True Spies Episode 143 Part 2: Balkan Betrayals - Escape from Sarajevo
++Content warning: This episode contains references to war crimes and sexual violence.
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. The podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios. Balkan Betrayals, Part 2: Escape from Sarajevo.
H.K. ROY: They talked about maybe sending in a helicopter but that would take several days. And I said, "Please don't because there are no helicopters here and all three sides will be shooting at it if you try to come in. So that's a non-starter."
NARRATOR: During the early 1990s, the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia triggered a bloody cascade of violence. In its wake, the Balkan region of Southeastern Europe would bear witness to some of the deadliest atrocities since the Second World War.
H.K. ROY: So in 1995, the war in Bosnia had been raging for three years.
NARRATOR: Bosnia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1992. This action had incurred violent reprisals from the Serb-dominated forces of what remained of the Republic. By the middle of the decade, the situation had descended into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. The citizens of Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, lived under a brutal siege.
H.K. ROY: The city of Sarajevo was completely surrounded and cut off by hostile Serb forces. There were rape camps. There were people starving. And the Clinton administration and Nato, I think they finally decided they had to do something.
NARRATOR: The voice you’re hearing belongs to H.K. Roy. He’s a former CIA officer who spent a good chunk of his career in the Balkans, before and after the collapse of Yugoslavia. Last time, we followed H.K. from a peaceful, pre-war posting in the Serbian capital of Belgrade to the battle-scarred frontlines of the Croatian War of Independence. If you haven’t already, go back and listen to Part One of Balkan Betrayals for the story so far. In this episode of True Spies, we find H.K. on the brink of his most dangerous mission yet.
H.K. ROY: And so I was told that First Lady Hillary Clinton, she had decided that we needed a station in Sarajevo so that we could establish liaison with the local service and begin to report because the idea was Nato would probably go in and start attacking on behalf the Bosnian Muslims in the fall of ‘95.
NARRATOR: Up until this point, the American government had been reluctant to become directly involved in the deteriorating situation in the Balkans. Now, three years into the Bosnian conflict, the time had come to act.
H.K. ROY: And so, once again, they reached out to me and asked if I would kindly volunteer to go to Sarajevo to establish this first-ever, service-to-service relationship between us and the Bosnian Muslim security service. And I said, “Sure, I'm happy to go.”
NARRATOR: First, H.K. made the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to iron out some formalities ahead of the assignment.
H.K. ROY: They made me sign waivers and get my physical and all this type of thing. And I said, “Okay, how? What's the game plan? How am I getting to Sarajevo?” And they said, “We don't know. You're on your own.”
NARRATOR: H.K. would have to rely on his own expertise.
H.K. ROY: And they were supposed to send a lot of heavily armed security escorts with me since it was an extremely dangerous war zone. In fact, we had tried one year before to get to Sarajevo. We were turned back at the last minute because it was too dangerous and now it was even worse.
NARRATOR: Armed convoys attract attention. And when Serbian machine guns command the horizon, attention is the last thing you want. H.K. would have to travel light. His infiltration team, such as it was, comprised himself and a sole communications officer.
H.K. ROY: I'm not a very technically inclined guy. At least this time I had a communicator to help me with secure satellite communications.
NARRATOR: Together, H.K. and his communicator plotted a semi-improvised route to the heart of the war zone. Fortunately, after years in the field, our true spy had accumulated some useful contacts in the Balkans.
H.K. ROY: We booked a flight to Zurich. Made our way to Split, Croatia, where I was able to meet up with some special operators from the US military who were in Zagreb at the time.
NARRATOR: From Split, the small American contingent plotted their means of approach. The road to Sarajevo was a dangerous one - best to hide in plain sight.
H.K. ROY: In those days, the UN would still make relief convoy runs from Split over Mount Igman into Sarajevo to deliver food and supplies and that type of thing. And so we latched on to their convoy. We just sort of put our vehicle in with all of theirs. And we made the midnight trek over the mountain into Sarajevo. And I made it to our official villa in the heart of Sarajevo, where I was to spend the next month or so, doing my job.
