The Age
How the Serbs broke Steve Pratt

By STEVE PRATT

Sunday 30 April 2000


On March 31 last year, CARE Australia's Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace were secretly arrested and jailed as they tried to escape war-torn Yugoslavia. After two weeks of brutal interrogation, Pratt emerged on television, "confessing" that he ran a spy ring orchestrated by NATO. In this exclusive extract from his first-hand account, Pratt tells how he reluctantly submitted under repeated bashings and the constant threat of death.

IT IS LATE afternoon on the second day, April 1. I have been in solitude for some hours, left alone by my tormentors. Handcuffed to a different wall heater, now I can see out into the town square. They do not seem to be concerned that perhaps people could see my face in the window, although I am some distance from the hubbub of the market square. It is a very pleasant-looking little town, with a range of respectable, well-kept and quite grand-looking buildings surrounding the square. People come and go; it could be any peace-loving medium-sized city anywhere in Europe. But how incongruous that away from this idyllic little park setting lies this monster of a jail with its seedy little toilets and prisoner bashings. I have begun to hear a lot of thumping upstairs and imagine that some other poor bastard is getting the rounds, enduring treatment much heavier than mine.

Now it is early evening and the nightmare begins in earnest.

Everything so far has been a stroll compared with what is to happen next. Two strange policemen - I assume they are policemen - rush into the room shouting, and haul me to my feet. They handcuff me from behind and place a large grocery paper bag over my head. They are roughly impatient, hurrying me down the corridor and not too gently down the same concrete stairs I must have come up earlier. It can't be much after seven or 8pm. It is raining and I am bundled again into one of those little Yugo sedans, judging by its size and engine sound. Two police flank me and my head is pushed down viciously, the handcuffs pulled as far up my back as is agonisingly possible.

Now I am breathing very fast, almost hyperventilating. "Please God let me be safe!" I say to myself, almost panicking. It is all I can do to get a grip on myself, but I do manage, breathing deeply and slowly and reassuring myself that all will be OK.

The Yugo speeds quickly through the village streets, twisting and turning, and about 10 minutes later comes to a stop. Except for the engine idling and the rain pattering down, there is silence; the police don't talk. One of them gets out of the car and seems to open a garage door and the car then moves straight in. Dead silence. I am bundled out of the car (not so gingerly this time - my head is banged two times on the door frame), I am squeezed between the car and the wall, and then I hear a weapon cocked. A chill races up my spine and I brace myself, the blood screaming in my ears. More weapon sounds, sounds like a magazine being detached - my initial fear subsides as it seems the goons are only clearing their weapons, perhaps "making them safe" before entering the building. I am hauled up stairs, the bag is removed from my head and I find myself standing outside another room. I can hear muffled voices inside. The guards with me hold me patiently and silently while the driver enters the room and talks to whoever is inside. I am then brought, blinking owlishly, into the place. I notice nice lounges, coffee tables, billowing tropical pot plants and well-appointed wall units. The drapes are drawn. Three men sit around the coffee table on comfortable chairs and a blonde with a beehive-style hairdo and too much lipstick sits perched on a bar stool. I wonder whether I really am going crazy! The police who brought me quickly leave the room and retire to another section of the house.

I am faced by a thick-set fellow, medium height, in his 40s, who is staring at me, unsmiling, over half-glasses. He has curly grey hair, quite long and tangled, and two days of grey beard stubble on his face. Later, when he does smile, he displays a kindly, professorial face. He is dressed in a dark tracksuit and track shoes. He is clearly in charge and I nominate him as "Chief". To his left - that is, to my right - sitting on a wide leather lounge, is a very large man, with an uncanny resemblance to the bulky movie star Steven Seagal, but without the ponytail. He has a very large, shiny head, appears to be in his late 30s, is tanned and clean-shaven. He is tastefully dressed in neat dark slacks and a dark cardigan. I call him "Coconut Head". To the right of the Chief, to my half-left, sits a much younger and smaller-framed man with a sneer on his cruel-looking face. He is dressed in jeans, blue denim jacket and track shoes. His face is pockmarked, a hangover of bad acne, so I call him "Scarface".

I do not address these men in these terms, but this is how I mentally refer to them. I dub the woman, who turns out to be the interpreter, "Beehive". She has a terrible, over-painted face and outrageously wears the shortest of miniskirts and the longest stilettos I have ever seen. Perched on a bar stool the way she is, she looks nothing less than absurd.

