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Death in a Box

By
August 1, 2011

The truth and consequences of reporting from a war zone.

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Photograph courtesy of Christoph Bangert

1.

“My country is dying,” my friend, an Iraqi, says and looks at me.

We’re standing in his garden and he is cradling some oily nuts and bolts in his hand. The sprinkler system he set up in our yard is filling the air with a thin mist. He has called his device the mister-mister. Outside the small triangle of relief it provides the air is tight and sharp. The sun is so hot it hurts my skin, which turns feverish and prickly. The leaves wither and grow leathery. The grass, such a feeble and primordial thorn, somehow endures. I look at my friend.

“Mine too,” I say, “I think mine too.”

Luc, the photographer I’m working with, is upstairs sleeping. He arrived this morning from Paris. I haven’t seen him since Nasiriyah. He smiled broadly when we met. His smile is wry, warm. Lines of laughter pull his eyes down at the edges. People call him the Little Prince.

2.

Luc prefers to keep death to himself. When it’s in front of him, dead people scattered about the fields of war, he’ll take his camera out and, click, freeze it. He gets as close as possible. He wanders into it, like an itinerant herdsman looking for grazing pasture, identifying it by the sway of the grass, the dispersion of seeds across the air, the thickness of the soil underfoot. This is it, he will say, this is the right place to be.

Luc once photographed an Afghan as the rounds whistled through the grass around him and hit the sand—thppt, thppt. Many people say Luc photographs death more beautifully than anyone.

After Nasiriyah, I began to have death fugues.

When I come to, I am on my side. I can smell gas. I am sure that any moment a face will appear in front of the window, raise a weapon, and end me.

The fugue of the musician: “A contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts.”

The fugue of the psychiatrist: “A state or period of loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment, associated with certain forms of hysteria or epilepsy.”

My fugue: I am stopped at a traffic light in Kuwait City. And then this question arises: Am I dead?

I am not sure. I am confused about it.

I run through the events again. I am driving down Highway 8, in southern Iraq. I come to what I believe is a checkpoint. A man with a large gun is standing to the side of the road with his gun pointed at me. Weapons, weapons, they have weapons comes to me over the radio from Luc, who is in another car, ahead of me. The words are in French. The shooting begins. It is directed at me. The bullets puncture the car. They sound like hard rain. Hail. They sound like small hammers, children’s toy hammers. As they pass through the car they suck air out with them. I duck. When I do, I lose control of the car. It flips onto a sidewalk. I skid into a pole. When I come to, I am on my side. I can smell gas. I am sure that any moment a face will appear in front of the window, raise a weapon, and end me.

In Kuwait City, the lights have changed. Cars begin to honk. I am not sure what to do. If I am dead, then presumably I don’t need to do anything urgently. Death absolves one of a certain degree of responsibility it would seem. If, however, I am not dead, I need to act.

After I crashed, and the face did not appear, I began to kick at the windows. I kicked until the window cracked, then webbed, then gave way. I kicked it free, crawled out, away from the truck. The shooting had ended. All I heard were celebratory shouts. I pressed myself into the ground, on a patch of dirt, and then crawled away on my belly. There was a dung beetle underneath me. He was big, black, slow. He was unconcerned in every way. I poured something of myself into him and let him crawl with me, away from the smoldering wreck behind me.

I am not dead, I say, to the uncertainty. I am alive. Dead is something else entirely. I cannot say how it is different. But it is different.

3.

I don’t always say it, but it’s death I’ve come to see. Death, and to a certain extent, destruction.

We sit in a small room on one of the bases in downtown Ramadi. There are no windows. I am on one bunk. Across the room Luc is on another, facing me. We lie like this for hours. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we’re quiet for long stretches. Occasionally one of us will fall asleep. The other will wake him up. We ask each other what time it is. Luc wants to know what music I have on my iPod and when I show him he scrolls through lists of albums, countless songs I have never heard, music I don’t even like. He scrolls quickly, seemingly more fascinated by the technical feat than by the music itself. He hands it back to me.

“You listen to all that?” he asks.

When I say no, he nods as if this is what he expected.

