Art & Design


Life at the Tip of a Spear—Part Three: The Balkans

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Nearly a year ago, my editor asked if I’d be interested in interviewing Garth Jones, a former British SAS soldier and security contractor who’d worked extensively in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. I of course said yes without hesitation. What follows is part three of his story as told to me.

Click here to read part one, here to read part two.

Brett Hamm: When you finished up in Ireland, did you say you took a break before you went to the former Yugoslavia?

Garth Jones: Yeah, I was bopping around. I did some contract work for some American banks, JP Morgan or Chase Manhattan at the time and then Citigroup.

I ran into that buddy of mine who was running that little squadron down in Dorsett. He said to me look, we’re putting together a unique test for the British government where you get 21,22, and 23 Regiments of the Special Air Service together—22 being regular and 21 and 23 being reservists but basically regular—and creating a unit to perform a particular function that at the time they didn’t have the manning to keep up. So you’re talking post-Dayton Accord, American mandated to police, set-up elections and generally bring a bit of so-called democracy and stability to Bosnia Herzegovina.

We were blistered onto a forward operating base of the US Army in a town—which I won’t say the name of—on the border of Serbia proper and Bosnia-Herzegovina, on the river. And there’s three or four towns of interest in that area of operation which we called patrols—Joint Communication Officer (JCO) patrols made up of six to eight guys.

BH: So that’s pretty small…

GJ: Yeah, totally. And you’re living with the local populous, you’re not living on the army base. The nearest army base was like six Ks away.

BH: Did you live with the other guys on your patrol?

GJ: Yeah, it’s just the six or seven guys. We were living in a doctor’s house and we were renting it from him. He was elsewhere in Europe. And we had a house-keeper—a beautiful lady. Lovely, lovely—just awesome—fish stew. Absolutely fantastic.

The way it worked was we had the trust of the locals. We wore uniform but it was an image to portray to everybody that we were just more people working on communications around the elections.

Our true mandate was covert activity tracking the grooming of assets or resources working for war crimes suspects—known suspects.

BH: How much did you actually do on your publicly purported mission of keeping an eye on the elections? Did you actually do much of that?

GJ: Nothing.

BH: Nothing?

GJ: [Laughs]. Not as such, the Americans were doing all that. We were working with the Americans a lot and the way it worked was, this great guy, a colonel from a New York family, really charismatic guy, had a relationship with the patrol before us and we had a really good relationship with him and we were watching particular characters within the town who kind of run the show. There were military uniformed police, ex-commanders, who worked for people like Radovan Karadzic.

BH: So these were the people you were there to keep an eye on?

GJ: Yeah, find out what they’re doing, the main reason being to stop any spin up of a second conflict because it was going to come from that area.

We used to go across the Serbian side a lot, walk across the bridge. The town itself had a dog food factory. During the war, some of the individuals we were watching were alleged to have rounded up Muslims, Bosnians further down the country, rounding them up in trucks and then shooting them against the wall and then putting them through the big meat mincer [in the factory]. And they had this hose that went out over the river and they’d just fire it into the river.

European Human Rights, the UN, came in and divers came in to take riverbed samples and brought up that much discarded flesh and bone chips and teeth. If you went by the dog food factory, if you look, an AK47 will go across from bottom left to top right—it’s the way it works because of the way it ejects the cartridges. When you actually look at the wall, you can see the diagonals, thousands of them, up the wall.

They were military uniformed police in Serbia proper, which is like a militia that dons uniform and goes hard. These guys were some ex-military or still-serving Serbian military commanders who were basically running around like gangsters dealing in guns, drugs, prostitutes, whatever you want, funding subversive cells to come in and bomb houses—relocated Muslim’s houses—to subvert the Dayton Accord.

We had people in all the areas where you had the atrocities—the mass graves— we had JCO patrols. We were the eyes and ears, using pretty hardcore, cutting edge encryption satellites and mobile communications—and lots of cheeky stuff —that we were feeding back to the Americans.

We were [also] feeding back to our bosses back in the UK and whoever then peeled off that information we weren’t too sure.

There was a lot of sub-grade Russian weaponry left over after the war which was being sold to gangsters for just criminal activity. What we were on the lookout for was the selling of heavy stuff to people who might turn ‘round and start using it to spin up a conflict again.

And you’re talking everything from C-4 explosives to ground-to-air missile systems and RPGs and stuff like that. And we basically lived there and then handed over to US Navy SEALS. Their mandate was the Americans would come in to fill in for a while, because we were an experiment and it worked really well, but we didn’t have the guys. And the Americans had the guys and said we want in on this JCO thing. So they came in but because of the relationship that the Americans had nurtured during the war, where they were blatantly air-dropping weapons into Bosnian forces to go and fight the Serbs, when you’re living in a Serb village and you change the JCOs to Americans, the local villagers were not appreciative of this move. They weren’t happy at all. And you know, when we lived in ours, we’d get informants coming up to the back of the house at night.

BH: And these were just average people that happened to hear something or see something?

GJ: Uh…Yeah…a lot of it was. This model of informants reporting ‘major finds’ is also prevalent in other insurgencies. You could overlay it onto any counter-insurgency conflict going on right now—for instance, Afghanistan and Iraq.

