A Memoir


Sitting in the trauma clinic or center or place…where people who are really fucked up come, I stare at both doctors as they take another deep drag from their cigarettes. Both staring off in the same direction, but both are clearly in vastly different places. I wonder to myself how much lower they will let their cigarettes burn? They’re practically down to the filter. At first I thought it strange to let cigarettes burn so low, but I realize I have a ‘Land of Milk and Honey’ brain. My default is where everything is easily accessible and obtainable. I need to have a war brain. Here, it wasn’t like they were going to hang a sign on the clinic door that read “Gone for cigs, back in 5” and then stroll across the street to a convenience store for a couple packs of smokes and a diet Coke. Smoking it down to the nubby nub made total sense when you knew everything was or would run out.

As the afternoon turned into late afternoon and then closer to evening, a decision had to be made. I could sense something was on John’s mind, but he hadn’t expressed it yet and while I’m to this day a train wreck in a china shop when it comes to verbalizing things on my mind at any place or anytime in front of anybody, my intuition told me to leave it alone. While I now knew that John was an experienced man in the world of war, conflict and human tragedy, I could also see that John had not become indifferent or hardened by the tragedies he had covered in the past, prior to coming to Sarajevo. I didn’t need to ask John whether he had seen dead babies before, he had. I didn’t need to ask if he had seen mothers or grandmothers torn open before, he had. I didn’t need to ask John if had heard the panic and terror of loved ones who could only standby and watch when a friend or family member lay mortally wounded before, he had. I didn’t have to ask John if he had seen the frustration and anger that comes to the surface of trained professionals when they don’t have the tools they need to save lives before, he had. I didn’t have to ask John if witnessing what we had today would come back to him in his dreams, because they would.

Doctors play chess in between stabilizing patients who come in and are badly wounded. The one time doctor’s clinic has been turned into a Trauma Center. ©Thomas James Hurst (1992)

As I watched two of the doctors play chess inside the trauma center, John edged up to me, “we’re going to spend the night here kid,” he said in a low voice. My eyes got big, I looked up at him with a large smile on my face. “I should have figured you’d like that idea,” he said shaking his head and walking away as if a normal person would have been shocked or unnerved by the idea of spending a candle-lit night with war doctors in a bullet pocked building waiting for the dead and dying to arrive. It sounds rather twisted and fucked up as I write it so I can only assume it will read twisted and fucked up as well, but even now I can feel a sense of excitement I felt in that moment. I didn’t want people to be hurt. That wasn’t anywhere close to why I felt excited. I felt excited because I was in the middle of a war and if I could do nothing to stop it at least I could do something to help. Even if that meant helping John in some way so that he could tell the story that people needed to be made aware of so that the war could come to an end. Maybe I could hold a flashlight while doctors treated someone, maybe I could make someone smile or laugh, I don’t know, but I want to do something and I wasn’t going to do anything for anyone back at the Holiday Inn.

Quietly, I repeated what John had told me, “we’re going to spend the night here kid.” I started racing through a mental checklist of the gear and supplies I had on hand for just such a night; Headlamp, emergency blanket (the thin silver one you see draped around marathon runners once they cross the finish line), power-bars or the like to stave off hunger, high-speed film for low, natural, lite pictures. A flash, flash cord, and spare AA batteries for when there was action happening and I needed pictures to be sharp. Plenty of bottled water, baby wipes for the inevitable ‘shit-in-the-woods’ moment that would for sure need to happen at some point. Hand sanitizer – can’t be haven poo-poo fingers on the camera. Latex gloves in case I’m thrown into a situation where I need to help rather than shoot pictures. My notebook and pen/pencil to make notes about what is on my rolls of film, getting people’s names when possible, or thoughts about what I’m witnessing. Okay, I think that about covers all the shit I did not have with me – sweet! In reality, I had whatever was on my body or around my neck when I left the Holiday Inn and that was it. I did have my trusted crappy camera bag which carried all of one roll of iso 100 slide film and a 70-200mm 5.6-8 zoom lens which might have well been a brick given it was heavy and of absolutely no use in the coming blackness of the night. I had no food, water or anything listed above. I had the kevlar vest loaned to me from a reluctant Hungarian TV reporter in Budapest (that story coming soon) and that was it. I didn’t even have my Mickey Mouse trucker hat because John gently shared with my that I look like a fucking idiot with it on. He also mentioned I should probably cut my hair and look the part of a real journalist rather than some hippy college kid from Northern California. Whoa John, not the hair baby, not the hair.

