Winner of a Jewish National Book Award and author of The List and Jacob's Oath, both of which achieved outstanding critical acclaim, NBC Special Correspondent Martin Fletcher delivers another breathtaking tale of love, war, and redemption.
Tom Layne was a world-class television correspondent until his life collapsed in Sarajevo. Beaten and humiliated, he fell into a hole diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Eleven years later he returns to the Balkans to film a documentary on the man who caused his downfall: Ratko Mladic, Europe's biggest killer since Hitler, wanted for genocide and crimes against humanity. Mysterious forces have protected Mladic for a decade, preventing his arrest, and these shadowy but deadly foes swing into action against the journalist. Tom soon falls into a web of intrigue and deceit that threatens his life as well as that of the woman he loves.
Drawing upon his own experiences reporting on the wars in Bosnia and Sarajevo, Martin Fletcher has written a searing love story and a painfully authentic account of a war reporter chasing down the scoop of a lifetime.
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About the Author
MARTIN FLETCHER is one of the most respected television news correspondents in the world and he is also rapidly gaining an equally impressive reputation as a writer. He has won many awards, including five Emmys, a Columbia University DuPont Award, several Overseas Press Club Awards, and the National Jewish Book Award. Fletcher and his wife, Hagar, have raised three sons. He spent many years as the NBC News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv and he is currently based in Israel and New York, where he is a Special Correspondent for NBC News. He is also the author of Breaking News, Walking Israel, and The List.
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The War Reporter
By Martin Fletcher
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Martin Fletcher
All rights reserved.
Sarajevo, March 1994
The nurse told Tom Layne to stay out, so of course he went in.
As soon as she left the corridor, he opened the forbidden door and slipped into the small dark room off the children's ward. In the gloom he made out the outline of four empty cots along the walls, until he sensed, rather than heard, movement in a fifth crib beneath the shuttered window. He inched forward, running his hand along the cold metal rails of the infant beds, freed the window latch, and pushed it open. A rush of air blew out the staleness, and light glinted on the rails and brightened the faded sheets and blank walls.
A bare, severe room.
A little boy, too big to be a baby, yet drooling like an infant, brought a chubby hand up to protect his eyes from the sudden light, and rolled onto his side, trying to push himself up from his elbow. He gasped from the effort.
The boy wobbled upright, like a bowling pin finding its balance. He supported himself on one hand. His head seemed too big for his body, and a harelip bared his front teeth, yet his eyes were smiling.
Tom stretched his arm toward the boy, to stroke his head. His skin felt warm and in his widening eyes Tom now saw despair.
He heard the clacking of determined footsteps.
"Let's go," the nurse said, "I told you not to come in here."
"Who is he?"
"We don't know. Nobody knows his name."
"What do you mean? Why not?"
"Nobody visits this one."
She took Tom's elbow and pushed him toward the door.
He resisted, pulling out his notebook. "Wait a minute. You must know something. How did he get here?"
"Outside now, please." She was a stout woman and used considerable force. As she closed the door he walked to the nearest bench, gesturing for her to join him.
"No time. Very busy," she said, glancing over Tom's shoulder. There was a bandaged child in every bed, surrounded by anxious family, while groups of visitors searched for friends.
She clenched her lips in disapproval as she watched the man with the big camera move closer to a bandaged girl's head. The other loud, clumsy one held a big microphone pointing at her mouth. The girl's parents sat on the edge of the bed and tried to smile. The nurse snorted. She knew what the parents were thinking: Foreign television. Maybe they can help.
Tom kept asking questions until the nurse called out in Serbo-Croat to a colleague, her exasperation clear in her tone. As she walked away the younger, pretty one sat next to him and said in English, "Yes. What you wish?"
"We're from American television. Please, would you mind telling me what you can about the little boy in there?" he said, looking at the closed door. "The boy with the harelip?" He pointed at his lip to help her understand.
She looked away, as if for help, and then back at Tom.
"But first, what is your name, please?"
"Fata. Fata Gorani."
She nodded as he spelled it out.
"That's a Muslim name, isn't it?"