I am very apprehensive, but happy enough for the moment to have got through the drive from the jail to this house. Alive for the moment, I now find myself taking life hours at a time and activity by activity. Later, I reflect on my fears at the time and wonder whether I had been melodramatic. I conclude they were well-founded.

I am seated and Chief begins, through the interpreter, to question me, starting from scratch. It is immediately clear that the statement I signed with the police is now redundant. These people are entirely different and far more professional in their approach. They simply use the police statement as guidance, viewing it contemptuously.

Chief curls his lip as he peers over his half-glasses, gazing down at the statement as if it were used toilet paper. Quietly and deliberately he asks his questions, at the same time peering very closely at me. He is only a metre away. The atmospherics are dynamically different in this interrogation.

Beehive remains perched on her stool at my left shoulder. Her black stocking-clad legs, little hidden by her miniskirt, are almost in my face, and I find this all a little bizarre. I wonder about my state of mind. Has it got to the point where I really don't care any more?

Beehive does not have a pleasant bedside manner. She shrieks as she talks, and with her beady, bright eyes, her sharp nose and angular face, almost takes on the appearance of a busy, bobbing bird, if of the carrion variety. Half an hour into proceedings she repeats Chief's very emphatically stated, "Do you understand? You are in very deep trouble, trouble of the most extreme kind, do you understand me, do you understand me? You must cooperate, and very closely. There can be no mistakes. Your life depends on this, do you understand?"

She parrots his emphasis, but adds her own volume in a shrill voice over and over. While Chief speaks quietly, almost softly, examining me closely over his specs and firming the line of his mouth, Beehive continues to shriek into my face. Her English is very good, but she wears a nasty, twisted expression, and her eyes are intense. Her voice is harsh and throaty, presumably from too many cigarettes.

The other two in the room say absolutely nothing, just peer at me intently. I can feel their eyes boring into me. They take their time.

There is no hurry - I know by the sudden turn of events, by the discarding of the first police statement and by what I detect to be their contempt for the police interrogation, that I am in for a long haul. So long as I remain useful, that is. That is how I assess it. I try to second guess what is going to happen, what steps I can or must take to get me and my colleagues through this incredible, outrageous mess. Out of this nightmare.

THIS interrogation also carefully picks through the details of my CV. There is no interest displayed by the Chief in my real job, nor in the roles and responsibilities of CARE Australia and CARE Yugoslavia. It is starkly clear that he intends to simply ignore our real work and the reason for my presence in this country. He quickly demonstrates a complete ignorance of the business of the international aid community - either that or he is profoundly uninterested.

It becomes gloomily and very quickly apparent to me that the truth of my situation is entirely irrelevant to these people. I am told after the first hour of relatively quiet but deeply depressing interrogation that they are going to commence taking a statement from me, and that I am to cooperate closely in the preparation of that statement.

Chief says calmly and clearly that he believes I am the head of an espionage agency in Yugoslavia. He then describes how I have established the network utilising my staff, many of whom are in my employ as agents. He describes CARE Australia and CARE International as the international "spy ring" to whom I am reporting, and he ludicrously states that Charles Tapp (CARE Australia's national director/CEO) had sent me to Yugoslavia in May 1997 with clear instructions to establish such an espionage network and to prepare the collection of information for submission to NATO.

Chief calmly peers over his glasses as he spits out this diatribe, the poison flowing onto the table and leaving me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. My hair stands on end and there is a ringing in my ears as the realisation strikes home that these bastards are quietly, and with determined deliberation, setting up a scenario in which I, my colleagues and my organisation will be the fall guys.

It is very chilling to hear Chief summarising his "findings" after a mere hour of interrogation, in which time he had merely gone through my CV. He is most relaxed, seems to have all the time in the world and demonstrates all the confidence of a man who will get what he wants, or be rid of the problem, one way or another. Coconut Head and Scarface look on impassively and silently, although I see the glimmer of a satisfied smile on Scarface's face. Beehive punches out the translation with feeling; this bitch would love to reach down from her carrion perch and punch me in the face, I think. It is now late in the night. My weariness accumulates; I reckon I have had only three to four hours' sleep in 40-odd hours, and none in the 35 or so hours since capture. Of this time, I estimate I have been under interrogation for about 25 hours, on and off, and I am absolutely buggered. But my fear does not allow me to droop. Though I am not

Steve Pratt on ...

