war in europe

specialist steven gonzales

how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?

U.S. Army Specialist Steven Gonzales was the gunner in the NATO Humvee.
At what point did it become obvious to you that you were actually being ambushed?

Since I was in the gunner's position, I was standing halfway outside the turret area of the Humvee. So it was really apparent to me, right at first, that we were actually taking rounds, and that it was life-threatening . . . . Sergeant Stone and Sergeant Ramirez had some question, at first, as to whether it wasn't rocks hitting the vehicle, because we'd had a couple of occasions where we'd had villagers throwing rocks at the Humvees. But I could hear the reports of the weapons from outside.

And at what point did you actually see first see them?

It was after we took the first turn, after initially being fired upon. We tried to maneuver out of the area. I believe that it's upon that turn when I saw the first soldier.

What was your reaction? Was it obvious at that point that this was no mistake on their part--that they weren't Macedonian soldiers who'd mistakenly identified you as hostile forces?

I was able to discern the Serbian double-headed eagle patch on a shoulder. I realized then that this was surely not a mistake on somebody's part, and they had recognized us as NATO American soldiers.

At that point, what was going through your mind?

At that point, we were still mobile, so it wasn't a lost cause. We could still maneuver, maybe be able to fight back, to do anything that it would take to get out of the area. But soon our mobility was taken away from us. The Humvee lurched off the road into a ditch and died, and we couldn't get it started again. At that point, I realized we were really in serious trouble.

Did you think that you would just be able to give yourselves up as their captives, but they would not harm you?

That was probably our hope, although not really the choice you want to make, as soldiers. But there weren't any options at that point.

What happened when the Serbs then got to a position where they could contain you? What did they do to you at that point?

They rushed at us, immediately threw us down and began stripping away our equipment. I was receiving many blows from rifle butts and kicks. I remember one particular kick. I was lying on the ground and facing my left. Somebody had been trying to tear my Kevlar off my head. They finally got it free, and I looked to the left. I saw a boot coming straight at my face. I guess I blacked out then, because the next thing I remember was them half-dragging me through a couple of buildings.

Tell me about the mock execution that they put you through. What happened?

After I came to again, they were leading us around this building. They took us behind this building, and started searching us more thoroughly, taking things out of our pockets. They were still continuing with the kicks and the blows. Then they led us back around and had us spaced apart, but in line still. They knelt us down and I could see, as well as feel, the presence of people behind us. I could see the people out of peripheral vision behind us. Andy was probably the closest to me then, and Chris the farthest. But I could see the people behind them with the rifles pointing towards the back of the head, and that's all I could think about at that time. You've seen the images on movies, you've read about them, and they were just what you would think as standard procedure for an execution.

How long did they have you in that position?

I don't really recall the length of time. It was enough time for me to contemplate maybe that my life was probably about to end. But even worse than that, I thought that before my life ended, I would see actually both of the other guys die first.

And when did it become obvious that, on this occasion at least, they were not going to execute you?

They stood us up after that. I was in front of a wall, and they pushed me into the wall. They were still quite angry and irate, and I still thought maybe there was a possibility that they changed their minds on how they wanted to do it. But at some point, someone appearing to be in charge approached from behind. I think, from his orders, they backed off.

Did anyone speak in English to you? Did anyone communicate in English?

The only English that I remember hearing during the whole sequence of events was when we were being led around that building. In a broken English, I heard "kill you, kill you," coming from one of the guys who was dragging me.

So what happened to you after you'd gone through this ordeal? Where did they take you, and how did they take you?

They loaded us into the back of a truck. Our hands were bound--I think handcuffed. They took us first to a tent, which I believe was some kind of medical tent, and they introduced doctors to us. The doctor came up to me. He was wearing a white coat. They thought they had broken my leg, so they made an incision in my uniform of the length of my leg to check out my leg. They cut the left sleeve of my uniform and gave me an IV. I'm not really sure how long we were there, because at that point, I went to sleep. I was somewhat in shock by then.

What injuries had you sustained?

Just the bruising all over my face and head, and some cuts on my head. I know the area at the top of my nose and lower part of my forehead was really swollen. They felt huge. I didn't know until later, but I also had a chipped and cracked tooth from that occurrence.

I know it won't be easy. But can you tell us what it was like going through the torture, the process of an interrogation? What were you put through during that six-to-seven-day period?

