A Memoir


When I awoke on the floor of John’s room the next morning, he was already up with another pair of cargo pants on and sporting another long-sleeve button up shirt that looked as if it had just come from the dry cleaners. He was looking intently in the mirror as he took one final stroke of his razor across his cheek. He splashed a bit of water in his hands, then his face, and then a towel. Without missing a beat, he picked up a comb and began neatly combing his hair; which already looked very neatly combed. Without acknowledging my presence in any way, he began talking…

“You know you really do look like one of the bloody local militia fighters up the in the hills.”

 Confused, I sat up and blurted, “Are you kidding, John?! You look like you’re going on a date this morning.”

 John turned slightly from where he was facing, his head cocked in that way a dog does when they hear a high-pitched sound. 

“I’m talking about YOU, idiot!” he replied.

“Ohhh, me! Okay, I look like a Bosnian fighter up in the hills, that makes way more sense now because I thought you were talking to yourself in the mirror, and I was like what is he talking about because you look super dapper right now and you smell really good too…” 

John shot me a sharp glare in the mirror and I immediately shut my mouth. It’s the type of look I would get off of John from time to time, and while I’m not sure how it would translate in old British English, if I had to translate in American English, it would be a polite version of ‘please shut the fuck up now.’

I shut up, and John kept combing his hair. While I had no idea if I really looked like some local fighter in the hills of Sarajevo, I knew I wasn’t looking, or going to be looking, nearly as dapper as John. Shit, I was still in my clothes from the previous day. Not to mention my long, thick hair was a mess, and I hadn’t shaved in about a week because someone told me you don’t shave when you go on backpack trips around Europe…so I was like ‘okay, we’re not shaving!’

“You bring a razor with you?” asked John.

“No, I was told…” I stopped talking. I was starting to figure out less was more with John sometimes.

“Well, come over here and use this disposable I found in my kit. Here is some shaving soap. You need to clean up before breakfast.” 

I picked up the plastic orange handled razor and was pretty sure this was going to hurt like hell. I had never heard of “shaving soap” before and figured it was some British creation that didn’t work, so it must have never made it ‘across the pond’ so to speak. I was no stranger to shaving – I felt like I’d been doing it since elementary school. I’ve got lots of good thick Greek blood in me and I grow lumberjack beards…
(I have no idea if that’s a Greek thing or not, but I’m pretty damn proud I’m Greek…and yes, I know “Hurst” isn’t Greek, it’s German or English, but that doesn’t sound nearly as badass sexy as “GREEK”. Plus, tell me another group of people known for being historically badass warriors, insanely good lovers and deep thinkers? Not to mention all that yummy goodness is all rolled up into a nice olive skin tone, with dark mysterious features. Okay, I’m sure there are other ethnicities that can claim stuff like that, but I’m writing this shit so it’s super badass to me)

…Okay, so I’m essentially holding my mom’s leg-shaving razor. I’ve got what looks like a used bar of cheap motel soap in my hand, and I’m staring at my thick facial hair knowing John’s not letting me out of the hotel looking as I do. As sure as shit, it takes me forever to shave to something deemed acceptable by John, and I have far too many pieces of toilet paper stuck to my face and neck. In summary, I most definitely did NOT look like a fighter in the hills anymore. What I now resembled was, honestly, I have no idea. Let us just say I was feeling far less “Greek” than I was when I woke up.

I changed into some pants, a t-shirt, my super badass Nike hiking boots and donned my exclusive Mickey Mouse trucker hat. It was clear that the morning’s lesson had a lot to do with what you wear, how you look and how people perceive you in war zones makes a difference. John knew this from his long history of covering war and conflict. John looked, walked, talked and shat ‘Back off, I’m a professional!’ If that was what made the difference between surviving or dying today, John was good to go! Me? I’m probably fucked: I look like a clown.