NARRATOR: Daily life in Sarajevo was fraught with danger.
H.K. ROY: There weren't many cars on the road because of the constant sniper fire. So it would be quiet in and quiet out. People were just hanging out in their apartments, literally, for years. And then - boom - a mortar would hit and shatter the calm.
NARRATOR: And for many of the city’s residents, the threat of starvation was as real as a sniper’s bullet.
H.K. ROY: There really wasn't any food to speak of. There was a pizza joint. They got flour from the UN, Slovenian ketchup, and water they had. And then a wood-burning oven. And it wasn't bad. And that was one of the few things you could actually buy there. And I joke that their motto was, “Guaranteed delivery within 10 minutes unless hit by a sniper.”
NARRATOR: Living in Sarajevo was one thing. Spying in Sarajevo was quite another, as H.K. soon discovered.
H.K. ROY: My only mission really was to develop this relationship with the local security service, not to handle any agents. But I was tasked to do an operational survey because we didn't have anybody there at the moment. Just to figure out, in the future, let's say we have sensitive assets as I had in Belgrade. How do we go about meeting this asset there? Do we have to do dead drops?
NARRATOR: Dead drops, for the uninitiated, are a timeless piece of tradecraft. A spy leaves a message in a pre-approved location for collection by an asset at a later date, eliminating the need to meet in person. But in Sarajevo, even this most cautious of techniques were more or less untenable.
H.K. ROY: And at that moment in history, it was summertime and everybody was hanging out on their balcony. There's no electricity, there's no air conditioning. It's hot. Everybody hangs out on their balcony. So even if you're walking around late at night and you want to put a dead drop into a dead rat or a fake dead rat, somebody is going to see you do it because they're just watching all the time.
NARRATOR: And no - ‘dead rat’ is not CIA jargon.
H.K. ROY: Forget the security services, just, the average person. And they're reporting suspicious behavior because they're afraid you might be a Serb. And if you put down a rat, they might actually pick it up because they're hungry. And so I concluded that at that particular moment in time, we really couldn't securely handle sensitive assets inside Sarajevo because of this unique wartime situation.
NARRATOR: Fortunately, H.K.’s role in Sarajevo was more straightforward. He arranged regular meetings with the head of the Bosnian Security Service, in which the new partners would share intelligence on the progress of the war.
H.K. ROY: So when I would drive to and from my daily meetings at the Interior Ministry with the head of the Bosnian Security Service, I would drive as fast as I could.
NARRATOR: Many of us use our commute to center ourselves, a moment of calm before the stresses of the working day. Not so in Sarajevo.
H.K. ROY: Not that they were targeting me personally, just because they would shoot at anybody. The Serbs would shoot at anybody they saw. And so you would always drive fast. You wouldn't wear a seatbelt so that you could get out and make a quick escape if you had to.
NARRATOR: At one of those meetings, H.K’s Bosnian Muslim counterpart, Marko, reported disturbing news from the far east of the country.
H.K. ROY: They had people on the ground in Srebrenica. You could hear over the radio what was going on. And so I got very good, real-time reporting out of Srebrenica, thanks to this Bosnian Security Service.
NARRATOR: Srebrenica. In the first week of July 1995, Serbs under the command of General Ratko Mladić began an all-out offensive against the small mountain town of Srebrenica. The settlement was an important strategic location for the Bosnian Serbs. However, the UN had designated it as a ‘safe zone’ and posted troops to defend the position. But they were overrun. UN Peacekeeping troops failed to halt the Serbian advance. Once inside the town, the Serbs began a brutal campaign of rape, murder, and other war crimes.
H.K. ROY: And this was a high-priority situation. And so my reporting would go directly unfiltered to the White House, to the Pentagon, to the Secretary of State.
NARRATOR: The full list of horrors that had taken place at Srebrenica had yet to be revealed. H.K. had seen nothing in person. As a spy - an outside observer - he remained detached. To him, this was news and he had the scoop.
