My War Gone By,I Miss It So
by Anthony Loyd
Atlantic Monthly, 2000
Anthony Loyd was just another college dropout kicking around London in the early nineties, chipping heroin and doing a night course in photojournalism. When the war in Yugoslavia broke out, he packed a sack and drove an old Skoda through Europe into the middle of Sarajevo with little more than a few lessons of Serbo-Croatian and a sketchy contact address from a friend of a friend.
He originally intended to stay about six weeks, but as the war dragged on found himself mesmerized by the rush and immediacy of every moment. Running through alleyways ducking sniper fire, sharing a meal of boiled fat and slivovitz with a family as mortar shells rained down: instead of fleeing the terror, he stayed the duration of the war, becoming a correspondent for the British press. My War Gone By is his memoir of four years of war in Bosnia, and it is a damn near unforgettable book.
Unforgettable in the kind of way that makes you embarrassed to be sitting in a room writing comfortably about it. For it is difficult to bang out a stylish synopsis of a book on Bosnia--or anything else--after reading Loyd's brutal account of war and its horrors. Loyd's story is so palpable and destabilizing so as to make it difficult to even use clichés such as "war and its horrors."
His pen draws blood and ghosts from every other page. You are taken through the twisted mass deathyard of Srebrenica, through a thousand echoing wails of young mothers cradling their mutilated child, through endless mountains of fresh intestines splattered against grass and cement walls, through suffering and mortal fear of such intensity and on such a scale as to keep you awake and ashamed of what can only be called a thoughtless and unfeeling existence in the peaceful, affluent west.
Many of us have one or two scary stories about close calls during some hard traveling. But Loyd encountered these daily, taking for granted that each movement, each checkpoint, each trip to the front brought the real possibility of death. And quick death if he was lucky. Getting Kalishnikovs leveled at his face by Serb death squads was bread and butter, just something to be dealt with as coolly as possible. Surviving in Bosnia during the war required the perfect mix of being careful but not too careful, and tough as nails yet solidly deferential to soldiers who would just as soon blow your head off as light your cigarette. Loyd learned fast, and performed flawlessly on a stage where one false move brings down the curtain. Following our narrator's cobalt minuet with violent death is, as they say, a page turning experience.
But the most staggering sections of the book, amazingly enough, take place not in Bosnia, but in Chechnya, where Loyd went to cover the fall of Grozny. To call the descriptions found here "grizzly" is too flaccid, and it is a remarkable literary achievement that Loyd is able to communicate such unutterable experiences at all. The film footage censored by the BBC is found here, in word paintings and slow motion imaging that deplete the mental capacity and accelerate the heart rate of the reader. A taste:
Soon after our arrival [at the hospital] some villagers entered carrying two little girls along corridors slippery with a muddle of used dressings, urine and blood. The children were sisters. Marika was four years old. She was missing the lower part of her back and buttocks, but was still alive, just, and her pale, doll-like form lay motionless face-down on a table as a doctor removed large pieces of metal from her wounds, allowing each to drop on the table with a heavy clunk.
Her sister Miralya was a year older. I do not know what it takes to make a tiny child weep tears of blood, massive blast concussions I guess, but as she shook with noiseless terror it ran in thick lines from the corner of each eye, joining the scarlet streaks from a head wound to form a cobweb mask that covered her face.
Loyd returned to London with scenes like this lodged in his mind, and took to heroin to shake them. When the heroin took over, he went back to war to shake the drug. But after reading his book I am confident he has shaken neither, and remains at turns haunted and numbed. His book, though, is a testament to something worthy of admiration, not in humanity, but in the author. His style is solid but journalistic bordering on conversational, and probably doesn't warrant the comparisons to Orwell that have been made. But as Loyd says somewhere in the book, there is not much room for grace and poise in these chemical times. And he knows better than us.