war in europe

sergeant christopher stone

how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?

U.S. Army Sergeant Christopher Stone was the commander of the NATO Humvee.

watch a portion of his interview (realvideo)

What you were actually doing on the Macedonian-Serbian border that day? What sort of operations were you involved in?

We had just recently changed from a UN observing mission to a NATO mission. Primarily, we were observing the border between Yugoslavia and Macedonia. Our job was basically to ensure if Yugoslavia did send troops south of the border in some of kind of retaliation for the air strikes, that we would give warning to the other NATO troops that were serving in Macedonia at the time.

Did you regard it as a particularly dangerous place to be? Did you know about the level of hostility in that area towards what the Americans were doing?

I don't think that initially we did. As part of the UN mission that we had been performing for the month before, the people were generally friendly to us. They would wave and smile at us as we went through. However, when we did change to the NATO mission, we also changed our uniforms. We went to green Humvees, and green helmets, and that's when we began to see a very drastic change in the attitude of the people in the area towards our presence there.

Was this also after the war stopped? Were they, in a sense, reacting to what American air power was inflicting on Serbia?

I don't think it was wholly when the conflict began--it was even prior. A lot of it started as soon as there was talk that the strikes appeared imminent. We'd get protests from the locals, and some threw rocks. So it wasn't only after the strikes began, but mainly when we changed our position.

They put a rifle to the back of my head, so obviously my reaction was that this was a classic execution position.  I really believed that was the end. There's been considerable uncertainty over what you were doing there that day, and especially, where you were. There are some suggestions that you may have strayed at times across into Yugoslavia--therefore from the Serb point of view, you'd be a legitimate target in time of war. Tell me what happened, and where were you when it happened?

On March 31, myself and the two other soldiers, Andy and Steve, were conducting a reconnaissance mission of a route that we would use as sort of an escape route--a secondary escape route in case something did happen, if troops did come across the border from Yugoslavia. This was an area that we'd operating in for about a month now. The villages were all familiar to us. The roads were all familiar to us. As we were coming back from performing that reconnaissance, we had just gone through a village and we ran into what turned out to be a deliberate ambush. It was set up to perhaps accomplish exactly what did happen.

How did the skirmish actually unfold?

As we drove past the village, we began hearing pings on the back of our Humvee, which we felt were rocks. That was common. . . . So we brought our gunner, Steve Gonzales down into the truck, and decided to drive out of the area. . . . to get away from whatever was happening. But after that point, we began taking rounds from all sides, and we began to see soldiers appearing from behind haystacks or rocks or boulders. There were about 30 of them, and they just appeared out of nowhere. That's what led us to believe that it was deliberately planned.

At that point, you radioed to your base to tell them that you were under attack. Tell me about that dialogue. What did your base say to you?

That's correct. The other guys had their own responsibilities. As commander, my job was to call. So I grabbed the radio, and called up my platoon sergeant, who was back at one of the positions. I told him that we were surrounded, and we were taking fire. I also gave him the position where we were. Evidently they didn't get all the coordinates of whatever our global positioning system said, and they only heard the first three digits.

My platoon sergeant asked me if I was joking. I told him I wasn't joking, and that this was really happening. That's the last I heard, because something went wrong with the radio transmission--maybe the antenna was shot off, or some other condition happened that it was broken.

At that point, were you fighting back? Or was it obvious that that was hopeless, given the scale of the ambush?

It certainly was hopeless. We'd already pulled our gunner down back into the vehicle, and that was basically our only defensive weapon on top of the Humvee. Also, in the peacekeeping mode that we were in, as a safety precaution, we didn't have our weapons loaded and ready to fire.

You surrendered at that point?

It wasn't in the Hollywood sense where we put the white flag out, but we did exit the truck after we became immobile. We couldn't move any longer, so our decision was to get out. We were immediately surrounded by probably 30 soldiers on the three of us, so the odds were just a little too great.

Obviously, you couldn't resist 30 of them. What was their reaction to the fact that you were clearly giving up?

