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The pit smelled of loam, mold, and urine. It was three feet wide, seven feet long, and three feet deep, the size of a shallow grave. Coltrane had been lying in it for thirty-six hours, a rubberized sheet under him, an earth-colored nylon sheet suspended over him, anchored by dead branches and further camouflaged by fallen pine needles. Two hundred yards below the wooded slope on which he was concealed, vehicles were arriving. Six big open-backed trucks jounced along a narrow road into a clearing in the deserted valley. With an echoing rumble, a bulldozer and a backhoe struggled to keep up. A few flakes of snow drifted to the frost-hardened ground as the convoy stopped next to a rectangular area, roughly fifty by a hundred feet, where the ground had been disturbed.
Having waited so long, Coltrane frowned toward the increasingly dark clouds drifting into the valley and prayed that the weather wouldn't turn against him. He raised one of the four cameras arranged before him, focused its zoom lens, and started taking photographs. Men in tattered winter clothes, clutching automatic rifles, jumped from the trucks and scanned the slopes around them. Despite the care with which Coltrane had hidden himself, he tensed when they concentrated in his direction. Afraid he'd been spotted, he ducked his head and pressed himself harder against the floor of the pit. When the men changed their attention to another area of the valley, Coltrane let out his breath, taking more pictures. A bandy-legged, heavy-chested, beefy-faced man with dense dark hair and a thick mustache waved directions to the bulldozer and the backhoe.
Got you, youbastard. Coltrane pressed the shutter button, unable to get over his good fortune. Back in Tuzla, his contact on the UN inspection team had spread out a map and indicated a dozen areas that they intended to investigate. Of course, they wouldn't get around to those areas until they finished with the dozen areas they were already investigating. The schedule depended on the weather, which was due to worsen now that November was almost half over. By the time the investigators reached all the suspected areas, the men they wanted to prosecute would have eliminated the evidence against them.
Coltrane had chosen the most isolated spot, his compass and terrain map preventing him from getting lost as he made his way, burdened by two knapsacks, across streams and ridges toward this slope. Concealed among bushes, waiting two hours, he had studied the rugged landscape for any sign that he had been noticed. Only after dark had he constructed his primitive shelter and crawled into it, exhausted, craving sleep but knowing that food had to come first, the cheese sandwiches and dry sausage he had brought along. But even before eating, there was one thing he knew he absolutely had to do: check his cameras.
Throughout the next day and night, Coltrane had remained in his cold hiding place, permitting himself movement only when he ate more sausage, drank from a straw inserted in his canteen, or turned onto his side, urinating into a plastic bottle. All the while, he had second-guessed himself, telling himself that he was wasting his time, that he had chosen the wrong location, or that nothing was going to happen in any location and he might as well hike out of here. The dingy bar where his fellow photojournalists hung out in Tuzla was beginning to seem more and more appealing. But he hated to surrender to impatience. Giving up wasn't in his nature. And now he was overjoyed that he hadn't. Not only was he getting prime photos of what the UN inspection team had suspected was happening at various sites but he was also documenting the participation of the man they most wanted to nail.
Dragan Ilkovic. A perfect name for a monster.
The son of a bitch leaned his rifle against the front of a truck and braced his hands on his powerful-looking hips, watching with satisfaction as the bulldozer went to work, plowing earth. The backhoe moved into position behind it. Heart pounding against the rubber sheet, Coltrane kept rapidly taking pictures, glad that he had brought four cameras, each with a different lens and film speed, some with black-and-white film, some with color, so that he wouldn't have to waste time changing film.
Below him, a man with a rifle shouted, pointing fiercely at what the bulldozer had exposed. The beefy-faced man hurried over, yelling commands at the backhoe's driver. For a frustrating moment, the commotion hid what agitated them, but the group quickly parted, some of them rushing to help unload a large piece of equipment from a truck, and Coltrane reacted with horror, the small image in his viewfinder intensified by the magnification of his zoom lens.
He was staring at corpses, a soul-searing countless jumble of them. The bodies had been thrown into the mass grave with such careless haste, so tangled among one another, that it was impossible to know which leg belonged to which torso, which arm to which shoulder to which neck to which skull. The confusion became more manifest as the weight of the bulldozer crushed spines and rib cages. Clothes had disintegrated, flesh had rotted, creating a common putrescent black mush from which gray bones protruded and lipless mouths gaped in silent, eternal anguish.
