war in europe

sergeant andrew ramirez

how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?

U.S. Army Sergeant Andrew Ramirez was driving the NATO Humvee when it was ambushed by Serb soldiers.
What was the first hint you had that something was wrong?

When we came through this village, we saw a truck. The first thing I thought was that it was Macedonian military, out training or something. So we pulled up. I saw the truck, and we all looked at it kind of strange, because it was a military truck just on the outskirts of the village. Then I said, "It must be Macedonians training." There was a villager on the side of the truck, an older guy. He came along through the back, and we saw him pointing down an alleyway. We moved away from him, because some villagers along the way would throw rocks or something at us, so we didn't want to be near him, in case he threw something. We pulled up, and that's when we started taking fire.

Was it obvious to you at that point that you were the intended victims?

We were inside this armored Humvee. The armor's pretty thick for the crew compartment, and all we heard were tinks off the armor, and so we didn't hear the pops. I said, "It must be rocks or something." But right when I was saying it, there came three tinks in a row, and I knew that it couldn't be rocks. That's when Gonazales yelled, "Down!" He heard the pops. He was up in the hatch, so he knew it was gunfire.

What did you do next?

We were thinking that the gunfire came from the truck. My instinct, from everything that I've done, is to drive away from the fire, of course. The truck was on our left, so I took a right, went down a dirt road and ended up passing some Serbian soldiers, who we recognized from the red patch--a bigger squad, about 12-15 people.

They ripped the helmet . . . from my head and grabbed hold of me.  They took a rifle to my head, knocked me to the floor, and then they just started kicking. Was it your impression, having encountered them, that they were looking for you--that they hadn't just come across you?

It really looked to me that we surprised them, and it looked like maybe they were setting up an ambush or something there. It didn't seem like they were there for us. It seemed like maybe they were going to get the next people that came through or something like that.

What happened then? Did you try and engage in a fight, or did it seem obvious that this wasn't possible?

It seemed more obvious that we could get away. That was my whole thing, that I could drive away from them. They were clustered on the other side of the road, so I turned around, and I could have almost got away from them. And we probably could have gotten away, if we had made it a little farther up this road, where it got a little narrower, and we would have probably stopped taking fire on the flank. The Humvee took so much fire into the engine compartment. The fire hit something in the engine, because it just completely stopped.

And at that point, was there no option but to give yourself in?

. . . We looked at each other and we knew, because they were all over us.They had shot us up and they still fired after we had stopped, after we'd hit this little ditch and were stuck. We couldn't move, because the vehicle wouldn't start. We could see them--they were all on my side. I could see them just right waving their rifles at me. We knew that there was no chance that we could get away on foot, or in the vehicle, because the vehicle was done for.

What kind of reception did you get when you came out of the Humvee, effectively giving yourselves up?

I guess you could say it wasn't a happy reception. They were mostly on my side and they were just looking at me. I took a deep breath, and I open the door got out. We had the flak vests on, and the helmets. They ripped the helmet pretty much from my head, and they grabbed ahold of me. They took a rifle to my head, knocked me to the floor, and then they just started kicking.

About four or five people were on me, and there was no way I could really keep them off me, because there were so many people--feet--coming at me. I just tried to protect myself as much as I could, and try and see what was coming at me next. Then they stopped kicking. They didn't come with something else, not a bayonet or another rifle. . . .

What sort of injuries did you sustain in this period?

I had a pretty good gash to my head--they hit me with an AK-47. They kicked me along the sides. I ended up with broken ribs on each side. I had injuries that were sustained probably during the interrogation, from our legs being bound, and I had a really bad contusion.

You're on the ground, and they're kicking you, and they've broken two of your ribs. How long does this go on until they finally pull you away and take you somewhere?

At the time it seemed like an eternity. It was probably no more than five minutes. Then somebody who seemed to be in charge came, and got them to pick us up. . . . actually they bound our hands. They picked us up and walked us down the road toward the horse stable. We saw the villagers who really didn't notice before. . . . We started to see more people showing up. So they walked us down the road. There was Sergeant Stone, myself, and then Gonzales. I could see them walking with Stone. They had a pistol to his head. The guy who had come and got us kicked the pistol away as if to make sure they didn't shoot him. They put us around the back of this stable and started to search us.

Chris Stone talked about being put through almost a mock execution. Was that something that you endured? If you did, could you describe it for us?

When they put us in the back, they put us right on our knees and our hands were bound. From anything I've seen, that's the execution position, and so I really I thought I was done for. Since I was in the middle, I could see Gonzales on my left and Stone on my right. I was thinking, "This is it. One of us is going to take it in the head, and me being in the middle, I'll probably see one of them get it." I looked to my left and I could see Gonzales on the floor, on his knees, and I looked to my right, and I could see Stone. He seemed like he was praying, and I was doing the same thing. I was waiting to see what happened, and it just ended up that they started searching us. Stone actually got a good kick to the face, from one of them guys who came around the corner. Seeing what we could have got, I think we got the better end of the deal, because they kept us alive.

