UNITIC’s twin towers, “Momo and Uzeir”, under attack in Sarajevo (Georges Gobet/Getty Images)
I don’t usually share my creative writing but I thought I’d share a short story of mine based on a famous, but possibly apocryphal, event from a journalist in the Bosnian War when I was experimenting with new assessment types for my War and the Media module.
A Literary Rite of Passage
‘Which one do you want to live?’ He cocked his gun, as if he was punctuating his question.
I froze. Everything froze. I could have counted the dust suspended in the air. We had been talking all night but now I could not think of anything to say. I just looked down at him incredulously.
‘Well? I’ve got two civilians in my sights. Which one do you want to live?’
I looked at my notebook, the edges creasing around my grip. For two days, I had been chasing a story about life in a besieged city. I shared food, stories and jokes with him, but I could not share this.
‘I’m a reporter’, I blurted, as if that justified anything. ‘I can’t…’
A smile seemed to curl around the side of his face. ‘Which one, Jack?’
When I was young, I remember sitting on the living room floor during a stormy Saturday night. My parents never let me stay up late, but that night was different. My father was on his second glass of whiskey and he never had a second glass. My mother was on the sofa, crying into her handkerchief between puffs of her ceaseless cigarettes. Most of my childhood memories are behind a veneer of cigarette smoke, but the smoke was particularly dense that evening. It was November 1963. The storm outside seemed to cover the whole world.
David Frost was on television. It was the only time I remember him looking young. His crisp, clear accent was ageless though. Normally on a Saturday, I would be under the covers in my bedroom trying to drown out the sound of my father’s laughter as I read. But no one was laughing tonight as Frost told us in a sombre tone about how the death of Jack Kennedy left the world feeling empty. I was too young to have heard the name Jack Kennedy or JFK before that night, but I knew from Frost’s tone that the nation’s grief was my own, even though I did not understand why. What I did know from that night onwards was that I wanted to speak truth from the heart, translate the unspeakable into words: I wanted to be a journalist. I dreamt about being the first journalist to break an important story. Corruption in Parliament? Bribery at the Olympics? Whatever the story, one day I would see my name on the front page: ‘Jack Lansdale, Journalist’.
After finishing my degree four years ago, I began working for the Daily Chronicle. Although the editor, Jimmy, had been impressed by my dissertation on “War Reporting as a Literary Rite of Passage in the Spanish Civil War” the only job available was covering local sports. It was a placeholder, he claimed, until a ‘real job’ became available. I had not realised what exactly he meant by a real job until I was told last week that I was being sent to cover the Bosnian War. I was being given my own ‘Literary Rite of Passage’, he said. Excitement flooded over me. It drowned my senses as I imagined myself as Hemingway, Gellhorn or Orwell. Real reporters, gallantly championing the cause of truth and justice from the middle of a war.
Passage to Sarajevo had been secured on a United Nations flight. Sarajevo was the capital city of newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although it was currently besieged by the Bosnian Serb Army, the UN had control of the city’s airport. During the flight, I tried to catch up on the history of the Balkans, but the situation was confusing. Yugoslavia had broken down into different nationalist and racial factions: Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, Bosniaks, Croats, Bosniak-Croats. Each group seemed to have their own prejudices and there seemed to be tension on all sides, some historic and some new. The whole situation was an indecipherable mess, but it was my chance to translate the untranslatable to people back home.
My editor and I agreed I would initially go to Sarajevo for just a few weeks so I travelled light. A change of clothes in my duffel bag and my well-worn copy of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in my pocket. From the airport, I hitched a ride in the BBC’s armoured car. Almost every journalist stayed in the Holiday Inn, a brown and yellow block in the middle of the city. A conspicuous target, but it was a safe zone – as safe as anywhere in a war.
The other journalists staying there welcomed us, introduced us to the staff at the hotel, and told us which locals would act as translators or fixers for a few coins or packs of cigarettes. The war was all over the city; we should use the locals and wait for the war to come to us, the more experienced journalists told us. ‘Don’t risk your life for column inches,’ an older journalist warned us in the bar that evening.
Maybe it was hubris, arrogance or just overexcitement but I hated the thought of waiting. A Pulitzer Prize-worthy story was out there and after four years stuck in locker rooms and stadiums reporting fluff pieces for the Chronicle’s sports page, I was going to find it.
‘I’m not waiting around! Gellhorn. Hemingway. Orwell. They all chased the story.’ I help up my copy of Homage to Catalonia. ‘Orwell didn’t wait for the war to come to him. He chased it. He fought for it. I’ll never be a real war reporter if I just wait.’
‘That’s a sure-fire way to get killed.’ Amanda Seaton, the young Irish reporter next to me waved her hand in front of her face to waft away the cigarette smoke. ‘I grew up on the border, I grew up in a warzone. There’s always a story to tell, but bullet-chasing journalists end up getting chased themselves.’ Her dark uncombed hair betrayed the time she’d spent in Sarajevo. The hotel was safe, but there was no hot water.
‘Not all of them,’ I snapped back. I was not going to let a twenty-year-old reporter tell me how to work.
Her expression grew stern. ‘Not the lucky ones.’
