During this insider interview on our literary agent blog, Melissa Burch (author of the memoir My Journey Through War and Peace: Explorations of a Young Filmmaker, Feminist and Spiritual Seeker, published by Mosaic Press), shares tips for authors of all genres about how to write, publish, and/or promote a book.
Melissa recently completed a 3-month, cross-country book tour, during which she drove more than 12,000 miles doing book signings and getting a lot of press coverage. In fact, she got so much press that she had to stop seeking it at one point because her publisher literally ran out of books!
During this interview, Melissa also talks about how she worked with Mark Malatesta (a former literary agent and former AAR member turned author coach) to improve her pitch materials for multiple projects to get the attention of literary agents and publishers.
Melissa Burch has worked as a writer, filmmaker, producer, and former war journalist for the BBC, CBS, and other networks. Her team was one of the first documentary crews in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and a story about her in Afghanistan was featured in The New York Times.
Scroll below now to: 1) Listen to the audio interview, 2) Read Melissa’s success story, 3) See a description of Melissa’s book, and 4) Read an excerpt of her book. Click here now to get a copy of My Journey Through War and Peace and click here to visit Melissa Burch’s website.
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Audio Interview with Melissa Burch
Author of My Journey Through War and Peace
Press the play button below now to listen or click here to download the file (left-click or right-click the link, then select “Save Link As”). This recording is 70 minutes.
“After working with Mark, I had nearly a dozen agents ask for more material. I talked to different agents on the phone and Mark helped me figure out which one would do the best job for me. I then signed with Susan Schulman in New York City and now my book is out!
Before I started working with Mark, I was about to try and get an agent all by myself—but I felt that my query letter didn’t have the zing it needed. I was also feeling overwhelmed by the amount of agents and I wasn’t sure who to choose, how many, etc. And I wanted help with the literary agency contract negotiations, if and when I got to that step.
Although I’m a natural marketer and I’ve been marketing my whole life, getting an agent was new for me. I had made some changes to my query using information on Mark’s websites, but it wasn’t really as sharp as it could be. My first draft was more story-oriented and descriptive of the book, rather than why it might sell – that was a big change.
Having Mark’s personalized advice allowed me to fine tune things and made myself more credible. The whole process of getting the query letter in the right format with the right tone and hook to get an agent is really helpful. Having a professional person review your materials makes sense. Getting a book published takes different skills than it does to write a book.
Mark also helped me with the content, structure, and formatting of my book proposal. I didn’t have a proposal when I first talked to Mark. My thinking was that with memoirs you didn’t need a proposal. I would have been caught off guard with agents and panicked when I got a request for one.
The personalized spreadsheet Mark sent me with sorted agents helped me a lot as well. Mark helped me target the right agents through prioritizing things that were important to me. We decided to go after the most successful and reputable agents in New York who were interested in the different topics and themes in my book that has crossover appeal.
I expected Mark to be a ‘fast talking’ New Yorker… but he didn’t give me that vibe. He was more laid back than I’d anticipated, even when I bombarded him with questions. Mark is great on the phone and I’ve enjoyed getting to know him and how he thinks. If you’re serious about getting your work out there, consider working with Mark. He’ll give you the best chance of making it happen, and it’s fun.”
Author of the memoir
My Journey Through War and Peace
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Book Description – My Journey Through War and Peace by Melissa Burch
My Journey Through War and Peace is based on Melissa Burch’s experiences as a war journalist for BBC, CBS, and other networks. Her team was one of the first documentary crews allowed in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and she was featured in a New York Times story about her time in Afghanistan. She was just in her twenties when she traveled with the mujahideen, filmed an attack on a Soviet convoy, slept with an Afghan commander, and climbed 14,000-foot mountains in the Hindu Kush. “My Journey Through War and Peace” examines how, through outward action and inward exploration, life can unfold in mysterious ways, far beyond cultural and family expectations. In looking back at this momentous decade, Burch shares why she pursued such dangerous and difficult circumstances at such a young age and continued to live on the edge. She now understands that she was seeking self-discovery, a connection to something greater, and ultimately inner peace. This exciting adventurous spiritual memoir will resonate with fans of “Eat Pray Love”, “Wild”, and other popular memoirs that describe extraordinary inner and outer journeys.