Peter Wallace

It is about the last week in April. On one of my visits to see the ambassador, things suddenly become a lot more civilised. I am taken in a police paddy wagon now, without handcuffs and with three companions. This is the first time I have been so close to other prisoners. We are accompanied by Stompy. It takes me five minutes to realise that one of the prisoners is Peter Wallace - he is thin, and with his shaven head I did not at first recognise him. In the dark at the back of the vehicle and with his head down in the time-honored tradition of prisoner behavior he is hardly recognisable. Peter is to tell me months later that he did not recognise me for the whole journey. Under the circumstances he does not look too bad though, and this is gratifying.

Branko Jelen

Peter, Branko and myself were reunited during the court case. We were for the first time in months allowed to mix and talk freely, although these sessions were short and occurred during breaks. The guards with us wanted to know all about Australia, so these interchanges were pleasant. Only one guard caused trouble, but he was consigned to the outer court and we were not to see much of him through the day. After hours he gave us hell, threatening Peter and Branko often. We were to see more of him later. Because of his shaven head, almost nonexistent neck and short, squat, powerful stature I was to dub him "Pitbull". He was a very nasty son of a bitch. On one afternoon ... Pitbull came looking for Branko. He severely beat Branko in his cell, delivering about 25 heavy blows. If it was not for intervention by one of the better and more humane guards, "Flat-top" (a big simple country boy, named for the shape of his haircut), I fear the beating would have gone on much longer.

Branko was in a lot of pain the next day in court. He gave his evidence and was very emotional throughout. He was clearly shattered that the country he loved should have turned its back on him.

Samira

Samira stunned me by appearing in Belgrade shortly after we were transferred to the military prison. She had actually arrived two weeks before the bombing and the war ceased. Of course, I was both apprehensive for her safety and tremendously glad of her presence. I was so proud of this brave woman, who had made the journey despite the turmoil and the dangers. Samira was very experienced in the realities of war and had no illusions about these things. She lumbered into the place, hugely pregnant. Our first meeting ... was very emotional and exciting for us both. We were both grinning broadly, and, for me, this was a hugely relieving moment. I was stunned at how healthy she looked. I had expected that she would be tired and drawn because she was pregnant and had superimposed an assumption that she would be additionally exhausted and stressed by these events. She was either a good actor, covering up for my benefit (which is Samira's style), or superbly strong. I suspect it was a little of both ...

She would work tirelessly during the month she was in the country to improve our conditions and to improve the management of our prisoner support activities.

sagging in my chair, my brain feels very clouded; confusion is beginning to creep in and disorientation is increasing rapidly. It is pouring rain in the dead of night. A pall hangs over the place and depression surfaces. I hang my head, shake it, and say to Chief that he has got to be joking, that this is outrageous and a great lie. Chief, his grey stubble glistening against the backdrop of the coffee table lamp behind him, shakes his woolly head and with the first hint of a smile says that this is a very serious situation and, "we are not playing games, Major Pret". He actually for the first time speaks a little English, but this is not to be his habit - all his communications to me will be through Beehive.

I am horrified to see my office notebooks placed on the coffee table before me. These are your everyday, garden variety office books, the type any executive or manager carries. Following the traditions of military administration that I have learned over the years, my books are detailed and meticulous in their layout and information; they are not the tools of clandestine behavior that these bastards are to allege. Chief goes through them. Clearly, they have been studied for some time, as some of the pages of these conference notebooks and office diaries are flagged with pieces of paper. As well, photocopied documents sit on the table - they have been busy ransacking my briefcases, my office documents. They have clearly formed a view that whatever is in these documents and notebooks forms a case for some sort of skulduggery. My nausea deepens further.