H.K. ROY: And that's sort of what you live for as a case officer. You know, if you're in Paris reporting on wine production, you may have a nice life but it's not really that exciting. But if you're in Sarajevo, when Srebrenica is being overrun, everybody's hanging on your every word. And so you want to do a good job as well. I reported accurately that between 6,000 and 8,000 men and boys had been slaughtered during the first few days in Srebrenica.
NARRATOR: Today, it’s estimated that more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were butchered.
H.K. ROY: And initially the US government didn't believe it because come on, really? In Europe, 6,000 to 8,000 were slaughtered in a couple of days? Even the Serbs wouldn't do that. Well, it turned out to be exactly right. And, it was probably worse than we imagined.
NARRATOR: His evidence? The genocide at Srebrenica was one of many crucial pieces of information passed on to H.K. by the Bosnian Muslim Security Service.
H.K. ROY: They shared information on where the Serbs were located, the command centers, ammunition dumps, whatever, so that Nato could go in and blow them up in a couple of months because the Bosnians couldn't do that themselves. So that was satisfying.
NARRATOR: But ultimately, with so many lives at stake, the Bosnians’ loyalties lay elsewhere. Worse, it lay with one of America’s most vocal enemies.
H.K. ROY: By the time I showed up in Sarajevo in July of ‘95, the Iranians were well-established in Bosnia. So, when I went there, we talked about Iranians being there. And I remember I even asked Marko, the Bosnian, just, “What's going on with the Iranians here? And all he said was, “Iran is welcome here. I'm not going to say anything else.” And I thought, “Well, that's interesting. But we weren't overly focused on Iran.”
NARRATOR: The Iranian Revolutionary Guard had imported hundreds of tons of weaponry into Bosnia since the beginning of the conflict. H.K. had seen it firsthand.
H.K. ROY: Now back stepping a bit. When I was in Croatia, we intercepted together with the Croat service an Iranian so-called relief flight destined for Bosnia, which had mercenaries and weapons and that type of thing, because our policy was an embargo. And so we were stopping those types of arms shipments from anywhere on earth, including Iran, especially Iran.
NARRATOR: In the early years of the Balkan Wars, the US pursued a policy of non-interference, and supported a UN arms embargo against the entire region. But this public stance was at odds with the American government's actions behind the scenes.
H.K. ROY: I was the person who discovered this ridiculous policy that only a few people in our government knew about, which essentially asked the Croatian government to allow Iranian weapons to transit Croatia, to get to Bosnia, to help the Bosnians.
NARRATOR: According to HK, the American government had allowed Iran to keep smuggling weapons into Bosnia because, in a rare moment of harmony between the old enemies, their aims had aligned. Both sides wanted to see the Bosnian Muslims hold out against the Serb aggressors. But practically, this approach had allowed the Iranians to establish themselves as benefactors-in-chief to the beleaguered Bosnians. That included the Bosnian Security Service.
H.K. ROY: Iran had been, for the past three years, helping out these desperate people who were being slaughtered, raped, and starving, when nobody else did. And so it's easy to understand why they were loyal to Iran and not to us. You know, I show up after three years and say, “Hi, I'm H.K., I'm finally here to help.” So, yes, they were happy to share intelligence with me. But at the same time, their loyalties were with Iran and not with us.
NARRATOR: Only a few days into his assignment in Sarajevo, H.K. Roy would come to realize the true extent of Iran’s influence in the city.
H.K. ROY: I would make my meeting every day with Marko at the Interior Ministry, and it was often hit by mortar while we were having meetings. It was a crazy situation. They were all dressed in military fatigues and smoking their vile Balkan cigarettes night and day. And this one morning, I went in and there was a receptionist or something, and she said, “Oh, would you mind meeting Marko over in this room right over here?” It was like a downstairs room, which was unusual.
NARRATOR: Typically, Marko took his meetings with the American upstairs. This downstairs room was what a CIA Officer would consider a ‘walk-in’ room - a more formal, secure location within an embassy or consulate where would-be assets could come and make their case to their potential spymasters. It was not the kind of room wherein a trusted foreign ally, much less a chief of station, might expect to be hosted.
