Navigation

Claire Bamber

The novel, Witness, told in sections, each from a different character’s point of view, tracks a photograph from when it is first taken during the Bosnian war by photographer Conor Foley, through when it is first published in a newspaper, bought and sold at auction to a private collector, exhibited in a museum, and then used as evidence in a war crimes tribunal.  This extract is set when the photograph is taken.

cbamb001 (@gold.ac.uk)

 

Conor got up and dressed, feeling his way into shirt and trousers in the dark, gathered up his kit and went down to the lobby.    The atrium was empty at this hour.  He stood for a moment listening for the hum of the hotel generator and swore at the settled quiet.  No light to work by.  He stumbled his way to a table and sat on the low pleather bench.  Shirt cuff gripped in his fingers, he swept an arm across the table, cleaning it as best he could.  The sour smell of spilt beer wafted up from the sticky carpet.  He put the heavy glass ashtray full of butts under his seat and took off his shirt, spreading it across the dirty table.  Carefully, he laid his cameras down on the cloth.  

He gripped the Maglite in his teeth like a fat cigar and set to work.  The bristles of the puff brush fanned out over the front lens and the UV filter, and he squeezed air through the brush as he went.  Turning the filter slowly in the bobbing light of the torch, he felt the thread click into place and screwed the filter back onto the lens.  He took up the camera base and passed the brush across the mirror, pushing the soft bristles into every groove.  When he couldn’t see any more dots of dust, any smears or dull spots on the back lens, he squeezed one last blast over the mirror and screwed the lens to the camera.  The well practised rhythm of the movements relaxed him and his breathing slowed, his heart rate steadying to an even thump. 

The torch left a ring of black around the light, so that there was never an even light ray, but light, then dark, then a weaker light against the wider darkness of the black room around him.   

As he picked up the Canon to clean it too, he felt something slippery mashed into the groove of the back flap.  He ran a nail along the groove and brought out something soft, holding it up to the torchlight.  He sniffed at his thumb and the sweet smell of apple sent a shiver through him.  

It had been Hamid’s idea to shelter in the orchard when the shelling started.  Conor was too frightened to argue that the shells could find them through the trees just as easily as on the street. As he hesitated, the shop at the corner was hit, its plate glass window erupting, dust and debris blasting up the lane towards him.  

Apple trees lined up in crooked rows at the back of an elegant three storey house.   The branches were bent low to the ground, heavy with overripe fruit.  

Hamid crouched beneath a tree in the middle of the field, away from the walls that surrounded it.

“I used to steal apples from here when I was a child,” he said, picking up a rotting apple half eaten by birds.  

From across the valley light flashed as the guns went off, and Conor ducked down to sit beside him.  

“One time, the owner caught me and marched me home to my mother.  “What do you expect?” she shouted at the man.  “He’s a 10 year old boy.  He sees apples, he’s going to steal them.”  The man wasn’t happy at all.  She still gave me shit when the man left.”

Conor was quiet, remembering his own mother making apple tarts in the kitchen at home, how she’d hold up the pie dish and run a knife around the edge, pastry falling on the floured table. 

A sudden barrage of shells sent them sprawling on their stomachs.  Pain bit into him as Conor landed, the hard camera body wedged under his shoulder.   A shell hit a nearby building and the sound of falling masonry blocked out all other sound.  Another shell fell, closer.  The earth beneath them bucked, as though trying to throw them off.  All around them the thump of debris, the rapid thud of objects, hard and heavy, falling.  He felt the debris land on his legs, his arms, bounce off the kevlar plates of his flak jacket.  He waited for the burn of shrapnel, the warm sickening feel of blood oozing out of him.  He couldn’t move, couldn’t feel, couldn’t think.  Fear coursed through him, closing him off from everything but the next breath.  

The shelling shifted.  Guns farther up the hill opposite sent shells over the orchard and into the houses closer to the market square.  Conor raised his head, his shoulders, felt along his body, sure he’d been hit but curiously felt nothing.  He look to the house, half-expecting it to be gone, but the elegant facade stood, a jagged crack now slashed from roof to concrete path.  

Beside him, Hamid sat up and patted his chest, his legs.

Hamid realised first and started to laugh, slowly at first, then threw his head back, leaning on his elbows, face to the sky.