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My Journey Through War and Peace Excerpt
On the dirt floor, seven bearded 19- to 20-year-old men, my roommates, slept shoulder to shoulder, swaddled in brown wool blankets. Their antiquated Soviet-made Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifles rested by their sides, the triggers in safety-lock position. These Afghani freedom fighters had spent the previous night planning a surprise morning attack on a Soviet caravan. Now they rested, saving their strength. A half moon shone through the open window of the one-room mud house. We were in Kandahar, an Afghan region near the Afghan-Pakistan border that was a front line in the war against the Soviet invasion.
Muslim, the Afghani commander in Pakistan, had arranged for the mujahedeen to bring enough weapons for a battle, which I would film. But as each hour brought me closer to the approaching battle, I flipped from lying on my right side to my left side inside my goose down sleeping bag in the back of the room. The mujahedeen seemed as edgy as I was. They were getting up more frequently during the early hours before dawn. I opened my eyes each time a mujahedeen coughed or another went outside to pee or pray. Extra prayers to Allah relieved some of their restlessness. Nothing helped me feel OK in my skin.
As the hour crept towards dawn, I smelled smoke and heard a crackling fire. The men were waking, but even the crackling fire, smell of smoke, and signs of green tea in-the-making could not entice me to leave my warm sleeping bag. Instead, I scooted over a few feet so I could rest my back against the dirt wall and switched on the flashlight. Iridescent dust particles shimmered in the beam of light.
In 1979, under the pretext of wanting to liberate Afghan communists and fight Islamic extremists, the Soviet Union had staged an invasion. In reality, they were after valuable natural resources—natural gas, uranium, iron ore, and copper—and easier access for trade with India and the Middle East. It was now 1982. A week ago, I had turned twenty-one years old on the border dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan. When I learned of the Afghanistan opportunity, I made a promise to myself to be an eyewitness to a war, be a camera person, go beyond my self-doubt as a woman filmmaker who hadn’t made a film outside of film school, yet.
In this remote wilderness, I wanted to discover an aspect of myself that felt whole, strong, and confident. And there was something stronger, a magnetic force drawing me to adventure, to a future unknown. It was exhilarating to be present in the moment, to breathe in a zone free of constraints and labels, and to be removed from family obligations to help my teenage sister and younger brother, who were having a tough time with my divorced parents. Afghanistan would be a launching pad into my real adult life.
Leaning against the wall in the hideout house, I gathered myself, took a deep breath and noticed that there was a stretching, pulling, and flipping sensation in my stomach, like a reptile swishing its scaly tail. The sensation bordered on terror, a high-pitched battle cry. In the morning, I would shoot my first war footage for TV. Anchorman Dan Rather from the CBS Evening News had commissioned the story for the U.S. market. Two years earlier, Rather had succeeded in being the first U.S. television journalist to get inside Afghanistan immediately after the Soviet invasion. The televised one-minute news clip showed him standing across the border after he snuck in disguised in Afghani clothes. He was one of the few U.S. journalists who had covered Afghanistan. If everything went well, my footage would be broadcast on CBS for the third-year anniversary of the Soviet invasion. I thought my role as a camerawoman in this war zone was to be the unprejudiced observer, follow the mujahedeen into battle, and show the American public what was really happening. “Inshallah.” God willing.
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I had arrived in Kandahar province the previous night with Maria, an old Hungarian friend from film school. She was the rare student who had left the Eastern Bloc and crossed the Iron Curtain all by herself, bootstrapping a scholarship to the London International Film School. With similar resourcefulness, she was now establishing herself as an international war correspondent. Maria’s round baby face and henna dyed hair made her look innocent, giving no hint of her self-serving agenda.
The year before, Maria, George—a Greek man I met at film school who would later become my husband—and George’s friend John, a fledging British journalist, were planning to make a documentary about Afghanistan’s Soviet invasion from the rebel perspective for the BBC. They all got together to explore how to capture this story, a dangerous proposition for any filmmaker or journalist. Since BBC staff producers and veteran film crews didn’t usually travel with guerilla groups, this freelance gig would be a way to break into the business. I hadn’t gone with George, John, and Maria on the first trip—having just started my first film job for a United Way industrial film producer in my hometown of Washington, D.C. When they returned from Afghanistan, I offered to help. I called up the three major networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC in New York City—and told the producers about their war footage: dead Russians rotting in the hot sun, flies covering their bodies, a shot-down Soviet helicopter, charred and cracked open, and overflowing refugee camps in Pakistan with children covered in dirt and running around in torn clothes. They were gruesome images which did not connect to any reality I had known and did not prepare me for this assignment.
