In this exclusive, semi-autobiographical short story, our client Neil Blower, the Iraq war veteran and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) campaigner, re-tells the demons of life on the frontline.
THE OLD MAN AND THE BUS
By Neil Blower
One day not so long ago, I had a conversation with an old man. He said to me, “Son, you any idea where Kosovo is?”
“I have a vague recollection.”
“It’s a speck of a country. Landlocked, poverty stricken, scarred”.
For a second I made eye contact with the old man. A second is all I could manage, looking into those eyes. Someone once told me the eyes are a window to the soul and a second is all it took, for the eyes of the old man to make my own start to well with tears. I had heard this story before. Every time I saw the old man he would tell me the same horrid, awful story of death, of pain, and of lost innocence few would ever know.
“I was a private then” he began, “Fresh out of training and still wet behind the ears. The regiment had been out there for about ten weeks and I was a few days away from R n R. I couldn’t wait, two weeks back at home away from that place.
My company was stationed out in the sticks away from the main garrison, at a small outpost close to the mountains, to keep an eye on the rebels that had sprung up. They wanted revenge for the killings and it was our job to make sure the country didn’t suffer another genocide.
That day my platoon was on rest, we had a rotation of patrols, guard, quick reaction and rest. That had been our existence for ten weeks. I was lay on my cot in the tent I shared with thirty other guys, reading some book about a Russian submarine gone AWOL. My escape was ruined by JB, one of the platoon corporals, “Hey, you fancy an excursion down to the PX”.
I leaned up “Why, whats goin on?”.
“The OC wants someone to take a report down to the yanks”
“Absolutely” I said, grabbing my gear.
The American Military camp was an oasis of luxury, their version of the N.A.A.F.I, the PX, sold everything from magazines to chocolate, to furniture and even aftershave. Everybody wanted to go there, buy some supplies, go to burger king and if there was enough time maybe get in a round of golf ”.
The old man paused and smiled to himself, “Only the Americans would build a golf course in the middle of a war torn country” he said with affection before continuing.
“The four of us loaded our weapons and piled in the land rover, JB and Eddie were in the front and me and Louie got in the back.”
The old man stopped short. “I can’t remember the rest”
“You have told me this tale a hundred times, you know what happens next.” I said.
“Well, we went to the PX and everything was fine, but on the way back”. He paused again. I managed another glance into his eyes. This time though, looking in those eyes, didn’t invoke tears. Just horror, and pain.
“Go on” I said.
“On the way back” he continued, “On the way back. All hell broke loose.
It was my turn on the radio, I had done a radio check when we set off and heard nothing but static the rest of the way, until. “Bravo one two this is zero, over”.
“Bravo one two, send” I replied.
“ Bravo one two, make your way to Romeo Zulu aApha for Charlie Echo, over.”
I relayed the message to JB, who managed to turn the air all kinds of blue.
“Why us, is there no one else, oh yeah I forgot they are all useless…” . JB continued his rant for a few seconds. The message meant we had to go to rendezvous point alpha and do convoy escort for the bus.
The bus was a service provided by UNMICK, once a week a bus full of women, children and old men would be taken in and out of Serbia to see relatives or to buy things you couldn’t get in Kosovo. It needed an escort of foreign soldiers because it was a high risk target. The rebels would love nothing more than to take out that bus. In reality it was a boring trip, nothing ever happened. A land rover in front of it and one behind, with the airborne QRF on standby, was more than enough protection. Besides, the rebels were not stupid enough to take us on, just a bunch of idiots with some A K’s. No training, no discipline.
We arrived at the rendezvous and found out we had rearguard. “ Right lads, I know this is shit, but you know the drill”. JB told us as we set off.
A British Army land rover was not built for comfort, I shifted around in my seat trying to find a good position. “Hey kid” JB said to me from the front, “ Do us a favour, when you go home, see if you can get a copy of Potter for me”
“ It’s not out yet is it” I replied.
“I think it comes out while your at home, Voldemort comes back in this one”
Before any of us could say another word, a flash of light, like the sun itself had exploded, followed by Gods own thunder, hit our eyes and ears. Then the world turned to darkness. I slowly came to, I was still in the rover but we were not in the same place, we were upright but had been spun around. I could not hear properly, it felt like I was underwater and I had a strange buzzing in my ears.
