On a steep, icy mountain pass somewhere in Kosovo, the reporter is running for his life as artillery shells slam into cliffs and bullets rain overhead. He turns and sees a young rebel fighter go down screaming, a jagged piece of shrapnel embedded in his neck.
There are rapid-fire explosions as Serb sharpshooters close in.
Hiding behind a boulder, USA Today's Jack Kelley begins reciting a prayer. The terrifying image of long-bladed knives crashes into his consciousness. How much pain will they inflict before I stop breathing? he wonders, remembering the sight of bodies in the Balkans with throats slashed, eyes gouged out, men emasculated.
Thirty yards away, six soldiers from the Kosovo Liberation Army are on the ground, writhing in pain. Suddenly, two massive explosions shake the mountain, knocking Kelley to the ground. "I really believed they were going to hunt us down and kill us all," he says, reliving the terror of the late-April journey into forbidden territory.
What drove the veteran war correspondent to strip himself of passport, press credentials and a photo of his fiancée and head into a killing field that few journalists have penetrated since March 24, when NATO attacks on Yugoslavia began? Why would Kelley, planning to be married on June 4, risk death for the page-one story that ran on April 26? Would he ever do something like this again?
Those questions, posed after his return to the United States, drew the following responses:
"I knew my competition was trying to get out with the KLA. I knew Carlotta Gall [of the New York Times] was trying to do it and Phil Smucker [of the London Daily Telegraph] was looking for a way into Kosovo. I thought, 'Jack, you can't get beat by the Times and the Telegraph.' The competition drove me."
Kelley, 38, explains that earlier, a freelance camera crew had accompanied the KLA into battle, but as far as he knew, no print journalist had been allowed a glimpse inside the clandestine fighting force. "I didn't trust NATO, I didn't trust the Yugoslav propaganda about the KLA. I wanted to see for myself," says Kelley, no newcomer to risk-taking in the pursuit of news.
Kelley, whose soft-spoken, almost gentle manner belies his penchant for dangerous assignments, once fled Moscow under FBI protection after a run-in with the Russian mafia; USA Today hired four bodyguards to protect him upon his return. On an assignment to interview fighters coming out of Osama bin Laden's camps, Kelley slipped into Afghanistan along a smugglers' route. But he calls accompanying the KLA into battle "one of the stupidest things I've ever done. It was the first time I really believed I would die."
The hunt began in early April as Kelley prowled smoke-filled bars and pizza parlors in Macedonian villages known to be rebel hangouts. But the breakthrough came in Skopje, Macedonia, during a chance meeting with Kosovar refugees, two physicians and a businessman, who said they might be able to help.
Within days, that contact led to a tiny, dimly lighted coffeehouse in the town of Tetovo, a short drive away. Kelley remembers that men wearing black leather jackets and black pants abruptly stopped talking when he walked in, accompanied by one of his Skopje contacts. "He had to do a lot of fast talking to sell me. He told them I was a friend of his and that I could be trusted. He said I wanted to get the story right, that I had written about the atrocities."
After four meetings, all brushoffs, Kelley, who had been in the Balkans since March 30, made reservations to fly home. But before he left, he went back to the coffeehouse one more time to "beg and plead." Finally, after a long, loud discussion in Albanian with the others, the tall, muscular leader of the group turned to the reporter and said, "OK."
Kelley would be allowed to accompany 21 soldiers into Kosovo on a hit-and-run ambush mission. The 15-hour trek across snow-covered mountains would begin around midnight in a day or two. Kelley returned to the Continental Hotel in Skopje and called a friend to leave phone numbers for his editor in case he didn't return.
He left the safety of Macedonia carrying only a pen, a notebook, a point-and-shoot camera, an extra roll of film and some apples.
As the fighters climb along the narrow, ice-packed trail, they prod two goats ahead of them to smoke out land mines. Everybody chain smokes; nobody talks. The soldiers wear U.S., German and Albanian army uniforms purchased at surplus stores. Chinese-made AK-47 and M48 rifles are slung over their shoulders. The rocket launchers they carry seem to be homemade from sewer pipes.
At 2:15 a.m. an 18-year-old KLA scout spots a small campfire, about 100 yards away. It could be a Serbian patrol. The group disappears behind large rocks and trees. The scout returns with the news. Huddled around the campfire are 22 ethnic Albanian refugees from the Kosovo city of Urosevac. They are freezing and starving to death.
Of this scene, Kelley wrote:
All the refugee children are around the fire and wrapped in blankets, but it's not enough to stop an 8-year-old girl named Resmie from shivering uncontrollably. She's so cold she can't speak. Her brown eyebrows are covered with frost; her nose drip is frozen to her face....
