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He was closing the small padlock on his duffel bag when a deafening explosion brought his head up swiftly. He listened acutely, with accustomed practice, fully expecting to hear another bomb exploding. But there was nothing. Only silence.
Bill Fitzgerald, chief foreign correspondent for CNS, the American cable news network, put on his flak jacket and rushed out of the room.
Tearing down the stairs and into the large atrium, he crossed it and left the Holiday Inn through a back door. The front entrance, which faced Sniper Alley, as it was called, had not been used since the beginning of the war. It was too dangerous.
Glancing up, Bill's eyes scanned the sky. It was a soft, cerulean blue, filled with recumbent white clouds but otherwise empty. There were no warplanes in sight.
An armored Land Rover came barreling down the street where he was standing and skidded to a stop next to him.
The driver was a British journalist, Geoffrey Jackson, an old friend, who worked for the Daily Mail. "The explosion came from over there," Geoffrey said. "That direction." He gestured ahead, and asked, "Want a lift?"
"Sure do, thanks, Geoff," Bill replied and hopped into the Land Rover.
As they raced along the street, Bill wondered what had caused the explosion, then said aloud to Geoffrey, "It was more than likely a bomb lobbed into Sarajevo by the Serbs in the hills, don't you think?"
"Absolutely," Geoffrey agreed. "They're well en-trenched up there, and let's face it, they never stop attacking the city. The way they are sniping at civilians is getting to me. I don't want to die from a stray rifle shot covering this bloodywar."
"Where's your crew?" Geoffrey asked as he drove on, peering through the windscreen intently, looking for signs of trouble, praying to avoid it.
"They went out earlier, to reconnoiter, while I was packing my bags. We're supposed to leave Sarajevo today. For a week's relaxation and rest in Italy."
"Lucky sods!" Geoffrey laughed. "Can I carry your bags?"
Bill laughed with him. "Sure, come with us, why don't you?"
"If only, mate, if only."
A few minutes later Geoffrey was pulling up near an open marketplace. "This is where the damn thing fell," the British journalist said, his jolly face suddenly turning grim. "Bleeding Serbs, won't they ever stop killing Bosnian civilians? They're fucking gangsters, that's all they are."
"You know. I know. Every journalist in the Balkans knows. But does the Western alliance know?"
"Bunch of idiots, if you ask me," Geoffrey answered and parked the Land Rover. He and Bill jumped out.
"Thanks for the ride," Bill said. "See you later. I've got to find my crew."
"Yeah. See you, Bill." Geoffrey disappeared into the mˆl‚e.
Bill followed him.
Women and children were running amok; fires burned everywhere. He was assaulted by a cacophony of sounds . . . loud rumblings as several buildings disintegrated into piles of rubble; the screams of terrified women and children; the moans of the wounded and the dying; the keening of mothers hunched over their children, who lay dead in the marketplace.
Bill clambered over the half-demolished wall of a house and jumped down into another area of the marketplace. Glancing around, his heart tightened at the human carnage. It was horrific.
He had covered the war in the Balkans for a long time, on and off for almost three years now; it was brutal, a savage war, and still he did not understand why America turned the other cheek, behaved as if it were not happening. That was something quite incomprehensible to him.
A cold chill swept through him, and his step faltered for a moment as he walked past a young woman sobbing and cradling her lifeless child in her arms, the child's blood spilling onto the dark earth.
He closed his eyes for a split second, steadied himself before walking on. He was a foreign correspondent and a war correspondent, and it was his job to bring the news to the people. He could not permit emotion to get in the way of his reporting or his judgment; he could never become involved with the events he was covering. He had to be impartial. But sometimes, goddamnit, he couldn't help getting involved. It got to him occasionally . . . the pain, the human suffering. And it was always the innocent who were the most hurt.
As he moved around the perimeter of the marketplace, his eyes took in everything . . . the burning buildings, the destruction, the weary, defeated people, the wounded. He shuddered, then coughed. The air was foul, filled with thick black smoke, the smell of burning rubber, the stench of death. He drew to a halt, and his eyes swept the area yet again, looking for his crew. He was certain they had heard the explosion and were now here. They had to be somewhere in the crowd.
Finally, he spotted them.
His cameraman, Mike Williams, and Joe Alonzo, his soundman, were right in the thick of it, feverishly filming, along with other television crews and photographers who must have arrived on the scene immediately.
Running over to join the CNS crew, Bill shouted above the din, "What the hell happened here? Another bomb?"
"A mortar shell," Joe answered, swinging his eyes to meet Bill's. "There must be twenty or thirty dead."
"Probably more," Mike added without turning, zooming his lens toward two dazed-looking young children covered in blood and clinging to each other in terror. "The marketplace was real busy . . ." Mike stopped the camera, grimaced as he looked over at Bill. "A lot of women and children were here. They got caught. This is a real pisser."
"Oh, Jesus," Bill said.
Joe said, "The mortar shell made one helluva crater."
Bill looked over at it, and said softly, in a hard voice, "The Serbs had to know the marketplace would be busy. This is an atrocity."
"Yes. Another one," Mike remarked dryly. "But we've come to expect that, haven't we?"
Bill nodded, and he and Mike exchanged knowing looks.
"Wholesale slaughter of civilians--" Bill began and stopped abruptly, biting his lip. Mike and Joe had heard it all before, so why bother to repeat himself? Still, he knew he would do so later, when he did his telecast to the States. He wouldn't be able to stop himself.
There was a sudden flurry of additional activity at the far side of the marketplace. Ambulances were driving into the area, followed by armored personnel carriers manned by UN troops, and several official UN cars, all trying to find places to park.
"Here they come, better late than never," Joe muttered in an acerbic tone. "There's not much they can do. Except cart off the wounded. Bury the dead."
Bill made no response. His brain was whirling, words and phrases racing through his head as he prepared his story in his mind. He wanted his telecast to be graphic, moving, vivid and hard-hitting.
"I guess we're not going to get our R & R after all," Mike said, a brow lifting. "We won't be leaving today, will we, Bill?"
Bill roused himself from his concentration. "No, we can't leave, Mike. We have to cover the aftermath of this, and there's bound to be one . . . of some kind. If Clinton and the other Western leaders don't do something drastic, something especially meaningful, there's bound to be a public outcry."
"So be it," Mike said. "We stay."
"They'll do nothing," Joe grumbled. "They've all been derelict in their duty. They've let the Serbs get away with murder, and right from the beginning."
Bill nodded in agreement. Joe was only voicing what every journalist and television newsman in Bosnia knew only too well. Turning to Mike, he asked, "How much footage do we have so far?"
"A lot. Joe and I were practically the first in the marketplace, seconds after the mortar shell went off. We were in the jeep, just around the corner when it happened. I started filming at once. It's pretty bloody, gory stuff, Bill."
"Gruesome," Joe added emphatically.
Bill said, "It must be shown." Then, looking at Mike, he went on quickly, "I'd like you to find a place where we can film my spot, if possible one that's highly dramatic."
"You got it, Bill. When do you want to start rolling the tape?"
"In about ten minutes. I'm going to go over there first, talk to some of those UN people clustered near the ambulances, see what else I can find out."
"Okay, and I'll do a rekky, look for a good spot," Mike assured him.
William Patrick Fitzgerald was a renowned newsman, the undoubted star at Cable News Systems, noted for his measured, accurate, but hard-hitting reports from the world's battlefields and troublespots.
His fair coloring and clean-cut, boyish good looks belied his thirty-three years, and his tough demeanor stood him in great stead in front of the television camera.