He pulls out his cell phone. All of his music he carries there. He has only a few artists: Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Serge Gainsbourg, the Clash. He says this is the real thing. Everything else is background noise. He suggests we play musical trivia. He begins.

We are waiting for the moment when we can approach death. It is not meant to sound dramatic, though I know it does.

An easy one, he says. On which album will you find the song “Tangled Up In Blue”?

Easy, I agree. Blood on the Tracks.

He increases the difficulty immediately, considerably. He plays me two seconds of a song. I must guess the song from the clip. I know the song, that it is Dylan, but I don’t know the title. What year was it recorded, he asks. I have no idea.

1965, he says. He lets the rest of the song play. The chorus reverberates.

Something is happening

But you don’t know what it is

Do you?

Mr. Jones?

Luc smokes little brown cigarettes. I eat. We are waiting for the moment when we can approach death. It is not meant to sound dramatic, though I know it does. It is simply what it is. There is no other point in being here. There is no other story to tell. That fact is not sad, nor is it tawdry or opportunistic. We all approach death from different directions. Sometimes I rush headlong towards it, behind a soldier, say. Sometimes I watch from a great distance with utter boredom. Twelve dead in a plane crash? My fascination with the irrelevant detail makes my contempt for the dead that much more acute: What sort of plane? A storm? Anyone famous? Sometimes, most times, I run away. And then there is this—this waiting, this subtle orchestration of events that will bring me into close proximity to the beast. I want to slow it down, understand it, describe it; I want to be swept up in its swirling currents for a moment. Isn’t that what I want?

Neither Luc nor I ever did military service. I come from a country where it is not required. Luc is French and of a generation that demanded it of its young men. But Luc got himself categorized as a P-4, mentally unstable. Then he spent much of the rest of his life in the company of soldiers. He has been shot, and shot at, more times than he can count. He is thin. Oh thin men of Haddam, I think, whenever I see him, sucking on a beetroot with a Cheshire grin. He never exercises and yet his stomach is a flat six-pack of muscle. He is tight and strong, wired. If he lost control for one second too long I imagine he would begin to twitch with electricity and zing off into outer space. He is here for one thing. L’action.

4.

Consider the expression death is all around.

Luc and I are sitting in one of the bunkers at the governor’s palace downtown. The marines are watching the streets outside the wire. The city around here has been destroyed. The buildings are broken and crumbling. Walls are gone. There are no windows, only holes. Roofs have collapsed and now lie in rubble and wreckage. Other journalists have compared this section of town to Stalingrad, but none of them has ever seen the Stalingrad they imagine, nor felt what life force existed there. Nevertheless, the proximity of death provides parallels. Life, as we might experience it, is here warped by the closeness of death.

For instance, there is an intersection a few hundred meters down the road, guarded by American marines. Now and again men and women scurry from one side to the other. A man on a bicycle rides up and then down again, seemingly oblivious to the armed men who surround him on three sides. Perhaps he is a madman. An old man sits in a chair on one side of the intersection. The marines are trained to believe that any of them could be insurgents, killers, terrorists.

A box appears in the middle of the street. There is no explanation for it. The marines tense up immediately. They squint through their binoculars. A giddy child screams, runs up the street, his lightheartedness improbable and confusing.

The sun is beating down; the box pushes back at the sky. If the sky falls, it will fall down upon all of us.

“Watch that fucking box,” one marine orders, in case anyone wasn’t already paying attention. Several pairs of binoculars swivel, focus on the box. The lenses on these binoculars are green and shiny, much bigger than your average binoculars, rounder, more like eyes, green alien eyes, flat, all-seeing, pointed in the same direction like mongoose eyes, the world reduced to digits of infinitesimal movement.

“Is that fucking box moving?”

“Could be on a rope.”

“Who’s pulling?”

“That old man?”

“Watch that kid, where’s the kid?”

“Is it moving?”

“Can’t tell.”

“I want the road closed.”

“Close alpha now.”

“Where’s that fucking kid?”

“You see rope?”

“No.”

“It hasn’t moved.”

“I don’t care, shut it down now.”

For now, death is in this box. All our eyes are locked on it. If we open it, if they shoot it, if someone steps on it, a vehicle drives over it, a dog sideswipes it, destruction will hurl forth. Life dances around it. In the street men and women continue to cross back and forth. The sun is beating down; the box pushes back at the sky. If the sky falls, it will fall down upon all of us. We will be covered in a blue death.

