About the Author

Paul Watson

Paul Watson with Lamya Essemlali

Books by this Author
Ice Ghosts

Ice Ghosts

The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition
also available: Hardcover
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Seal Wars

25 Years On The Front Lines With The Harp Seals
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Where War Lives

I was sitting in a friend’s room at the Grand Hotel [in Pristina, Kosovo], scanning the chill night sky through an open window when the air strikes started with the pinpoint timing of liftoff, bang on the hour of 8 p.m. on March 24, 1999. The first strike, from a bomb or a cruise missile, announced itself with a bright orange flash about a mile outside Pristina, where the Marshal Tito Army Barracks were located. Then a second explosion sent a tremor rattling through the windowpane. An ambulance raced past, blue emergency lights flashing, siren wailing. At 8:10, a shuddering boom, and suddenly the city fell dark and silent. Through the night, bombs hammered the barracks, spewing great clouds of fiery sparks into the blackness. Some of the explosions were so powerful that the blast waves, after travelling several miles in seconds, felt like a puff of warm breeze as they gently lifted the hotel curtains. The talking was over.

Like an overweight boxer trying for the knockout punch, NATO had telegraphed its attack well in advance. The threat was supposed to make Milosevic back down without a fight. NATO insisted it only wanted to stop “ethnic cleansing,” but Milosevic suspected a plot to break up what was left of his country and remove him from power. His commanders had prepared for the worst and dispersed their forces and equipment, camouflaging real hardware and deploying ingenious decoys to fool the pilots, in ways that would have made Tito’s partisans proud. In small towns across Kosovo, hulking Yugoslav army tanks were backed into narrow alleyways between houses and shops, with barely an inch to spare on either side, where overhanging roofs cloaked them from prowling NATO warplanes. When dense fog rolled in each morning in the war’s early days, the Serbs saw it as God’s own camouflage and their armour roamed free through the countryside. Teams of soldiers were sent out into the fields to hammer together bits of wood and plastic tarps, with long protruding pipes meant to look like menacing barrels to pilots searching for targets from fifteen thousand feet. Driving by the decoys, I thought they looked foolish, like junkyard jungle gyms. But in NATO’s daily slide show for journalists in Brussels, the blasted remnants of these phony weapons appeared along with other “kills” on colourful maps that tallied the alliance’s relentless progress.

Meanwhile, back at the war, Serbian thugs had little to fear. Since NATO had also made it clear that no ground troops were coming, largely at Clinton’s insistence, the bombs and cruise missiles only fuelled the Serbian terror against civilians. Foreign journalists got a hint of it on the first night. As the bombs fell, gunmen worked the Grand’s dingy hallways, beating on flimsy wooden doors with their rifle butts. They herded a Spanish TV crew against a wall and fired a bullet near one of the crew member’s heads. By the time the goons reached my room, I was lying in the darkness on my bed, listening to the explosions. They were distant then, and slightly soothing, like an August thunderstorm rolling off in retreat.

The pounding on my door was so angry that my heart skipped a beat. I held my breath and lay still. The hammering stopped and a drunken voice shouted something indecipherable. I slipped as quietly as I could to the floor, trying to hide behind the bed. The rifle butt hit the door harder and it sounded ready to splinter. But then I heard the voice receding down the hallway and the battering resumed at someone else’s door.

It was a lesson that would serve me well: when the knock comes, don’t answer.

I awoke to anarchy. After a night’s bombing, the Serbs were really riled. Masked gunmen were seizing journalists’ armoured cars, and while I fantasized briefly about mine being full of Serb paramilitaries and stalling out under an A-10 anti-tank jet’s strafing run, I remembered the warning about no insurance: replacement value one hundred thousand dollars. So I quickly moved it to the hotel’s underground lot.

When I went to get my soft car, a blood-red Opel rented in Belgrade on the strict condition that I not drive it to Kosovo, I saw CNN’s crew being robbed at gunpoint in front of the hotel. I walked a little faster to the side street where I was parked, and saw two more journalists spread-eagled against their car, which was parallel parked just behind mine. Two uniformed interior ministry cops had drawn guns on them.

I thought of minding my own business and trying to make a getaway, but instead turned and asked if they needed help.

The cops saw the keys to the Opel in my hand, and immediately realized my car was a better steal, so they ordered me to spread ’em and let the others go.

“Papers!” a cop with a beer gut and a face darkened by a night’s unshaven stubble, shouted in my ear.

I unlocked the door and started searching for the registration papers and rental contract, but couldn’t find them in the glove compartment.

The guns pointing at my back didn’t improve my shaky memory. I was sure Zoran had given me the documents before he left, with instructions never to leave them in the car in case it was stolen.

But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember where I’d put them.

“They must be up in my room,” I told the cop from the driver’s seat. He motioned for me to give him the keys, and I ran for the hotel, assuming he would give me a break if I hustled.

I was riding the elevator back down when I remembered Zoran had stuffed the documents in the left pocket of my winter coat.

When I reached the side street, registration in hand, the car was long gone. I would see it many times in the coming days, usually full of four shaven-headed young men the size of fullbacks in leather jackets, one holding a large Serbian flag outside the passenger window as the car raced through Pristina’s streets. A distinctive dent in the front end left no doubt it was my car. At least I’d saved the insurance papers.

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The Georgia Straight

The Georgia Straight

A 50th Anniversary Celebration
introduction by Bob Geldof
by Doug Sarti; Dan McLeod
contributions by Bif Naked; Paul Watson & Mike Harcourt
also available: eBook
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