etc., etc., etc..”
It seemed nearly an hour passed; me and the others were still standing there waiting. I didn’t want to seem scared or overly curious by asking either Serbian custom officials or anyone else waiting with me anything as to not cause unnecessary attention to myself. I also kept checking my watch wondering if Darko knew I was here waiting. I had hoped with his government connections he would at least inquire about my arrival since he told me he would pick me up. I drew comfort from the fact Darko was always very punctual picking up and bringing himself and others to airports.
On numerous occasions I gave him and others rides to and from them. These and other thoughts plagued me when suddenly I heard a voice on the loud speaker call my name, Jill Starr, asking me to go to a customs area to claim my passport.
I was the first person called so I don’t know what happened to the others standing there still waiting. I hurriedly went to obtain my passport and was told that I cleared; the guard pointed the direction for me to go claim my luggage. You have no idea what a relief that was!
I took in my new surroundings pleased that I made it into the country successfully. As a young child my father took me with him traveling the world when he was an active nuclear engineering consultant for Chas T Main, USAID and the IMF. I had been in Indonesia during the turmoil in East Timor so I was used to being in war zones surrounded by soldiers with guns. I was presently older, but still I found such travel extremely exciting more than dangerous and looked forward to enjoying the rest of my vacation with Darko and Bojana.
Making it to the baggage claim area successfully I was relieved seeing Darko standing their waiting for me. I was not fluent in Serbian and didn‘t want to publicize it by asking people questions in English manifesting I was American. I hurried towards him, giving him a large hug.
I was so glad to see Darko. I noticed upon my arrival at the Belgrade airport that there were many female police officers equipped with guns wearing short mini skirts and extremely high heels. I asked Darko how they apprehended criminals in such high heels and he replied smirking that they don’t have to run, they merely shot those not halting in the back and that stopped them.
Like a dream come true, there I was in Beograd Serbia against all odds and complaints from my friends. Darko helped me get my luggage to his friend’s vehicle telling me we could talk about everything I had to say later because we had to hurry.
Darko‘s friend, a German man living in Serbia for years and an important military employee of the Serbian government in a grayish older large SUV vehicle with what seemed a special license plate was impatiently waiting at the front gate of the airport for us.
Darko’s friend did not speak fluent English but he did speak fluent German and Serbian. Upon writing the first edition of my book I still wondered who this man really was because Darko pointed out to me proudly, while placing my luggage in the vehicle of his car, this car “specifically bore special Serbian military license plates;“ Darko pointed this out to me at the airport and I was greatly impressed to be in a Serb military vehicle.
The man picking me up at the Serbia, Beograd airport with Darko also referred to himself merely by a nickname. If my memory serves me correct he said to call him, “Babic or Babo” or something like that. “Babic” is not probably not 100% correct because my memory is kind of fuzzy on this. However, in coming across a BBC website with a photograph of Dragan Dabic, the male construction worker whom apparently Dr. Radovan Karadzic was assuming the identity of before he was arrested and transferred to the Hague in 2008; it does look about 90% correct in my memory that it was Mr. Dragan Dabic who picked me up at the Beograd Serbia airport that day. Even his glasses look the same and he told me he used to work as a military mercenary for the Serbs during war time and he was originally from Germany.Whoever it was, he was a relatively short man in height with salt and pepper hair.
We drove all around the city of (Beograd) in his large van type SUV again; he gave me a large tour of the entire city area pointing out everything.
It seems almost surreal to me actually chance meeting so many fascinating and exciting people, I almost didn’t want to mention possibly meeting, Dragan Dabic, too in the second edition of my book.
But, I decided to write the best and most truthful testimonies of my memories as possible about my super cool vacation in Serbia & Montenegro in 2002.
Anyway, so Darko told whomever this man was to please help lift my luggage into the trunk in Serbian and he did. Darko always liked to brag and as usual he introduced me to his friend giving me the details of his being an important man in the Serbian military etc.. We went straight from the Beograd airport to the home of Bojana’s family in the suburbs of Belgrade and all became reacquainted. Whomever it was, he was a relatively short man in height with salt and pepper hair and muscular with that triangle type of nose.
Bojana and I hugged; she introduced me to her family (father, mother and brother who was a high school student in Beograd). Afterward, Darko showed me the room upstairs where I would sleep which was actually Bojana’s room also informing me of our three week itinerary; he had it all planned out. Darko told me we would all spend the night over Bojana’s house, the next day sleep at his apartment outside Beograd and later explained the next day we would stop at his father’s family’s house for dinner and leave from there making our way into Montenegro for a ten day vacation staying at his friend’s resort on Budva’s seaside coast. Along the way Darko told me he would give me the best tour I could ask for and he did. He showed me military installations and one of my favorite stops was the NATO bombed Chinese embassy which I stood in front of only several yards from.
My night at Bojana’s residence was wonderful. I was never showed as much love and hospitality as I did from her family. Although it was late in the evening (about 11pm Serbian time) when we arrived, Bojana’s mother, a wonderful woman, treated me as her own daughter. She insisted that Darko, Bojana and I enjoy what seemed a 10 course home cooked meal. She was still cooking while she served us a variety of cooked steaks, vegetables and pastries. And like many Italian families she insisted I tried and ate everything. To top the night off before bed Bojana and her father performed an accordion duet live in the kitchen for me. Apparently, Bojana and her father were professional accordion players and Bojana explained that her father’s employment consisted of playing nightly in a local bar. Thereafter, we went to bed with full stomachs.