With John in the lead, we headed down the stairs of the Holiday Inn into the dining room. To my astonishment, there were white linen tables, cloth napkins, glasses already filled with water, bread rolls, butter… I knew I was at a Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, but this shit made me think I might be at a Holiday Inn in Sarasota. I was visibly impressed.

John led us past some other journalist types: Some NGO’s (look it up) and a couple of UN generals, or majors, were taking in some meat and cheese plates. John seemed to be looking for someone. He was, because someone caught his eye and he made a b-line to an older, more slender man with a notepad out. John introduced me, “Danny, this is Thomas. He’s a university student who I found wandering the halls yesterday.” He continued, “Thomas, this is Danny McGrory, he and I work together.” Right away, I felt like some childish jealous lover. As I reached out to shake Danny’s hand, inside I was like, ‘what the fuck John, you never told me there was someone ELSE?! Our entire relationship (which is at best 12 whole hours) is built on the shifting sands of your lies and secrets…I don’t even know who you are anymore.’ At the same exact moment I was feeling betrayed by the newfound idol, I could tell that the look on Danny’s face was not one of warmth and excitement, as he looked me up and down so many times that he almost didn’t land the handshake. I couldn’t tell if Danny was upset because he had hoped this would be the one trip where John didn’t bring a “stray in” off the streets and start feeding it. More than likely it was because he was savvy enough to know that everyone’s odds of being killed or maimed just went up by the addition of me. John, on the other hand, didn’t blink an eye about any of it.

I sat down with them at the table, taking in my first war-zone dining experience. People came and people went. People with different badges for different networks would slink into a far corner and whisper to each other about some shit and what to do in covering the war. It was obvious to me that everyone was trying to figure out what the competitor was doing that day. Everyone wanted an exclusive, but no one wanted to risk getting beat on that day’s story. So, there was a lot of, ‘what are you doing?’ ‘No, what are you doing?’, and after a while of playing that cheeky fucking game they would go over into a corner, or sit at a distant table, and begin playing ‘you show me yours, I’ll show you mine’! Whatever, it just always felt that journalists of any medium are either arrogant because their story beat someone else’s, or they are scared shitless because they don’t know if what they have is any good when weighed and measured against what the other channels, networks, publication has.

Express Reporter Danny McGrory, front, and Express Photographer John Downing MBE had worked closely together in war zones before. (Author Unknown)

John broke into my silent observations with a smack on the table – SMACK! “Okay, let’s go!” I stood up as John did, but Danny stayed seated.

“I’m going to do a bit more writing this morning. Come back later and let me know if you find them,” he said.

I was stoked because I didn’t like the fact that he didn’t like me yet, and I’m pretty sure Danny was thinking maybe he should see if I survive Day 2 in Sarajevo before going outside of the hotel with me. I didn’t blame him then, and I most certainly don’t blame him now. The risk of having an unknown factor like me at this stage would be unnerving to me as well.

John and I headed to the car in the garage.  “Where are we going?”, I asked.

“A bus carrying orphaned children was supposed to be allowed access out of the city yesterday. There was a temporary cease fire signed so the children could reach safety somewhere outside the city. But that didn’t happen – a sniper opened up on the bus and there are several dead children being kept somewhere in the city, and we have to find them.”

And that’s exactly what we did…

John threw his camera and the camera bag bulging with gear and film in the “boot” aka the trunk – shit, if John doesn’t look cool AF just doing that; popping the lid on the trunk, swinging his two beautiful Nikons and heaving this massive camera bag with different lenses of different focal lengths, back-up camera bodies in case one of his bad ‘mamajama’ cameras goes down, flashes, cords, batteries and more film for a day than I brought for the entire trip. He swings it off his shoulder just as he has a million other times. And I’m standing there, straight man-crushing my ass off.