"Yes. From Fatima." She shifted on the bench, unsure what Tom wanted.
Tom tried a reassuring smile. "The daughter of the prophet."
That seemed news to her. Tom's eyes wandered. She had deep brown eyes and red lips, and a full body that strained against her white uniform. With her olive skin and dark hair, framed by a white cap and blouse against a white wall, she'd be beautiful in close-up. Better than that other old bag.
He waved over Fata's shoulder until he caught the cameraman's eye. Nick took one last wide shot of the family by the bed. As he left he dug into his camera bag and held out a Snickers bar to the girl.
With an encouraging smile and gentle pressure on her shoulders, Nick guided Nurse Fata so that daylight from the window backlit her, giving a white frame to her pinned-up hair, and then he nudged Tom a few inches forward to get the right composition for a two-shot over Tom's shoulder. Nick didn't bother with the tripod but kneeled, resting the camera on his knee and thigh. He liked to move around while shooting. He squinted through the viewfinder, found focus, and gave the thumbs-up to Tom. Zoltan held the extended boom mic out of shot, pointing up to her mouth.
Tom hated the boom mic, it was too big, too intrusive. He liked to work quietly with a small hand mic, just slide in and do it; that's how he usually worked with Nick, who was so discreet you hardly realized he was there. But with Zoltan's bulk and wild gray hair, panting and sweating lemon vodka from each exertion, every head was turned toward them.
Fata had been in the ward for only four months, she said on camera, and she checked on the boy whenever she could, which wasn't often because the ward was just too busy with dozens of children arriving every day, many crying and bleeding from shrapnel and bullet wounds; it's all very hard, very sad.
She told Tom what she could, which wasn't much, and back in the Holiday Inn that night he filled in the background for his report.
The day before the siege of Sarajevo began, a woman from a distant village brought her two-year-old son to the hospital for an operation on his harelip. In the evening she returned home, meaning to come back in the morning, but that same night, April 5, 1992, the Bosnian Serbs blocked the roads, shelled the town, and the mother was never seen again. Probably she phoned the hospital, but after a few weeks all phone lines in and out of town were cut.
Now, two years later, the town was still surrounded, bombed daily, with all supply routes closed. After a mortar shell set fire to the records office, the hospital had no knowledge of the child's name, home, or next of kin.
All they knew was that he had come in for a routine procedure on his harelip, but the doctors never had time to do it. And no wonder, Tom said in his standup in front of the hospital as an ambulance disgorged more wounded behind him. The Serbs fired an average of 330 shells a day from the hills and forests overlooking the town, with the heaviest bombardment on Bloody Thursday, July 22, 1993, when 3,800 shells slammed into the homes and streets of Sarajevo, a town of half a million. In the two years of the siege so far, thousands had been killed and tens of thousands wounded. So who had time for a little boy with a harelip who had never learned to talk?
How could he, if nobody spoke to him?
"But why is he all alone in that room?" Tom said to the nurse in the interview that aired. "Why isn't he out here with everyone else?"
The nurse shrugged. "I don't know."
Tom rose, shook Fata's hand, thanked her for the interview, and asked for her telephone number. In case he had any more questions, he said. Nick winked.
She laughed. Telephone? Sarajevo? Come here if you need me again. I'm always here.
Tom walked with Nick and Zoltan to the other end of the ward, explaining what he wanted. Slowly, making a show of filming more children and families, he and Nick edged their way back to the corridor with the forbidden door. He had told Zoltan, who stayed at the other end, "Make some noise. That shouldn't be hard for you. And we'll slip in when nobody's looking."
At the door Tom said, "Nick, you ready with the hand mic?"
"What do you think I'm holding? My dick?"
At the entrance to the ward a tin bowl clanged to the floor, and as all heads whipped toward the clatter, which seemed to take on a life of its own, Tom and Nick slipped through the door and closed it after them.
The boy was sitting against the side of the cot, his head leaning against the metal strut, playing with his hands, threading and unthreading his fingers. The shirt of his white hospital pajamas was too small and his trousers were too big. A soiled white sheet was crumpled in the corner of the cot.
