‘A vest?’ said Mario. ‘Vests aren’t any good, they’ll kill you. They’re okay if it’s snipers coming at you, vests could save your life then. But, for mortar fire, they’re no use at all. You can’t jump in them, that’s sixteen pounds right there! Not good, man. What’s more,’ he continued, pointing to his forehead, ‘snipers always go for the head. But a flak jacket, now that’s something else again. It’s lighter, you don’t get so weighed down. That’s what you want.’ He took another bite out of his cheese-and-tomato sandwich and added calmly, ‘Course, it doesn’t make any difference what you have on. If death is after you, it’ll know who you are. No matter what you’re wearing.’
When they’d finished editing the news, they left to have a drink and talk about Tom. That was the evening Tom died.
It happened in Turanj, near Karlovac. He’d been advancing with a patrol of the Croatian National Guard. A mortar shell exploded next to him. He was killed, and two other newsmen – a Swiss photographer and a German editor – were wounded. The camera continued filming from the ground. It recorded the whole scene.
A National Guardsman brought them the tape. He was wounded too, slightly. He was bleeding somewhat from his forehead, and there was blood on his uniform. He was the one who carried Tom’s body to the car, so some of the blood was Tom’s. Gina sat down and began to cry. Bill and Mike took the tape and started editing. Bill offered to do the whole job himself:
‘If you don’t feel up to it, that’s no problem. I’ll do it myself.’
‘No. We’ll both do it. Let’s get this over with and then we can go ahead and do whatever we want. But right now it’s just better not to think.’
It was better not to think. They rewound the tape to the beginning as Mike turned on the monitors.
‘Let’s press “play”,’ Bill suggested.
The tape began to travel slowly inside the VCR. The screen lit up, and the images started to appear. First up was a conversation. The three reporters were chatting with the Karlovac commanding officer, a man everyone called Bijelo, ‘White’, because of the color of his hair. They were laughing and talking in halting English. ‘Good days, today, no shoot, Chets1 sleep. Drinking much.’ You couldn’t see Tom. He was the one filming. You just heard his voice from time to time, asking the odd question.
Then the advance began. The patrol was made up of four soldiers who jumped from corner to corner, covering each other as they went. The last soldier, who was directly facing the camera, waved the journalists through.
The images disappeared again. There was some video noise – that interference that turns the screen into a hornets’ nest – then more images. Mike had been there several times already. It was a scene of total devastation. People seemed to be walking on rubble in a lunar landscape.
Suddenly he sees the explosion, a blast of fire, white as a revelation. The camera falls to the ground. It continues to film for a moment. Then there’s nothing.
For a few moments, they were silent. Bill took out a pack of cigarettes, but it was empty and he tossed it into the wastebasket.
‘Press “rewind” and play it again.’
Mike played it again. The conversation, the laughter, the advance, and then the explosion. That was all.
‘Turanj!’ exclaimed Mike. ‘I know that place, it’s a damn deathtrap. You have to get over a bridge under constant sniper fire. Then you have to cross the lines and, after that, you’re within mortar range. And then there’s the mines. It’s a real inferno.’
Everything was laid waste, strafed to hell, one of those places war picks on and then chews up like a dog until there’s nothing left that looks anything like normality.
‘I had three nightmares on three different nights when I was there. You have to be crazy to go there. He shouldn’t have done it.’
‘The shell that killed Tom is the only one you can hear on the whole recording, that means there was no attack. It wasn’t recklessness, he was just unlucky.’
Unlucky. Who knows what that word actually means? It’s a mystery, one of many.
Mike rewound the tape. ‘Time Code 07.00.03’. They ran the explosion again. Mike thought for a moment. ‘That wasn’t a mine. The camera didn’t jump, it fell. I think he was trying to avoid sniper fire to his right. They did actually get to cross the line.’
They rewound the tape again. ‘Time Code 07.00.10’. Mike hit ‘pause’.
‘The shell fell right next to him, look at the flak,’ Bill pointed out. He’d seen similar images many times before. ‘It goes off at a really sharp angle to the ground. My God! It must’ve torn him to pieces. But at least he died instantly.’