H.K. ROY: And I walk in and there's Marko in his camouflage fatigues smoking a cigarette. And there's this other guy, Middle Eastern looking. I thought he might be an Arab, also in fatigues, glaring at me.
NARRATOR: The tall Middle Easterner looked H.K. up and down. He didn’t say a word.
H.K. ROY: And I look at Marko and say, “Good morning,” whatever. And Marko says, "Oh, sorry H.K., just meet me upstairs in 10 minutes." And so I said, "Okay." And I thought, “That was odd.” I didn't know what it was. I just thought it was odd. I didn't know what was happening. So I met him later by himself. And, we carried on with our business. And it was either that night - I think it was that night - I was given some unimpeachable intelligence. Essentially, I was able to read the Iranian cable traffic.
NARRATOR: What he read made his blood run cold.
H.K. ROY: I had walked into a trap, essentially. The mystery man in the room was the head of the Iranian intelligence service in Sarajevo, and he had plans to pick me up off the street, kidnap me, essentially torture me, interrogate me, and then probably finish me off because that's what the Iranians do.
NARRATOR: That wasn’t a sweeping generalization. A decade prior, in 1985, a CIA station chief by the name of William Buckley had been abducted in Lebanon by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militant group.
H.K. ROY: They held him. We did everything we could to try to find him. And they eventually tortured him to death. And so that's what was waiting for me if I were to get caught by the Iranians.
NARRATOR: H.K. and the CIA were aware of the Iranian presence in Sarajevo. But they had no idea how deep their influence had taken root. Perhaps if they had, the mission would have been aborted before it had begun. By this point, Iran had been America’s sworn enemy for almost two decades, and the two nations were rarely willing to operate in the same sphere.
H.K. ROY: In fact, we found out later that the Bosnian interior minister and the head of the Bosnian Security Service, Marko, my buddy, were completely under the control of the Iranian intelligence service. It was Iranian turf. It was as if I walked into Tehran and said, “I'm here from the CIA. I'm here to help.” As soon as I did that, Marko, who was loyal to the Iranians, happily told his Iranian case officer who I was and what I was doing. The Iranian had his plan to snatch me and he just wanted to see me in the flesh before doing so. And so, in the report that I read, he had written up the fact that he saw me. I was showcased to him. He described me physically - what I was wearing and how tall I was. He guessed that I had a military background, which I did not. And then they talked a little bit about the plan for picking me up off the street. And so I just read this once. It was all happening pretty quickly and all, and we instantly knew, okay, it's not just the Iranians. We have to worry about Marko now as well. The whole Bosnian Security Services are under the control of Iran. So what do we do?
NARRATOR: H.K. had been made aware of the Iranian’s plans just in time. Now, he needed a plan of his own. He arranged an urgent call with CIA headquarters. Together, they weighed H.K.’s safety against the material benefit of a CIA presence in Sarajevo.
H.K. ROY: And we all kind of decided, I can't continue to go and meet Marko. Obviously, he's in on this. They'll snatch me. And so I have to get out of Sarajevo somehow.
NARRATOR: Easier said than done.
H.K. ROY: They talked about maybe sending in a helicopter, but that would take several days. And I said, "Please don't, because there are no helicopters here and all three sides will be shooting at it if you try to come in. So that's a nonstarter."
NARRATOR: Ultimately, our spy knew that his untimely exit from Sarajevo would need to be low-key. Along with his communications officer, he enlisted one of the American security officers assigned to the official villa, and a plainclothes US Special Operations officer who was active in the city.
H.K. ROY: And so the two of them courageously agreed to take me out - me and my communicator out - in a two-vehicle convoy in the middle of the night, kind of the same way we got in earlier over Mount Igman.
NARRATOR: The route into Sarajevo had been risky enough. Even UN relief convoys weren’t immune to attack, although they did offer a modicum of safety in numbers. But this small exfiltration unit would be even more vulnerable from all angles.
H.K. ROY: Now we weren't just worried about the fact that the Serbs might blow us away. They would actually use anti-aircraft guns against vehicles on the road. We had to worry about getting out from under the Bosnians and the Iranians, because now, jeez, it's not just a couple of Iranians out there. The entire Bosnian Security Service is under their control. They know who I am.