I think they saw us each as punching bags at that point. There were probably between five or six soldiers on each of us, kicking and beating us and generally stripping all our equipment from us, and putting a lot of abuse on all three of us.

Was it obvious to you these were Serb forces?

Yes, it was. They were dressed in Serbian uniforms, and we recognized the patches on their shoulders. While this was happening, there were a lot of villagers standing around, and they made no effort to help the soldiers. But they didn't obviously weren't interested in helping us, either.

What was going through your mind at that point? Did you think they were going to kill you, right there and then?

I did. And obviously I was in shock. We were driving through familiar territory. I'd been through that village probably ten times in the last month, so just to be thrust in that situation so quickly and have this happen was very surprising. Immediately after they pulled us out and roughed us up, they took us back into the village. We were all placed on our knees, the three of us with our hands behind our head. They put a rifle to the back of my head, so obviously my reaction was that this was a classic execution position. I really believed that was the end.

How long were you in that position, until it was obvious that they were not going to execute you?

I would say probably for about minute we were in that position, until they pushed us forward. Then we were laying on our stomachs as they continued to search and beat us, and they were all standing around at this point, just kind of watching.

Did they say anything to you that you understood?

Not particularly. There was some cursing. Obviously they were familiar with English slang. There was a lot of accusing us of invading their country. This was in real broken English, and we'd just pick up phrases. They asked us who we were and what we were doing, implying that we were not where we were supposed to be. But other than that, the English was very rare.

Do you think that they were under the mistaken impression that you had actually entered Yugoslavia?

I don't think they were, because it was such a deliberate ambush, and it was such an identifiable location that was clearly in Macedonia. In fact, that village is not in one of the contested areas--although the border is contested--so it was clear that we were in Macedonia. I don't know if their intent was to make us believe that we were in the wrong place. That would probably be the most likely thing. That's my opinion.

What happened to you next? You've gone through this mock execution. What happened then?

There was some more searching going on, with different people. That's when their senior leadership began to take over what was happening. As we laid there, we would continue to get beaten. Someone would come running up and kick us. The black eyes that I got were from a kick that I received while I was laying there, after the initial beating took place.

What did they actually do to you to break your nose?

A man came up from my left side and just kicked me with full force, right in the face. My nose immediately began to gush blood. After that, they did bring up some gauze and put it on my nose after he kicked me. This stopped the bleeding, but that was probably the harshest blow.

What happened to you after that? At the moment you're not even in Yugoslavia. What happens next?

We were probably there in that position for 15 or 20 minutes. Then we were just thrown into the back of a truck. They drove for about an hour or so, at first through twisting, bumpy roads, and then what seemed to be a major highway.

Where did you end up at the end of this journey?

That's a good question. We're not exactly sure where. The first place we did stop looked like some kind of army barracks, and that's where we received our first medical attention. They looked at us and evaluated whatever wounds we had sustained. We stayed there for about a half an hour, then we drove for another couple hours. I believe we ended up in Nis, a city in southern Yugoslavia.

You were still together at this point?

We were together up until when we arrived in Nis. That's when we were separated, and didn't see each other much, except for the filming that you saw. . . .

What led up to the filming? What were you being told what to say? What was the purpose of it?

Once we got to Nis, we were individually in a room where they had sort of a press conference set up. There were cameras, and civilian and military officials there, and they began to question me. I assume they did the same with the others. The purpose of their questioning was not necessarily anything that was in our spectrum of knowledge. It was basically political questions, policies of the government, the purpose of the bombing, and things that really I had no knowledge of or any relevance in discussing with them. We weren't told what to say. It was more of an interview, a question-and- answer thing.

At that point, were they suggesting that you sign any documents indicating that you were opposed to US policy?

No, no. That was never presented. We were asked to make a statement a couple of days later. But all it told was that we were part of NATO in an effort to invade the peaceful people of Serbia. I'm not sure if it actually said "peaceful," but it said I had invaded the country of Yugoslavia.

Was it around this time that they began a fairly concerted effort to debrief you, but by using torture? Was that something that happened to you after you appeared before the cameras?

