Hit or Miss
[From My Life As A Pencil, by Ron Arias, of which selections will be published in early 2015 by Red Bird Chapbooks, St. Paul, MN]
Because Sarajevo exists in a valley, the city was a good target for Serbian shelling and sniper fire during the Bosnian War. In late 1993, I heard plenty of bullets pinging off walls, cars and cobblestones; scariest of all were the occasional whirring sounds of mortar rounds passing close by an instant before exploding on nearby buildings.
Ken Regan and I had been in Sarajevo for three days, following around a 6’3,” bearded ex-Marine and Rhode Island fireman who’d been showing local firefighters how to fight fires under fire. I filled my notebook with details and colorful quotes about a city under siege, while Ken shot rolls of dramatic, black-and-white photos filled with backlit smoke and flames, John Jordan usually in the foreground manning a fire hose.
It was a good story about a fearless, though somewhat mysterious hero. After 20 months of scrounging used American trucks, hoses, helmets and protective clothes for Sarajevo’s five fire stations, John made it clear he was neutral on the war, that he also gave fuel and gear to Serbian firemen in the hills around the city. “I tell both sides, ‘I don’t care who’s right or wrong in your friggin’ war. Every apartment or home that firemen save means one less refugee family.’”
At the end of the third day we moved our gear and sleeping bags from the UN compound to the city’s main fire station, glad to be near our story subject round the clock. We arrived in the dark in John’s unarmored pickup. “I don’t wear a flak jacket or helmet either,” he explained. “Won’t do you no good. The caliber bullet they use is big enough to go through two inches of steel, then take your head off—with or without the helmet.” Ken and I wore helmets and Kevlar vests anyway.
Guided by a pen-sized flashlight, John drove past an open gate and into the station’s inner courtyard, parking between two pumper trucks. Because of the snipers above us, light was kept to a minimum. We got out and retrieved our gear from the truck bed. “Big John,” as men here called him, motioned for us to follow him into the old brick-walled building. I found out the station used to have a computerized citywide alarm system, installed for the 1984 Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, wartime destruction knocked out electricity and the system was useless.
Ken, who had covered those games, kept remembering another Sarajevo where everything worked and the city sparkled. One mist-shrouded morning when John was driving through the central part of town, we came across an open area with hundreds of wooden crosses poking out of dirt mounds. “Oh-mygod!” Ken shrieked. “This was a soccer field!”
Ken asked John to stop--he wanted to take some shots of him by the improvised cemetery. John pulled over to the curb in the shadow of a building across the street from the eerie array of rectangular, dirt bumps, all neatly lined up with the crosses at the head of each mound. John, stepping to the spot where Ken indicated, told us the city had no space left to bury the bodies; these poor souls were combat casualties or victims of sniper hits, rocket-launched grenades, mortar rounds. “Kids, women, doesn’t matter who they get.”
“Ken, can we hurry this up?” I said.
Ken clicked away, either ignoring me or so riveted on shooting that he hadn’t heard me. Out in the open we had no cover. I was jittery, pacing erratically, not wanting to be stationary. Then I blurted, “We’re targets, man!”
“Ron,” John said with a chuckle, “they’re not accurate. It’s foggy. They won’t waste bullets.”
I’d already decided John was careless with his own life and ours too. The mist wouldn’t hide a squirrel, much less the guy walking crazily back and forth, the guy probably in some sniper’s crosshairs.
When the two daredevils finished the photo session, I stopped pacing and paid attention to my job. I jotted quick impressions in my notebook: misty, wet, everything muddy, no grass, cold, oddly quiet, no traffic or people arnd, crosses like sentinels, graves can’t be deep, mounds ft high, crude, hurried bec. of snipers, wood crosses in straight rows, many w no names. I imagined the men in uniform playing soccer, kicking, running, the ball flying over the green turf, the crowd shouting, cheering.
“Hey, Ron!” John shouted from the pickup. “We’re done.”
I jogged across the street, climbed in next to Ken, and off we went to see a bomb-blasted church for more photos.
Now, inside the darkened, century-old fire station, I followed Big John and two American volunteer firefighters—Heidi Dinkler and Rick Collins—up to the second-floor sleeping quarters. Through the gloom I saw what could only be a makeshift dormitory the size of an average school classroom. Since the temperature outside was near freezing, the two dozen or so local firemen were sprawled on cots or on the floor in sleeping bags, all arranged at crooked angles around a glowing, kerosene-fed heater.
“Find some space,” John said. “Everyone eats and sacks out as soon as soon as they can. Five minutes or five hours, sleep what you can--until the next call.”
“Call?” I asked.
“The wake up.”