How long were you in that position? You're on the ground in a sort of execution pose. How long did they keep you like that?

It wasn't too long. I think they put us there and they were just holding us, because they weren't sure what to do next. That's how it seemed. After another four or five minutes, they pushed us down, started searching our person, and took anything off us, like a watch. I had a knife on my belt, and things in my pockets, like my wallet and things like that. They just took it all out.

What did they do with you after you'd gone through the mock execution? Where were you taken at that point?

They threw us in a truck, and they took us across the border. There was a tent set up with medical physicians in there. They actually moved me into like a little holding place, a little building they had there. Then they moved me into the tent. The doctors there stitched my head up. Then they looked from anything else, any injuries we had, because of the blood.

One of them could speak pretty good English. He started telling us that we were prisoners of war, that we fell under the Geneva Convention, and that they gave us medical attention, which came under the Geneva Convention, and that we were being held.

Many of your captors didn't hold the idea that you were being held under the Geneva Convention. What were they telling you about being perhaps terrorists and spies--that they were going to put you on trial?

. . . When we were being interrogated, they came back and told me that we're part of some time of Special Forces team, or something like that. They said we had equipment that could listen to and intercept anything they had, and that we had devices that would do all this stuff to, for instance, kick off an attack. They were saying that we were in their country illegally, and that we could be tried for an international-type incident, like a border-crossing incident.

Describe these interrogation sessions that you went through once you got into the prison proper. You were there for the first four or five days. What kind of techniques did they use during the interrogation sessions? Describe a typical session for me.

There really wasn't much to it. It seemed like maybe it was new to them, or maybe they're just that type--how they had to talk to us. They had an interpreter in the middle. They had two guys. One was military, with a uniform on, and the other guy was just in civilian clothes. They would take turns asking questions. They would have to talk through the interpreter, which was a lady.

They would ask me things, and when she really didn't like what I was saying, or I wasn't giving them the answer that she was looking for, she would start to get angry. But the real threats that I got were when they would have the guards with the rifles behind me, and the military guy would pace back and forth with his hand on his pistol. He'd be tapping it, and trying to get me to say what they wanted or to write what they wanted.

What do you think they wanted you to say? Did they ever present a confession for you to sign?

They wanted me to confess that I was part of a specialized type of unit, that we were going to kick off a NATO attack. They said we had these devices and equipment that could do this. And of course we didn't, but they insisted that we did. This was when the real threats came, and they wanted to make me think that they're going to shoot me or do whatever, to try and get me to write it.

I would argue back and forth with the lady. . . . I wouldn't want to write something, she would get upset and insist, and the civilian guy sitting next to her, who was a bigger guy, would start getting angry. He would stand up, and start banging on the table and things like that, to try and get me to write exactly how they wanted. You could say that, with their pressure, they got me to write exactly what they wanted and sign it.

How did you spend the rest of the time when you were not being interrogated?

It fluctuated. Mostly, the first couple of days, we were sitting in a chair where we had our handcuffs behind us. We had hoods on our head. After about two days, they put us on the floor, which wasn't any better. They laid us on one side of our body and wouldn't let us move. Basically, we were almost in a sitting position, with our legs bent. But we were laying on our side on the floor. It just killed your shoulder, and especially your legs. You couldn't move. We started to get stiff and you'd want to move your hands, since they're bound behind you.

How many hours at a time were you having endure this?

It varied, depending on when they were going to interrogate us. I'd say the longest was a day and a half. It was a while between some interrogations. I was interrogated maybe four times in the seven days. We were left like that, except when we would eat, or they would happen to take us to the rest room.

How often were they taking you to the rest room?

It was mostly when they felt like it. They gave us water when we ate, so obviously you had to use the rest room after a while. When I couldn't stand it no more, I'd tell the guard, and if he decided to take me, he'd take me. If not, I just had to lay there and ask later on, or hope that they'd just do it later on.

Was your head ever covered in the hood?

Yes, that's how they kept us. They kept us hooded except when we ate or when they interrogated us.

What was it like going through that experience? How did you manage to get through it?

To tell you the truth, I really don't know. I tried to keep busy, keep my head busy, with data. You sit there and all your senses are basically taken away from you right there with the hood. It's dark in the room anyway, so I don't know day or night. After a while, being dehydrated, having to use the rest room so bad and just laying on this floor, and having been like that for four or five days, I felt like I was going crazy. I was seeing images. I was thinking that people were there from our unit to rescue us, and things like that. One time, right before they moved us to the prison, on about our sixth or seventh day, I actually called out to one guy. I really thought he was there with the Humvee. The guard probably thought I was nuts or something, and he didn't even bother with me.

When you were transferred after about seven days to the main prison, how were conditions? How did conditions change for you?

You could say it got better. From being held on a floor with the hood and handcuffed for six to seven days, we could actually walk around. The cell wasn't very big. . . about four by four feet wide, and about 12 feet long. There was a bed and a little table and sort of a sink bathroom in the corner. That was enough room where I could at least walk, I could do something. I had a bed, I wasn't tied up, and I could use the rest room, and get water when I wanted.

