You interested in a peak at the writing process? Okay, you're weird, but here you go!
Vukovar, Croatia - November 18, 1991
The constant air strikes and artillery bombardments had turned Vukovar into a city of ruins. The streets were paved with rubble and broken glass. Most of the buildings had been blasted to bits of crumbled concrete, tangles of twisted rebar, and heaps of scattered bricks. The ones that were still standing were pocked with shrapnel divots, their windows and doors blown out, roofs caved in.
“It’s beautiful, no?” Dmitri said, heaving for breath. His face was dripping with sweat and grime. He wiped his brow with his sleeve but it just smeared his forehead with streaks of dirt.
Monte stared out at the scarred landscape from atop the hill. The town’s water tower, still standing even though chunks had been blown out of it, caught his eye in the distance. It was such an obvious target, it must have been a point of honor among the JNA to destroy it. And yet it remained upright.
Monte found that beautiful. The willful destruction of a city was something else, certainly not beautiful.
“Stunning,” Monte said, though even that word failed to describe it. Heart-breaking, depressing, ugly, enraging. They would have qualified too, but stunning would do.
He detached the wide-angle lens from his camera and fitted it with a long lens from his satchel. From this viewpoint the town spread out before him, its winding streets and battered buildings appearing like miniatures in a diorama. War smoke filtered the light and cast everything with a desolate gloom.
Monte tried to make it beautiful through his viewfinder, marking each attempt with a click of his shutter. He finished the roll and popped it out, letting the camera dangle from a strap around his neck as he labeled the expended roll with a permanent marker. He had his own system, known only to himself and his agent in New York, Spencer. It made no sense to anyone else, but after over a decade in the hot zones of the world, he and Spencer somehow made it work.
He loaded another roll and considered shooting some more shots from the hill top –the climb was worth it—but he figured he had gotten enough. The only thing to see from up here was a dead city.
Just as he was turning around to start the climb back down the hill, an artillery battery started walking another bombardment down one of Vukovar’s streets, kicking up plumes of dust and smoke. The explosions echoed in the valley –boom, boom, boom.
Monte quickly snapped off a few shots with the camera, trying to capture the moment of detonation. He was always off a few seconds, but no doubt, Spencer would say the shots were beautiful when they got back from the lab. That one’s a magazine cover, and that one goes into your book. But Monte knew it wasn’t his best work.
A few blocks away from the explosions, Monte watched a few squads of lightly armed paramilitaries fan out amidst the rubble, following the artillery but trying to avoid getting directly under it. Most of them were in store-bought uniforms that indicated they were definitely not JNA, but even through the telephoto lens, Monte couldn’t read the patches on their sleeves. There were a few wearing the square shubara caps and double bandoliers typical of the Chetnik movement, so Monte guessed they were Serbs.
He pointed them out to Dmitri. “White Eagles?”
Dmitri squinted. “Nah, just hoodlums from Banja Luka.”
“Look at how they’re following those shells. You think they’re coordinating with the JNA? ”
“Would you follow shells if you were coordinating with the JNA? No. They’re hoodlums from Banja Luka, out for a weekend of fun and games. They’re following those shells because they think that’s where the action is. But as you can see from here, there is no action. Only shells. Come on, we’re too visible up here.”
He scrambled down from the crest of the hill and took refuge under a tree, leaving Monte alone at the top. Monte hadn’t felt exposed until that moment, but he saw Dmitri cowering under the tree and the hoodlums from Banja Luka, who were half-drunk on slivovitz and nationalist anthems and wouldn’t think twice about taking a shot at some man-shaped figures on the hillside.
“Come on, you fool,” Dmitri said. “You want to die for those pictures?” It was becoming a common question - you want to die for those pictures? - but the answer never changed.
No, Monte did not want to die out here in Croatia, not for pictures, not for anything. Want had nothing to do with it. Whether you live or die in a war zone relies on the vagaries of time and space. Some places will be, at different times, more deadly than others. One minute, a crowd of people are standing on a street corner. The next they are obliterated by flying metal as a mortar shell explodes at their feet. Fifteen minutes later, Monte is stooping over their bloody remains, taking snapshots. The same space, different times, different levels of danger.
So far he had been lucky. He had never been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was often, through the nature of his work, often in the right place at the right time. And when he went home, back to the states and the half-empty apartment he rented mostly for storage space for the few possessions he could not carry, he returned with nothing but bad memories, nightmares, and mild alcoholic tendencies.
Monte met Dmitri at the tree and grabbed one of the branches overhead. “So when can we get down there?” he asked. “I want to go into the city.”
“So do I,” Dmitri said.
Another round of artillery shells rained down on Vukovar in the distance. Monte felt the explosions in his bones.
Dmitri did too, but he quickly replaced the momentary dread that was on his face with a grin. “After they’re done bombing.”
“When do you think that will be?”
“Let me consult the Colonel,” Dmitri said. He held his thumb and pinky to the side of his head like he was talking on the phone. “Hallo, Colonel? Yes, Dmitri here. I was just wondering, uh, when will the assault take place? Yes, thank you.” He tilted his head and smirked. “He put me on hold.”
“Cut the shit, man,” Monte said. “I just don’t want to be up here when the city falls.”
“Then let’s get off this fucking hill.” He shouldered his M70 and started leading the way down the path.