The next morning we all enjoyed an equally exquisite breakfast. Bojana’s family had livestock in the backyard and her mother cooked us a fresh eggs and steak for breakfast like never before experienced. We said our parting goodbyes and left for Darko’s apartment in the hills of Beograd. We brought my suitcases in and upon entering I noticed there were lots of stray dogs around the apartment entrance. One in particular was very cute and Darko explained that the various residents fed it because it was so adorable. I found it interesting that so many old men were just hanging about the entrance to the apartment building drinking and just sitting there with seemingly nothing to do. They remained there throughout my entire trip.
Even when Ratko Mladic came to see me on my final day in Serbia in full military regalia giving me a parting gift (a book he inscribed to me entitled Serbija) while Darko took pictures of Mladic with his arm around me, the men remained there merely looking like old bums. Retrospectively, I wonder if they weren’t some watchmen and/or guards. Unto this day I always wondered what Darko did with those photos.
I was surprised what a very large apartment Darko owned. He showed me into his guest room and I unpacked my suitcases in just enough time to inform me I was to consolidate all my truly necessary items for Montenegro into one small bag that would reasonably fit into his trunk in the morning because he needed enough room for his and Bojana’s luggage also. He laughed at all the things I brought with me to Beograd telling me that I had no idea how to pack.
By the time I was done with that task Darko told me it was time to go meet some friends at a local café for coffee. It was late summer and the outside café’s in Beograd were the best !
We met up with a few friends in some restaurant in Beograd; there was about five of us sitting there just chatting and drinking coffee when I noticed an older gentleman sitting a few seats down with feathered salt and pepper colored hair not saying much except for an occasional laugh and nod at us. I wondered wherefore Darko a man about thirty would associate with such an older person, as for me being several years older than Darko, I thought to myself, what a cute guy. Then upon closer inspection, I realized it was doctor Radovan Karadzic. I knew he was a psychiatrist. By no means was this to be our last meeting. Throughout the time I spent in Serbia Darko met with Karadzic on many occasions in Beograd. The meetings were usually brief; only to exchange oral information and/or a few papers with Darko and whisper something or other in Darko‘s ear.He looks as the news media portrays him dressed in his gray wrinkled suit and tie and salt and pepper colored hair. He was a perfect gentleman all times I met him with Darko. After finishing our coffee, Darko said we ought leave and get a good nights rest because we had to leave early the next day for Montenegro.
We only stopped briefly at some military installations; we didn’t get out of the car. We drove up to the gates and Darko pointed out, “look Jill, this is an important military facility.” Darko always sarcastically smirked as he pointed out these places to me. The only place we got out was in front of the bombed out Chinese embassy in Beograd. There were Serbian military officers in front of the embassy. I was amazed owing to I always had thought bombed out buildings were totally demolished. But standing in front of the Chinese embassy that was bombed by the NATO in 1999 taught me the definition of a “smart bomb.”
Only the portion of the building hosting the embassy employees on the upper level of the building itself was demolished and in particular the window where the Chinese embassy officials worked. I could see in the window and I even got a sad glimpse of the Victorian styled chair sitting there empty in the bombed out window. I wondered who used to sit there and if they were dead or alive. No other parts of the building was seriously damaged. There were even flowers and trees still growing untouched in front of the building. I strongly believe that NATO knew exactly what they aimed at when they bombed the building.
It since crossed my mind he may have removed the film from my camera prior my departing Serbia so I could not take it back with me. One thing I am sure of is both Darko and Bojana refused having any photos taken of them throughout my entire stay. After leaving the scene at the Chinese embassy, we made our way to the home of Darko’s father driving through a beautiful park not dissimilar to Central Park in Manhattan along the way. I can’t be certain what park it was because I didn’t know the geographical area; we soon arrived at our destination.
Darko’s father lived in the most incredibly beautiful green hills in an area of Serbia existing somewhere between Beograd and Montenegro. Immediately upon entering and meeting his father, stepmother and grandmother who recently passed away, I felt part of the family. Although his family did not speak English, Darko and Bojana translated for me.
Darko’s grandmother was an extraordinarily warm and wise woman in whose presence I felt comfortable and happy the entire time. Before dinner there was the customary libation of grappa (a Serbian hard liquor of incredible potency). If only I could find grappa here in America. After another dinner that would give Manhattan’s top chefs a run for their money, Darko brought me upstairs into a guest room to take a nap.
I told him I was not tired but he insisted I nap saying we would be driving all night before reaching Montenegro and I need my rest. I must have slept an hour before he awakened me to say our parting goodbyes and begin our journey. I was extremely excited; Darko promised me a three week Adriatic holiday allowing me swimming privileges at every beach from Hercegovni to an area he said was only ten meters from Kosovo’s border. We couldn’t go into Kosovo Darko said because it was too dangerous. I knew Darko had been shot several times and almost killed in Kosovo previously so I didn’t push the issue. As a former lifeguard and avid swimmer, I couldn‘t wait for my vacation to start and Darko delivered it to me as promised.
The onset of our journey began at sunset; still adjusting to the time zone differential I dozed off in Darko’s backseat; for how long I’m uncertain. I dozed on and off until sunrise when we reached the Montenegrin border. I mean, there wasn’t much to see driving in the dark cover of night. The wider well lit highway we initially set out upon gradually narrowed as the highway lights became fewer. Eventually there were no highway lights at all. My body continuously shifted from one side of Darko’s backseat to the other making sleep difficult.
It was obvious the road we traversed was analogous to Pacific Coast Highway in California driving through Big Sur. It was mountainous, dangerously ridden with hairpin turns and no guardrails. In Montenegro, inexperienced travelers could almost mistake the scenery for Big Sur with the beautiful blue Adriatic sea hugging the bottoms of the cliffs we not so cautiously traveled. I asked Darko to slow down because he was driving like speed racer. He replied not to worry explaining he could drive these roads blindfolded he knew them well. I thought to myself, better safe than sorry buddy.
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