John, Rick and Heidi went off to their corner cots and I found floor space between two covered figures. The heater gave all the light I needed to spread out my sleeping bag alongside my backpack with my clothes, notebooks, portable typewriter, and boots. Ken had found a spot on the other side of the room. Since we’d already eaten dinner at the UN bunkers, I was ready for sleep. Three days of always being “on,” worrying about bullets and trying not to miss anything, had exhausted me. Fully clothed I stretched out, closed my eyes and soon dropped off.
About 2:30 a.m., according to my lit watch dial, I started hearing familiar, muffled sounds along with regular snores. Thanks to a severe food shortage in the city, the firefighters ate only two meals a day: bean soup, rice and tea.
As I listened to the farting and snoring, I kept wishing someone would open a window or the room’s only door, but I knew this would never happen because of the cold outside. For an hour I squirmed around in my zipped-up sleeping bag. Finally, I raised myself to a crouch, found my boots and groped my way to the door. I opened it and stepped into the hallway. The sudden chill ripped through my layers of sweatshirts, jeans, and long johns. After a deep breath, I yanked on my boots and gloves, crossed the concrete floor and looked out the open window.
I could see a few glowing spots from basement windows of either apartments or underground cafes, still serving a city that maybe felt safer, less visible in darkness. Also, as John said, “Even snipers have to sleep.” Once a jewel of the Balkans, Sarajevo at night could at least pretend there were no ruins. In candlelit basements below ground even the thundering blasts of exploding rounds seemed distant and not so deadly.
I was shivering, thinking about returning to my sleeping bag when I heard the door behind me creak open. I turned and saw Heidi’s tall, rangy figure, flashlight in hand. “You too?” I said.
“Me?” Heidi whispered, coming closer. “What?”
“All the gas.”
“Oh, that,” she said. “You get used to it.” In the shadowy light her words and breath came out in little gray, disappearing clouds. “We’re all so tired . . . sometimes you don’t even notice.”
Heidi was 29, from Bakersfield, CA, and already had ten years’ work as a firefighter. “I love to fight fires,” she said, also telling me that her one-month, volunteer stint was about to end.
I asked why she came to Sarajevo.
“I help save more folks and buildings here than I ever did back home.”
I mentioned the dozen firemen killed by snipers, as well as the 40 others who’ve been wounded. Heidi said she knew the risks. They all did. We were quiet for a while, standing at the window, listening to the silence. “Gotta go,” she said, and stepped away into the darkness down the hallway. “Only time the guys aren’t using the showers.”
“I’ll stand guard.”
“No need. I think they know my routine.”
I stayed in the hallway for another ten minutes, amazed that anybody unconnected to the war would volunteer to come here. Fight fires, sure, but under fire?
I returned to the room, removed my boots and carefully picked my way to my sleeping bag, willing myself to ignore all sounds and smells.
At about 4:40, I woke to the clanking of a metal triangle echoing through the firehouse. From the flashlight beams I could see the dark shapes moving and rising, shedding their blankets and sleeping bags like so many molting caterpillars. I heard a few voices. Most of the figures quietly headed out the door for their suits and helmets downstairs.
Ken and I waited for everyone to leave, and then followed the Americans down the stairs to the ground floor. We’d been told it was raining, so we wore plastic ponchos over our Kevlar vests and parkas. Near the door to the courtyard shadowy figures were pulling on boots and slipping into bulky firefighting coats.
John told the local firemen he would drive his pickup and follow them to the fire. Rick and Heidi swung into the cab with John, I joined Ken in the truck bed, and off we went in the rain after the pumpers. No sirens, the streets were empty. By the time we arrived at the burning two-story structure, a few firemen had already begun shooting streams of water into the flames bursting from broken windows. Moving towards the burning building, John stopped and handed me his pistol. “Just keep it dry under your poncho,” he said. I took it, thinking maybe I shouldn’t have, that maybe having a weapon would somehow make me a participant in the war.
As a neutral, UN-sanctioned relief worker, John wasn’t supposed to carry a firearm but he said he wasn’t taking any chances. He carried it with him all the time. “They love to pop firemen,” he’d told me earlier. “I know they’d love to get me at close range. That way they could be sure they got The Beard. That’s what the snipers call me.”
I mentioned his trips into the hills to deliver gear to the Serbians. “Why are they trying to kill you?”
“Some of them still have it in for me,” John explained. “One time, when the phones were still working, we got back to the station and this sniper called. He said, ‘Did I get The Beard?’ I saw him go down.’ One of the guys translated what the sniper said. I grabbed the phone and yelled, ‘I’m The Beard, and you didn’t get me!’”
At odd free moments I had pulled out of him the basic facts of his life in Rhode Island and elsewhere: his longtime girlfriend, his drinking buddies, his volunteer firefighting work, his money-raising efforts for the Sarajevo stations. All this I wrote down or caught on tape recorder.