NARRATOR: At this moment in time, the Iranians don’t know that H.K. is on to them. But the sight of their target hightailing it over the mountains in the dead of night would surely tip them off.
H.K. ROY: There were just a couple of us and there was the whole Bosnian security apparatus helping the Iranians. And so that was our concern, that they would intercept us on the way out and pull me out. And I made my communicator promise that if he saw me being dragged off by guys in beards to shoot me first because I knew what had happened to Buckley and I did not want to meet that same fate.
NARRATOR: It was crucial, then, that the Americans gave the Iranians no reason to move in prematurely.
H.K. ROY: So once I learned of this Iranian threat, I didn't leave the villa any further until we actually bugged out at 2:30 am in the morning, probably, I think it was one or two nights later.
NARRATOR: In the meantime, H.K. would have to provide a good excuse to miss his regular meeting with Marko, his Bosnian counterpart.
H.K. ROY: So I called him once - and these are on monitored lines - and I said, "Sorry, Marko, I got some sort of stomach issue. I can't make the meeting today." And he bought it.
NARRATOR: Good. If Marko’s buying it, chances are the Iranians are too. Still, it never hurts to cover your bases.
H.K. ROY: In fact, my daughters were with their mother in Hawaii and I called them on this open line just to talk to them and they said, "How are you, daddy?" And I said, "Oh, I've got a bad stomach ache." And I said that because I knew that the Bosnians were listening and I wanted to corroborate what I had told Marko just to sort of lower the profile.
NARRATOR: One missed meeting is unfortunate. Two or more? That starts to look deliberate. H.K. needed to move quickly.
H.K. ROY: So we made these plans to get out in the middle of the night.
NARRATOR: But, as is so often the case with hastily put-together escape plans, a last-minute complication emerged. In the lead-up to his journey back to the relatively safe harbor of Split, Croatia, H.K. received some disturbing intelligence from an undisclosed source. It concerned a mole within the American camp in Sarajevo. As with most embassies, consulates, and legations, the US government employed a sizable staff of local workers.
H.K. ROY: They do most of the work. We couldn't function without them, but they are often also forced to serve as a spy within the American embassy or the American office, whether they want to or not. Well, I discovered that we had one such guy in our office in Sarajevo, unrelated to the Iranian thing. But he was reporting to the Bosnian Security Service on what was happening in this American office. And so, he could easily report on my comings and goings so Marko and his Iranian master would know that I was planning on getting out.
NARRATOR: H.K.’s solution to his mole problem? An old one - cliché, almost. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
H.K. ROY: So he didn't know that I was planning on getting out. But he wanted to go to Croatia for some other reason. So we said, “Great, you come with us and we're going to go tonight.”
NARRATOR: The mole wasn’t aware of the Iranians’ plans for H.K. As far as he knew, the trip to Croatia was no more than a flying visit - nothing so unusual for an American diplomat with contacts all over the Balkan region. Plus, he needed a ride. Why report it?
H.K. ROY: But we wouldn't let him out of the vehicle once he got in so that he could not go and then report that, ‘Hey, H.K's making a run for it tonight.”
NARRATOR: Confident that the mole was in hand, the time came for H.K. and his small team to make their getaway.
H.K. ROY: We left the compound at 2:30 am. It was dark. Sarajevo was totally quiet because there was no power and nobody on the street. And so I was very alert to any surveillance and there was none.
NARRATOR: Under cover of darkness, the armored Land Cruiser arrived at the base of Mount Igman. Safety - or the nearest available thing to it - awaited on the other side. But crossing the mountain undetected would prove to be a challenge in itself.
H.K. ROY: The Bosnian Army would be up on the mountain all night long. They were coming back into Sarajevo, so we had to stop. We were held up there for a couple of hours while the incoming Bosnian Army traffic came back into Sarajevo.
NARRATOR: With every moment that passed, the window of opportunity narrowed.
