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Hello to All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace Excerpt from Hello to All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace

by John Falk

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August 3, 1993

The plane was a Luftwaffe C- 130 packed with tons of food aid, en route to Sarajevo. The German Air Force had issued parachutes to give us a fighting chance in case we were shot down, but the other passengers thought it was a waste. "Just means our bodies will burn faster," bitched a distinctly American voice. I was cheered.

Actually, I didn't get it. Yeah, the parachutes were uncomfortable. Yeah, we looked like idiots. But I was a war correspondent, flying into my first war zone and, if I had to wear a giant silver diaper to get it done, so be it. I was going in.
About forty minutes into the flight from the coast of Croatia, a German sergeant ordered us to buckle up, barking about ground fire at the airport. "Be ready to disembark immediately," he yelled over the engines as we flew through a cloud bank that obscured everything below. I stared out the window anyway; I couldn't help it. When Sarajevo revealed itself, I wanted to see everything. It was ugly; it was grim; it was war. But at the time, I admit it, it was exciting to me.

I knew more about the siege of Sarajevo than many, having read up in graduate school. Sarajevo was a city of almost half a million tucked away in a valley dominated on all sides by mountains and steep hillsides where approximately ten thousand Serb soldiers armed with the latest weaponry were dug in. Their aim was to kill as many as they could of the lightly armed, mostly Muslim inhabitants in the city below. So far, they had taken out ten thousand and the survivors lacked water, electricity, gas, and medicine.

I knew the names of the key politicians and the broad strokes of the latest international peace plans. But I didn't go much deeper than that because I really didn't give a fuck about the history of the place, and I hadn't come all this way just to learn more. I was here because I was trying to start my life. Maybe a genocidal conflict seems a strange place for this purpose. But I had waited so long and I was determined.

Our plane descended below the clouds, and Sarajevo started sliding by: smashed roofs, houses gutted by fire, patches of rubble, tank traps. A smoky steel blue haze hung over the city and, even though it was summer, the few trees were bare and skeletal.

We landed at Sarajevo International, then run by the French Foreign Legion, at 4:00 p.m. Concertina wire ringed the perimeter. Machine-gun emplacements were dug in between the runways. Snipers were positioned in the sandbagged control tower. Every- where I looked there were Legionnaires with assault rifles. Except for a huge Russian jet crumpled at the end of the runway, we were the only plane.

Within minutes a crew of Frenchies in khaki hot pants had unloaded the aid and was ushering us outside. I grabbed my stuff and followed the others out to the tarmac, where I caught my first whiff of war--a strange amalgamation of burning plastic and wood smoke, mixed with a dash of horseshit. Not pleasant, but exotic enough to have a certain allure. In the distance I could hear gunfire.

From the plane, we were led down a sandbagged alley where my papers were processed by a UN press officer. Within three minutes I was in the pickup area, a parking lot surrounded on three sides by a ten-foot wall of dirt. Except for the black SWAT body armor and the helmet I wore, everything I had brought from Long Island was packed away in a medium L.L. Bean canvas duffel bag I dragged behind me.
It held: four pair of boxers and socks, three golf shirts from the Gap, two pair of stone-washed jeans, a ribbed-neck sweater from J. Crew, two cartons of Camel Lights, a year's supply of the antidepressant Zoloft stuffed in a tube sock, three hundred dollars American, a shortwave radio, pens and a notebook, recording equipment from Radio Shack, a 3 5 mm camera and film, half a bar of Toblerone chocolate, five rolls of two-ply Scott toilet paper, a Serbo-Croatian phrase book, plus The End of History and the Last Man and a dog-eared, underlined copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

But my most valuable possession wasn't in my bag: in my pocket was a crumpled-up cocktail napkin with a crude map sketched on it, a "reward" for my agreeing to be a courier for a Macedonian I had met in Croatia. The plan called for me to deliver a bag of mail to a woman named Szezana in Sarajevo.

Back in Croatia, I was told that the most important thing I needed to make it in Sarajevo was an ally, someone who knew the city and would be willing to give me a safe place to crash. Szezana, I'd decided, was going to be my ally, but to rendezvous with her I had to get into the city. To do that, I was to hook up with an Egyptian armored personnel carrier (APC), which would take me to some building called the PTT. But the Egyptian APC was nowhere in sight.

An Australian reporter was hovering close by, so I showed him my mailbag, told him about the Macedonian and Szezana, and described the map.

"Let me see", he said, storing his cigarette in the corner of his mouth. After glancing down, he grinned. "No way, mate," he said, handing back the map. "You go there today, tomorrow you go home in a box."

"What the hell do you mean?" I asked, panicked.

"Someone doesn't like you much. That address is the worst in the world. It's in the middle of goddamn Sniper Alley."

But that napkin was the Jesus-bolt holding my whole plan together: "What should I do?"

"If I were you, I'd get out of here. It's not a place to fuck around, mate." Then he hopped into an armored Land Rover and drove away.

I was as scared as I had ever been and I hadn't even been on the ground for ten minutes. In seconds, I had gone from this sense of having a friend in Sarajevo to feeling completely alone in the most dangerous city on the planet. But no way was I going to turn back. So, though I didn't really want to, I approached Mort--the tall American reporter who bitched and moaned more than anyone on the plane. Maybe he would help me, but it would probably cost something.

"Who gave you this piece of shit?" he roared at the map.

"A Macedonian," I told him, holding out my napkin. "I'm supposed to deliver some mail for her at that address."

"Nice of you. Piece of advice, though? Next time don't take shit from no one. You don't know what you're carrying in. Military maps. Messages. If the Serbs find any of that shit, you're fucked."

