1 bullet: Universal point of fear

Sniper: The prospect of a single, well-aimed shot can inspire more fear than artillery barrages - just ask Sarajevo.

October 20, 2002|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Shot on the way to market. Shot on the way to school. Shot during a walk in the park.

What was once true in Sarajevo now prevails in Falls Church or Silver Spring. Sniper Alley, it seems, now roughly follows the path of the Capital Beltway, where in parking lots and at gas stations suburbanites more accustomed to worrying about crabgrass and gridlock are now contemplating the best ways to make themselves less inviting targets.

Will crouching at the gas pump help? When waiting on a Metro platform, is it best to take shelter or to keep moving? Should one wait an extra 10 minutes for that parking slot by the entrance? Is it safe for the children to play outside? It is a mentality oddly reminiscent of the one that took hold in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, during more than three years of siege, from 1992 to 1995. In that benighted city, of course, the snipers were more frequent and far busier, sometimes claiming more victims in a day than the sniper in the Washington suburbs has harvested during his brief but harrowing career.

Nor were snipers the only worry for Sarajevans. Anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand artillery shells flew into the city daily, fired by the hundreds of tanks, howitzers and mortars implanted in the surrounding hills. As a mordant "survival guide" published by some local wags pointed out, "At any moment, from any of these spots, any of these arms can hit any target in the city. ... For the people of Sarajevo, each time they leave their home is a major outing. To visit a friend is an event. Paths lead through back doors, over fences, through gardens, far from dangerous roads."

Not since the Civil War has any American city experienced such an environment for more than a few hours. And even with what's going on around the Beltway, today's closest U.S. approximation to a siege mentality probably exists in bleak urban neighborhoods such as Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester, where gunfire is often a nightly occurrence, and where stray shots often claim innocent victims. One can only wonder what this community's reaction might be to the national frenzy over a single sniper loose in the 'burbs (or their laughter at the idea that any military reconnaissance aircraft might soon fly to their rescue).

Yet, the peculiar and personal nature of a sniper - especially a deadly accurate one - inspires a creeping brand of terror like no other. Even in Sarajevo, where the shelling took a far greater and grislier toll, it was the chance of being a sniper's target that tended to claim a spookier hold on the imagination.

Where did this extra power come from? Maybe it was the idea that some gunman - a former neighbor, perhaps - might soon spot you in his sights as you were out walking. He'd follow you for a while, one eye shut as he squinted into his scope, gun barrel moving slowly to accommodate your pace.

Then, if you were neither swift nor aware, he might pull the trigger, announcing his intent with a sharp crackle that wouldn't reach your ears until after the bullet had reached your head. You'd wind up dead or dying in a widening pool of blood, while everyone around you ran for cover.

Along the Capital Beltway's broader and more diffuse Sniper Alley, a pale echo of such emotions seems evident in interview after interview, a crawling sense of heightened awareness that raises hairs and goose bumps for anyone who seriously considers the possibilities of his latest trip to the gas station or hardware store: Am I being watched? Is someone taking aim? Was that a backfire or a gunshot? A jackhammer or a gunshot? A door slamming or a gunshot? Perhaps I'd better stay home until this is over.

Every sniper zone has a different scale of risk, of course. Sarajevo's gallery of shooters varied widely in accuracy, a factor that only added to the macabre "roulette wheel" aspect of any stroll across the city.

As the siege wore on, the city's anti-sniping defenses reached mammoth proportions. Cars that had been smashed by artillery or turned into giant cheese graters by bullet holes were stacked and piled alongside particularly vulnerable streets and walkways. These barriers wouldn't stop gunshots, but they at least screened you from the shooters.

At the most notorious corridors of fire - the more vulnerable bridges or street crossings - city workers posted a new brand of traffic sign, "Pazi. Sniper! " (Beware. Sniper!) And as the months turned to years, a rough code of behavior developed in which even the snipers seemed to participate. Like any occupation, sniping grew boring with repetition, and the shooters became more selective in their targeting.

So, if you ran, a sniper was less likely to go to the trouble of shooting. Just show him a little respect, he seemed to say. But if you just stood there, acting as if the world had returned to normal, he'd deliberately disabuse you of the notion with a bullet to the head.

In some cases, a few bitterly fatigued souls chose to permanently remove themselves from the game by walking into the middle of a firing zone and openly demanding to be shot. Sometimes the shooters obliged. Other times friends intervened in the nick of time.

In the end, one's fate usually turned on luck, as is often the case whenever people are living, working or playing within the realm of some unseen man, staring down the barrel of his rifle.

But even for those who made it through the day alive, there was a toll.

As a young woman named Nela Dragoja told me, with two years of siege behind her and another still to come, "It is easy sometimes to survive. It is not so easy to live. So we try to laugh, to sing. We try to live."

It can take some getting used to, these facts of life on any Sniper Alley.

Dan Fesperman was The Sun's Berlin correspondent from 1993 to 1996, when his assignments included the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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