“You ready to earn your way kid?” John had taken to calling me “kid” which I liked because it made me think of all the cool movies where the old salty veteran refers to the young, handsome, overly talented, wisdom-less character in Hollywood movies  “kid” – think Tom Cruise in Top Gun or some other movie that actually doesn’t include Tom Cruise. That’s what I had imagined in my head when John referred to me as “kid.” Excited John needed me for something, I puffed my chest out, chin high, looking him directly in his eyes, “whatever you need John,” I responded – my voice trying to sound more manly and confident than I really was.

“I need you to race to the car and grab me more film,” he explained. I was let down by the request. I mean how hard was it going to be to walk outside the front doors, put the key in the trunk lock, open the lid, pull film out, close lid, pull key out of lock, and walk back in? “Yeah, sure John,” I said, far less enthused once I knew what the ask was. John gave me a peculiar, half-cocked, eyebrows furrowed look. It’s the look someone gives you after you miss-hear something they said and you respond to what you think they said. Like when you’re in the check-out line at the grocery store and the clerk says ‘do you want a shag?’ and your mind takes off running trying to sort out exactly how to answer this totally random, inappropriate, but weirdly hot question. Your brain is replaying the strange question back and forth and isn’t sure how to answer it because while you were TOTALLY not expecting this topic to come up in the Walmart check-out line, if you’re really honest with yourself, you would actually like a shag. I mean not with the clerk, most certainly not with the clerk standing in front of you asking because she’s not really your…I don’t know, I mean maybe the clerk. Your mind is all over the place all at once. Your mind finally lands on an answer at least as far as the clerk is concerned, ‘okay, for sure it’s a no for the clerk…Your brain keeps trying to sort the mis-heard question; ‘I could totally go for a shag, but if not with the clerk who is offering, then who? Who do I want a shag from? Damn It! Why is this so hard to figure out? I mean at 21-years-old I should probably know the answer to this question…’sir, would you like a bag…for your groceries?’ Oh shit, you said BAG! Uhh, yes. I would like a bag. Please. I’m so sorry, I thought you said do I want a…yes, a bag. I would like a bag for my groceries please, thank you.’

John shrugged his shoulders and handed me the keys. I set my camera down on the chair I had been sitting in and walked out the front doors of the clinic to get John’s film.

The funny thing about being in a building during a war is you stop giving too much thought of being hurt or killed. You can hear shooting and explosions, some near some far, but unless windows break or the ground shakes you tend to feel pretty impervious to war shit. As the day had worn on and the Summer heat began to cool as the sun drifted lower and lower towards the horizon the intensity of gun fire had most certainly picked up both far and near.

The clinic sat inside what a field commander might consider a wall of defense. The wall was actually multiple apartment buildings that faced out to what was still considered Serb held territory. This early into the Siege of Sarajevo the battle lines were more lucid than ever. The snipers were in hillside homes across the way. Serbs, whether former military, police or militia were fewer in number, but were far better armed with bullets, bombs, rockets, heavy machine guns, tanks and artillery. While the early defenders of Sarajevo outnumbered the Serbs maybe as much as 5-1 they had far less weapons by which to break the Serb siege. I remember presuming that most of the shooting or explosions were incoming, not outgoing in those early days and it was clearly evident that the Defenders of Sarajevo were poorly equipped. Snipers and tanks, artillery, and mortars seemed to be the general makeup of what was killing people here.