Another one of the refugees, an 83-year-old widow named Sevidje, appears to have suffered a heart attack during the journey over mountains. She is unable to talk, walk or move the left side of her body. She has to be dragged behind the group in a makeshift sled made of cardboard and blankets.
Upon seeing the soldiers, tears flow from Sevidje's eyes. One of the soldiers, an Albanian Catholic named Skala, blesses the woman, puts his small cross around her neck and kisses her on the cheek. She's dying, he says later.
As they prepare to leave, the rebels offer a box of German-made MREs--meals ready to eat.
During the steep climb, Kelley slips on a patch of ice and falls some 40 feet, unable to regain his footing. "They kind of laughed at me like, 'Look at the stupid American.' Then two guys came and helped me back up," he recalls. Finally, there is brief rest in sleeping bags or on the ground atop a mountain.
At 6 a.m., the soldiers spot billows of smoke in the distance. The sound of sporadic gun and cannon fire echoes through the hills. The band presses on toward the fires. Finally, they creep to within a football field of Serb forces who are looting and burning houses.
Kelley sneaks in with them, stunned that he can hear the sound of Serbian militia talking and laughing in the quiet valley as they torch a village near the city of Kacanik. A convoy of 12 military vehicles moves slowly after stopping to load televisions and refrigerators from the houses. The platoon waits patiently for the convoy to move past.
The rebel leader draws a plan in the snow. They will strike the last three vehicles, then flee back into the mountains. It is around 10 a.m. when the KLA commander yells "now" in Albanian. The KLA soldiers fire their rocket launchers. The next-to-last truck in the convoy explodes; the other two are also hit.
Kelley describes the action in his story:
Instantly, the convoy comes to a halt. Dozens of Serb forces emerge and fire toward the KLA soldiers on the mountain. Two armored personnel carriers that are part of the convoy unleash a barrage of automatic fire.
Suddenly, Serb-fired bullets are hitting trees, rocks and bushes. Several whistle over the heads of the soldiers. Then three Serb mortars explode behind the KLA troops, sending them running.
"Run," Axmaika [the leader] yells to this reporter as he sprints down a path 30 yards away from where the mortars are landing. "Run fast."
But now the Serb troops are chasing after the KLA, shooting their way up the mountain. The KLA troops run toward the other side. It is a footrace....
Serb rocket-launched grenades explode in succession behind them, spraying shrapnel in all directions. Two young KLA soldiers are knocked off their feet. One remains on the ground, screaming. He's holding his neck. Serb snipers shoot at him, hitting him twice in the leg.
They follow with more grenades and sniper fire. It's now raining rockets, one every second. A grenade explodes in front of Skala, spewing shrapnel into his forehead and neck. He falls down, screaming in pain....
The attack lasts nearly four minutes, then stops suddenly. When it is over, six of the 20 men in the platoon are bleeding from bullet, shrapnel and other wounds.
The most seriously injured is Skala. Metal shrapnel covers his forehead, cheeks, neck and chest. Three of his front teeth are missing. All the other men appear stable. No Serbs are killed but at least two are injured.
Kelley, who has covered battles in Croatia and Bosnia, admits the incident left him shaken. After crossing to safety, he called his editor to say he had the story but wanted out of Macedonia. The next morning he headed for Sofia, Bulgaria, where he wrote his account. He talks of being haunted by bloody images and by the feeling that he would not make it out alive.
"I'm not sleeping, and when I do, I have nightmares. Not a day goes by that I don't live this over and over," the reporter says. "The worst thing was seeing that shrapnel lodged in Skala's throat. I actually saw it hit. It severed his windpipe." Kelley describes how the wounded were hauled in blankets across the mountains. At the request of the rebels, he picked up two ends of a blanket and helped carry Skala. By the time they reached Macedonia, the 21-year-old was dead.
In his report, Kelley pointed out that none of the men, between the ages of 17 and 36, had any real military experience. "I felt these guys were on a suicide mission," he says. "They were outnumbered, underequipped, and they didn't know what they were doing. It shows the level of their overwhelming desperation."
Since his return, he has appeared on MSNBC and C-SPAN to talk of his two-and-a-half days inside the KLA. He hopes to be back in the Balkans after his wedding, perhaps by mid-June. Would he take the same risk again?
Kelley, who describes himself as the "furthest thing in the world from a Rambo," says he has been thinking a lot about that lately. "My first response is, 'Probably not.' But, if I want to be honest, I know I'll probably do something stupid again."
What would it take?
"A great story," he says, "and the competition closing in."