During the war, this region in eastern Bosnia was supposed to have been a UN-controlled safe haven for Muslims. From hundreds of miles around, as many as fifteen thousand Muslims had hurried here, seeking protection. The target had been too tempting for the Serbs, who surrounded the area and bombarded it, forcing the UN troops to surrender. Surprisingly, the Serbs had let the Muslim children go. But they raped the women — to breed the Muslims out of existence by forcing Muslim women to bear Serbian children. And as for the men . . . Coltrane's mouth filled with bile as he worked the cameras, taking more and more photographs of what remained after the Serbs had loaded the Muslim men into trucks and driven them to isolated valleys like this one, where they dug pits with bulldozers and backhoes, lined the Muslim men up on the edge of the pits, and shot them.
Some of the pits, like the one Coltrane photographed, held as many as four hundred corpses, he had been told. It took a lot of hate and determination to get the job done, but the Serbs had been up to the challenge. When they had finally shot the last Muslim in the back of the head, they had used the bulldozers to spread earth over the bodies, and that was that — problem solved, everything neat and tidy. Except, when the war ended and Bosnia had been carved into Serb, Croat, and Muslim regions, the UN had started talking about outrages against humanity. A war-crimes tribunal was convened in the Netherlands, and suddenly a lot of Serb commanders, like Dragan Ilkovic down there, had become wanted men. They had to be tidier.
The roar of a large machine attracted Coltrane's notice toward the cumbersome piece of equipment that the men had unloaded from one of the trucks. It had a huge funnel on one side and a spout on the other. It resembled the device that city cleanup crews used to pulverize fallen tree limbs. In this case, the machine was a rock pulverizer that Dragan Ilkovic had brought from one of the many nearby mines. The backhoe was dropping bones into the funnel. The spout on the other side was spewing horrifying pebbles into the back of a truck. The pebbles would be eliminated in a shaft in one of the mines, Coltrane's informant had suspected. The trouble was, no one could prove that this sanitizing was actually taking place.
Until now, Coltrane thought with fury. Abruptly he noted how quickly the clouds were darkening and thickening. The few flakes of snow had become flurries. He had to work fast. He got a close-up of Dragan Ilkovic, switched to a wide-angle view, and felt his heart stop as the camouflage sheet suspended over him was torn away.
* * *
Hands grabbed his arms and shoulders. Guttural voices barked. Coltrane barely had time to snag the straps on his cameras before he was jerked from the pit. The hands spun him, bringing him face-to-face with two muscular men wearing outdoor clothes, their features flushed with anger. The repeated clicks of his cameras must have alerted them as they searched for intruders. Conversely, the clicks—amplified in the confinement of his narrow shelter — had prevented him from hearing their footsteps creep toward him.
"Okay, guys, calm down." Coltrane had no hope that they understood him. But if his tone communicated his intent, the men had absolutely no interest in calming down. Instead, they shoved him backward.
Coltrane made a futile placating gesture. "Look, I was only camping. No hard feelings. Why don't I grab my stuff and leave?"
The men unslung assault rifles from their shoulders.
Several times, in Nicaragua at the start of Coltrane's career, later in Lebanon and Iran, armed men had confronted him about photographs he had taken. Their attention had always been on his cameras. But these men barely glanced at his cameras. As they raised their weapons, all they seemed to care about was his chest.
Jesus. Coltrane reacted without thinking. Pretending to stumble back, he twisted as if to try to regain his balance, and kept twisting, spinning to face his attackers again, swinging his heaviest camera by the end of its strap. The bulky zoom lens collided with the chin on the man to Coltrane's right, bone crunching. With a groan, the man lurched to Coltrane's left, jolted against the second man, and threw off his aim, the second man's assault weapon blasting chunks from a tree.
Coltrane rushed the men as they toppled into the pit. Swinging the camera again, he cracked it across the second man's forehead. Blood flying, the man collapsed.
Startled voices echoed from the valley. Coltrane jerked his gaze in that direction. The small figures below had heard the gunshots. They were glaring toward this slope, some of them pointing, others shouting. The heavy-chested man grabbed his rifle and scrambled toward the slope.