You know that scene in RomComs we’ve all seen? You know. That scene where the total inept guy played by some actor chicks dream about because he’s funny AF, kinda ninja sexy – he’s not like George Clooney or Brad Pitt sexy, but he’s like a shy ‘neighbor boy’ who swam all through high school and college sexy? He’s the guy that does the same stupid shit us guys do, but everyone watching the movie thinks its sweet and adorable and his female counterpart is always super understanding and lets it slide because he’s just a goofball and she is so patient and understanding…but when we do that same shit in real life we know sure as hell it’s coming up in couples counselling Thursday after work? Yeah? Good. 

So, think ‘that’ movie, envision ‘that’ guy, and then think about that stereotypical RomCom scene where ‘Studley’ looks up from his menu and lays eyes on the woman of his dreams for the very first time…you still with me? You know what I’m talking about here? If not, skip to the next paragraph. If you’re still tracking you’re kind of a bad ass right now…So, you know how the camera always cuts away from the male lead and goes to that ‘tall drink of water’ of a woman flipping her hair back, or coming out of the ocean or the backyard pool, or she’s gliding across the room headed towards her crazy girlfriends, but the scene is SUPER slowed down and it feels like it goes on forever. And then the camera quick-cuts back to lovable dork – his eyes have fallen out of his skull, his jaw is on the floor, the drink he was about to wash his meal down with spills all over his nice shirt…all that shit? Well, that’s the moment I’m having in a dirty dark Holiday Inn parking garage two stories underground in Sarajevo while a war rages up above. 

John swings his bag off his shoulder, my whole world slows down in envy as it lands in the trunk of the car. Picture all that Hollywood glam shit, but it’s me, John, and a bag full of camera gear.

John puts his shit in the trunk and looks at me with his arm outstretched for my camera bag. Instead of doing all that super sexy professional war photographer shit he just did, I hand him my little green Walmart camcorder bag that I got on sale because the strap was missing and replaced with the one I found in my parents closet which subsequently broke on the flight from Germany to Budapest so I just carry the dumb bag like it’s my 5th-grade lunch pail…fucking sad, really. Anyway, John takes my discount bag, holds it up to examine it, shrugs his shoulders, sets it in the trunk next to his and shuts the lid on the trunk as I put my head down and start shuffling to the passenger side of the car feeling all this photo-gear envy and shame.

Up and out we go, John punching the gas hard as the car came out of the relative safety of the underground garage. As we came out into the open, I was half expecting one of the windows to be blown out from a bullet or a bomb. I’m feeling rather tense and thought John was too until he started sharing this really shitty story about a dear photographer friend of his named Tom Stoddart. As John told it, a few weeks back there was some very intense fighting happening in Sarajevo, and to avoid getting killed his friend had to climb over the parking garage wall. Because the drop from the top of the garage to the garage floor was so far, Tom had to hang by his fingertips. Eventually, either because someone is trying to shoot his fingertips off, or from complete exhaustion, or because he had no other choice, Tom drops down into the parking garage and he gets super broken (it takes a year for him to recover, but when he does he goes right back to doing amazing photography). John’s telling me this insane story and I’m so caught up in it that the anxiety that was starting to overwhelm me was gone, and I realize we’re halfway across the city already, heading to pick up John’s translator.

John and Danny sprint across a section of street that Serbian snipers often target. (Author Unknown)

John pulls up to the front of the gate that leads to the house. The road winds upwards on a narrow street made of cobblestone that looks like it’s been around for 100 years. John beeps the horn and the translator came out looking like a million bucks.

It was crazy how dressed up women in Sarajevo were all the time – their hair was all done, their nails painted, nice shoes to handbag coordination. I just thought it was crazy because, well, they live in a war and I’m thinking they probably know that by now, soooo….in the history of ‘hall passes’ on dressing up every day to go find sticks for the fire or water for drinking, bathing, and flushing poop down your hole, maybe it’s cool if you throw on some comfy sweatpants, your ex-boyfriends Budweiser shirt, put your hair in a pony, grab a ball cap and call it good. But in Sarajevo, during a siege of their beloved city, where people get shot and blown up on the daily, that’s not how these women roll – ladies hit the sidewalk dressed to impress.