So you’ve got a bunch of terrorists—or “bad men” shall we call them—who just got a swag of new weapons come in. So lets say you’re on the border in Afghanistan, and loads of new weapons come in—500 AK47s, still in the grease proof paper. So you dish ‘em all out to your “bad” guys, take all their rusted old shitty stuff and bury it in a hole and you get one of your guys to go to the Americans and say, “I found a weapons cache man. Give me five grand and I’ll show you where it is.”

So the Americans pay up the money, he takes them, and they actually get to recycle their shit weapons by getting the Coalition to pay for it. [Laughs]. Never under estimate the business. It’s always a cash for product exchange. It’s never product for product. And then they’ll go away and buy a shed-load of ammunition with the money they just got.

And that model has been in play from anywhere in the Middle East to the Balkans. It’s a pretty standard business. The military potentially knows exactly where their money’s going to go but they can’t stop it or prove it and at the end of the day you’re still taking a bunch of rusty old weapons—that could be used—off the market.

BH: But giving them money to maybe go buy new ones.

GJ: Like our float, our budget was huge and in cash because it gets you everything—information, friendship. You’re not there to kick in doors, it’s a counter insurgency. You’re there to subvert the activity that could turn into a full-blown conflict.

BH: When you’ve got all this money where does that sit? Where do you keep it?

GJ: You keep it in the house. Keeping in mind, in the comms room I had in my house, we’d pretty much had it all state of the art. We could call an airstrike to within fifty meters of our house in about 10 seconds. We had infrared strobe systems on the roof to cater for it, an extraction point at a railway line that we tested out every couple of months where Bradley’s would trigger from the forward operating base.

BH: What’s a Bradley?

GJ: Oh, the American fighting vehicle. And they’d be overt, just charge through the fields, over the town, meet us at a railway crossing and we’d dive in the back. But we did it one time, we were running down the railway line and no one’s making any noise and I’ve got the sat-comm on my ear and you can hear the Bradley’s coming. So we’ve gone dark, we’re just sat there and I look up and there’s this local guy, leaning over his fence. He’s just like five meters away from me and I’m like “Hi!” He was like “Nice evening”. He can see like seven faces—boing! What are you going to do? My boss in the front is going move on, forget him. But you know, it’s not a case of you’re compromised and you have to get out. There was an understanding. If they wanted to whack us, they could have whacked us at any point. I used to go running.

BH: By yourself?

GJ: Yeah, I’d take a  run on the streets. And everybody knows who you are. People say hello. Little kids come out and wave at you, because the relationship was we’re British and they are not sure who or what we are. We didn’t do anything wrong by them, if they were not involved in the ‘dark side’ of the mission and came on our radar, then they had nothing to fear, and if they did ‘mess’ with the patrol in the doctors house, nasty things may happen to them in the middle of the night…They’re getting something out of us, we’re splashing cash around, so there’s a tolerance.

Our mandate was to go out and mix with the locals at night, so there was an element of drinking accepted. It was quite unique, because Serbs will not talk to you unless you’ve had at least one slivovitz and you smoked 10 cigarettes. So, I remember I was taken off duty for two days because it was my birthday and the local character we were watching—who I’d befriended (and my boss befriended even more)—put on a surprise birthday party for me at a local club in the town. Turned up with two BMWs with blacked out windows and said “Come on, let’s go!”

It wasn’t a boring time. We had an election day and there were gunships called in, houses being blown up, hotel shoot-outs, but it was very hard to differentiate between gangster shit and people who were trying to subvert the Dayton Accord. And to be honest, my view on it was, it was probably 90% gangster shit.

BH: Some must overlap though.

GJ: All the time. I think in many ways, the order that things took priority for the people involved was money first, and if it helps the cause a bit, then that’s great. The other thing was, there were certain military commanders on the Serbian side who were allowing things to be smuggled across…and you had to keep them on side if you’re operating in their area. And a lot of that would be they either got a kick-back or you’d do ‘em favours. Guns, or petrol…

It was all these basics of what is happening right now in Iraq, trying to restabilise a country that had destabilised itself. I mean we did our fair share of smashing shit up. I was in Dubrovnik three years ago for a wedding, walking down the main street and you can see where the JDAMs had been hitting in Dubrovnik town that had been dropped from British fighter planes. So, still a lot of fresh animosity and history.

It was a little war in the Balkans, very convenient, a lot of testing of kit. A few people were killed. A few of our guys were killed previous to the operation we did. And that’s mainly from luck and flaw—bad luck and flaw, being in the wrong place.

But at any point, with my comms room, which was degreed up to top secret, I had white phosphorous grenades attached to the top of each radio unit and sat-comm unit. On-the-wall maps were film coated with a fire-spray. So I could literally—if we were going to pull the pin I’d just cue the grenades and they take about ten seconds to go, get out the room, leave the house and the whole thing goes up, destroys everything. You sleep with a gun under your pillow or in your hand and an ear on the chilly night air.

Stay tuned for Life at the Tip of a Spear, Part Four: Iraq.


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