Yet there was something deeper missing, something hidden in vagueness that he kept from me. It had to do with his Marine Corps past, his abrupt exit from the service, and an allusion to having done special operations or mercenary work in global hot spots he wouldn’t name. I pleaded for clarity, saying my editors would be all over me about these omissions. But John was tight-lipped, giving me only generalized, enigmatic answers. In the end, all he would say was, “I’ve done enough of the negative. Now I want to do something positive.”
I left it at that, concluding he was entitled to secrets he may have sworn to keep. From what he revealed, he appeared to be on a mission of atonement.
Under a steady light rain, I fingered the pistol under my poncho and parka, felt its weight, wondered if it were a keepsake of other missions, figuring from his vague answers about his past that he must have shot people with it or another weapon. I watched him push aside a local fireman, who was about to swing an ax into the building’s front door. John drew back his right arm and bashed the door twice with his fist. Then he kicked down the door. I sensed a kind of penitence in action.
In an hour the fire was doused and we returned to the fire station. As John predicted, no sniper shots. “The dummies were sleeping.”
When we weren’t with Big John, we tagged along with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, watching her do standup interviews and reports in the street. I’d decided she’d make a good story about a front-line journalist.
“No,” she said. “Just have to check with the guys up top.”
“It’s cool, though.”
Smart and driven, Christiane was definitely among the true war hounds. But unlike many, she had an edge of righteous anger about her, pissed that not enough of the world was paying attention to Sarajevo’s tragedy. She believed her reports just might make a difference, might stop some of the killing and destruction. Gazing at one of the shell-blasted walls of the Holiday Inn, she said, “Winter’s coming and a lot of people are going to die. I’m just here to report it. Let’s ee if others will do something about it.”
I believed her but I couldn’t share her or John Jordan’s commitment. After a week of hearing sporadic sniper fire and the loud, crushing thumps of shells exploding sometimes only a block or two away, I was ripe to leave. What finally rattled me was my own fear. Not momentary fright but a constant dread that I would be hurt or die in horrible, spine-shaking pain. Only months before, Christiane’s colleague, camerawoman Margaret Moth, had “half her face blown away.” She almost died and had to be flown to Paris to have her jaw reconstructed.
Big John appeared to have no fear. In fact, he seemed to challenge death every day, openly baiting Serbian snipers, claiming they were yokels who scored hits only by accident. John liked to prove this by driving visitors to and from the airport along Sniper Alley, one of the most dangerous streets in the city. It was a half-mile stretch of debris-strewn pavement with no building cover, offering the enemy a clear shot at anything that moved. When Ken and I had finished our work, John didn’t hesitate to offer us a ride to the airport.
About the only vehicles shuttling people and goods between the city’s center and the airport were UN armored carriers or John’s white pickup. “It doesn’t have armor but it’s faster than the carriers,” he said as Ken and I tossed our luggage in the rear, and then climbed into the cab.
Entering Sniper Alley, John began to accelerate, turning the steering wheel one way, then another, zigzagging, swerving around concrete chunks in the way. Our three bodies leaned in unison. As usual, John wore a baseball cap and scoffed at our helmets.
I didn’t know what Ken was thinking but I was trying to will myself into the tiniest of creatures. I heard the pings of ricocheting bullets. I leaned forward in a tuck, wanting to shrink even more, imagining bullets ripping through the pickup, praying to no particular god that they would miss the scared, shriveled speck riding shotgun next to the passenger door.
John laughed. “Relax, Ron. I’ve never had a casualty.”
I couldn’t answer. I was focused on the road, on shrinking, leaning left and right, hearing noises, waiting to lose my head.
In the end we made it to the sandbagged parking area of the airport. We unloaded our things, thanked John and said our goodbyes. He drove away with a smile and one last wave, seemingly eager to get back into the shooting gallery.
As for me, I couldn’t wait to get on the plane. I knew Big John and Christiane would make powerful stories, gritty profiles from hell. What I didn’t know was the story unfolding inside my own body. All my hits with death and destruction were about to pop.
RON ARIAS was a senior writer and correspondent for People and People en español in New York City and Los Angeles, California from 1985 until 2008. He is also one of the most recognized Chicano writers of our time. His novel, The Road to Tamazunchale, is one of the founding texts in contemporary Chicano/a literature. Most recently, he published Moving Target: A Memoir of Pursuit, which has won several awards, among them the Latino Hall of Fame award for best biography. Ron Arias' stories have been reported from Latin America, Africa, Australia, Asia, Russia and the Middle East. In 2004, he won the first place for the Los Angeles Press Club Award for People magazine's coverage of the Laci Peterson murder. My Life As A Pencil will be published in early 2015 by Red Bird Chapbooks.