Despite the fact that the city of Sarajevo was under siege by ethnic Bosnian Serbs with the direct backing of the Federation of Yugoslavia and its’ Serbian government and military, the woman of Sarajevo would often dress up. To some women it was an act of rebellion and to others it was a reminder that there was and will be a time when war is not a day to day part of their lives. ©Thomas James Hurst (1993)

I get banished to the backseat so the translator can sit up front with John, and they start talking about what happened with the orphans the day before. The translator had already heard about it on the radio and knew John would want to try to find something to photograph. She had some idea in what part of the city the shooting had happened and that was enough for John; we were off.

John flipped a U-turn, hit the gas, and the back of the car started bucking like I was riding a bull in the back. I bounced upwards, crashing into the ceiling of the car and then back down again – I let out a groan as this happened two or three times in quick succession. John glanced back in the rear-view mirror, his eyes giving away a confused look as he had clearly never ridden in the backseat of this car and hence had absolutely no idea what had happened or why I would be groaning.

“I’m good, I’m good,” I quickly say. I don’t want John to think I can’t handle things in the backseat, but I also think it’s probably helpful if he knows the situation. “I think it’s the cobblestone streets, John.” John looks at me again in the rear-view mirror, his eyes telling me he’s still confused and that I, his trusted sidekick, should explain the situation as I’ve diagnosed it. 

“Yeah, John, I’m thinking you should probably get the shocks in the back checked out. I’m thinking they’re either really worn or someone stole them and you don’t have any.” John rolled his eyes and shook his head as though he was trying to shake off a hangover before walking into work. But I’m not picking up that John either still has no idea what I’m talking about or more than likely he couldn’t care less about the shocks in the back where he NEVER sits. Do I shut up? Nah…

“It’s a fucking war zone, man, you should probably have some decent shocks, or shocks at all, right?” John is ignoring me now, I can tell.

As we sped through the streets the windows cracked letting in the smells of summertime war, the scent of the translator’s perfume started to blow gently in my face – it’s a respite from the heavy smoke of morning fires and burning trash. I started thinking about the whole ‘dressing up’ during war thing. From my backseat banishment, I lean forward and ask the translator why the women always dress up so much even though everything is a mess?

“It’s how we remind ourselves that we are still alive. It reminds us of when there was no war. When our lives were normal.” I slumped back into my seat; I felt kinda dumb because that makes total sense and wow is that super deep and heavy! They do it to remind themselves that they are alive, not dead: That they once lived normal lives, doing normal things. I stared out the window of the car, as bullet pocked buildings streaked past, and I just let all of that sink in.

Bosnian women walk together to do what shopping they can during the Siege of Sarajevo. ©Thomas James Hurst (1993)

We got to the part of the city where the translator told us to go. John wanted to find the bodies of the orphan children who were killed. John wanted people back in the UK to see the tragedy of this war, and today, there was no more devastating way to convey that than to let people wake up tomorrow with the bodies of two dead innocent children staring back at them.

We pulled over a few times to ask someone hanging out in a stairwell, or carrying jugs of water they had risked their life refilling. At one of our stops, the person we spoke to simply pointed to a build about 20 or 30 yards behind us. We got out of the car there and began walking towards a small one-story building with a little pick-up/drop-off spot out front. It was once a ‘neighborhood’ clinic, but now served as a trauma center. I guess the idea was that if anyone in the surrounding area was sick, hurt, or wounded you brought them here to be assessed, stabilized, and depending on their situation they were either treated and sent home, or stabilized before being raced at great risk across the city to Sarajevo’s main hospital. It seemed like the strategy helped keep people who didn’t really need to be at the main hospital from going their first and overwhelming the limited staff and resources that were available.

While I didn’t much care about where we parked the car at that moment, later that evening I sure as shit would. I was going to be cursing the decision to leave the car so far away while sprinting to and fro.