The first night, I was made to sit in a chair the whole time with my hands handcuffed behind me, and hooded. I remember feeling the pain in my shoulders from not being able to move them from that position. The only time that I would get some sort of relief was during the interrogation, when they would try to question me. They would actually allow me to put my handcuffed hands in front of my body, and then they would also unhood me. I remember thinking about a lot of stories that I've heard from people who were prisoners of war, from the Vietnam era especially. That was really foremost in my mind, where I had the fear of implied torture. I was really fearful then that they were going to use something like that against us.

How long did that sort of interrogation go on?

I believe we had three to four sessions. That period lasted about six days, until we were transported into the actual prison facility.

Had you been told at that point that you were being regarded as terrorists and spies, and would be tried accordingly?

That was certainly implied by the lines of questioning, and in the kind of accusations they were making--that we were spying to facilitate a ground war against Serbia. They really seemed to harp on the issue that we were there, and we were specially trained and knew their language, in order to be able to report back and have the groundwork laid for a ground invasion.

Was any of that true?

No, not at all. We were there just observing. In fact, we were doing pretty much the same job we had done under the United Nations mission that we were originally brought down to Macedonia for.

During this period, it must've occurred to you that you may well not be able to get out until this conflict was over--and, at that point, there was no knowing how long it might last.

After those first six days, I don't I think I was really thinking that through. I was hoping to live minute by minute then. But once we arrived at the prison facility and I was alone in my cell, I had time to reflect upon those things. Definitely, I thought, if we were going to be released, the condition of release would be to halt the NATO bombing campaign, or some similar talks that might postpone it for a while, or something similar, or until the conflict ended.

How aware were you of the progress of the war? Were the guards telling you what was going on, or were you just listening to the night sounds of Belgrade?

The only indications that we had were what the guards would relay to us, and what we could hear for ourselves from the air sirens, and the planes and bombing. A couple of times, a guard who spoke some English would come in. He would tell me that their air defense was actually quite superior, and was I aware of how many airplanes that they have shot down? And he ran through a long list of aircraft, which included Apaches. I didn't take it as the truth. Obviously, I'm being told this by somebody on the other side. Knowing about how their government might be run, I thought that he might be reporting something that he was just told, and maybe led to believe himself.

Once you got into the prison, you got into something approaching a routine. What was the routine that you went through during weeks of almost-isolation inside this prison? What was your average day like?

When we first arrived, they laid some of the ground rules down for us, some of the things they expected. We were told we would have to make our beds, and cover them with the wool blankets so that the sheets aren't showing. It was quite similar to basic training, in that sense. At one point at the very beginning, they brought in some powder and had us clean our floor, which was scuffed up with bootmarks and those things. So I took that in as part of my routine as soon as I woke up. I'd make my bed, and then I would usually sweep up my floor with a little piece of rag they had given us, and then I would wait. They would bring us bread in the morning, so I'd wait for that delivery of the bread.

I would do a set of push-ups before and after each meal. Except for meals, the rest of the time I spent in thought and recollection and prayer, and I sang a lot of songs to myself. I also had a really hard time staying still. I just really felt that time was passing slower if I was not moving. I would try to pace in my cell, trying to be as quiet as I could with my steps, not attracting any attention. We were allowed to sit on our beds, but weren't allowed to lay down or sleep until they told us at night. Even as I sat on my bed, I would constantly move my leg from one to the other.

Were you in total isolation? Did you have any contact with the other two?

I only heard the other prisoners when they would get them out and run them down the hallways for showers, and whatever else. From the first moments we arrived at the prison, they transported us separately. Before then, the couple of times they moved us, they had moved us all together in the back of a truck. So when I first arrived at the prison, I wasn't sure if the other two were even there. But I was able to hear when the guards came in and were trying to speak to them. I could hear Andy's room. I could hear his conversations with the guards more than I could hear Chris', because he was farther away. It gave me relief to know that they were alive, and they're in the same vicinity.

Did you know about the efforts being made at this point to seek your release--efforts by the Cypriot government, and so on?

No. I had no idea at that point.

On the day that you met Jesse Jackson, what did you think that you were going to be doing that day? Where did you think they were taking you?

At that point, I really didn't have any idea. We'd been transported before to meet the Red Cross, and so I thought maybe I was going to some other kind of meeting, but I had no conceivable idea of what kind of meeting it could be.

What was your reaction when you suddenly realized that Jackson was there? Describe that encounter.

They led me down the hallway like usual, with my hands handcuffed behind my back. I had my head down, and they were moving me quite fast to this room. Then they took the handcuffs off, and just shoved me into the room. Immediately, when I looked up, I saw a television camera. Then I looked over and saw some Serbian officials, and then the next person I saw was Reverend Jesse Jackson sitting down. At that moment, it was quite a relief, in the sense that there was another American present.