All this being the case, as I walked out the front doors of the clinic I immediately felt a lot less safe and much more aware that not only had the tempo of war picked up considerably since our arrival earlier in the day, it was also a shit ton closer. The apartments across the street some 30-yards must be offering either great locations to shoot into or great locations to shoot out of and they were very clearly being targeted. “Shit, glad the car is right out here,” I remember thinking as I looked for it. Not to the left, not to the right, not parked out front. I turned back to John who was standing inside watching me, “Holy fuck John, someone stole our car!” I was mortified that this would happen to us, ok to John. Here we (him) are trying to tell the story of this horrible war and someone jacked our car (his car, but I really wanted it to be an ‘us’ thing). John looked at me as if I was the clerk asking him if he wanted a shag for his groceries. John walked towards me and stopped. With one hand he took hold of the top of my head and turned it to look back outside towards what I was considering the ‘scene of the crime.’ With his right hand he pointed towards something waaaay out in the distance. Starting at about his wrist and followed an invisible line that ran down to his pointer finger and then out into the empty parking area that would have served as visitor parking for what should still be a neighborhood medical clinic. Still not seeing what it was John was trying to point out to me, my eyes continued along the invisible line from John’s finger. Out farther, and farther, and a wee bit farther and there…Like way the fuck out there was a car and damn if it didn’t look exactly like our car (really John’s car). Shit! Someone has a car just like John’s car, fuck, what are the odds that two of the same exact looking cars would be in the same area…Oooooh, I looked back at John, eyes wide and jaw dropped. “That’s right, we parked way over there didn’t we?” I said to John rather sheepishly. He nodded, “you got this kid,” he said. Now at that moment I’m not sure if John was asking me a question, like “you got this kid?” Or if he was making a statement, “you got this kid.” as in a vote of confidence. I think he was asking me a question, but I didn’t want to let John down by telling him I was too scared to go. “Oh, yeah. I got this John. No problem” I said glancing around the streets and up at the apartments across the street. “You wait here, kid. I’ll go grab it.” he reached his hand out for the keys. I gripped the keys tightly and put them behind my back. “I got this John, no big deal it’s just right over there,” I said with more confidence in my voice than before.

There was no way I was not doing this for John. I wasn’t going to let him have the keys. I wasn’t going to let him steal back this opportunity to prove myself to him. “Yeah, I totally got this,” I repeated with more confidence, more for convincing myself than for convincing John. And with that, I took off in a dead sprint before John could refuse to let me go. I wasn’t leaving this decision up to him anymore. I wasn’t going to be a coward after all I had been through in my life and all I had been through to get to this moment. No way I was not doing this.

Listen it’s not that John couldn’t do this or that the hail of bullets and bombs outside were so intense that John would risk my life to save his own. No, that’s not John Downing MBE in any way, shape or form. John had made runs like this a million times in all the years he had been covering shit like this. No, I believe it was John remembering what it was like to be a young man trying to prove to yourself, even more than others that you could handle the task or assignment. It was John recognizing that there was something bigger happening inside of me – that there was something I was trying to learn about myself and John was providing me with the opportunity to learn that by doing or not doing it something so far out of my comfort zone. It was my choice, not John’s demand. Knowing John as I came to, John saw in me something that he had once experienced for himself. It was obvious that at one point in John’s life someone had taken him under their wing and he was now doing that for me. This is why he asked and when he saw the flash of fear on my face, rather than shame me, he offered me an easy out – he would go instead of me. I believe that is why John was an incredible mentor to so many throughout his career – he was attuned to who you were and what could be asked, suggested, or demanded from you and this would help push you to grow, learn, gain experience and confidence in yourself.

I was in good shape when I left for this trip so the run was not going to be hard – at this point in my life I could run 12-15 miles on the mountain trails I grew up with and then turn around and run a 6-minute mile an hour later. Running fast wasn’t my concern, keeping my legs attached to my body was. War running is a strange thing – it’s not like running on a mountain trail or a treadmill that’s for sure. Adrenaline floods your system, your mind is moving at warp speed and your legs, while they’re pumping like pistons, feel as though they’re pumping pistons in thick mud.