The cameras were there very early in the capture, probably within the first six or seven hours. After that point, they began interrogations, which continued with the same line of questioning--not necessarily focusing on our mission or what our purpose was, but the greater picture of how our army operated, and what not. There was also a form of torture involved, in that we'd be left for hours and hours.

The whole time we were hooded and handcuffed, with bags over our head. That in itself was a form of torture, in that we would never know what was happening. We never knew when we'd be interrogated. We were watched with a guard maybe feet from us 24 hours a day. If we moved from a certain position, we'd be kicked or beaten. It was definitely an effort to break our will.

What was going through your mind at the time? Were you fearful that you weren't going to be able to resist this kind of interrogation, that you would break?

I didn't see exactly that they were looking from me to break personally, so that wasn't my main concern. My main concern throughout the whole time was if we would even get out of that situation, because there were so many different circumstances when it appeared to be a good time for them to kill us. Within that first seven days, I was just preparing myself for the fact that we may not make it out of there.

Were there any other occasions where they threatened you with execution, as they had in that first few minutes of your capture?

There was. At one point during the interrogation, they had asked me to give the address of my family back in the States. and I didn't give that to them. I didn't tell them, and at that point, one of the guys came around me with a baton. He brought it around my neck, and one of the other guys lifted up his coat showing a revolver, implying that if I didn't tell them, then obviously they'd kill us. But was something I just was not going to do, and it wasn't pressured after that point. I don't know if that was a bluff or what, but luckily they didn't pressure me anymore.

Did they make it clear to you that they didn't regard you as prisoners of war? Even their foreign ministry was referring to you as terrorists and spies--and that, therefore you didn't have the kind of protections that would be afforded to you under the Geneva Convention.

Right. They continued to imply that throughout the initial period. Throughout the interrogations, they believed we were either an effort sent in to find downed pilots, or we were the lead element of some kind of ground invasion. We were never specifically told we were POWs. In fact, they did mention at one point that we would be put on trial, and that would determine what would happen to us. That was obviously a question I asked many times--what was going to happen. They said that it's for the court to decide, that you'll be tried as a war criminal. . . . That was only mentioned once, and after that we never heard anything about it.

In this period, isolation one of their chief weapons. You didn't have the opportunity of talking to the other two?

Oh, certainly. We didn't have the opportunity at all to talk to anyone other than in the interrogations, which were not exactly conversations. So we were left in the dark with a bag over our head, handcuffed, laying on a wooden floor, 24 hours a day. Their intent was obviously that kind of torture.

Were you aware of the significant efforts made by the Cypriot government to try and seek your release? And Jesse Jackson was applying diplomatic pressure, before you actually met him, to try and get your release. Did you know there were efforts underway to try and get you out?

No, we had no idea what was happening, aside from my own personal belief that that was happening. At several points, they had told us that the government hadn't asked for our release. They asked why did I think that they hadn't asked for it? I didn't believe that, and I knew that wasn't the case. But as far as the Cypriot president's efforts and Reverend Jackson's efforts, we had no knowledge at all of what was happening in the political issues of our case.

When you were taken out of your cell and brought in to meet Reverend Jackson, did you know where you were going and for what reason?

No. We were brought to a new place at that time, moved from the prison where we had been at for several weeks, to a new building. Until we walked into the room, until they opened the door of the room where we met him, I had no idea what would happen in there. I wasn't sure if it was another interrogation, or if it was some kind of trial that they had threatened so long ago. Really, it could've been anything.

What was going through your mind when you walked through the door? Presumably, you recognized him immediately?

Right. Obviously, I was just shocked to see these faces. . . . I did recognize him immediately, and he introduced himself, which I found kind of strange. I was speechless at the time. I really didn't know what to say, because I had anticipated the worst could happen here. I wasn't expecting to see a friendly face or expecting to see someone who was there to offer some encouragement. So, at first I couldn't even talk. I was just speechless.

What did he tell you he was there to do? Did he give you the belief that perhaps he was going to be able to secure release, or he just wanted to come as a humanitarian gesture to buck up your spirits?

