Friday, 4 September 2015

Under a Croatian Moon

April 1993: Croatia

There was no moon the night Josip Dzaja steered the Jadranka through the narrow channel between the islands of Brac and Solta.
He pointed ahead. “Lights of Split,” he said.
Brigadier Matthew Ryan, seconded from the British Army to the United Nations Protection Force solely for this mission, stood silently at Josip’s side in the small wheelhouse of the fishing boat. He peered into the blackness, and assumed the very faint glow in the night sky directly ahead of them was the Croatian city of Split.
Protected by the heavily defended Klis Pass through the mountains to the north east of the city, the people there were able to continue their normal lives, despite the sporadic fighting taking place between Croat and Serb forces further inland.
It hadn’t been considered safe, however, for Miro Klanac to enter the city. Matthew’s job was to bring him out of Croatia from a small beach several miles south-east of Split.
Josip was already turning starboard away from the glow of the city, and Matthew thought again of the information General Morillon, one of the senior French officers in the UN Force, had told him.
A fierce supporter of Croatian independence, Miro had spent over a year posing as a Serbian soldier, while secretly reporting their positions and plans first to the Croatian army and then to the United Nations force.
“His intelligence reports ended abruptly at the beginning of February,” General Morillon said. “We assumed his real identity had somehow been discovered and it was feared the Serbs had shot him. Two weeks ago, we received word from a safe house in one of the mountain villages that they had Miro holed up in their cellar. God knows how he managed to escape, but there is a price on his head, and we have to get him out.”
“Why not through Split?” Matthew asked after the General had explained how Miro was being passed down via safe houses to the coast.
“We don’t know how many Serbian spies there are in the city. All of them will have been told to watch out for Miro. We can’t risk it. Currently he’s at an old farmhouse in the hills above Omis. Once we send a signal to the Croat agent there, he’ll be brought down to the beach at Jesenice. Your job is to collect him, and take him back to Vis island, and we can then fly him to safety out of the war zone.”
Matthew nodded, and decided to ask the question he knew he probably didn’t have the right to ask a senior officer. “Why me?”
“You won a bronze medal for rowing at the Beijing Olympics—and, more importantly, you speak Croat.”
It was the answer he expected. “Yes. My grandmother was Croatian. She lived in Split and met my grandfather when his Navy ship was docked there.” He smiled. “Although she came to England, she always struggled with the English language, and taught me Croat words when I was even younger than my daughter is now. By the time I was ten, I was fairly fluent in Croat.” He paused. “If my job is simply to collect Miro Klanac from the beach, why is the language fluency important?”
“In case anything goes wrong with the pickup.”
The General’s laconic words echoed in Matthew’s ears as he climbed down the metal ladder from the wheelhouse to the deck. Now he could see lights from the villages along the coast, and even heard strains of Dalmatian music from one of the hotels.
“I switch on boat light when I stop engine,” Josip told him. “People think I do it to attract fish so not curious about boat with no lights.”
It sounded logical, Matthew reasoned as he climbed down the rope ladder over the side of the fishing vessel to the small rowing boat that was attached by a line to the stern. Once aboard, he unfastened the rope, setting the small boat free. Then he sat on the wooden bench, slid the oars through the outriggers, and started to row strongly towards the beach.
When the fishing boat’s light came on, it shone on him like a spotlight on an empty stage.
“What the hell—?” he muttered.
The pickup was supposed to be in darkness, but now his few hundreds yards row to the beach was illuminated as if he was in a brightly lit cruise ship.
“Turn the damn thing off,” he breathed as he continued to row.
Even as he thought it, some instinct told him this was no error by Josip. He tried to steer away from the light, but still it followed him.
Despite the warm breeze, icy tentacles crawled through him. Was Miro on the beach, or had he already been captured by the Serbs? And what the hell was going to happen now?
Shots rang out. The third one, hitting his shoulder, made Matthew drop the oars and lurch backwards with a yelp. The fourth hit him in the chest.
“Oh God—Sonia—Amanda—”
He collapsed forward, clutching his chest as blood splurted from the bullet wound. He was dead even before his head hit the bottom of the rowing boat.

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