Coltrane raced toward the ridge top, entering the dense fir trees on the opposite side. Shadows enveloped him. His cameras banged against him. The one he had used as a weapon was smeared with blood. The lens had shattered. If only the camera isn't cracked, he hoped. If only the film hasn't been exposed to light. Despite the frenzy of his descent, he pressed the rewind button and heard a whir, relieved that the motor hadn't been damaged. Immediately, he lost his balance, a mat of fir needles slipping out from under him. His back struck the ground so hard that his teeth snapped together. He fought to dig in his heels to prevent himself from sliding faster down the slope, but the needles kept giving way. He tumbled, walloped to a stop against a tree, and grimaced from a sharp pain on his right side, finding where the camera had rammed against him.
Have to get the film, protect the film. Hands trembling, he freed a catch at the side of the camera, flipped open the back, and pulled out the rewound film. His elation lasted barely a second as shouts crested the ridge behind him. Fear rocketed through him. Struggling to catch his breath, he shoved the film into a pocket, dropped the damaged camera, and charged down the remainder of the incline.
Even on a sunny day, the massive fir trees in this region were dense enough to filter light, but this had not been a sunny day, the dark clouds massing, turning the afternoon into dusk. The air became colder. Snow started falling again, at first sporadically, then steadily, a gentle blanketing that made a whisper as it settled through the fir boughs.
Behind him, the shouts became more angry. A staccato burst of gunshots shredded tree limbs.
Coltrane reached an ice-rimmed stream, almost tried to leap across but realized it was too wide, and veered to the left. For certain, he couldn't just jump in and wade to the opposite bank. The water was so cold that it would give him frostbite or hypothermia. He had to try to find a fallen log that bridged it. But the stream widened as he ran along it, and there weren't any logs. The color of his clothing — brown woolen pants, a green ski jacket, a matching knit cap that he had pulled down around his ears — had been chosen to help him blend with the evergreen forest. He tried to assure himself that at least he had that advantage. The thought didn't give him much confidence when another stuttering burst of gunshots riddled the trees. Despite the unfamiliar language, the tone of the shouts behind him left no doubt that the men were cursing.
Slowed by the slippery accumulation of snow, Coltrane saw a fir tree close to the stream and noticed that one of its boughs — dead, about nine feet off the ground — extended over the water. He leapt. His leather-gloved hands fought for a grip on the bough. The snow made the bark slick. Straining, he tightened his fingers, dangled, felt the awkward weight of his remaining three cameras hanging from his right shoulder, and struggled hand over hand across the bough.
Behind him, closer, branches cracked. Footsteps thundered. He dropped to the ground on the opposite side of the stream, straightened, and raced deeper into the forest. Determined to get the film from his cameras, he pressed their rewind buttons. Without warning, something yanked him backward. The jolt had such force that he thought he'd been shot. But instead of falling, he hung on an angle, his boots on the ground, his body suspended over the gathering snow. A moment of disorientation cleared and he realized in dismay that a stout branch had snagged one of his camera straps. The branch had torn the right shoulder on his ski jacket. It had gouged his skin. He slipped painfully free of the strap, heard the camera's rewind motor stop whirring, opened its back, stuffed the roll of film in a pocket, abandoned the tangled camera, and charged onward.
If I can just keep going. The snow's falling harder. It'll fill my tracks, he thought. Behind him, heavy splashes told him that some of his pursuers had jumped into the stream, too impatient to wait in line to go hand over hand on the branch. Wails followed, the icy water shocking their bodies. At least some of them will be slowed, Coltrane tried to assure himself.
But he was also slowing. The forest sloped upward. Gasping for breath, he struggled higher, the pain in his ribs getting sharper. Although he had jettisoned two cameras, he still had two others and continued to fear that something would happen to the film in them. Grabbing one as he ran, he pawed open its back and yanked out its rewound film, only to moan in despair when he dropped the cylinder into a drift. Rushing, he stooped to fumble through the snow and retrieve it, shoving it into the jacket pocket where he had put the others.