NBC News gave the highest bid for the U.S. rights, an easy sell, even for a girl with no real producing experience. Maria followed up my contact with NBC and pocketed the money. Later, I found out that George and John never saw the royalties from my sale.
When Maria’s French cameraman for her next trip was a no-show, she called me in a panic to take his place. I jumped at the chance. I no longer had a job and was living with my father while looking for work. I had left my associate producer job when it became clear that the work was more about paper filing and answering the phone than production opportunities.
Maria was already in London, working on the final arrangements with the BBC. At the CBS headquarters in New York City, I shook hands with Dan Rather after signing the contract at the legal department. I promised him that we would bring back the footage for this planned broadcast on time.
Maria and I had agreed that I would shoot the battle footage and take the photographs. She would be in charge of everything else and would handle the sales and distribution of the war footage to CBS and other worldwide TV networks. Since this would be my first freelance assignment, I would make $3,000 from the photo sales. Maria would keep all the film footage and own the copyrights. She was expecting to make $20,000 or more depending on how many countries’ networks bought it.
While this was my first time in Afghanistan, Maria, who was twenty- seven years old, had traveled extensively throughout this 20,000 square mile region of southeast Afghanistan. She had made the first contact with Commander Muslim. Both of them spoke fluent Russian and had a special rapport. Muslim, head of a large Pashtun tribe, had arranged all of the past battle scenes that Maria had filmed. He was in charge of our Afghani companions who came from Kandahar and the nearby villages; they had banded together to battle the Soviets and kick them out of their tribal lands.
The previous night, Maria and I had crossed the Pakistani border with the mujahedeen in a Land Rover. We had driven all day to a fairy tale-like house in a remote Kandahar village where we were spending the night. Our cook, who traveled with us, prepared a basic menu, which would become our daily meal: boiled lamb and, if we were lucky, baked bread. Doc, the Afghani commander who brought us across the border, jokingly promised, “sabaa, sabaa, tomorrow we’ll have a real Afghani dinner,” after one of our boiled lamb dinners.
During dinner, Maria was quiet. Her eyes darted from the blazing fire in front of us to me, sticking stale bread into a bowl of boiled lamb. She did not eat. When the fire cracked like a gunshot, Maria jumped. Her face froze. She was a closed type and didn’t share emotions, strategies, or her personal agendas openly with me.
After dinner, Maria and I walked over behind the large boulders that marked the end of the road. Maria’s usual I-know-more-than-you attitude had turned from unshakable confidence to triggered panic. When faced with the reality of being in the middle of a battle for a third time, she didn’t think her luck would hold out. My mind wavered between thinking, “How the hell did I get here?” and “What the hell should I do now?”
I had trusted Maria and knew her experience would make the mission easier. Our plan was to film an ambush and, if possible, a shot-down helicopter. Doc knew that, for his group to be taken seriously, he had to follow the military orders of Commander Muslim, the Afghani leader who stayed behind safely in Pakistan and orchestrated our trip inside Afghanistan. The command was clear: Make sure Melissa gets footage of an ambush that will help the Afghan Freedom Fighter cause. And Maria knew how to make the big dollars—by extending as many minutes as possible of combat footage for a bigger sale to the networks.
But now Maria was saying, “I can’t do it this time. You’ll have to do this alone.” She would not look me in the eye. Her gruff statement ripped into my frail confidence, but I would not show it. I didn’t want to look weak in front of her or the mujahedeen. I thought I needed to be warrior- like to succeed.
Maria pulled out a pack of cigarettes. She offered me one, even though she knew I didn’t smoke. She turned to face the boulders to light her cigarette. The lighter would not catch. Her usual competency and bravado were shattered. She pocketed the cigarette. Then, she explained how she was too nervous to risk her life again. She couldn’t be part of a small group of poorly armed Afghans, as they went up against a modern army. And she had a point. Some of the mujahedeen carried 1940s British rifles that they planned to use against Soviet tanks.