"Sometimes I pick him up or take him for a walk. Give him a hug," Fata had told Tom on camera.
"When was the last time?" he had asked.
"I don't remember."
That was one of the sound bites Tom used in his story, over pictures of the boy abandoned in the corner of his cot, in the corner of the little room. Light from the window behind gave him a hazy, transparent look, pale and wan against the white paint. He looked as if he would fade into the wall, or fade away altogether.
Tom had sighed.
"Quiet," Nick hissed. Tom was holding the hand mic against his face, and the sudden expulsion of air exploded through Nick's headphones like a wave crashing onto rocks.
For an instant Tom's thoughts had gone to the elder brother he'd never known, who had died in infancy. And he saw himself too, for one sad thought always succeeded the other, alone with his parents on every birthday, with no other family, just the three of them. It was lonely. And as he looked at the lonely boy in the cot, he remembered his guiding creed: I can't stop this from being a world that tortures children, but I can stop some children from being tortured.
It isn't fair. Maybe you have to pay money to get attention? It's true they really are busy out there; it's a zoo. Who are the kid's parents? Two years he's been here without a visitor? How sad is that?
When Nick finished filming, Tom took the boy's dimpled hand, soft like a baby's, held it and stroked it, while the boy's head hung.
Tom Layne's report, featuring Nurse Fata Gorani and an interview with the hospital director, library pictures of earlier shellings, and the drama of the children's ward, all framed around the story of the abandoned child, led the news that night, even though it was more of a news feature than a hard news report.
For Tom knew how to spin a TV yarn: beginning with the feel of the lonely boy's soft skin, a close-up of the yearning in his eyes, the silence in his bare room emphasized by the noisy children's ward outside. Tom paused in his narration so the viewer could hear the boy's panting in the silent room, broken by the sudden boom of a mortar landing. More wounded children rushed into the emergency ward, followed by crying parents, and then back to the little boy ... all alone ... without a name ... and the nurse who couldn't remember when anyone last held him in their arms. The story ended on a close- up of the boy's brown eyes, a blank appeal for love.
"The network switchboard's gonna light up," Nick said. "Adoption city."
Tom had made his reputation from just such tales in every war and disaster zone for close to two decades. Nobody married pathos and drama so well, nobody brought dry facts to life like Tom. When Tom arrived on a story, the opposition groaned.
Yet only Tom knew that each time he came home from a war zone, a little bit less of him returned with him. All that time looking out of the window meant he spent less time looking in the mirror. By embracing the reality of others, he was fleeing his own.
But what was his reality? A Coke in a bar after work? People were always surprised that he didn't drink. Another herogram from the show? Another girl swept off her feet by the dashing foreign correspondent with the curly locks, which by the way were graying at the temples?
Was he an eyewitness to history to avoid looking at himself?
Anyway, what was there to see?
He thought, Not a hell of a lot.
That night the foreign editor messaged: Another winner for the reel. Keep your head down. Don't do anything dangerous.
Oh right, so why send me to Sarajevo.
* * *
Around midnight, after they had fed the cut story on the satellite and the New York producer had goodnighted them, Zoltan took Tom, Nick, and a few others to a bar in the Old Town, in a cavelike basement, walls of exposed rock two levels below ground. The music was pounding, the cigarette fumes choking, the girls sexy and clinging, the message: Anything goes, what's to lose, we're young and we're all going to die anyway. Nick, smoking at the bar, fit right in, living every day as if it was his last, trusting Daddy Tom to keep him safe. They were more than just mates on the road. He was learning from Tom every day and Tom loved the role of teacher. Tom was the TV vet from a humble home in Queens who'd carved his way to the top, while Nick was the exact opposite, a privileged child from the stockbroker belt of Surrey, outside London. Before taking over his father's road haulage empire, he had chosen to taste the glamorous life of a television news cameraman. The experienced Yank and the dilettante Brit. Both single. Their eyes met and Nick smiled. But not at Tom.