So we focus our eyes on figures in the streets, the old woman’s clothed frame, the crooked nose of the old man and his bony sandaled feet, the whirring of the bicycle wheels. There is no air anymore. The whole world is contained inside this small box. My breath is there. No one can look away.

And then a tall man comes strolling along. He’s lanky, an Iraqi jughead. He swings his arms blithely. In another reality he is whistling. He comes along and, whack, kicks the box and sends it flying down the street.

There is an audible gasp behind me.

“You were one dead sumbitch.”

“Stupid fuck.”

“Fucking box.”

But the world has been released. The sky opens up again. The clouds may drift. It may even rain.

5.

The marines had told us to meet Weapons Company at eleven that morning. I had asked the base commander: What do they do? The companies each had different missions. Some patrolled. Some had sniper teams. Some specialized in civil affairs operations, getting to know the local populations and being nice to them. Weapons Company was

different. They drove around the city with one objective: to draw fire.

Soldiers aren’t like sailors or racers: their vehicles are androgynous. Their weapons, on the other hand, they cradle and caress. They talk to them.

We walk out to the tarmac where they are gathering. Four armored Humvees are lined up. At least thirty marines idle around. Some are assigned to this day’s mission and they are preparing to leave the wire. Others were spared this day and they stand around in T-shirts talking softly and helping the others don their gear and load their weaponry. I walk up to the sergeant who’s barking orders. I want all your weapons on the ground now. If I don’t see them lined up now I’m going to rip someone a new asshole. Where’s first sarge? And where’s the driver on that second rig?

Luc and I wait for our orders. It is so bright outside. When it’s bright like this, I usually close one eye, squinting with the other. If I don’t, I begin to sneeze. It’s a photokinetic allergy. When I was a child the light from snow threw me into fits of uncontrollable sneezing. I squinted at the world to deaden its threat to my senses. I do that now. People disappear, my vision blurs, then sharpens, I can feel the heat rather than see it and I de-shoulder one of my bags, the strap suddenly like a hot lead belt across my back. A marine shows me to the lead Humvee. He points to the seat directly behind the driver. “You’ll sit here,” he says. He shows me how to lock and unlock the door. He is tall, Latino, muscular. He wears transparent glasses with darkened lenses and shoulders an M-60, one of the big guns.

“We call this one Lucky,” he says. Soldiers aren’t like sailors or racers: their vehicles are androgynous. Their weapons, on the other hand, they cradle and caress. They talk to them.

I look at him.

“We get hit all the time, but this one’s never been hit, that’s why we’re putting you in here.”

There’s a moment of silence that lingers between us.

“You guys’ll probably get hit today,” he says.

I look at Luc and his face, for the first time, betrays a degree of uncertainty. The helmet they’ve made him wear is far too big for his head and it slopes off to one side, the chinstrap dangling loosely. Neither of us says anything. The sergeant comes over. He will be riding next to me.

“If we get hit the first thing you do when you come to is check your body to see if you’re all there.”

He lays his hands upon his chest, his face, his legs, his head and pats.

“If you’re all there, you yell out, ’I’m OK.’ If you’re wounded, you yell out, ’I’m wounded.’ If you can yell. If you can’t, well.”

He looks at us to make sure we understand.

“You get out of the vehicle but you don’t run away. You wait for one of us to tell you what to do. Got it?”

He pulls open the door and I climb in. He shuts it behind me. It is heavy, dull. It closes with a clicking bang.