I can tell the car is getting closer, but I’m still not there. In my mind I imagine a hundred heads leaning into their rifles, their cheeks pressed hard against their wood rifle stocks. I imagine a hundred eyeballs looking down through their rifle scopes lining the crosshairs on to my chest and then sliding their rifles a little more to their right, the crosshairs staying level with the plane I’m traveling leading me just enough so that their bullet and my chest will come together at the right exact moment. I imagine their leathery war weary hands gripping the stock ever so tightly, pulling the rifle ever more tighter into their shoulder before taking a deep breath, holding it, and gently squeeeezing the trigger…I wonder as I sprint across the bullet and bombed scared pavement what it will feel like when the bullet cuts through my skin. What will it feel like when the piece of metal flattens out as it shatters my ribs and punctures my origins as it  tumbles around the inside of my chest cavity. They say you never hear the bullet that kills you, but is that true? Or is it like the riddle; if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around does it make a sound? Has someone ever asked the soldier or gunshot victim if they heard the shot before they died? I wonder if I will be dead before I hit the concrete? I hope it does, I think to myself because falling on concrete hurts like hell. Your hands and knees get road rash and if you’ve ever hit your head on concrete and felt the hard thud of it you know how painful that feels. Why am I worried about falling down on concrete when what would be causing that to happen would be a piece of burning lead rummaging around in my chest or skull like grandma at a thrift store? In my mind’s eye there are a hundred eyeballs watching and waiting for me. In my mind, thoughts of what will happen when I’m shot – not if, when. The car is getting closer which is not the relief I thought it would be. The closer the car gets the closer to dying I feel is coming for me.

I reached the car, not thinking to glide into it, but more like run through it slamming into the back. The keys are in my hand, I’ve gripped them so tightly that I have to use my left hand to pry my fist open – the keys have left a red outline in the palm of my hand almost as if I’ve been brand. I got the key into the lock smoother than I expected. If there was anywhere I thought I would fumble it was the key-into-lock portion. The trunk opens and I quickly sift through the contents of it. I grab a pack of film, slam the lid shut and pull the keys out, spin around facing back to the clinic and kneel down onto one knee to catch my breath and gather my thoughts. I look up to my left where one of several apartments loom almost overtop of me. I was surprised as I see a group of children peering through and over the metal railings of an outside walkway down onto me. There is a carbon copy railed landing on each level of this apartment building and I look up and over the observing children and there leaning on another railing are three old ladies, a clothes drying line stretching from one walkway light to another walkway light. I look up from them and an old man with a funny hat on holds a tea cup and he draws it to his lips to take a sip. I look down from the building because I’m getting a kink in my neck having it cranked upwards for so long. There on the bottom floor at the once glass-paned entrance to the building is a mix of young men and women – they are smoking cigarettes and the young men wearing a variety of articles of army fatigues or blue police uniforms stand and sit with rifles pointed skyward or down towards the ground. It dawns on me that they’re waiting to see what if anything is going to happen to me on this little film escapade. It makes sense to me, that all be curious as to the outcome of this moment. It certainly would make me curious if I were in their shoes. Watching a strange Westerner with flowing shoulder-length hair, body armor draped over him, running around like a scared deer two or three months into their city being laid seized to…Yeah, I’d wanna see the outcome of that. God knows they can’t possibly have TV right now – so for a brief moment, I’m the live entertainment…and I totally see why.

From a kneeling position I take off back towards the clinic, but this time I decide I’m not going to run in a straight line as I did on the way out here. No, on the way back in I’m going to zig-zag my ass off. I go with this strategy for two reasons. First, I’m thinking if a sniper had seen me run out in a straight line then the zig-zag while making me slower, would perhaps confuse ‘Piper the Sniper’ up in them there hills. As well, if I do it right, it should make me that much harder a target to hit. That being said if a mortar dropped on the street, and there was plenty of that going on, I would be shredded whether I was zigging or zagging. The second reason for the ZZ approach was my thinking it made for better viewing from the remaining apartment dwellers standing out on the walkways watching me.

