One of my instructors at the Defense Intelligence Agency told me as I headed for the Balkans on my first diplomatic assignment, Don't mistake incompetence for maliciousness. This became my favorite Balkan phrase and helped me see things in the proper light on many occasions while in communist Bulgaria from 1986 to 1989. This phrase also had particular meaning and helped calm a serious situation in the disintegrating Yugoslavia of 1991, much to the chagrin of a fellow (and more senior) attaché.
Here's the story: The breakup of Yugoslavia was like a cartoon snowball rolling down a hill. Many factors contributed to the snowball gaining mass and speed. One factor was the daily escalation of anti-other-guy rhetoric in the local media. After Slovenia successfully seceded from federal Yugoslavia, Croatia started down the road to follow suit. Unfortunately, Croatia was not as homogeneous as Slovenia and had several pockets of Serb-dominated areas. These areas threatened to secede from Croatia. Often these Serb-dominated areas would have even smaller areas or villages that were Croatian-dominated. The Slavonia border region between Serbia and Croatia was rife with these ethnic pockets and sub-pockets.
This circle of secessions, along with sensationalized media reports of the bad things the other guys were planning, escalated to the point where armed men (and women) started guarding their respective ethnic islands. Driving in and around these areas became dangerous; however, the personnel of the Defense Attaché Office in Belgrade often were tasked with missions to gather information or meet with local leaders in these areas. This information was vital to the embassy's Ambassador, Warren Zimmerman, and to his staff so they could understand the situation on the ground in their efforts to broker peaceful solutions to the myriad of problems facing the dissolving Yugoslavia.
Armed with only diplomatic credentials in our pockets and a diplomatic license plate on the office's Ford Explorer, a service attaché and I (who was Operations NCO/Assistant Army Attaché) left the embassy that morning to travel around the Slavonia border region. It was a good day to be out of the office, partly cloudy with a deep blue sky indicative of the extremely clear air.
Traveling around we saw something that was typical of what we had encountered over the last several weeks and months. Increasingly, many villages, no matter how small, posted armed guards on the entry points. They were usually armed with civilian-type shotguns and rifles, but sometimes we encountered civilian guards with military weapons. These guards would check our credentials and pass us through mumbling something about us or the situation being lut (pronounced loot), Serbo-Croatian for crazy. Interestingly, on a previous trip, one village had around ten military landmines, pressure trigger up with the bottoms attached to a leather strap, strung across the road. After seeing our credentials, the guard grabbed the end of the strap and as we watched with mouths agape, dragged the landmines to the side of the road so we could pass.
These roads and areas were well known to us. What was new was the daily partitioning and subsequent securing of these ethnic islands. We had not yet encountered any violence or animosity as all posturing to that point had been defensive (it became offensive several months later). These village guards respected our diplomatic credentials. The distinctive red diplomatic license plate could be seen a long way off and everyone we encountered recognized it.
I had started out driving that morning with my fellow attaché riding shotgun. About mid-day we stopped, ate our packed lunches, and changed places. We continued on our mission for about an hour or so. We departed a small village and began heading for our next target, the small town of Osijek. From previous experience we knew the road was clear for about fifteen kilometers with only farmland and forests on either side of the well built, slightly elevated, and well maintained two-lane road. We relaxed and sped along at about fifty mph.
We approached a stretch of road that was a long curve to the right with deep forest on both sides. We had the windows partially down and were enjoying the clear air and good weather.
Then the shots rang out. They were close. Not only could we tell they came from the woods on the right, but we could also hear the "pfft" of the bullets through the air as they passed over the vehicle. Within a fraction of a second after the shots sounded my fellow attaché applied the brakes. As we quickly slowed we continued around the curve and saw that several large trees had been cut to fall across the road forming a substantial roadblock. We came to a stop approximately fifty feet from the trees. Given the elevation of the road and the position of the trees, there was no way around them. Not sure what was happening, but fearing the worst, our training kicked in and we quickly turned around expecting to be shot or ambushed and detained at any moment. Yet as we turned around and drove back there were no more shots, nor did we see anyone come out of the woods. My senior colleague decided to abort the mission and return to the embassy immediately to report that someone had shot at us.
As we drove back in silence many thoughts crossed my mind. Remembering my favorite Balkan phrase, I could not help but believe those shots were not malicious. These folks living in the rural areas and guarding their villages were country folk. Being from Alabama myself, I knew they were hunters and had been reared shooting. Surely if they had wanted to hit a big red Ford Explorer they could have. Especially, given the exceptional visibility that day and that we had stopped and turned around. If they had intended us harm, would they not have come out and tried to keep us from fleeing? In fact, it dawned on me had they not fired those shots and caused us to hit the brakes, we may not have seen the roadblock of trees in time to stop. Maybe, they were warning us. Approaching the embassy an hour later, I expressed my thoughts, but my fellow attaché remained adamant that no, someone had shot at us and had we not retreated so quickly we surely would have been detained or worse. He insisted that we report that the level of violence in this part of Yugoslavia had escalated to attacks on Western diplomats.
Arriving back at the Embassy, the attaché went immediately into the Defense Attaché's office and told him what he thought had happened. They, in turn, then called the ambassador and left for his office to brief the country team on the situation.
I could not shake my doubts and thought that another plausible explanation existed. I briefed the Army Attaché on my version of events, closing with my belief that those shots were not malicious, but probably were meant to save us from crashing into the fallen tree roadblock. He agreed and left to join the meeting in the ambassador's office. Shortly afterward, they all came back to the office. Calmer heads had prevailed and any actions contemplated were suspended until we finished our formal report. The report that followed contained the facts of what happened and the two differing analyses of the events. The ambassador chose to not submit an official protest to the government of Yugoslavia or report that U. S. Embassy personnel had been attacked. We could not say definitively this incident was malicious.
While I certainly disclosed nothing to disprove the other attaché's analysis, the interpretation I submitted was just as plausible. Thankfully, even though he disagreed with me, the other, more senior attaché was a great officer who was only interested in getting to the truthsomething that was proving more and more difficult each day in disintegrating Yugoslavia. Fifteen years later, I still believe that, on this day, someone shooting more or less at us actually saved us from inadvertently killing ourselves by hitting the roadblock.