The column leaves the wire and enters the city. There are three more Humvees behind us. Luc is in one of them but I don’t know which one. The sergeant directs the private. The sergeant is the real driver. He drives like this:

“Slow down here… watch that sand pile… move six inches to the right… stop… OK go ahead… is that wood… clear that plank, stay way right… slow down… move left… more… OK… go… Gunner, where does that wiring go? To that house… clear the wires… stop… get up on the side… OK when we get to that trash pile gun it… go, go… stop, check, check… you’re too far right, move left… more, move left more… ”

The streets are empty. They are brown, dirty, strewn with trash. The doors of the houses are metal. Walls line the sides of the road and they are brown too. The date palms have discarded long, dry fronds that feather the streets gathering dust. The islands are canals of dried and caked mud. There is air conditioning in our armored Humvee. It blasts hot air. I can see the back of the private’s neck. He is young and white; his neck is burned pink. I can’t stop clenching and unclenching my jaws I repeat phrases and count their syllables with my toes. Take this right here. Four. The seat I am sitting in is brown canvas. The muzzle from the gunner’s M-16 jostles up against my flak jacket, which is blue. This identifies me as a member of the press corps. We are independent and free. We want to tell the truth.

“Oh my God,“ he is screaming, again and again, “Oh my God.” I look at him. I wonder, is he going to die?

If a bomb explodes my face will fill with glass and heat. It could possibly melt off my skull. The gunner swivels on a moving turret by my side. It is similar to the swivel turret used by Chewbacca. No one can understand what Chewbacca says, yet we know he is inherently good. The worst luck would be if the bomb comes from my side of the vehicle. A better scenario would be if it explodes in front or behind us, or comes at us from the other side. The better scenario is if other people die. The worst possible case would be if it explodes as I look out this window, like this, at these piles of trash, these wires, these cinder blocks rising up here for no distinguishable reason at all. One of the most memorable scenes from Star Wars is when Han Solo puts the Millennium Falcon into light speed and it vanishes into time, escaping. I am not driving, but if I were, I would speed us up right here, where this pile of sand is materializing. Instead, we slow down. We stop beside it. We linger at this exact spot. It turns out this exact spot, in time, in space, is not within the vortex. It is negative space. It is dead space, and we pass through it unimpeded.

We turn onto a broad avenue. There are lanes in both directions, and both lanes are empty. Our column stops. Then it starts moving again. Get over to the right, says the sergeant.

“Hey… ”

Apparently, we flew. We were lifted high, flung about in that windless day like a tetherball, five tons of metal and steel, another half ton of human flesh, lifted five feet up, sixty inches high, to the height of my throat.

I didn’t hear the bang afterwards.

I felt the vehicle land, crash. Broken.

I felt my chest. The flak jacket was hard. I felt my head. The helmet was hard. I felt my legs. Soft. There. I felt my face, my eyes, my mouth, my soft lips. I am a girl. I am in love with myself, with my lips. I look at my hands. There is no blood. I don’t have to let go.

His socks are white and clean and glow brightly in the heat and inside his feet are in shambles—crushed to small pieces when the bomb shot the floorboard up.

“I’m OK,” I yell, “I’m OK.”

The marines begin to kill.

When the marines kill, they do so rigorously and their prey falls unceremoniously. They lie in the sewage-filled gutters that bisect the neighborhood in thin green canals. They fall in doorways and stay there, slumped like drunks. If they pop around a corner the marines mow them down. They lop them off, like buds. Now, there is a spatter of rifle fire, a madman banging two steel pans in another man’s ear. In the streets their comrades pull them back from the fire line, away from us. They vanish.

Underneath me the prospect of death is alive. It is a marine. I don’t know his name. His feet are smashed and broken. The other marines have taken off his boots. His teeth are broken and blood seeps from his lips. “Oh my God,” he is screaming, again and again, “Oh my God.” I look at him. I wonder, is he going to die? Why do they take off his boots, is that really a priority? Their mothers at home in the United States send them fresh bundles of socks. At the PX stores they can buy large quantities of them and they do, along with powders and lotions and creams to keep the fungi at bay. So his socks are white and clean and glow brightly in the heat and inside his feet are in shambles—crushed to small pieces when the bomb shot the floorboard up. The marines place his white socks on his unlaced boots and hover over his face. Around us the clanging fire rings on. The men who are trying to kill us keep falling.

Now and again I hear a woooo-hoooo.

It’s a holler from one of the marines.

He has just killed again.

6.

Afterwards, when we’re back on the base, Luc puts his arm around my shoulder as we walk.

“You have to stop that,” he says and smiles at me.

“I know.”

“That’s the second time.”

“Maybe it’s you,” I say, “This only happens with you.”