Once we were out of the car with our gear, we began walking towards the clinic. As we neared, a couple of people who looked like doctors and a couple of people who looked like they might be nurses, came out to greet/investigate us. John’s translator introduced us and explained that John and I were journalists (I wasn’t, but you get it) and that we’re looking to do a story about the orphans. The head guy, or the guy who acted like the head guy because he was older with glasses, did all the talking and whom everyone else stood behind. He nodded his head as though he understood what we were doing there. He gave John and I the once over…more than once… and he and the translator continued talking.

Now, if you’ve ever had a translator, and I’m sure some of you have, you know the whole experience is all kinds of awkward. Why? Because everyone else is working shit out, and you just stand there trying to look super intently at the people talking as if you are actually tracking the conversation, when the truth is you have absolutely no idea what’s being said…hence why you’re paying some else to do the talking. Now if you ever end up in one of these situations, here’s some basic moves;

1. The Smile: Use this when you think the conversations going good/in your favor – let them go first though, but don’t be too slow getting your smile up or you look really stupid.

2. The Furrowed Brow: Use this one when you think some serious shit is being explained.

3. The Look Away: This one is next level, but don’t overuse it or you look like you don’t care about whatever it is they’re saying. What you want to do for this is just look in a slightly different direction, maybe just over someone’s shoulder, and then act like something really interesting caught your eye.

I was actually already pretty good at these moves because I had taken four-years of Spanish in high school. Unfortunately, it was four years of Spanish 1. For the life of me, I just could NOT pass that class. You’d think I’d have been fluent in the language by the time I almost didn’t graduate. But I wasn’t. Instead I spent four years sitting in Ms. Meyers class listening to everyone else speak Spanish and I didn’t understand boo. For the first two years I couldn’t get much past “Hola, como estas, bien e tu.” It wasn’t that I was dumb, although I felt pretty dumb, it turned out I just wasn’t interested in Spanish or any other language because I had nothing going on in my life at that time where I could practically use it. Ms. Meyers was really great to me about it though. There I was, sitting in Freshman Spanish but now I’m a Senior, and rather than making me feel like shit, she told everyone I was her teacher’s aide – Thanks Ms. Meyers!

The point I’m trying to make is that while I might be crap at learning languages, I’m really good at standing there, picking up all the right cues, and making appropriate faces at the people I’m supposed to. So, while I don’t know a word of what’s being said right now…I kinda look like I do.

The translator and Doc are talking, then she says something and everyone gets real quiet and starts looking at the ground. I furrow my brow and look down at the ground as well. While I don’t know what’s been said, it’s obviously something heavy. I watch as the doctor gently slides one of his feet back and forth slowly overtop some loose gravel beneath him. Whatever she said or asked turned the mood dark. One of the nurses, a young lady probably in her mid to late 20’s with a soft shade of red lipstick, wiped away something on her face – I only caught her sudden movement and couldn’t see what it was. The doctor lifted his head, looked straight at John, and said “ok, I show you.”

The dead children were here. They had been brought to the clinic immediately after the sniper or snipers opened up on the bus full of children as they attempted to leave the city. Again, this was supposed to have all been agreed upon by both the Bosnians and the Serbs. The bus was set to leave the city on a particular day at a set time. It was to have free passage out so that the orphaned children could be taken to safety somewhere outside of the besieged city. Everything went as planned, until it didn’t. The bus was hit by snipers; children were hurt, and two little ones were killed. I don’t know if they were alive or dead when they arrived at the trauma center. I suppose it doesn’t really matter – they were both dead now. The medical team that received them upon arrival was the same medical team with us now, and naturally they were all traumatized and heartbroken over these deaths.

I would come to find out later that evening that it was not an issue of John and I being there to tell this story that had caused the long emotional delay when we all first met. Like most everyone else we met, people wanted us to document this tragedy. They knew that the stories we told to the outside world were their best shot of seeing this war end. The issue was that one of them, one of the medical team members, would have to take us down into the basement to direct us to where the children lay.