"Listen. Normally I would never ask this. But could you please help me. Just one night."

"Why don't you just stay at the Holiday Inn?"

I had heard about the Holiday Inn. It was on a front line and half of it was history. Rooms in the other half were going for two hundred a night--more if you wanted soup.

"No money."

"Freelancer?"

"Yeah."

He looked away, then back, then did it again. Someplace not far off, a machine gun burped. "OK," he said. "You've come this far, so I guess someone owes you a day."

"Thanks, man," I told him. "Really."

"But remember, tomorrow morning, whatever happens, you're on your own." Then he put his right hand on my left shoulder and looked me in the eye. "If you fuck up my gig at the church, I mean at all, I'll kill ya."

I swore I wouldn't, but I had no idea what the hell he was talking about.

Five minutes later, the Egyptian APC arrived. Locked away in its steel belly, we couldn't see anything. The highlight of the trip was getting stopped by four Serb soldiers who opened the back hatch to make sure we weren't hauling Muslims. My first look at soldiers at war, they were well armed and surly, but still they didn't seem like the genocidal maniacs I had seen on TV back in America. A little on the pudgy side, they were dressed in purple-and-blue tiger-pattern fatigues that could only have been useful if they were fighting their way across Liberace's living room.

After the Egyptians dropped us off at the PTT building, a Spanish reporter drove us to a section of Sarajevo called Old Town. To get there, we drove down Aldo od Bosna, the city's main boulevard, now called simply Sniper Alley. We were the only car on the road, and most of the time he did about eighty in order to give the Serb snipers hunting the street a more difficult target. But as Mort and the Spaniard were casually chitchatting up front and didn't seem too worried, I relaxed. Pressing my face to the window, I tried to take in as much as I could. I noticed there was no glass remaining in any windows anywhere; most of the taller buildings had been blown apart; the streets were littered with burnt hulks of cars and trolleys; and the few people I did see were either pushing baby carriages full of plastic jerry cans or pulling sleds piled high with firewood. The strangest sight I saw was an old man dressed in a three-piece suit walking down the middle of the road holding two dead pigeons.

Mort's gig turned out to be a room he had scored inside a Roman Catholic church that stood at an intersection of three narrow cobblestone streets. As we pulled up, a pack of scruffy kids were kicking the hell out of a patched soccer ball while two uniformed men with machine guns stood watching from inside a sandbagged bunker.

As soon as Mort stepped out, the kids started screaming, running in circles, and chanting, "Mort, Mort, Mort." A small crowd, including a cop, gathered as Mort grabbed his luggage, then took out some candy. The kids went nuts.

While Mort was doing his thing with the kids, the cop caught my eye and gestured for a cigarette. I had quit the day before, but brought a few cartons because I heard they were better than gold for making allies. Reaching into my bag, I tossed a fresh pack of Camel Lights to the cop, who pumped my hand.

After we got inside, Mort and I put down our bags. The marbled-floored church, lit by a few candles, was real chilly. In the dim light I heard whispered conversations. Mort ushered me into an office just off the main entrance and gave explicit instructions: "Sit-the-fuck-down!"

Confused, I just stood there.

"Fine, stand up, I don't give a shit. You really fucked up out there. You know what the fuck you did?"

"No."

"No? Put a gun to your head, and more importantly, mine."

"How?"

"The whole fucking street saw you toss those butts to that cop, asshole. Now everyone knows that the rich fuck American is here--with me."

Mort spun on his heels and went out the door. Ten seconds later he was back and pacing.

"This is Vietnam, dickhead. These people hate your guts," he told me through clenched teeth. "Don't be a fucking fool, especially when you're around me. They hate you because you can leave. They hate you because you have money. They hate you for being here. Don't trust these motherfuckers for one second, not once."

A knock on the door brought a teenage boy--short, skinny, and dark haired. Putting a hand around the kid's shoulder, Mort was suddenly all smiles. After he mumbled something in Bosnian, the kid left. Mort stood there with this beatific smile on his face. I was starting to wonder what was under Mort's hood.

"Do you know who Satso is?" he asked, suddenly pissed again. "No."

"Well, he's God to these fucking idiots. The local warlord. Controls everything in Old Town. Hates Serbs. Hates the UN. But the thing he hates most is you. In fact, he digs kidnapping foreign journalists."

Then Mort suddenly changed gears again, calming down and taking a seat next to me on the couch. "You know The Lawrence Welk Show?"

"A little." "The one with the cascading bubbles?"

"Yeah, yeah. On PBS. Bubbles. Sure."

"Well, Satso used to be lead guitarist on the Bosnian version," he said, leaning back into the couch as if he was fondly remembering every bubble. "He was good. I mean real good, for Bosnia anyway."

He lit himself a cigarette.

"But in the first days of the war, Satso lost his arm. He couldn't play his guitar anymore and snapped, went psychotic. He did some bad shit, but what's important is he's a warlord now. Commands five thousand men and when they're not fucking up Serbs, they come down here to Old Town and do two things: kill police and kidnap foreign reporters. The point is: Don't give anyone any thing. Fuck 'em, they probably deserve it."

To calm myself, I lit my first cigarette. I wasn't so much worried about this Satso as I was about Mort. I didn't think he'd really kick me out in the morning if I hadn't yet found a place, but I wasn't sure. As I smoked, the teenage boy walked back in, mumbling something in Bosnian.

"Great. Our room's ready, buddy," he told me, suddenly Mr. Sunshine. "The kid here set up a cot for you. Let's drop our shit in the room. Then you can come with me while I drop off a care package. It will be good for you."

Copyright 2005 by John Falk