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The way the lieutenant spoke of it, one would have thought he was describing a major feat of engineering—something infinitely complex, which carried much import, holding moral and religious high ground, if such things can be lectured upon, or even thought of in the context of a war.
It was not a routine briefing. The star was the particular instrument. The few Serbian newsmen standing around smoked Kent cigarettes and constantly picked at invisible specks of lint from their wrinkled, chiffonaded suits. It seemed as if they were interested more in the manner in which they smoked, than anything else. Everyone took great care to distinguish themselves in their technique.
They were bored with the war. No one flinched at the close sounds of mortar fire and live charges tearing apart the hills. I scribbled the officer’s words in my reporter’s notebook with a dull pencil. Cristiano was my photographer. He was from Ravello, a small town on the Amalfi Coast. He was a thin, brown Sorrentian with a fantastic Roman nose who didn’t say much, despite his heritage.
“Of course, there will be only one more execution before the apparatus is dismantled,” said the lieutenant. “NATO mandate, you see,” he excused the fallacy and shook his head melancholically.
And then he looked at me for a long time. I was the only American there. It was my fault that the torture and killing mechanism was being put out of commission. For a second I felt guilty.
Cristiano loaded up Tri-X into his camera.
One of the press corps spilled coffee on his own jacket and cursed.
“The parts you see here were all designed by a famous Serb engineer,” the officer said.
He pointed to the instrument with a pool cue.
“Bratislav Jovanovic. He is a direct descendant of Konstantin Jovanovic who, as you well know, was the architect of our great Parliament building in 1891; the cornerstone of which was laid by King Peter I in 1907.”
One of the Serbs pushed a soft pack toward me. I took a cigarette and nodded and he didn’t smile or say anything. He smelled of acrid sweat and garlic. The shirt under his arm was wet from perspiration.
“The middle and upper parts are where the pressure is applied. The blades and rotors are driven into the flesh slowly at the kidney, liver, and lung levels, by a pneumatic pump which can also run on a generator, given the present situation with our hydroelectric stations,” the lieutenant said. “Usually the confession is extracted within three to five minutes. Our communications officer is videotaping the entire procedure.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Everything must be documented in order to ensure the process adheres to military policy standards. In order that the law is not abused,” the officer said.
He was annoyed with me. Cristiano affixed the flash.
“In order that the law is not abused?”
“Yes,” the lieutenant said. “We have accountability standards in the Serbian Army.”
Cristiano twisted on the lens.
“After the information is extracted, the condemned is left on the machine until he perishes. The technician adjusts the setting of the blades and rotors to a lower rate and the convict is given three glasses of Slivovitz in succession as an anesthetic. He has the right to refuse it, although we found that in most cases he is still conscious enough to drink.”
The Serb newsmen snickered and elbowed one another, probably at the final fortitude shown by the condemned.
“In our experience, we have found that even the most devout of Muslims drink the alcohol,” the lieutenant said. “The machine persuades them to let go of God, even. In that way, it is quite efficient.”
The Serbs laughed and dragged on their wrinkled cigarette butts. The officer looked at the press credentials hanging from my neck.
“You are Romanian, sir?”
“I am American.”
“But your last name. Is it not Romanian?”
“Ah, see then. We love our brothers next door,” the officer said, “despite the Latin alphabet you use. Despite the fact that you’re the only ones in the Balkans who’ve kept the Roman ties.”
“Yes, well…we don’t have much capacity to retain Glagolitic or Cyrillic,” I said. “We get easily confused by Bs and Rs and Fs.”
This drew more laughter from the Serb press corps who turned and patted me on the shoulders. More cigarettes were offered and shots of brandy, later.
“In any case,” the lieutenant said, “the condemned perishes on the machine within four to six hours from loss of blood. After the execution, the apparatus is scrubbed and disinfected. This is to ensure the elimination of any blood borne diseases and as protection for the next man scheduled for execution.”
No one seemed to acknowledge the irony and futility of that. Cristiano was ready to shoot. The officer moved in close to his machine and straightened out his uniform. Then he cleared his throat and smiled.
“A bit more to the right, tenente, ” Cristi said. Then he hit the shutter and the flash fired. When it was over the Serbs halfheartedly applauded.
Later, in the hotel bar Cristiano said: “pay close attention to all of this; what is happening here. It is a kind of madness that will not go un-noticed by the west. These pictures will all be used as evidence when these monsters go to trial at The Hague.”
I said I didn’t believe officers at this level would ever be brought to justice. He said I wasn’t a true American. I was too cynical.
“A true American is a humanist. He believes in fairness and justice.”
“An idealist, a Polyanna…”
He said I’d been reading too much Kafka and didn’t have faith in the processes of the world. That the processes of the world would take care of the world in the end.
I said he was right. One way or another they would.