The doctor who was in charge led us around the side of the building and down a set of steep stairs. He opened the door below and used his thin white medical coat to cover his nose and mouth. He swung the door open and stood to the side to convey he would wait there at the door while we went in. The door opened into a hallway about six feet wide and about 40 feet long before it reached a left turn. The smell hit you first, it was the smell you only experience when you come upon something dead. At the end of the hallway we entered, you could see a person’s feet sticking out. John and I slowly entered in utter silence. Suddenly, I could hear nothing, none of the sounds emanating from a city at the center of a war – no bangs, no booms, no kids playing in the relative safety of an apartment building inner courtyard. No sounds of cars racing down streets, no sounds of tires screeching around corners, not my own steps walking on the white tiled floors – I could hear nothing. Yet at the same moment my awareness of everything around me became hyper focused, I noticed everything – where the feet were, where John was in relation to me, where the doctor stood at the entrance still holding the door open. How I was holding my dinky camera – any information that could be taken in, taken in and logged – stored away somewhere in my mind and ready for new information to be quickly interpreted. I’m honestly not sure how to explain it, but everything around me suddenly slowed down and I could see everything everywhere. My heart was racing, but I didn’t feel panicked. I felt in complete control of myself. I felt superhuman at that moment.

As we neared the next turn, I still couldn’t see the entire body. The rest of it was laid out in the next hallway, but I could see their shoes. I knew it was a man. He was wearing sport shoes, a brand logo I didn’t know. The shoes had once been a bright, crisp, probably almost a blind new white, but now they were scuffed, more dirt grey than white at all. The rubber soles were worn down. His feet were spread apart, like you would imagine someone’s feet would be if they were taking a peaceful nap in Central Park. As John and I reached the corner, John just an arm’s length before me, he looked down the next hallway and immediately shot a glance back to the door. The doctor was still standing there. I immediately paused and looked back at what John was looking at and the doctor waved at us to go on. As I turned the corner, standing directly next to John, I was in shock of what I saw – bodies down the entire hallway, it must have been 10 or 15 yards long and you could hardly see a single piece of tile on the floor. Some were covered with sheets from the hospital or blankets from home that they likely arrived at the center with. One after another, after another, after another some had to be laid half on top of other bodies. Some young, some old, some covered, some not, some with all their extremities and others whose arms, legs or faces had been blown off, blown apart or blown in. Blood lay in small pools coagulated, flies buzzed here and there. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I would have thought I would have been sick, thrown up, ran out, turned away, but I stood there and forced myself to take it all in: This was war. I can think of no words as I type this that can come close to properly describe the absolute horror that is the final result of war. I am without words.

Once again, we looked back towards the doctor – he motioned for us to go left around the corner, and then it looked as if he was telling us to turn left again. We did just that and nudged a door that was already slightly opened, and we stepped inside.

There they were. Two small children laying on a silver slab of cold metal. A single ray of light shown through a single small window towards the ceiling. John raised his camera and the sound of the shutter broke the silence these babies had been resting in. I lifted my camera, not knowing much more than how to put film in it and I too began taking my first ever pictures. At that moment, the camera pressed against my face, my finger adjusting the lens’ focus and pressing the shutter button and then winding another piece of raw film into place, I knew with the greatest sense of clarity that I would dedicate my life to showing others the horror I was now confronted with. It was not a want or desire. It was now a responsibility.

Two orphaned children shot and killed by a sniper during a brokered ceasefire. The children were part of a bus load of orphaned children who were assured safe passage out of Sarajevo  in June of 1992. The bus was fired upon by at least one sniper killing the two children and forcing the bus to return back to the besieged city. ©Thomas James Hurst (1992)

One reply on “two”

I went from laughing to weeping. Amazing story telling. Thanks for sharing Hurst.

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