“What?  What’s so funny?”  We could have died.”

Hamid went on laughing as he picked up an apple and dropped it.  Around him, all the branches were bare of fruit.

“Apples,” he said. “It was only apples.”  

Conor picked up an apple and rolled it around in his palm, letting it fall with a soft thump to the ground.  He coughed, and the cough turned into a gurgling sound at the back of his throat.  His shoulders shook and he threw himself back on the ground beside Hamid.  They lay there looking up at the blue sky and Conor couldn’t remember when he had felt this happy. 

When both cameras were cleaned, he clicked off the torch and dressed again in the grimy shirt. The sour smell of spilt beer mixed with his own pungent odour.  He’d worn this, his last clean shirt, for days now, and he couldn’t remember when there’d last been water to wash.  Maybe after this trip to the orphanage he’d go up to the Irish camp, ask if he could take a shower.   

A door on the fourth floor opened and noise filtered down to him.  Two bodies moved along the hallway, and Conor traced their path by the dipping progress of their torchlight. He pressed a button on his wrist and his watch lit up – 4am.  Kevin padded along behind Laura, both weighed down by supplies for the orphanage.

As Laura and Kevin came down the stairs, a door swung open across the lobby and a figure appeared, only the glowing tip of his cigarette visible.  The figure stumbled forward in the dark, cursing softly as he collided with the furniture.  Conor turned on his torch to guide Hamid towards him.  

They weren’t a group for small talk at that hour, and wordlessly they made their way down to the car park.  

The dark slowly gave way to a lesser dark as they left the outskirts of Sarajevo.  Hamid  clicked off the lights of the Niva and everyone was quiet.  Blackened shells of blown out buildings went by in a blur as the car picked up speed.   He swerved around the holes in the road, the random obstacles of abandoned cars and makeshift roadblocks unmanned at this hour.  

“Serbs can’t shoot for shit even when you drive straight,” Hamid said.  “When this fucking war is over, I’m going on Top Gear.  Mac and the producer.  They are drinking buddies.  Mac will arrange this.”

Conor gripped the handle above the car door and scanned the dark hills opposite, but no sudden flash of artillery fire came.  

In the dim light, dark hulks of apartment blocks gave way to houses, and houses to bungalows, first clustered together, then spread out along the road and in the hills behind.  All were damaged, windowless and splattered with shrapnel.  Most were reduced to charred husks.  And then a low house, its terracotta roof caved in in the middle, its windows gone, a frowning blank stare.  Outside, strung along the thorny hedges, clothes left to dry, once-white shirts, flowery dresses, a child’s babygro and towelling nappies, ghostly in the half light.   And after the house, the blackened remains of a water truck, its tyres melted to the road, only a half shell of its tank left behind the twisted frame of the driver’s cab.    

When they rounded the bend of the mountain road, Hamid flicked the lights on, the Niva now hidden from the Serb positions on the hill opposite.  Steering with his knees, he slowed down enough to light a cigarette, snapped shut his lighter and clicked the radio on.   Everyone sat back in their seat.  Smoke wafted around the car, mixing with the smell of stale bodies and unwashed clothes. Conor cranked open the window.

It was just before 5am when they came down the hill and into the village.  On the mountain road the sky had lightened to a wan grey, but here it was still dark.  Kevin and Hamid were arguing about who was better – Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman or Kelly McGillis in Top Gun.  Hamid glanced at his watch distractedly, and cracked open his window.  He clicked off the radio and  hunched forward over the steering wheel, watchful.

“Everything alright, Hamid?” asked Conor.

“Maybe,” Hamid said.  

“What is it?” asked Laura.

“I don’t know.  It’s quiet, that’s all,” Hamid said.  “It shouldn’t be this quiet.”  

“It’s early,” Kevin said, swallowing a yawn.

Conor glanced up to the crooked line of roofs and trees silhouetted against the pale grey sky.  Somewhere off in the distance the soft crump of shellfire.  Closer, a dog gave off a full throated bark and was quiet.  Hamid checked his watch again.  When the minaret came into view along the skyline, he turned the Niva down a side street towards the crescent dome.

They entered the square across from the mosque.  Men clustered around the closed door, their backs to the Niva.   As Hamid eased the car forward, more men came from side streets, and the crowd around the mosque entrance swelled.  Still the doors didn’t open.   Hamid wound the window down and called out to a passerby.   A buzz like a kicked beehive rippled through the crowd and filled the car.

