Sniper Alley, fate and other vagaries
by Timothy Kenny
There is no such thing as accident; it is fate misnamed. — Napoleon Bonaparte
I know this much: Wandering into war is ill advised.
For those who do, let me say this: Sometimes fate’s your daddy.
I mention this because every reporter I met in Sarajevo or Kabul or some other unsavory spot eventually knuckled under to fate. Few professed godly belief; most reporters I know aren’t especially religious. Besides, fate’s the one you want when people are serious about causing harm. Fate is war’s handmaiden, its memory, its scribe. Fate flips the coin, sings the last song you might hear, whispers in your ear. Fate is the safe one, the unimpeachable one, the one that carries you home if all goes well.
Or not, if it doesn’t.
I say this because while I had briefly covered stories in semi-dangerous places during the first Intifada and Belfast in August 1989, when I ended up in Sarajevo for five days in July 1992, my knowledge of war reporting came from what I had read and who I had talked to, not what I had done. Twenty-three years later I purposely found myself in Kabul for three weeks in May, happy to have made fate’s acquaintance decades before.
* * *
I lay flat on my back in an open truck that was idling too long at a roadblock along the edge of Sarajevo Aerodrom. The sun was shining and I was comfortably warm lying on the truck’s metal bed, watching a bright blue sky spout clouds. We had been warned that snipers still surrounded the airport. The ceasefire, just two days old, was supposed to mean that planes could land and unload cargo without interference from the Serbian fighters, who had been firing on the airport from the surrounding hills. The city’s 380,000 residents had been cut off from the larger world since May. It was July 2, 1992. Sarajevo was running short of food, gasoline, medicine and electricity, among other things.
There were thirteen of us in the back of the truck, waiting to drive into the city. I figured the sniper could have hit our parked, two-and-a-half-ton vehicle anytime he wanted, but I remained unafraid for some reason, even after hearing the sizzle of that first shot, followed an instant later by the sharp crack of rifle fire.
I had flown from Washington, D.C., to New York to Amsterdam to Sarajevo with other journalists from the U.S. and Europe, the last leg cradled in a canvas hammock-seat that rocked with the motion of the C-130 carrying us gently, if loudly, inside the open, metal belly of the plane. I expected two days of reporting that might edge toward the dangerous, but not turn into real trouble. I’d follow around the American doctors who came to distribute medicine and help out at Kosova Hospital. It was a great assignment, a chance to produce a page one story for USA Today that could explain the newest conflict in an Eastern European country with a bifurcated name that most Americans knew little about.
Our AmeriCares flight, carrying doctors and sixteen tons of medicine into Sarajevo, marked the first time a relief flight had arrived since fighting began in April. Bosnia’s capital was trapped in the tightening grip of what would become a forty-six month siege, the longest in modern European history. It did not occur to me to bring a helmet or flak jacket and I asked few questions of the flight’s organizers. I was more worried that the ceasefire would end before I got to Sarajevo than I was about getting shot. I was lured once more by adventure lust, caught up in a chance to revisit the Balkans, where I had lived for months teaching journalism at the University of Bucharest.
At home in Virginia, my unsteady life was unraveling, my marriage failing. I was deeply depressed, faced with increasing emotional isolation at home and uncertain about how to fix things. Leaving was often my fail-safe choice, always easier than staying. I convinced my boss I should cover the medicine-delivery story, packed one small bag and flew out the next day. I filed several stories about the violence and misery inflicted on the trapped citizens of Sarajevo. I was interviewed on National Public Radio and found more danger than I anticipated. I was never able to file the story about the doctors that my newspaper expected.
* * *
When that first shot buzzed overhead, I dropped from a standing position to lying prone, bewildered, startled, mentally off kilter. It felt like someone had snuck up from behind and punched me in the head. I was perplexed, unable to process the unfolding facts, even though I knew what a rifle shot sounded like and I had heard one clearly, just as I heard two more before we drove back to an empty airport hanger where I spent the night sleeping on the concrete floor. I learned that it’s difficult to process the world when your mind is slowed by jetlag and the speed of life suddenly moves faster than it’s supposed to. I also discovered it’s hard to be afraid when you’re confused. That would change.