I borrow Luc’s soap to take a shower. It’s a special kind of soap he has brought from home, from his wife and child, and that he carries with him in a small blue plastic case. I return to the trailer we share. He asks me where the soap is. Oops. I’ve forgotten it in the shower. I return. The soap isn’t there. I return to the trailer and tell Luc I’ve lost the soap. His face darkens. His lips purse. He scowls. He is furious.

But we have to go to the headquarters to arrange for our helicopter flight home.

As we walk, Luc says, “You’re going to get me some new soap. I need my soap.”

We trundle off to the headquarters. There is a sergeant there and I ask him if he has any soap.

“Luc needs his soap,” I say with as much scorn as I can muster. Luc is standing off to the side. He shakes his head at me, livid at my tone. The sergeant brings a small bar of military soap. I take it, turn, and hand it to Luc.

“No,” he cries, “You carry it.”

We are both small children now. The sergeant doesn’t move, watches, learns something.

I have survived something today, I know, and yet now I feel as if I could crumble from the inside.

“No,” I insist back, “It’s your soap, you fucking carry it.” I shove it into his hands. We trail out the door. I walk away first.

Assume!

Luc is screaming at my back in French, “Assume, Scott!”

There is no great way to explain the word, the phrase, in English. Assume responsibility for your actions, is what he is saying. Assume responsibility for your life. Rise to this occasion! Rise! Defend!

I stumble off into the growing darkness. I feel all eyes upon me. I have survived something today, I know, and yet now I feel as if I could crumble from the inside. A slight wind would blow me over.

Earlier that day we had to go to the clinic for checkups. They scoured our bodies. How did we feel? Does this hurt? A nurse tapped on my knee.

No.

How about this? My stomach. My head. My neck. My back.

No. No. Thank you. I’m OK. I feel fine.

On a nearby table a marine was lying on his back and whimpering. He was shaking. A sniper bullet had grazed his helmet that afternoon. For the second day in a row roadside bombs had almost killed him. The ambush that morning broke something in him. He lay on the table and cried. Another marine stood by his side and stroked his head. Others watched quietly, all with grave concern. No one laughed. No one mocked.

7.

Luc is terrible at ping-pong. He can barely get the ball over the net. His hands tremble when he holds the racket. I lob the ball gently back at him each time. After we play he comes to me. He stands before me and looks at me. I can’t tell if it’s with pity, or affection, or forgiveness. I take it.

After we landed in Baghdad, he had said, “What is it?”

“You disgust me,” I said, “That’s all.”

“I hope that’s not true,” he replied, “I hope you don’t mean that.” His voice had been small, gentle.

“I take it,” I say now, “I take responsibility. I do.”

Now, he opens his arms to hug me and I fall into them. I grasp my friend’s small body. We are standing under the fluorescent lights like this, next to the ping-pong table. The others were there, but we don’t care. For these few seconds, there is no death. There is no death because there is no time. Death is the presence of time.

A Katyusha rocket landed three doors down from us. It blew a hole in the yard big enough to bury a body.

8.

I stayed inside for three days straight. A Katyusha rocket landed three doors down from us. It blew a hole in the yard big enough to bury a body. It blew out thirteen windows on our neighbor’s house, blew our kitchen door off its hinges and broke the lock. We found a piece of shrapnel in the yard, like a meteorite. It had jagged edges, small protrusions of thin metal, like bird shell or filigree, or bark, delicate like latticework. “That’s what’ll kill you,” says Jacko, our British security advisor, studying the piece, “Go right through you and shred your veins.” I put the thing in a drawer and shut it. I worked my way through twenty-four episodes of the television show 24 in thirty straight hours of viewing. Countless cars get blown up. People keep getting killed. I lay on the couch, mesmerized. Jack Bauer was my hero. I had to get up at least twice every hour to pee. “Jesus Christ,” Jacko says each time from the couch where he is lying down with one hand under his arm and the other caressing his hairy belly, “Get a grip, bathroom boy.” Bauer is immune to death. He usually kills at least three or four bad guys during each episode. There is an element of reality to all this, I realize later. I am the protagonist in this drama.