Me sprinting back from John’s car and into the trauma center with more film. ©John Downing MBE (1992)

I zigged and zagged. Left then right, then left then right. Then it hit me! No, not a bullet or bomb, but the realization that I could not hear sound. I knew there was sound reverberating all around me, bullets being shot, explosions from bombs both near and far, I could see shaggy stray dogs barking and even a car drove past me and yet I could hear nothing. I could see everything with great precision, my senses felt off the charts, but I could not hear a sound. I would come to experience this same strange several more times throughout my career. It was always in intensely stressful moments like being directly next to a man who was stabbed in his stomach with a large kitchen knife in the streets of Haiti – his intestines slipping through the large gash in his skin dangling outside his body as men began clubbing him to the ground with sticks and then ending his life by smashing his skull in with a cinder block. Or the time in Rwanda when myself and a group of journalists, packed into a minivan were car-jacked by Congo rebels. What we thought would just be a quick robbery of some cash escalated to the point that a rebel in the van jammed his AK-47 into someones stomach and pulled the trigger, but the weapon jammed – they then ordered the van’s driver, a local man, to drive his van deep into the jungle. There are a few other intense situations which would one day come to be where I also stopped being able to hear voices, arguments, and screams.

I have no doubt that if we could go look at the replay of my zig-zag strategy back to the clinic it would look less like you were watching someone properly executing an evasive move deployed when under fire on the battlefield. No, I feel pretty confident it probably looked a lot more like something out of a ‘Mr. Bean Goes to War’ movie. I figure if anything I wasn’t being directly targeted or shot at because Serb Snipers were finding it too difficult to keep their rifles steady while laughing and peeing their pants in hysterics watching me jib and jab all the way back.

The last 5-10 yards I just sprinted for the safety of the clinic. John was outside watching me and as I came rushing back up to him I saw a large grin on his face, “well done, kid,” he said and patted me on the back. Winded I gave John a slight wave of my hand as I brushed past him on my way to sit back down in the reception area chairs. The two doctors glanced up from their chess match each giving me a flick of the head and a smile just to acknowledge I had come back into the room – I don’t honestly think they had any idea of the intense war moment I was coming down from. I also don’t think that the 90-second sprint/zig-zag thing would come anywhere close to their own ‘intense war moments’ scale, but that didn’t stop me from trying to draw some attention to myself in some dumb-ass way…

“Yeah, I just had to run to get some film for John, no big deal,” I not so casually say. 

They both nod their heads at me and smile then look back down at the chess board.

I have no idea if these guys actually understand English, if they know John or care about John Downing MBE being a big deal, or that I ever left the building….but I keep talking.

“There was some shooting and stuff while I was running. I mean not at me directly, but like all around the area for sure. Something really bad could have happened out there, but I was doing this zig-zag move all the way back,” I’m using my right hand to make zig-zag moves back and forth as if I was showing the first signs of going into a seizure or something. “I’m really fast, I ran a 6-minute mile once…” I drift off as now they’re completely ignoring me. Not a glance up, not a smile or a nod. Nothing and I feel like an idiot – damn what is wrong with me I think as I replay everything I had just told them…or I guess everything I had just told no one given no one was listening. “I ran a 6-minute mile once,” I repeated to myself in a sarcastic demeaning voice as if my older sister Laurie was repeating it in her ‘make you little brother feel like a tard’ voice. I slumped back into the chair feeling dumb, hungry, and thirsty. The sweat I had manufactured running to and from the car and from all the adrenaline I was feeling started to feel cold as my body cooled down. The sun was lower in the sky and the shadows grew longer and longer. The shooting and bombing would ebb and flow – it would ease and then rage again, then ease, then rage. It was as if the war was breathing in slowly and exhaling with force.

As my stomach growled I wondered what my friends were doing back home. I wondered what it would be like to be with them and what it would be like if they were here with me. I wondered what I’d be doing if I hadn’t made it to Sarajevo. With a new perspective about the seriousness of war and those actioning it, I wondered if I would have been more scared when the Serb military pulled me and all my belongings off the train when we crossed into Serbia from Hungary. How the old lady I sat with on the train seemed terrified when they were marching me off to the small dark building by the train tracks.

I didn’t get it then, but I was starting to get it now…

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