Did you have any idea that he was there to try and get you out?

No, I didn't. In fact, all I really got from that meeting was the sense that maybe it was a gesture to help us keep our hopes alive--that, maybe at some level, there was some kind of talks. But I didn't get a sense that anything was going to occur soon from that.

What was the first indication that he was actually there to try and secure your release, and ultimately was successful?

The next day I was able to meet with him again, and with the delegation of clergy who had traveled there with him. It was such a horrible situation, but here I was in a room with more Americans--with really hopeful and faithful people at that. So it was a lighter mood, in a sense, and they were really able to bring up my spirits. At one point, they asked me if there was anything I was really concerned about. I told them I was worried about my car insurance bill. It was through a German company, and I told them that, when I get out, I don't want to have to go in front of a German court to explain why I hadn't paid. So one of Reverend Jackson's assistants told me to write down all the information that could possibly help them in tracking the company down, and explain the situation. Reverend Jackson was sitting on the other side of the room, and he made a comment, saying that I was going to be out by Monday anyway, and that I'd be able to pay it myself, so don't worry about it. I marked that up to optimism in his faith. But later that night, the guards came and told me that we were going to be released.

What did you think at that point? Did you think they were serious, or that this was just another ploy?

I had mixed emotions about that, because they came in, and it wasn't just the guards on shift. An older gentleman, a higher-ranking soldier came in. He was wearing civilian clothes, and he came in with one of the guards. Neither one spoke English, but the guard knew a few words. He and the older one told me to sit down on the bed, and he sat down next to me. He made a motion of an airplane, and said through the other guy, "You're going home." In disbelief, I told him, "No." I wanted him to say it again, and I did that two or three times before I finally said "Yes." At that point, I started to get ready, putting on my uniform, and getting the few articles that we'd gotten as a result of the Red Cross meetings. Then they came and brought me bootlaces and a belt, at which I thought, "It's getting really serious at this point, maybe this is really happening." Those were articles that they had taken away from us, and now they're providing us with those things again.

Then, at one point, they came in and told me I was going to have to wait, because they had heard the bombing was going to continue that night, so for safety reasons, they wouldn't be able to transport us.

It must have been a long few hours waiting for the morning.

Yes. My heart sank really when I heard that, because when they had first come in and told me I was going home, I assumed that the bombing was halted, at least for the time being. I'd put that together in my head as the condition of our release. So when I heard it was continuing, I was worried that may be they would rescind the order and not release us. But I stayed fully dressed. I had my boots laced and everything, and I just stayed on my bed and tried to get a little bit of rest until whenever they would come and get us.

At what point did it finally sink in that you were going home?

I was starting to believe it more and more as the events progressed after that. They let us out of our cells, and I was able to see the other two and another older gentleman. I was assuming the posture that they had made us assume the whole time as soon as I stepped out of my cell, and he tapped me on the shoulder, pulled my arms out from behind my back, and told me to walk with my hands swinging by my side--that I was free. Once they led us outside of the building, we weren't handcuffed and we weren't hooded. So it was pretty serious at that point, if they were allowing us to be outside, to be able to be free to look around and not be bound by anything. They transported us in the truck to the place where they had the signing. I don't think I could actually ever believe it until we were able to walk across that floor, and go hug Reverend Jackson, and then call our families.

What was your attitude towards your guards by the time you left? You'd been with them now for three weeks. As you look back on it, what are your feelings about that, and the treatment you had?

That's actually very interesting. . . . I felt it was really a lesson learned in humanity, because I saw the whole spectrum there. Obviously, that first week, we were treated really roughly. Even after we moved to the prison facility, there were certain guards who treated us badly, who they were not professional. But then again, at the same time there were others who were more professional about their manner. They treated us as soldier to soldier, and gave us the items required by Geneva Convention. I remember on one occasion after the Red Cross had visited us, we'd gotten a deck of cards. I would play solitaire on my bunk, but when I would hear the guards approaching, I would swoop up the cards and put them back. I don't know if they would have done anything. They obviously knew we had the cards, but I didn't want to draw attention.

But one particular night, I didn't swoop them up fast enough, and the guard came to the door. He knew a little bit of English. He was trying to ask me what game I knew how to play by myself, and I told him solitaire. He tried to explain to me some game that he knew, and actually came into my cell at one point, and showed me how to play a couple of games. So I saw that there are all kinds of people, and they exist everywhere.

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