The camera he had just unloaded blew apart, the explosive force throwing him onto the snow. He felt intense heat, then bitter cold along his left side. Nausea swept through him as he realized that a bullet meant for his back had struck the camera, deflected off it, and sliced through his left side. He rolled toward the cover of a fir tree as the far-off crack of a rifle echoed through the forest. He had to find where the shooter was to avoid his line of fire. Struggling to his feet, he risked a glance through an opening in the trees, toward the direction from which he had come. Snow settled on his eyes, making him blink repeatedly. The wind stopped. The snow eased just for a moment, and he shivered at the sight of a bandy-legged, bulky-shouldered man on a ridge across from him, Dragan Ilkovic's thick features braced against the sights on his rifle.
Ilkovic fired again, the bullet whizzing past Coltrane, tearing up snow and earth. Enraged, Ilkovic switched his rifle from single shot to full automatic, releasing a burst that went wild as the snow swirled back in greater force. Ilkovic vanished in the storm, and Coltrane felt a bone-deep chill. Clutching his bleeding side, stumbling higher up the slope, he fled the louder noises of his pursuers.
* * *
The wind had worsened to a gale by the time Coltrane reached the top. If not for his injuries, he might have hurried over the crest, in which case he would have died, for the other side of the slope was a cliff, its bottom invisible in the gusting snow. Which way? Right or left? As far as his limited vision allowed him to determine, the cliff continued in both directions. But whichever way he chose, following the ridgeline was predictable. All his pursuers would have to do would be to separate and outflank him.
I can't go back the way I came, he thought. He saw an outcrop ten feet below him, squirmed over the edge, ignored the pain of his injuries, and hung to the agonizing limit of his arms. When he released his grip and hit the ledge, he fell to his knees, then his chest, hugging the rock. He feared he was going to pass out.
But he couldn't allow himself to give in to weakness. He had to get far enough down the cliff that his pursuers wouldn't be able to see him in the snowstorm. Pulse racing, he peered over and saw another ledge, but it was farther down than the first one had been. Even hanging by his arms, he would still have to drop several yards, and the force of the landing would almost certainly throw off his balance, plunging him over the edge. As the angry voices rushed closer to the top, he imagined what would happen when his hunters got there. Staring down, their sullen faces would break into smiles when they saw him crouching helplessly ten feet below them. Their grins would broaden when they opened fire. He had to — The snow gusted at an object that weighed on Coltrane's injured shoulder: his remaining camera. He frowned at its nylon strap. If he didn't get off this ledge in the next thirty seconds, he wouldn't be going anywhere again. Frenzied, he extended the strap to its maximum length, about four feet, hoping it would hold him. His lungs heaved so much that he feared he might faint when he looped the strap over an outcrop and squirmed down, pretending he was clutching a rope. It wouldn't get him to the next ledge, but at least it would get him closer. The snow buffeted him. Trembling, he eased lower, the ledge not yet close enough to drop to, almost a body length away. Spasms shuddered through him — because he hadn't moved his hands to get lower. The strap had done it for him. It had stretched. It groaned. Every impulse urged him to hurry, but he didn't dare. Any strong motion might cause the strap to stretch to its breaking point. Closer.
The strap broke. Scrabbling against the cliff face, he felt the wind shove him into space. He fell, clawed at the rock, and landed, half on, half off the ledge. The wind struck him harder. His gloves lost their grip. Slipping over, he tensed in panic, his stomach soaring toward his throat as he anticipated his impact on the rocks far below. With startling abruptness, he jolted to a stop much sooner than he expected, his legs buckling, his body collapsing. It took him a moment to realize that he had landed on another ledge. He might have passed out. He couldn't tell. One thing he did know was that, as he lay on his back, blinking upward through the thickening snow, he couldn't see the top of the cliff, which meant that he couldn't be seen, either.
But he didn't dare rest. The snow might lessen at any moment and reveal him. He had to keep moving. Another wave of nausea swept through him as he forced himself to sit up. When he peered over the side, his vision cleared enough for him to see that the next ledge was only four feet down. Wincing, he lowered himself onto it. The next time he peered down, he discovered he was on a slope that led to the bottom.