“What is it,” asked Laura, her hand reaching for the door handle.  

“The Imam,” Hamid said.  “Stay here.” 

Conor pulled out his cameras and slung the straps around his neck, shoving the lens covers into his breast pocket.  Laura opened her door and stood on the foot rest.  

“See anything?”  Conor asked.

She sat back in her seat.  

“Nothing.  There seems to be something stuck to the doors.”

Conor flicked the dial on the Nikon back and forth with his thumb.

Outside, Hamid hovered at the back of the crowd as more men came.  The sun rose behind the mosque and the entrance was in deep shadow.  Light was seeping into the square now, throwing long dark shadows from one side to the other.  Conor lifted his head to the light.  Above the crescent shape atop minaret, the red, blue and white tricolour of the Bosnian Serb flag, its colours pale, dark and darker, stood out against the lightening sky.  Around the square, the houses were shuttered.  Crudely drawn in pale blue paint on several houses was an ‘X’, each daubed around with a blue circle.  

“Fuck this,” Conor said and reached for his door handle just as Laura got out on her side.  Together they pushed their way towards Hamid, Conor cradling his cameras against the crush.  From the corner of his eye, Conor caught the figure of a woman, her head covered in a scarf, long skirts flowing, appear at a run from a side street.  He lifted his camera and clicked, framing her at full stride as she reached the edge of the crowd.  She plunged into the throng of men.  Word went forward so that space was made for her.  The faces of the men were watchful, glances skittering away as she searched from face to face, repeating the same question over and over as she went.  “Gdje je on?”  “Gdje je on?” “Where is he?  Where is he?”  No-one answered.

Finally the way was cleared and silence fell.  An animal cry came from deep within the woman.  Another, louder.  Then another.  Each cry was followed by silence, her breath sucking all noise from the air, relief fighting tension, the next cry breaking like a wave over the crowd, until they were drowning in her grief.  Conor clicked a few shots of the faces of the men, all looking down and away, as though by not looking they might escape the crashing weight of the woman’s anguish.  The crowd receded before her until a circle had formed around the woman as she sagged to the ground at the door of the mosque.  Then Conor saw. 

Above her head, spread-eagled across the double doors, the body of a man, naked and pale, stood out against the dark wood and shadows.  His arms were outstretched, and at each end his hands were driven through with nails.  The woman raised her head to the sky, and Conor saw that the man’s feet too were nailed to the wooden door.  A twisted band of barbed wire had been pushed down around the man’s forehead.  Trickles of blood filled the lines of the man’s face.   At the feet of the man, the woman rocked, her arms outstretched, strangled cries exhausting themselves in breathless silence.  Conor raised his camera and began to shoot.  

He worked quickly, alternating between the black and white film in the Nikon and the colour in the Canon.  He moved around the woman, her face and body contorted with grief.  He kept low, angling the lens up, capturing the pale body of the man against the dark wooden door.   

He moved fluently among the crowd as they tried to free the body.  Hamid shouted to Kevin, and Kevin ran back to the car, appearing with a crow bar from the boot.  Conor shot it being passed forward over the heads of the men.  He kept the camera raised to his face, ready for any change in the woman’s posture, any change in the shadows around the Imam’s body, any movement in the crowd.  His fingers flicked along the camera settings, opening the aperture to capture the dark recesses of the scene, slowing or quickening the shutter speed for movement, twisting the lenses to zoom in and out.  When one roll of film finished, he reached without looking for another into his camera bag, flicked open the back of the camera and yanked the end of the new film out and over the spool’s teeth, snapping shut the camera and listening for the whirr as the film loaded.

All the while, he kept an eye on the light.  The day brightened as the sun came over the top of the mosque, and daylight seeped across the square.  He knew he hadn’t long before the blackest shadows, the deep contrasts of low light, gave way to a brighter grey.  And this scene needed the shadows.  Men were crowded around the Imam’s body now, levering the nails free with the crow bar.  The Imam’s wife was supported by an old man and her weeping could not mask the sound of bone crushed between metal and wood as they levered the nails away from the door, flattening his hands between metal and wood.  First the man’s left arm fell.  The Imam’s wife broke free of the old man and knelt, holding the crushed and bloody hand to her face. Then the man’s right arm was freed and the man’s body drooped forward, as though trying to embrace his wife.  They had to lead her away as they worked to free his feet, two men supporting the weight of the Imam’s body as the groove of the crowbar was eased into place.  Conor didn’t slow in his work as the bones of the Imam’s feet gave way.  