‘Yes, at least he died instantly.’
They fell silent. It was getting more and more difficult to speak. Mike got up to open the window. He wanted to hear the sound of cars, the squealing brakes of the Zagreb trams under the windows of the hotel. The air of a beautiful evening blew serenely into the room.
‘Let’s get started. The sooner we get it over with, the better,’ said Bill, still staring at the monitor.
‘Wait!’ he said suddenly. ‘There’s something funny going on here.’
He rewound the tape, which began to squeak as it ran over the video heads. ‘Time Code 07.00.10’, the very moment the explosion occurred.
‘Look at this, don’t you notice anything unusual? You can’t hear the audio, there’s hardly any sound!’
‘How the hell did that get by us? Well, maybe the mike’s shot.’
Bill thought for a moment. Then he announced bitterly, ‘I’m an idiot. And so are you. We’re both idiots. Rewind the tape.’
‘07.00.11. Put it on “pause”.’
The image froze for a second before the explosion. ‘What did he see, that last time?’ mused Mike. ‘A wall with three bullet holes in it and some graffiti that read “ZA DOM SPR”2. Somebody tried to write something and never finished it – like poor Tom.’
Mike complied, and Bill moved the audio switch from channel 1 to 2.
That’s when it happened. That was when you heard the sound of breaking glass, the flak landing all around like hail, and Tom – mortally wounded – moaning from the ground, gasping and calling for help. Nearby someone was screaming, ‘God! Shit! Call for an ambulance!’
‘It was on 2. Tom must have switched channels right before the explosion, or else it happened accidentally when the camera fell.’
Muted, those images were simply that: images. But the audio brought back all the stark horror of the truth. That was how it had really happened: sound and fury, a dying man screaming into the ground with the last shred of his strength, with all he had left of life. It was filthy, horrible.
They had a satellite link at 12:30 a.m., so they had to hurry. When they were done, Mike teleprinted, ‘These images were filmed in Turanj, Yugoslavia, by cameraman Thomas Michael Lizzani, who died from his wounds. Mention his name if you can.’
‘That’s it. We can send it off now.’
They called the reception desk for a taxi. Mike ran down with the tape and gave it to the driver.
‘Za hrvatska televizija,’ he said in his bad Croatian and, as was customary, paid the driver in advance so he would be quick about it. He then went up the stairs and called Marija Memcic, his contact at HTV3.
‘I’ve just sent you the tape with that news about Tom.’
She asked him a few questions, but he didn’t want to go into the details. Anyway, everybody already knew about it by then.
Gina was waiting for them at the door. She was glassy-eyed, her coat half on.
‘Where are we going?’
They went to Novinari, the little restaurant close to HINA4. Normally crammed with journalists, it was now empty. In fact, the lights were already off, but the proprietor knew them. He lit a lamp in the back and got a table ready. They sat for a couple of hours, sharing what they knew about Tom. They realized that it wasn’t much – actually he had arrived from the States just a week before.
That night, none of the three got much sleep. Mike found it impossible. He tossed under the sheets as if racked by fever. It would have been about 4:30 when he went down to the desk and got a key to the editing rooms. He opened the door, and there was Bill, viewing the tape. Mike sat down next to him. Bill had been watching the tape over and over again, a beer in his hand.
He had written ‘File Tape’ in red marker on the box. ‘File Tape’ – something that would end up on a shelf among a jumble of other things, never to be viewed again, while its magnetic recording got gradually and inexorably fainter on the plastic band before it finally disappeared. Like memories. The day will come when nobody will remember anything. Years will go by – hundreds of years – and none of this will be of the slightest importance. ‘File Tape’. Mike realized that he had never thought about those words before. He assumed that Bill must be thinking the same. They watched the tape again: the conversation, the soldiers advancing from house to house, the explosion, the screams from the ground…
1 Chet or Chetnik: Serbian guerrilla fighter.
2 Za dom spremni: ‘for home – ready’, the slogan of the Croatian ultra-nationalists.
3 HTV: the Croatian television station.
4 HINA: the Croatian news agency.
Translated from Galician by Carys Evans-Corrales