Now Chief is again concentrating on one of my staff members, Branko Jelen. Chief has questioned me closely and resolutely about the most senior 20 staff on my staff list, which he has in front of him. He again returns to Branko, seems very interested in him. He points to a number of telephone conversations recorded in my book, discussions Branko and I have had. Branko, as my main field team leader in the south of the country, features regularly in my notebook. In the first two weeks of the war, Branko dominated the list of telephone conversations, due mainly to our joint concern about the danger to the Serbian refugee centres in the south, the area most vulnerable to NATO bombing. There had been those incidents of refugee centre bombings by NATO, about which Branko had rung me in outrage. We had talked frequently about them, and his name therefore featured regularly in my record books. He is now a marked man. I feel deeply worried for him because I also know that Branko is a target for another reason: he is of a mixed Serbian-Catholic Slovene background. I vigorously reject the line of questioning, trying to patiently and pragmatically explain the role and responsibilities of Branko and my other staff, but my knees knock at the thought of these loyal staff members being implicated in this bloody mess.

THE questioning continues over the next hour, essentially centred around the events of my job, as illustrated in my conference notes and in the record of my telephone conversations with CARE staff, with Canberra and with other UN personnel.

Suddenly there is an exchange between Chief and the other two men. They jump up and reach over, haul me to my feet, then drag me out of the living room. They take me up half a flight of stairs to a split-level room which is bare of furniture and all niceties. Coconut Head and Scarface hurl me against the wall and Scarface follows up to belt me in the stomach. The wind rushes from me and I double in excruciating pain, unable to recover. They hurl me heavily against the wall again, buggering my right shoulder, which has taken the impact, rugby-style. I try to keep my head clear of impacts. Scarface throws a flying kick which I take fully on the chest. He has the eyes of an enraged maniac, one who is enjoying himself. Coconut Head doesn't participate in the beltings, but stands back; he is not needed anyway, as I am so tired I cannot fight back or resist. Fear also saps me of the energy to physically resist, although I find sufficient mental strength and determination to "firm up" and ride with the punches. While Scarface knocks me around I am a little encouraged by the fact that, like the police at the police station, he does not direct his blows to vital areas; he does not appear to try to break my nose, eyes, teeth, ribs, genitalia etc. He bloody well hurts, though. I have no idea how long this goes on for - a minute? 20? - it is all a blur.

Eventually, I am dragged once more down to that tastefully appointed living room and held standing before Chief. The vulture-like Beehive stares at me as she spits out the translation on behalf of her boss. No shrinking violet this Beehive, she seems to be enjoying herself. Chief says, "Major Pret, we can do this the easy way or the hard way, but either way we will get your cooperation. We will take you back upstairs and we will force you to participate in the preparation of our interrogation statement. Or we can all sit around here in a nice way, like the officers and gentlemen we all are." This is Chief's first hint of his background - a military officer, military intelligence. "We are both majors, you and I, we both know how to be sensible. You are an infantry major with intelligence links, we know this, and, of course, this means that you are ready to die for your country, we know this, and maybe, Major Pret, it will come to this," he says chillingly.

My hair stands on end, my heart beats incredibly fast. I am sore, I am tired, I am lonely and I am just plain scared. My head throbs.

"Pret, you are going to write your statement, sentence by sentence, as I dictate. I am running out of patience and we will not waste any more time. We want the truth," he says. I reply that I have been telling the truth, and he says, "Rubbish." He says, through the vulture perched at my left shoulder, that he has his objectives and that I have my objectives: "To live, to see your wife and family again. Forget about your organisation, forget about your country, your objective is to survive." He says that we will join our objectives together and that things will go easier for me. Chief stresses his critical point: "In telling the truth," he says, "you must play by the rules. The rules of the game are that you will tell us all about your espionage activity and that of your espionage colleagues and your organisation's espionage activities. The rules of the game do not permit you to mention anything about your job, your organisation's humanitarian business - do not waste my time mentioning these things. Dobra? You understand?" I reply no, I do not, that I have been telling the truth and have told everything in meticulous detail, which I have.

Chief slams the coffee table and roars like a bull, and on this cue, Scarface slams me across the face. Reeling and ears ringing I look up. "Now look here, Pret," says Chief, bending forward for emphasis, mouth set firmly, teeth gritted, eyes boring into mine. He begins a demonstration with his hand, as he is to do a number of times in the ensuing days. One hand horizontal, he places the other on top and vertical. "This represents your life, Major. You are finely balanced and could fall to death in an instant. Do you understand?" barks Beehive, translating.