By midnight most of the group had disbanded. I was the last in the bar to settle my tab with the waiter, a young man who grew up in Sarajevo. He told me he had overheard my speech. He wished other reporters would go looking for stories.
‘Every reporter focuses on civilians. But before war many of us were friends with soldiers who now shoot us.’ His near perfect English was impressive.
‘You think I should interview the soldiers?’
‘Yes, but not our soldiers. The Bosnian Serbs. If you want to help, you need to understand all sides. To understand our side, you need to understand theirs.’
‘How? I can’t just walk up. I’ll be shot before I can ask.’
He lowered his voice to below a whisper. ‘I have friend. Old brother-in-law, who is a sergeant in the Bosnian Serb Army. We still talk. Secretly. I can arrange meeting, if you keep it between us.’
The young waiter must have seen the concern on my face. ‘You will be safe with him.’
‘Thank you.’ I took a few notes out of my wallet to hand to him.
‘No’. He pushed the money away. ‘I only want to help people to understand. I don’t want to get rich from war’.
I had to give him something, I told him. I could see that he was eyeing up my copy of Homage to Catalonia, but he was too polite to ask. The hardest thing about the siege, he told me, was the lack of books. Most of them had been burnt in the winter, and he had read the rest. I handed it over, but only after he promised to make sure it was the last book he would burn. We agreed to meet in the laundry room at 5am.
By 5.30 am, I was wedged between two white laundry bags in the back of a green Skoda. I tried to ignore the three cylinders of light coming through the passenger side of the car, just above a red stain. The car had seen better days, but it ran smoothly.
Where we were heading was near the hotel, but it was a long drive. The city’s main boulevard, ‘Sniper Alley’ as it was now called, was too dangerous to drive down. The city seemed grey, empty and yet strangely haunted by life. In the backstreets, burnt-out cars became playgrounds for children dressed in colours that the city itself seemed devoid of. Eventually, we arrived at a dilapidated apartment block. Mortars had burnt most of it down but in dawn’s light it looked almost peaceful, like a hermit crab’s shell abandoned to nature.
The waiter told me that his brother-in-law, Kazimir, was waiting on the 14th floor, in the apartment overlooking the Hotel Inn.
Each step on the staircase felt less certain. I hugged the wall as closely as I could. The building was abandoned for good reason. I could feel my adrenaline rise. I was excited to tell the story of Kazimir and his star-crossed family, to see my name printed on the front page: ‘From Our Correspondent in Sarajevo’.
My enthusiasm made me forget the danger and I soon found myself knocking on the apartment door. Kazimir let me in. His posture and well-toned physique suggested that he was a professional soldier, rather than a paramilitary. His hair was mostly grey, but it had a strong memory of being blonde.
‘Welcome, Mr Lansdale.’ His smile emanated genuine warmth.
‘Jack, please.’ I sat in the chair he pulled out for me as he poured a cup of viscous black coffee.
He asked me about the story I was writing and how he could help. I told him I just wanted to observe, listen, and learn about his life before the war and why he was fighting. He nodded.
At first, we spoke about his hometown, a village called Skelani to the east of the city. Before the war he had been a music teacher at the school, which was how he had met his wife. They were married for five years before she got pregnant.
If only I had been less focused on the story, less focused on how to turn quotes into headlines, maybe I would not have dismissed his use of past tense as bad grammar. If only I had known the situation better. If only I had not asked him about his old life, but I kept pushing. I asked him why he was a sniper, why the army did not simply occupy the city.
‘Sarajevo is a wound that we can bleed,’ he said. ‘Every day we bleed the city for every drop they bled from us. We are all owed some. I am owed some.’
What a great headline, I thought. ‘What about those in the city? The innocent people who do not choose to be here?’
‘We all have choice. The idea that anyone in war is innocent is wrong, Jack. The first casualty of war is not truth but innocence.’
The rest of that night was quiet. We talked about the war, but also music, literature and history. We could hear gunfire and explosions from the other side of the city, and it was easy to talk about war when nothing happened near us. Until morning.
‘Which one, Jack?’ Kazimir spoke coldly. Everything about him was cold now.
‘No, I can’t…’ He was looking away from me, down onto the street below us, yet I could feel his gaze on me.
‘I’m giving you a chance to save someone’s life. A chance they never gave my family.’
I started to walk away towards the door. With each step my heart raced. The dust rose and the wood creaked under my feet, then two short, loud pops.
‘That’s a shame.’ He did not even look up. ‘You could have saved one’.
Amanda found me walking down Sniper Alley. She taught me some techniques to get over the shock and talked me through what happened. She encouraged me to write the story, if only to help me process things. This time I listened to her. I locked myself away learning what I should have learnt before I came to Sarajevo. I read about the escalating tensions, about the massacre of women and children in Skelani. I wrote about a tolerant city infected with hate, star-crossed families caught in a cyclone of violence and neighbours becoming enemies. I warned my readers how close we all are to descending into chaos. It was the best thing I have ever written but it would never be worth what it had cost. I wired it to Jimmy with a note to say that I was coming home.
I got Jimmy’s response almost immediately. He congratulated me on my “rite of passage” but he had to put my article on page nine. There was a more pressing front-page story: “Bill Clinton’s Hair Holds Up LAX: The Most Expensive Haircut in History?’