World Defense Review


Published 12 October 05

W. Thomas Smith Jr.

Beyond the DropZone

W. Thomas Smith Jr.

Fear of monsters
A tale of the Bosnian War

Strolling down the Halloween candy display aisle in my local grocery store, I am reminded of an autumn trek I made across Eastern Europe, exactly 10 years ago.

It was September, the final weeks of the Bosnian War.

With US-led peace talks imminent, the Muslim-Croat and Serb armies were locked in a desperate struggle to gain as much ground as possible so they could approach the peace table from a position of strength. NATO jets had destroyed Serbian command and control centers. And I was covering the war for a small, weekly newspaper, alone and hiking along the Croatian-Bosnian frontier.

Armed with nothing more than a camera, a notebook, a toothbrush, a change of clothes, an arctic sleeping bag, several bottles of water, and a few large bags of Halloween candy, I made my way up and into one of the more hilly, black-timbered regions of Croatia. It was a few miles from where some of the worst fighting was taking place just over the border in Bosnia.

Everything was mined: secondary roads, fields, and deserted buildings. Uninhabited villages had been shot to pieces. Rocket fragments littered the highways. Guerilla patrols were operating all around me. And the bitter Balkan winter was moving in quickly.

My Halloween candy? It was a calling card.

One evening, as I approached the end of a narrow foot path, I came upon several Bosnian children who were living less than a couple hundred yards away in a dank, urine-smelling refugee camp.

Like startled deer in the twilight unsure of the figure in front of them, the children stared for a moment. But, even in the fading light, they determined I was not a threat. I was not a soldier, and they cautiously moved toward me.

As I later would discover, the children were deathly afraid of soldiers, far more so than any American kid would be of monsters under the bed; and for good reason. A mere two days before, these kids had witnessed the sniper-shooting of an old man and his granddaughter. They had been rousted from their beds in the middle of the night. And their fathers and older brothers had been taken away by the Serbian army.

Now they were hiding in an isolated, though somewhat safe, Croatian forest facing a strange man who spoke an unintelligible language.

Fortunately, kids have a universal language.

To their shrieking delight, I produced one of the shiny black and orange bags of Halloween candy, a treat some of them had never seen.

It was an instant bond of friendship, no matter how fragile.

They marched me into camp as if I was some sort of trophy, and introduced me to the women (remember, the men were gone) who then invited me to stay the night and share their meager fare of boiled chicken and potatoes, a loaf of hard bread, and several cups of a strong Turkish tea.

For the remainder of the evening we sat around an old wood-burning stove, singing, attempting to exchange words, the kids gorging themselves on the rest of my Halloween candy.

As bedtime approached, some of the children began to cry, fearful that "the soldiers" were going to come and kill them in their sleep.

Then I remembered the calming affect of Christmas songs when I was a boy. The Bosnian children, though unfamiliar with my songs, were quick to learn.

Soon, tears were replaced with red eyes, chocolate-covered smiles, and sweet little voices mispronouncing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman.

They slept soundly that night and for the next few nights I spent in their camp.

Ten years later, I wonder if they remember their brief respite from hell? Candy displays, singing children, and autumn strolls through deep piney woods, will forever remind me.

W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former U.S. Marine infantry leader, parachutist, and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is an award-winning author of four books, the co-author of two, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, The Washington Times, and many others.

W. Thomas Smith Jr. can be reached at

© 2005 W. Thomas Smith Jr.

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