The snow rose above his ankles. Shuffling through it, his legs kept threatening to give way, but he refused to let them surrender. I have to get the film out of here, he urged himself. The air dimmed, the snow becoming gray, his vision narrowing, his thoughts blurring. When he stumbled into a fir tree, its icy needles stinging his face, he realized that he must have been walking half-asleep. He could barely see his hand in front of his face. If he didn't find shelter, he was going to freeze to death. Sinking to his hands and knees, he crawled weakly beneath the drooping boughs of the snow-laden fir tree. In the space under them, he reached ground that was bare except for fallen needles, and he had just enough room to slump with his back against the trunk. The bark smelled sharply of resin. Except for that, in the gathering darkness, hearing the wind outside, he had the sensation of being in a tent.
He passed out.
* * *
A smothering blackness surrounded him, so absolute that he feared he'd gone blind or was in hell. Immediately his pain jerked him fully awake. Muffled, the shrieking wind seemed far away. It was night. The dense blanket of snow on the needled branches made the air around him feel heavy, compressed. He licked his dry, cracked lips. Completely disoriented, racked with pain, he feared he was going to die in here.
He took off his right glove and mustered the strength to reach under the left side of his jacket. There, his sweater and his thermal underwear were soaked with a warm sticky liquid. His gentle touch made him shudder. The wound seemed as long as his hand, as wide as a finger. The deflected bullet had gouged a furrow along his side. And kept going? he wondered. Or was it still inside him? Had it hit only fat, or ruptured the abdominal wall?
He had never felt so powerless and alone. His feeling of isolation increased when he reached for the comfort of a camera and recalled that he had started out with four of them and not one of them remained. But I had the fourth camera with me on the cliff. Didn't I take it off the strap and cram it into a pocket? In dismay, he pawed at the jacket but didn't feel the camera. What he did feel were three cylinders of film. The fourth camera and, more important, the film inside it were lost to him.
He fought to rouse his spirit. Hey, I saved the other three rolls. That's still a lot. If I can get them out of here...
The sentence didn't want to be completed.
Yes? he asked himself. If I can get them out of here?
Are those photographs worth dying for?
This time, he didn't hesitate. Are you kidding me? The UN inspection team is desperate to get its hands on evidence like this. The film will prove that the atrocities committed here were much worse than anyone imagined. That bastard Ilkovic will finally have to pay for what he did.
Coltrane felt uneasy. I don't understand.
Oh, the photos you took are shocking enough to get Ilkovic convicted, all right. But what if the politicians become involved and declare an amnesty for the sake of peace in the region? What if nothing changes? Are your pictures worth getting killed for?
Coltrane didn't have an answer. Again, he groped for the reassuring touch of a camera. A homicide detective friend of his had once joked that Coltrane felt about cameras the way police officers did about backup guns — naked without one. "Come to think of it," the detective had continued joking, "cameras and guns both shoot people, don't they?" But it wasn't the same at all, Coltrane insisted. His kind of shooting didn't kill people. It was supposed to make them immortal. That was the reason he had become a photographer. When he had been twelve, he had found a trove of photographs of his dead mother and had fantasized that they kept her alive.
Those pictures of his mother had been beautiful.
As shivers seized him and his consciousness faded into a place that was despairingly even darker, he managed one last lucid thought.
Then why have I been taking ugly pictures for such a long time?
* * *
Hearing a rumble, he woke in alarm. His first panicked thought warned him he was about to be smothered by an avalanche. But the moment he raised his head, trying to move, the pain that radiated from his left side almost made him pass out. The rumble increased. As his consciousness fought to clear itself, he understood that he had to be wrong, that the ridges here weren't steep enough for avalanches. Besides, the rumble seemed to come from below him rather than from above. It didn't make sense. What was causing the noise?
Find out. Spots swirled in front of his eyes as he placed his hands on the ground, barely aware of the fir needles under his knees. He crawled from beneath the snow-covered boughs, the glare of sunlight off drifts nearly blinding him. The air was shockingly cold, pinching his nostrils.
When he squinted below him, he feared he was hallucinating, unable to make himself believe that he was on a hill above a road, that the rumble came from a convoy of tanks that had NATO markings. He wobbled like a tightrope walker, struggling for balance as he waved his arms and waded as fast as he could down through snowdrifts, which wasn't fast at all, but it didn't matter, because the lead tank's driver had seen him and was stopping, soldiers jumping out as he fell and tumbled to the bottom, the soldiers blurting German as they rushed to help him.
Three days later, against a UN doctor's orders, he was on a plane home. From hell to the City of Angels.
Posted November 10, 2011
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