* * *
When I could not find coffee the next morning I nursed a splitting headache for hours. After much wheedling I hitched a ride from the airport to the downtown Holiday Inn with a veteran British photographer whose name I believe was Sebastian. He had been working in Sarajevo for months and drove a beat-up, black Audi. He was calm and warned me in a steady voice to get ready as we approached a troublesome section of Sniper Alley, the broad, once stately boulevard littered with dead cars, buses and industrial trash dumpsters. I crouched low in the car’s passenger side, now traveling at roughly 150 kilometers per hour. We heard one shot. I waited for more, for the rifle fire to hit its mark, for Sebastian to suddenly lose control of the Audi and veer into a building or strike one of the bullet-riddled vehicles marooned at the side of the road. We heard more shots.
But none of that happened. Nothing happened, except this:
Fate – bold, stout-hearted, unforeseen – slipped into our car somewhere along the way to un-kink the adrenaline knot in my chest and ease my fear, born of the certain knowledge that this car ride would entertain no teenage joy at the wondrous speed we traveled. However fast we were going, it wasn’t fast enough.
Sniper Alley was always dangerous in its worst places. Intersections slowed by debris were to be negotiated quickly; slower driving meant better shooting. Apparently, it’s not that easy for a sniper to gauge a vehicle’s speed and shoot accurately between buildings; still, plenty of people got hurt or killed along this road.
We arrived at the Holiday Inn, just across from the badly damaged Parliament building, shaken but unscathed. We got shot at again driving into the hotel’s underground parking garage, but then, everyone did. Fate, apparently distracted and aimless, wandered off after we parked the car.
Sarajevo was a complicated, worrisome city in the first week of July 1992, two months after Bosnia’s bloody civil conflict had exploded into life. That first night at the Holiday Inn I watched tracer bullets light up the sky outside my window, probably a half mile away. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of my darkened hotel room, several stories in the air, watching a violent laser show. The city was otherwise black. Two days before I had been in Washington, D.C., working in a newspaper office, going to meetings and sitting at a desk.
The unreality of the moment tripped a switch I didn’t know existed: Either nothing terrible is going to happen or several terrible things are going to happen, but – and this is the epiphany part – there is little I can do about any of it.
* * *
A word of caution: Never rely on fate. Giving yourself over to fate should be avoided whenever possible. There are discernable differences between caution and worry, between irrational fear and true danger. Learning to keep an eye out for trouble is crucial. Fate’s appearances are rare, at least in my case. I’ve occasionally found myself in situations that were not dangerous but had the potential to be. But that’s not when fate arrives. For better or worse, fate typically shows up after options have narrowed sharply.
* * *
Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in 1990 was dark, chaotic, unruly. Tough-looking men wearing black leather coats that hung just below their butts waited outside the doors to the international arrivals area. Russians hoping to pickup passengers stood behind a special, roped-off section set aside for the men wearing leather coats. They walked up to foreign-looking people one or two at a time and asked in accented English, Tocksee? Tocksee? It sounded more like a stickup than a request.
I knew these guys. I had seen them at airports across Eastern Europe. They sold taxi rides to the unknowing. Mafia guys look the same everywhere: hard-faced men used to getting their own way. In Moscow, no one else drove taxis. The money was too good. Driving a taxi in Moscow in 1990 was a license to steal from the unwary. The city was full of foreigners, who often paid double the fare upon arrival. Sometimes people got robbed and beat up, left in a heap alongside some unlit highway en route from the airport.
I had arranged for a usually reliable guy to pick me up but he failed to show. On the sidewalk outside the terminal, taxi drivers of lesser stature leaned against the fenders of black Ladas and reiterated their refrain, Tocksee meester? Tocksee? I shook my head at each invitation, muttered nyet, lit a cigarette and hoped I looked like I was savvy, someone who knew the ropes just waiting for a ride. I had walked past anyone who drove a taxi and was now uncertain how I would get to the Ukraina Hotel.
Cell phones did not exist, of course. Even if I could find an airport pay phone that worked I had no idea how to use it. In my experience, telephones in Eastern European countries usually had local quirks that require a tutorial. My Russian was limited, then as now, to approximately six words.
A slight, unshaven man in colorless clothes, which is to say an ordinary-looking Muscovite, bumped into me as I stood on the sidewalk. I checked for my wallet. I found it. He wasn’t after my wallet.
Follow me, meester, he said quietly. He gestured; he was furtive. Regular tocksee. He seemed to speak English.
He walked to the end of the building and looked back, motioning me again to follow, down to where a puddle of light cut vaguely into the dark. He seemed to be alone. I walked to where he stood. He pointed to an oil-spewing Trabant parked not far away. We set a price, got in, drove off. It was December and the car had no heat. Gasoline fumes filtered inside from the undercarriage. The car rattled constantly and everyone else on the road seemed to pass us, but we arrived at the Ukraina without incident.