I was pulled out of the rover by JB, “Come on, we need to secure the area” he said as he dragged me over to the side of the road a few metres back from the rover. “Right kid, nine and three” he shouted, signalling with his hands where I should scan for any enemy. He then darted off back towards the bus and the carnage. As I tired to compute and register what was happening my hearing started to go back to normal. I could hear a faint crackling, like a bonfire. I stole a quick glance toward the sound, the bus was on fire, or what was left of it anyway. Now it was just a shell, a burnt out husk.
I turned my head back to my task, nine and three. Nine and three. My heart was racing, my rifle vibrated in my shaking hands. I caught a glimpse of something in the corner of my eye. I was being watched. I turned my head, keeping my rifle in position. Slowly, very slowly, I could make out what it was. It was a dolls head. The head of a little girl’s doll, decapitated, alone, and it was staring right at me. I turned away. Something about that doll scared me. I could feel it’s lifeless eyes boring a hole in my head. I did another sweep of the hills, nothing, no one was there. I looked again at the doll’s head, something was wrong, the unnatural feeling that doll’s head conveyed forced me to look right at it and focus, and then, then when the truth came, all I could do was vomit. I felt the colour drain from my face, my vision blurred and as I wiped my eyes JB came running over, “Come on kid, I need your help, people need first aid, the QRF have secured the area, come on” he shouted.
I got to my feet and followed JB back to the bus, as I got up close to the doll’s head, I slowed down. “ Don’t look at it kid, come on” JB whispered into my ear, he pulled at my arm and we were off into the carnage. Right then, right there, I fully understood why people say war is hell. All around us were the dead and dying, everyone else was scattered in all directions, in bushes, up trees, on our boots.
JB knelt down beside a man lying on his back face up. “This one’s still alive,” he said putting his hands over the mans heart and straightening his arms. JB started CPR, which was taught to all British soldiers. In an instant, the palms of his hands were touching the road, I could only see his arms from the elbow up. The shockwave from the blast had liquified the mans insides and turned his shell to paper mashe, only instead of glue and paper, it was blood and flesh and fragments of bone. The image in front of me would have been enough to haunt me a lifetime, but then, JB provided the perfect soundtrack to compliment the scene.
The unearthly sound that came from his lips, a scream of terror, a cry of pain. It was the sound of darkness, the sound of hell itself, and it blackened my soul forever. I was frozen in that moment for what felt like a lifetime. Then my training kicked in. I removed JB from his position and took him to one of the medics that had suddenly appeared.
A man with a crown on his chest bounded over to me, “Private, what happened”. It took me a few seconds to realise I was talking to the OC.
“I..I.. Don’t know sir one minute…” He looked at like he never had before and placed his hands on my shoulders, “ It’s alright private, go and see the medics, we’ve got this, you can make your report later” and with that he left me standing alone, amongst the carnage, amongst the dead. I found out later that the rebels had planted a bomb at the side of the road, they called it an improvised explosive devise or IED. Sadly it would not be mine or the Army’s last time dealing with them.
Thirty six people lost their life that day, mostly women and children. I on the other hand, lost my innocence. And a part of my soul. The next few days went by in a blur. Then I was on a plane, going home for two weeks. After the glorious heroes welcome and party thrown in my honour, my family and friends went back to work and college, leaving me to mope around my parent’s house all day.
I was reading the paper at the kitchen table, pop idol was on the front page and the rest of the paper was filled with the election. Then on page sixteen, was the bus. Fifty three words, including the headline, detailing the Kosovo bus bombing.”
The old man stopped, he looked tired, lonely. “Did they ever get the bombers” I asked.
I once again looked into the eyes of that old man, that old solider, and now, all I saw was sadness, and grief.
“Why do you still come back, you have heard this all before”
“I miss you”
“Will you come back again soon, next time I’ll tell you about Iraq” he said.
“I have heard them before as well. Goodbye old friend”.
I turned my face away from the mirror. I walked to the sofa to pick up my bag. On the wall I glanced at the medals mounted in a decorative case. Given for services rendered. As I opened the door I looked back at the mirror.
The old man was gone. Only my own reflection stared back.