“You’ll be fine,” were her parting words to me, as she mounted a military-green motorbike to join a mujahedeen driver. Her words didn’t make sense, though. Red dust flew behind them, as she fled Afghanistan as fast as she could. I didn’t protest. I was in shock and stuck in tough girl mode. I would be fine, I reassured myself. My purpose was clear: to get my story, an honest account of what was happening in Afghanistan.
But my confidence kept vacillating, “How the hell did I get here?” As the sound of the driver’s motorbike quickly faded in the distance, a mujahedeen shouted at me to come look behind the boulders. I grabbed my Bolex camera, wound it up, and shot the cook as he sliced the neck of a black goat, making one deliberate cut. The small beast was lying on the ground, its scraggly limbs tied to a leafless tree with a twine rope. The cuT stopped its anxious baying, and a gurgled cry came as the crimson blood poured out of its matted neck.
I didn’t want to show the men that I was afraid of watching a killing. Instead, I filmed a small mammal slaughtered in front of me. Up until that moment, I had thought of war as what you see on TV, not actual killing and death. The reality of what I was going to see started to sink in.
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As I anticipated the next morning’s battle, I thought of my mother. She had pleaded for me not to board the 747 plane in London for Pakistan. She had sounded sober on the long distance, echoey phone call, not slurring her words as she did in her usual alcoholic state.
Our usual mother/daughter communications were mostly one-sided— complaining letters she typed on the same manual typewriter she had used for term papers while a student at Smith College. The M and N bulged like buck teeth above the other letters, chastising me for using the American Express card she loaned me for emergencies only. She hand-signed these letters “Mother,” in royal blue ink. I felt I didn’t need her permission for anything, not since I had left home when she and my father divorced four years previously. She could not tell me what to do anymore.
My father, on the other hand, had no problem with me going off to a war zone. He was second generation military and had graduated in the first class of the U.S. Air Force Academy. In 1962, when I was less than a year old, my father was stationed at the U.S. Air Force base in Oakland, CA, where he was a navigator on fighter planes. My grandfather had been captain of a Naval ship in Nagasaki, after the atomic bomb disaster, and an officer at Pearl Harbor before that. In my grandfather’s photo album were gory pictures of Japanese soldiers killed in the streets and party scenes of American soldiers dressed up for luaus in the South Pacific. He had juxtaposed the horrific scenes on one side of the black pages with celebratory scenes on the other side. When I opened the album, I saw peace mounted on the left and war on the right.
Lying awake in my sleeping bag, my stomach rumbling from poor digestion of the fatty lamb, my mind shifted to calmer times when my father cooked elaborate French cuisine dinners. After dinner, my mother often worked late on intricate financial projection reports for the Federal Reserve Board, where she had been appointed the first female economist. My father read fairy tales from the Red Fairy Book, while I leaned close to him in my bed before falling asleep.
My favorite fairy tale was “Snowdrop,” the Andrew Lang early version of “Snow White.” Snowdrop’s caring mother pricks her finger and, upon seeing red blood, makes a wish that the child she is carrying will have skin as white as the snow, cheeks as red as the blood, and hair and eyes as black as the ebony window frame. Not long after her daughter is born, the mother dies.
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My thoughts drifted back to Maria’s sudden departure. She had left me alone here. I automatically got up and went to find the men for some company and to shake off the feeling of abandonment. A warm cup of tea would help, too.
On this dry, crisp morning, my place in this new world with these men was still uncertain. It had almost the quality of a fairy tale about it. The dirt house where we were staying, the black kettle hanging over an open fire, and one woman living among a band of men seemed like a scene from the Disney version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But I was no Sleeping Beauty, with my unwashed brown hair and overweight body, and the tall and robust mujahedeen were hardly the seven dwarves. Frankly, I couldn’t remember any of their real names so I gave these brave men childish nicknames.
There was Sleepy, whose black eyes blinked a lot. He cooked our first meal, the night Maria left. He was tending the fire and did most of the cooking during our trip. Steam rose out of the snout of the black kettle, and he poured hot green tea from the kettle into a glass for me. As I sipped my tea, tight-lipped Grumpy stared at me as if I had trespassed in his forest. Doc, the Commander, was a bulky handsome guy who spoke some English and was highly respected by his men. His trimmed black beard and mustache covered his face like a black velvet hem around his cheeks and chin. He was busy handing out the ammunition for his men to carry in the bandoliers across their shoulders. Dopey had blackened teeth, coughed loudly, and stayed up half the night smoking opium. Happy, a gangly teenager, was my favorite, a fearless driver who smiled a lot. Two nights before, he had navigated over rough terrain with no headlights—avoiding villages and their barking dogs, fording dry riverbeds by moonlight—to deliver Maria and me to Doc and his men.
