The hard-bitten soldier with months of service in peacekeeping forces at various world trouble spots, coughed at the stink of stale air and excrement as he kicked in the door of the old stone barn and glared in the gloomy interior.
"Is anyone there?" he called in the local language, grunted and was about to leave when he heard a faint cry.
"Help us, please," a female voice called.
He stepped in, waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness before he saw three young woman seated by a far wall. He squinted his eyes and stared again before uttering an oath of disgust. The three women were chained to the wall.
"Help us, please," repeated the slim brown haired girl who would have been attractive if it wasn't for her filthy dress, long tangled hair and skinny face with protruding cheekbones. On closer inspection he saw she had an ankle clamp joined to the chain that was padlocked to a bolt in the wall. The stink came from a bucket a few meters away that seemed to be the only toilet.
The man swallowed and turned to the private with him. "Get the Captain," he snarled. "Immediately!"
While two women cringed back in terror, the one who spoke first seemed to realize the soldier could help. She even smiled, staggered to her feet and the chain, about six meters long to permit some movement, rattled.
"I am Sergeant Stefano Gabbo from the Italian unit of IFOR. We are doing a routine inspection of this village. Don't be afraid. We are here to help." Gabbo spoke in a halting Serbo-Croatian.
"Thank God. Thank God," the young woman cried. "My name is Zuzana Milenkova. My friends, Kaira, Anya and myself have been held prisoner here for months."
"Don't trust him!" screamed one of the other women who was hardly more than a girl. "They're just like the others." Her screams turned into choking sobs as wide protruding eyes stared at the soldiers and she slunk back as far as the chain would allow.
The sergeant was about to reply when he heard footsteps and turned. The captain had arrived. The officer took one look at the stinking scene and the three women and gave an order. "Get them cut loose and to a hospital at once, sergeant." He turned to Zuzana. "Captain Giovanni Ronino at your service, madam," he said in the local language ?Do you speak Italian?"
"No," replied Zuzana, "Only our language and English."
"Good," the solder replied in the later language. "I also speak English so we can communicate in, what shall I say, an easier way." He watched as the sergeant appeared with a massive pair of wire cutters and cut the chains from the three women. "Who did this to you?"
"The local militia," Zuzana replied as she rubbed her ankle where the clamp had come off. "A Jeljiko Wiskova is in charge." Her eyes dropped to the floor. "A brute of a man."
"You've been raped?"
"Repeatedly," Zuzana relied. She held her head up and looked the captain in the eyes. "We've been treated like animals, captain, objects to satisfy their crude desires. There were six of us. Three died and Anya," she indicated the youngest prisoner, "is ill and needs urgent medical attention." She gave a thin smile. "We could all do with some good food, a bath and clean clothes."
The captain's face was a mask but his eyes showed steel like determination. He turned and spoke in rapid Italian. "Surround the village and bring in every person from this so called militia. If anyone resists, shoot them! I don't care a damn about the protocol."
"Yes sir," Sergeant Gabbo replied and saluted.
"Well, you heard the captain," he snarled to his corporal. "I want the village sealed off so not even a mouse can get through and I want it done now!"