He didn't offer any kind of explanation as to why he was there. All he did was offer some words of encouragement. He gave some prayer, inspiration and some words from the Bible or some scripture. Other than that, it wasn't clear, and I wasn't expecting that he was there for that reason. In fact, I had anticipated he was there with the other people as some sort of humanitarian mission to find out how we were--to make sure of our treatment, and things like that. The next day, when we met with him the second time, he began to hint at the fact they were working on our release. That was the first I had any idea of why they were there.

What was going through your mind at that point? Did you think it was realistic?

I didn't. I had listened to the air raid sirens every day, several times a day, and I always believed that as long as the war was still going on, there was no reason for them to release us. So when the members were hinting that they were working for our release, I was filled with hope, but I was very skeptical. I was trying to keep myself from getting my hopes up too high.

How did you find out that you were going to be released?

That Saturday night that we had met with him earlier in the day, I was sitting in the cell. One of the senior prison officials came in, who we had only seen a couple of times, mainly when we were brought in there. He was in civilian clothes. It was late at night, right around bedtime when they'd usually to tell us to go to sleep. He came into the cell, told me to sit down, and he sat down next to me.

He didn't speak any English and, but he spoke a couple of words and he said "Home," and he made an ascent of an airplane with his hand. He said, "Home over the USA," or something like that. I finally really believed that maybe it would happen. That's when I first started to accept it a little bit. I wasn't saying, "Okay, it's over now, that's it," but it was definitely very encouraging that he was there, and it seemed like it was really going to happen.

You had another 12 hours to wait until you finally got out of the cell and were handed over to Jackson. That must have been a very hard night.

Yes, it was. It was probably the longest night that I've ever had. After his visit, they made a big production of getting all our stuff packed up--some books and some hygiene products that the Red Cross had brought. So we're all packed up. . . . I was sitting there on the bed waiting. . . . I think they were under the impression that that we'd be moved that night. But then around midnight one of the normal guards came in and said in broken English that it wouldn't happen until the morning--it was unsafe to go out that night because of the bombing. He told us to go to sleep and we'd leave in the morning. That was impossible. Sleep wasn't something that I could've done, and I didn't all that night, except for maybe an hour before sunrise. I lay there all night, hoping and praying that it was really going to happen.

You were finally handed over to Jesse Jackson. Do you remember what he told you when you finally realized that you were leaving that prison cell behind?

I do. We were standing against the wall after they had done the signing and he said, "The first thing I want you to do is take your hands from behind your back, because you are now free, you're free to embrace." That's what he said--his exact words--I remember it quite clearly. And so we did. We walked up to him and this huge religious delegation was there. They hugged us. We got to use the phone and call our families, so it was just terribly emotional. He would later dub me as "the weeping prophet" because often, throughout that course of time, I had trouble not crying. I was always so filled with emotion. It was just an unbelievable feeling. It wasn't quite over until we were out of Yugoslavia, and I think all three of us were still on edge until we were totally clear of the area.

Did you have any thoughts as you were leaving? It occurs to me that you may well have gone through towns that had been the victims of the American allied bombing campaign. You clearly were able to differentiate between the guards and civilians, the Serb people. Did you have any feelings of what is all this about, and what have we inflicted on these people? Did those thoughts go through your mind?

As a human being, you do think things like that. You can recognize the fact that nations war against each other, armies war against each other, and the people of an entire nation are not always enemies. With the kind of person I am, there was a sense of regret that this terrible conflict was still happening. Clearly, it was no good for anyone. No war is, but the outcome was just. I had to keep that in perspective--that what we were fighting for was right, and it was just. The implications of that had to be accepted.

Is there any sort of overwhelming memory that comes back from that? Is there a lesson that you felt you took away from it that in some way mitigates the suffering you went through?

I do. When I look back on it and see all the hardship that we had to go through, it makes it easier to think that you may have gotten stronger. I became a better person because of it, and I'll be able to deal with adversity in my life in a better way, using that as a reference. For the rest of my life, I'll be able to say that no matter what hardships I face, if I had the strength to go through that, I can certainly deal with this.

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