Finally the body was free and the men laid him gently on the ground.  Gently, they prised the ring of barbed wire from his head.   Gently, they wiped away the worst of the blood from his face.  Gently, they draped a cloth across his naked midriff.  Conor moved among them as they worked, and they made no move to stop him when he raised his camera.  They did not turn away when he pointed the lens at them, the click of the camera a rhythmic accompaniment to the steady crying of the Imam’s wife and the movements of the men as they ministered to their holy man.

It was full daylight when Conor slackened his pace.  He caught images of the men carrying the body of the Imam out of the square.  Women had arrived to comfort the Imam’s wife, and a keening sound filled the air, caught in the narrow streets and echoed back over the village, much as the Imam’s voice should have called the village to prayer at first light.  

When there was nothing left to photograph, Kevin reflexively checked his cameras and loaded more film, his eyes scanning the scene for any last images.  There, standing beside the Niva, were Hamid, Laura and Kevin.  Laura’s eyes were vacant, bruised with shock.  Hamid, one leg cocked against the bumper of the vehicle, sucked on a cigarette.  Kevin was weeping silently.

They drove back to town in near silence.  Conor couldn’t remember them discussing whether to go on to the orphanage.  He wasn’t aware of much at all until Laura touched him lightly on the shoulder and he realised he was rocking.  She took his hand and said nothing, holding it on the seat between them as she stared out of the window.  It began to rain.  Hamid made no move to turn on the wipers and rain ran down the windows so that nothing was clear.

The streets were quiet as they came into town and Hamid drove slowly into the car park.  They made no move when he pulled up, reluctant to leave the safety of the car, the comfort of each other’s company.  Laura was the first to speak.

“I suppose I’d better try to contact the orphanage.  They’ll be worried.”

“Where can I send this film from?” Conor asked.

“By air from Split is the usual way, but the road is cut off just now,” Kevin said.  “They were talking about it in the bar last night.  They’ve sealed off the bridges out of town.  You’d never get through.”

“If you could get the film developed, you could try Reuters.  They might let you send it out over the wires,” Hamid suggested.

“I promised Bill Bailey he’d have first refusal on anything good.  And besides, I don’t have any chemicals here.”

“I’d better go,” Laura said, opening the car door.  “Drink later?”

“I need a drink,” Kevin said, getting out after her, and they disappeared through the back door of the car park. 

Hamid and Conor sat on in silence.

Searching through his pockets, Hamid found a crumpled cigarette, and cupped his hand around the flame as he lit it.

“I might know a way.”

“What is it?” asked Conor.

“A friend of my cousin.  He takes supplies from here to enclaves on the other side of Mount Igman by donkey.  If you can get someone to collect it from him up the line and take it to Split, it could still be sent by plane that way.”

“Fucking donkeys?  Are you serious?”

“Got a better idea?”

Conor sat back in his seat.   His mind skittered over the images of the morning.  He didn’t want to go back into what had happened.  Not so soon.  He needed sleep and a bath, a hot meal and good wine.  The Imam’s wife knelt at his feet, screaming silently, her husband’s body nailed to the door.  The sound of splintering wood as the crowbar did its work.   

Hamid was looking at him, waiting.  If the film was lost, that would be his big chance blown.  

“Okay.  Okay.”

“Give me a couple of hours.  You get it all ready.”

They went up the stairs together.

He cajoled the receptionist into finding some envelopes and elastic bands, nicked a pad of paper from the desk when she was going through drawers in the back office.  Upstairs in his room, he lay the film in order on the bed, scribbling a description before rolling each canister up in the paper and twisting it around and around with an elastic band.  Six rolls in all.  It didn’t seem much.  Flashes of the morning came to him again but he squashed them down.  Too tired to get up and see if there was any water to wash, he crawled into a ball, the film clutched to him, and was asleep before he’d even taken off his shoes.

Comments are closed.