HE says words that are to echo in my mind forever after. "I have the authority and the discretion to liquidate you tonight!" he hisses with ironic emphasis. His breathing is heavy, his eyes ablaze. I am struggling to keep my breathing easy. He nods over his shoulder, indicating Coconut Head, and says, "He will take you downstairs and kill you quietly in a few minutes; he will then use that plastic bag, and drop your body into the boot of that car down there." A black garbage bag sits on the floor next to Coconut Head.

"We will not wake the neighbors. Then we will immediately take you down to the banks of the Danube, not far from here, and we will bury you in the soft river mud. It is easy. In the rain tonight, nobody will know."

These words, this scene, are burnt into my brain, and will haunt me in the months to come. He concludes: "Let me remind you, Major Pret, you are on the missing list, nobody knows where you are, very few people even know that you still exist. You are expected to disappear!"

The deciding moment, I feel, has arrived. What do I do? Preservation, of course, takes over. I am deeply focused on Samira and my family. My death will be the death of Samira, I know it. As strong as she is, she is dedicated to me and to our life - she has often said to me that she has nothing else. (Moved by the thought, during this odd moment of reflection, I wonder do I deserve such devotion?) But she could possibly deal with a long prison sentence imposed on me. I think of my son Haydon and of my poor old Mum, who is 75, and wonder whether she could ever cope with the shock of all this.

I am seated again before Chief. The dramatics of the previous hour have been allowed to die down and now there is deathly quiet. I ask them what they wish to do, and we commence the most ridiculous and awkward farce I have ever participated in. The first sentences are dictated to me. I hear a strange voice, which cannot be mine, agree that I am a member of the Australian Defence Force's "Joint Intelligence Organisation", the JIO. They have asked me the name of the nearest organisation which equates with their fabricated story. JIO no longer exists, but that is the name I give them. I decide to provide false names wherever I think I can, without going to the point of being too obvious, of enraging them. I give them a false name of a lieutenant-colonel, supposedly the branch head of JIO who is "running me", to use their own spy jargon. I could not give them a real name in any case because these days, since having left the army, I do not have a clue who the officers in any departments are, let alone those in JIO, or DIO, or whatever it is called these days. I sit there, head bowed, enveloped within this strange and contradictory exercise, obliged to create each sentence which is given to me in outline. I could not insert any credible information, because I do not know these things. What I am made to say is literally all lies, but there is some perverse satisfaction in coming up with clever things to say to save my shaking hide. It is curious that later they do not appear to confirm this "information", neither the substance of the text nor any of the basic facts. I am to wonder whether the Yugoslavs ever directed their ambassador and their intelligence people in Australia to check and corroborate this fabrication which I had created.

My theory later is that the military intelligence faction did not really give a toss, and simply concocted any old story as quickly as possible in order to force a conviction, or to justify an extrajudicial execution. To get their glorious moment in the sun. To do their bit for the war.

Sentence by sentence Chief takes me through the sensational scenario: "Right, Major Pret, you will now in this sentence write who your agents were assisting you to collect the information about NATO targets. We would like you to state that you passed this secret information to your intelligence chief, `Shels Tep' (CARE Australia's Charles Tapp). You will in the following sentence describe how `Tep' came to Yugoslavia in May 1997 and gave you your espionage orders. Write this now."

I protest, if only to say how ludicrous and unbelievable it sounds. Scarface comes around quickly and hits me over the side of the head, adding to the ringing in my head. "Pret, I remind you that these are the rules of the game and you must stay with these rules," says Chief, ramming it home, though I can hardly hear him through the ringing in my left ear. He demonstrates again the vertical hand over the horizontal, reminding me of my finely balanced life, as he would describe it.

We go on like this for two, maybe three, hours. I don't know how many exactly, I lose count. It must be two or 3am, and it's still raining. The air-raid sirens have gone off again, but these blokes are not fazed. They don't bother to evacuate the house for shelter. In fact, the sound of distant bombing crunching away somewhere, perhaps north near Novi Sad, seems to enrage Chief, and, for a moment, he even seems to believe his own propaganda. He rages at me: "NATO! You have helped these planes!" But the other two and the interpreter sit placidly. Chief, I feel, is acting - all the show, bluster and wind are geared to impress me. He does. I am severely defeated. They have taken my soul and turned it inside out. I have lied, I have been forced to "shop" my colleagues and my organisation.



Original article