Did you have any contact at all with Chris or Steven during this period?

No. I could hear them once in a while. I could tell they were there, at least around the area I was in. But I never did see them, and I really didn't hear anything they said. I could just hear that they were there.

Tell me about that time when you were paraded in front of the television cameras. That was a pretty awful time. What was going on at that point?

That was around the night when we were captured. We were moved to that place. Another doctor there looked at us again. They asked me a lot of questions. The camera was there. He was asking me some things, trying to get me to say a lot of the propaganda stuff again. I played around and I didn't say what they wanted. So then they moved us. They moved me from where I was, and they brought in the other two. They put us against the wall, moved out of the way and they filmed us. The guy was saying, "We're going to show this. . . . Your family's going to see you. They're going to see that we have you, that you're our prisoners."

But, in fact, the image was hardly reassuring. You looked to be in pretty bad shape.

After seeing that, at least they could tell that we're alive. But everyone seeing the pictures could tell that they weren't too nice or friendly to us when they actually captured us.

Once you got into the prison, were you aware of the efforts that were underway from the Cypriot and US governments to get your release? Were you aware of the diplomatic efforts?

We were unaware of everything. I could hear planes flying across, and things blowing up. The guards would come in and tell me things.

What sort of things did they tell you?

They had a high running count of our airplanes that were getting shot down. According to them, they were shooting down something every night. They'd say that F-16s were shot down, and other things that weren't even in country. . . . I didn't believe it.

Did they also suggest to you that your own country had forgotten you, or were making no efforts to secure your release?

They did that actually during the interrogation. They really didn't do that when I was in the prison. But they would mention every day that the government hasn't asked for us, and that they've not heard anything acknowledging that we're captured. One time, they actually told me that my mother had called, asking about me, which I knew wasn't true. They were saying that she wanted to know why the government hadn't called her, or said anything about us.

Tell me about the meeting about with Reverend Jackson. Going in that day, did you have any idea who you would be meeting?

No, I actually had no clue. I was thinking maybe we were meeting with the Red Cross again or something. I was actually the last one on that very first day when we met him. The congressman said, "I have a friend I'd like you to meet, my friend, the Reverend Jesse Jackson." I turned around, and there's Jesse Jackson. He's a very recognizable man, a lot bigger than I expected, or I ever thought. But he was there, and he needed no introduction. I knew who the guy was.

What did he tell you he was there to do? Was it immediately obvious that he was there to try and secure your release?

It wasn't to me. It seemed like maybe it was a goodwill gesture to us, like maybe they let him come as a religious figure. He told us he brought messages from our families. He had Bibles for us. He had some candy and things like that, which he said we would get. He said we could talk to the CNN cameramen, and send messages that way to our family, just to tell them that we're okay. We prayed with them, and then they moved us back to the cell.

At what point did it become obvious to you that his mission was actually, possibly, going to secure your release?

It really wasn't until the next day. When I was leaving, when they were putting me back, Reverend Jackson said something, just a hint, saying he was trying to do something. He said, "Tomorrow, that bus is leaving and there's space on it for you guys, because I want you out sightseeing," or something like that. I took it as something to make me feel better. . . . They moved me back. Maybe, in the back of my mind, I'm thinking that maybe he's trying to get us out. But I didn't really didn't know what to expect.

How did you finally learn that you were going to be released?

Later that night, just before they turned off the lights for bedtime, the higher-ranking guy from these prison guards, who's in charge, came in. He was wearing civilian clothes, and was gesturing to me to change my clothes. We would wear this Serbian uniforms, and he brought out American battle dress uniforms. He was making a little hand gesture and he said, "Home." It's not clicking with me. I can't believe that after 30 days, they were going to just release us. I kind of hesitated. I looked in the door, and these other guards were waving to me, like saying, "Later." That's when I started wanting to believe.

As you were leaving, you had a two-hour drive to get you out of Yugoslavia and back to safety. Do you remember any thoughts that were going through your mind as you were going through the Yugoslav Serbian countryside?

I didn't do much thinking, to tell you the truth. We did a lot of talking. It's one of those things when you're kept alone. You want to talk to someone, so when you finally have people you can talk to, you talk as much as you can. We were talking amongst each other, really. We'd ask, "Well, did this happen to you?" and things like that.

Did the fact of freedom finally sink in when you finally got back to Germany?

Yes, I think so. After we got off the plane in Germany, we were in an area that I recognized. We got off, and there was a big crowd of people there, people who lived on the base and who'd come to greet us. As we were moving to the helicopter, three of our guys who were in our platoon were there as our buddies, to hang out with us, make sure things went okay with us, and if we needed anything. I saw the sergeant who's my gunner on the Bradley, and he drove the Humvee. To see him, and to see the other guys there . . . I really felt that I can let it all out, that I was actually free, it was behind me--and that everything was fine.

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