A friend came over and found me on the couch, in the darkness, wearing a T-shirt speckled with potato chips and the same clothes I had been wearing for three days. When the rocket landed it threw Jacko out of bed. He couldn’t stop talking about how it had ruined his cup of tea. “Best cup of tea I’ve ever made,” he said, “Threw it right across the room.”

9.

Months later, on a break, she and I are in the water. She floats, moving towards shore. I brought her here because in the distance, towards the prison island, the breaking rollers look like galloping horses to me, and I can’t get over it. To me it is an unfathomable kind of beauty. Inside, the waves are rougher than she likes. Their turbulence is overpowering. Manta rays live in this bay and now and again they jump. It is no doubt an instinctual jumping, just as horses’ galloping is instinctive. Fetal stallions gallop in the womb, running through water, their eyes closed, their nostrils already flaring. They run through blood-red water.

She is tired, angry, she wants to go home. She puts her board in the boat and swims to shore. I watch from the break. She stumbles on the reef, balances her fingers on the glass—the sharp parts—and winds her way onto the rocks. Her feet are callused. She looks out, shields her eyes, then turns and, back straight, stretches one foot in front of the other. I watch until she makes the last turn and disappears among the sun-bleached boulders.

I am scouting the shore for them, the men I imagine lurking in the shadows of the eucalyptus, in the thorn and heat.

“She going to walk?” one says, nodding at the emptiness.

“There’s dudes on that beach.”

“I wouldn’t do it.”

“She’ll be fine,” I say.

But then I am racing. I am in the boat. I don’t know how I got here. I am in the prow, ridiculous, leaning out over the bow. I am scouting the shore for them, the men I imagine lurking in the shadows of the eucalyptus, in the thorn and heat. There is no sound here, just the wind. It is an emptying, erasing wind. We race along the edge of the reef, prow reared back, bared. Then I spot her. She’s alone. She’s walking briskly. She has reached the sand. She notices me, stops and stamps her foot, waves me off. I can see her lips move. I direct the boat in over the reef. He cuts the engine back, leans his head over the side to check the depth.

“Get in!” I am yelling, “Get in!”

“No!” She screams back.

“Just get in,” I plead, “Please!”

I fall out of the boat, scramble towards her. The reef is sharp. I can’t stand. I put my hand out. She approaches. She’s crying. She gets in, turns her back towards me. I don’t care. It’s OK. It’s safe. Everything is safe now. I look at him. He reverses us, looks away, scans the glass. His foot is stacked against the rail. His face betrays nothing. The sun is in his eyes. He puts his glasses on. She bends her neck to the glass. The shore recedes and peels away into a thin, white lobe. Everything is intact.

I find her later standing in the shallows. She is sobbing. I put my hand on her shoulder.

“Stop,” she sobs, “Just stop.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, “I was imagining… ”

She waves me silent.

“You have to just stop,” she says, choking on her tears, “You can’t control it.”

I nod.

“You can’t.”

10.

My friend puts his hand out to feel the mist. There is just a coolness, like shade. We marvel at this, silently. The wizardry of the heat is a superior challenge. He has met it splendidly. He is an engineer. His country is dying, however, and there is no way to fix it. He has a sad and beautiful smile. His small daughter may be a genius, he says. How do you know, I ask. She sits in front of the television screen all day and talks to Shrek. She is two but speaks increasingly perfect English. She shows an abiding love for the world. He twirls his hand in and out of the misty zone. I lower my face to see if the tenderness of my cheeks will register the moisture more sensitively. He squeezes his hand to wrench out the sweat. I close my eyes to drink.

G

Scott Johnson is currently the Violence Reporting Fellow for the Oakland Tribune, an investigative reporting position funded by the California Endowment. He previously worked for the past twelve years as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek, and was chief of the magazine’s Africa Bureau from 2007 until its close at the end of 2009. He spent most of the preceding decade reporting from the Middle East, covering wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and in Mexico, covering politics and the economy all over Latin America. He was Newsweek’s Baghdad bureau chief for two years during the height of the insurgency, from 2005 to 2007.

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One comment for Death in a Box

  1. Comment by David Pratt on August 6, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    An amazing piece of _writing_–which is the act transcribing memory and emotion into mere words that somehow must bridge the gulf between your experiences and my receiving of the message.

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