Nick had felt pressure on his thigh. Leaning hard into him was that girl from a few nights ago, in tight jeans, with frizzy black hair and big round earrings that hung to her bare shoulder; after a swallow of beer she gently bit his earlobe.
"So what did you say your name was?" he said, pulling the hair from her eyes.
Tom turned away with a wry smile as Zoltan banged his glass with his own. "Zivjeli, Zivjeli!" he shouted above the din, for the sixth or seventh time, and knocked his drink down in one.
One of the mysteries of Sarajevo under siege was where the alcohol came from. The good stuff was smuggled in through the secret tunnel under the airport runway and was hard to find and cost a bundle. But someone was making a fortune churning out slivovitz by the vat. The brandy tasted of ripe pear, or so it seemed. In fact, said Zoltan, whose every pore oozed musty alcohol sweat, it's fermented grass.
Zoltan threw his arm around another man who had pushed his way to the bar. Tom looked down at his drink and sipped it carefully, frowning, wondering what it really was. They called it Coke.
Nodding his head to the music, Tom thought, I wonder what his name is. After Nick had enough pictures, and had turned his camera off, Tom had picked up the boy, held him, hugged him, murmured to him, and stroked his head like a puppy's. At first the boy had shrunk from him, with wide eyes, and had grunted.
He must be about four years old, Tom thought. Yet his hands were as smooth as a newborn's. He probably hasn't even had a chance to get them dirty. For two years in that cot he must have done nothing with them. When Tom had set him on the floor to take him for a walk, it was lucky he held his hand, because the boy had sunk to the ground. He didn't even have the muscles to hold himself up.
His arms and legs felt like sponges.
But after a few minutes, in which Tom had kissed him on the cheeks and waved him around in the air, despite his weight, he had brought a kind of smile to the boy's face, and the memory made Tom smile too, now, as he sipped his so-called Coke. It had been a feral smile, a slanting of the lips that revealed more teeth and gum. He only realized it was a smile because the boy's eyes had widened and for an instant gleamed with life. And when Tom tickled him and gently pinched his bare tummy he had twisted and gurgled with pleasure.
At two in the morning Zoltan drove Tom back to the hotel, without lights, in case the snipers hidden in the tall buildings across the Miljacka river were also having a late night. Zoltan dropped Tom off at the back entrance, the most protected spot. Inside the hotel the only dim dots of light, moving and glowing like a cat's eyes, came from head lamps worn by reporters on late deadlines to write in the relatively safe dark corridors. The generators didn't operate at night because light in the rooms lit up targets for the snipers, even through the curtains.
"Thanks, Zoltan, enjoyed that. Late start tomorrow," Tom said. "Ten o'clock?"
"That's late? And Nick?"
"Don't worry about Nick." He had disappeared with the girl half an hour earlier. "It doesn't matter when that guy goes to bed, or who with. Always on time in the morning."
Tom's mind was tired and blank as he undressed in the dark room, trying to avoid the air-conditioning — the funnel of icy air that blasted through the mortar hole and shattered window. He turned on the tap, which gargled and expelled a trickle of brown drops before tapering off. With a glass he scooped water from the bath, which he had filled when he arrived a week earlier in case the taps went dry, brushed his teeth, and fell into bed.
With his eyes heavy, drooping in mid-read, Tom went through his telex messages by flashlight, screwed up the last one and aimed for the hole in the wall and missed. They really didn't let you rest. It had read, Another great story tonight. What are you thinking of for tomorrow?
He shivered and pulled up his coat that half covered the blanket. What am I thinking for tomorrow? Fool question. What else is there to do? Chase the bombs, find a family.
Tom felt the weight of his eyelids, and his thoughts drifted to his mother, bless her. What a worrier, always had been. He smiled to himself: Remember when I told her not to be afraid, that when I go to work I wear a flak jacket and a helmet. She said, "Tom, if you need to wear a flak jacket and a helmet to work, you should get a new job."
Excerpted from The War Reporter by Martin Fletcher. Copyright © 2015 Martin Fletcher. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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About the Author,
Also by Martin Fletcher,