H.K. ROY: And so, at some point, the sun's going to come up. That was going to come up soon. And if it became light, we were going to possibly have to go back to our building and try again the next night. I didn't like that idea because the longer I was there, the more likely it was that the Bosnians and the Iranians would find out what was going on.
NARRATOR: What's more, the Bosnian mole has surely put two-and-two together. After all, why would the Americans need to avoid a Bosnian Army convoy if the trip was legitimate? Returning to Sarajevo now was an unattractive option. But it was 5 am, and fingers of pale red sunlight began to stretch over Mount Igman.
H.K. ROY: It was summertime and there was like a haze over the mountain that morning as the sun came up.
NARRATOR: Much of spycraft is the art of assessing risk, and acting accordingly. Does the value of this source outweigh the security risk of retaining him? How carefully do I need to approach him? Will this cover hold up under scrutiny? Now, H.K. had to weigh his chances of escaping. Would the haze offer sufficient cover on the winding mountain passes? And who would be watching?
H.K. ROY: We also knew that the Serbs were typically drunk, especially not active around 4 am or 5 am. And so we decided to take our chances and make a run for it over Mount Igman, even though the sun was coming up. And it paid off. We did so without drawing fire from any of the Serbs who were all drunk and fast asleep, passed out in their filth and the garbage where they lived.
NARRATOR: On the other side of the mountain, the road led into the contested city of Mostar, where friendly Croatian forces had established a stronghold. From there, H.K.’s team made their way to Split - the town where his Bosnian misadventure had begun only a few days ago.
H.K. ROY: I was supposed to be there, probably at least a month, maybe indefinitely. That wasn't really spelled out. But I was only there for a week or less.
NARRATOR: Back in Split, the Americans were able to board a commercial flight out of the country and, in H.K.’s case, into the lap of some well-deserved luxury.
H.K. ROY: So I remember there happened to be a chief of station conference taking place in Vienna, Austria, where my division chief was. And he was feeling really bad because he's the guy that kept sending me back to the Balkans. And he really felt bad that he had sent me into this trap - he didn't know, obviously - but he sent me into this trap and he was happy to see me.
NARRATOR: The Director of Central Intelligence at the time, John Deutch, was also in Vienna. The DCI was keen to meet the officer who’d outrun and outsmarted the Iranians on their own turf.
H.K. ROY: So they invited me to join them for dinner at the chief's house in Vienna, a very nice Austro-Hungarian palace. And it was quite a change from where I had been earlier that day. And I had, literally, no clean clothes to wear. I had one Hawaiian shirt that I had packed. And so I wore that to the chiefs of station dinner with the DCI that night in Vienna.
NARRATOR: Well, one should always dress to impress. A happy ending then for H.K., at least. With Sarajevo in the rearview mirror, he could sit back and watch the fruits of his work in the Balkans unfold on the evening news.
H.K. ROY: It was within a couple of months after I left Sarajevo, Nato got heavily involved and it was satisfying. I was watching on CNN or whatever, watching them blow up these targets in these towns nobody had ever heard of. But they were exactly what I had reported. And so it was really satisfying to see that, to know that my work there actually contributed a little bit to the ending of this horrific, brutal war.
NARRATOR: The Bosnian War ended in late 1995. In 2017, General Ratko Mladić - the architect of the Srebrenica massacre, and the siege of Sarajevo - was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity. H.K. Roy believes that the lessons of the Balkan Wars were hard-won and that we should be wary of ever forgetting them.
H.K. ROY: People don't know about this. They don't seem to care about this. This was in Europe and it wasn't that long ago. And now we're seeing what happens once again. Unfortunately, this time, the enemy has nukes as well.
NARRATOR: I’m Sophia Di Martino. If you’d like to read more about H.K’.s adventures in the Balkans and beyond, you can pick up a copy of his book - American Spy: Wry Reflections on My Life in the CIA. Join us next week for the first installment of a gripping multi-part retelling of the very first True Spies story - Operation Brothers. Or subscribe to *SPYSCAPE Plus* to listen right now.
H.K. Roy was a staff CIA operations officer for 13 years from late 1983 until late 1996. He is also the author of American Spy: Wry Reflections on My Life in the CIA.