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Early one February afternoon in 1994, people in Sarajevo shed their heavy coats and hats and poured out into streets and markets, allowing themselves to forget, in the bright warming sun, that from artillery bunkers and snipers’ nests dug into hills and mountains above the city hunters stared down, tracking their prey. But the people of Sarajevo were not permitted to forget. As we cruised the city’s streets in a small armored car, climbing, under a trembling, light-filled sky, toward the Spanish Fort, signs fell abruptly into place: a sudden chaos of horns and screams and screeching tires; a blue van tearing by with one eye peering out from a shattered face, and, racing in its wake, a battered white Yugo with a smeared red handprint emblazoned on its door.
We turned and forced our way back, struggling to trace the source of this grim caravan. When a policeman bade us stop, we clambered out and trotted down cluttered streets, dodging and stumbling through jumbles of honking vehicles until we entered once more the tiny square where, the day before, we had edged our way through boisterous crowds, chatting with vendors behind bare wood tables that held the besieged city’s paltry wares: handfuls of leeks and potatoes, plastic combs in garish pink and green, scatterings of loose nuts and bolts, a blackened bit of banana, a monkey wrench half-rusted, glinting fitfully in the beneficent sun.
Twenty-four hours later Markela marketplace stood precisely so, when, at 12:37 on February 5, 1994, a 120-millimeter mortar shell plunged earthward in an impossibly perfect trajectory, plummeted within view of the somber gray façade of the Catholic cathedral and then by the windows of gray apartment buildings, passed through the market’s ramshackle metal roof and erupted, its five pounds of high explosive spewing out red-hot shrapnel and sending corrugated metal shards slicing through the crowd; in an eye-blink a thick forest of chattering, gossiping, bartering people had been cut down.
Now, turning into the tiny square, we found not infernal smoke or darkness but, amid a terrible clarity, clumps of dark bundles strewn about the asphalt, and, between them, spreading slowly amid shards of charred metal and blackened vegetables and bits of plastic, puddles of slick dark liquid.
We stepped gingerly forward, letting pass two men dragging a limp, softly moaning figure; before us men moved from bundle to bundle, crouching, pressing fingers to a throat, pausing, pushing back an eyelid, staring. I left the curb, feeling my throat constrict as I passed into a cloud of invisible and nauseating cordite; stumbling against a car, I looked down and saw my boot soles already shiny and slick.
A big man danced quickly by me, hoisting the video camera on his shoulder, and close at his back came sound, craning his silver boom forward over the cameraman’s head so that the two appeared together like some great rapacious bird. I followed step by careful step, and we passed through the …