Stuff like this happened frequently when I reported for USA Today from Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and when I lived in Romania and years later in Kosovo, and later still when I traveled to Central Asia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Negotiating with airport taxi drivers was a travel inconvenience, not a danger, a skill to be learned.
It was also important to understand that the simple act of traveling alone could bring troubling complications. If the wrong choice was made, say if I accepted a taxi ride from a stranger in a black leather jacket that hung just below his butt, the end result might be the annoyance of paying double at the end of the ride. Or it might mean getting held up at gunpoint and left alongside a bleak Russian highway. It might mean something worse. Another distinct possibility is that I’d arrive at my destination without incident and nothing would happen. But learning to know the likelihood of uncomfortable possibilities is important.
It’s like Clint says in “Dirty Harry,” You’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?
* * *
I felt fortunate that I could go to Kabul and just as fortunate to return unharmed.
Afghanistan’s capital had been quiet for weeks in May 2010 when I arrived, indicative of nothing really. Violence comes and goes in unknowable cycles in Kabul. I had always wanted to visit Afghanistan. I wanted to see it as my friend Michael had in the 1970s, alone, adrift, fancy of foot, walking Kabul’s dust-choked streets and thumbing rides into the high mountain valleys of the Wakhan Corridor, that skinny strip of eastern Afghan property that sticks out into China.
It was too late for that now. My chance to see Afghanistan arrived when I was 64 years old, married for seven years to a younger second wife, the unexpected father of a four-year-old daughter. I taught college journalism and lived a middle-class life of yard work and car loans and mortgage payments. When a journalism non-profit offered me three weeks of consulting work in Kabul I jumped at the chance, just as I had when offered a trip to Sarajevo decades before. I had occasional misgivings about the dangers that surely squatted on every Kabul street corner every day. Still, I went.
During that trip I found myself in a car driving up and down Darulaman Road, trying to find the unmarked entrance to the American University of Afghanistan. We had driven once before past Parliament, located on the same street. On the second pass, my driver stopped in front of the gates leading to Parliament to ask directions of Afghan soldiers on guard duty, an ill-advised move that brought leveled rifles up to our car windows. Afghan soldiers are not known for discipline and all three had fingers on triggers. Eventually, we were sent on our way, but not before my driver was scolded and pushed roughly against the car by the sergeant in charge.
On the morning of the following day, May 18, 2010, a 1,600-pound bomb killed eighteen people in roughly the same spot, spraying body parts along a wide swath of Darulaman. Six soldiers died in the blast along with twelve Afghan civilians. It was Kabul’s worst attack in months.
En route across the city on another occasion, our car was trapped in a convoy of military vehicles, a dangerous position that threw my worried driver into a controlled but efficient effort to get away. He had been caught in such a convoy the year before when a bomb exploded. His injuries healed; his fear of being trapped near military vehicles had not.
Not long afterwards I talked with an Afghan colleague named Hashimi about fate, without mentioning the word. I told him that I tried to pay close attention when I was on the streets in Kabul, but that I did not think I would die when I went out each day. I stayed in Kabul just three weeks. Hashimi grew up in the city and lived there, a place where everyday life is grueling and dangerous, especially for ordinary Afghans.
For me, every day when I go out I think I will die and not come home, Hashimi told me. I think it is the same for all Afghans.
* * *
I taught journalism for several years at the University of Connecticut. Sometimes students died in car accidents or some other unexpected way. A grieving student came to see me after one such incident, stunned that someone her age, someone she knew, was gone just-like-that. She wanted to know why such things happen, though she did not ask that question. I offered lame explanations about the conjunction of time and fate and how the two often failed to work as we expected. I mentioned how murky the future is.
We don’t have control over these things, I said. I knew my platitudes probably weren’t helpful. As we talked it became clear that this young woman had realized, likely for the first time, that she too could die young. Perhaps she wanted reassurance that an early death would not happen to her.
I wanted to tell her about my five days in Sarajevo, my three weeks in Kabul, and that avoiding bad luck is often better than having good luck, and that it’s easy to assume that places like college carry no danger, and that dangerous places like Kabul can be utterly ordinary at times, and that we all lapse into the mistaken belief that we have as much time as we need.
I wanted to tell her, Look, sometimes fate’s your daddy. But I didn’t. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t understand.