There was no Bashful or Sneezy, just two crazy guys who were not allowed to fight because they had lost their minds. One had shot and killed his wife. The other bragged about how he had killed Russians by twisting the handle of a black umbrella that popped its spider web canvas open. (Had he seen this in a James Bond movie?) Being from the same Pashtun tribe, these two men were full-fledged members of our group, never to be left behind. They were jihadists, and like the other mujahedeen, they were guaranteed a place in heaven if they were killed in this holy war. They were just not allowed to carry any dangerous weapons. I didn’t believe in heaven, only an existential hope that there was more to life than war and peace.
In this war zone, my gut-wrenching anxiety was like a tsunami that I steered towards, turning it into a great wave that I wanted to ride to safety. Adventure was a way to numb the anxiety. I pushed for greater thrills to relieve a gaping hole in my solar plexus. I’d been anxious ever since age eleven, when a fire had destroyed my family’s kitchen, put my father in the hospital, and changed all our lives into Before and After. The volume was not normally turned up so loud; usually, it was more like the rumbling of a 747 jet.
Now I’d ridden the anxiety to Afghanistan. Each adventure that called me was an opportunity to test myself, validate my existence, and connect to something much greater than myself. I experienced this as a kind of an obligation, a giant positiveness filling my body, my cells pulsating, freedom beckoning, as I said “YES” to each new idea.
But that didn’t mean I was without worry. The angst was there always, even while the “YES” brought clarity and opportunities. I’d settled on a kind of counter-intuitive balance, a letting go, my own version of non- attachment: Use fear to release fear, discover a new self, and reach a state of wonder.
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Outside the rustic house, the soldiers and I stood looking at the first rays of the morning sun in the sky, a splash of orange-yellow light. Large reddish boulders blocked the dirt road. There was no turning back. The anxiety that kept me up in the night had to be suppressed. I had to go forward, take up my camera, and shoot.
The sun was rising and the sunbeams blinded my eyes. I grabbed my sunglasses out of my backpack. My Ray-Ban knockoffs, bought in New York City’s Chinatown, instantly made me stand out. Otherwise, the mujahedeen and I dressed alike, in earth tone pajama suits with ropes tied around our waists to keep our baggy pants up. The major difference was that I wore a long tunic tightly stretched over my size 40DDD bra. Patu wool blankets hung over our shoulders like wrapped prayer shawls. Our uniforms included deflated, soufflé-shaped wool caps. You could buy these Afghani hats at any flea market in the U.S. Instead of a Soviet automatic rifle, I transported an old-fashioned 16mm wind-up Bolex film camera.
My first day of battle. The whole trip until now had been preparation for this upcoming ambush on a Soviet convoy. I was not filming refugee camps or interviewing commanders in Pakistan or standing on the border for a photo op like Dan Rather. I was partaking in a guerrilla ambush, late in the season, when the mujahedeen had usually stopped fighting.
Standing, drinking my glass of tea, now cold and bitter, I watched the mujahedeen lay out their patu blankets on the ground, in single file. They faced Mecca, knelt, and prostrated. Doc led the group invocation. I stood alone. The only woman. The only foreigner.
I didn’t believe in a paternalistic God to beseech to spare our lives. My God was all around us. A force in nature. What was meant to happen would happen. Death was beyond our control. I didn’t believe prayers could change the outcome or that a martyr’s death pleased God more than any other death.
Fumbling in my blue backpack, I grabbed the roll of stiff Pakistani toilet paper, left the men praying, and hurried to the bathroom. The wooden outhouse had a hole on a board. The manure gasses permeated the tiny room. The stench was unbearable but a strong breeze pushed the putrid smell through the slats in the wooden wall.
When I returned, Sleepy poured each of us a fresh helping of hot green tea in short French tumbler glasses filled halfway with refined white sugar. No stirring allowed. Before the next refill, a luxurious syrup sweetened the last sips. A piece of day-old Afghani flatbread completed the breakfast. It was almost time to leave.
I double checked that the Bolex 16mm film camera was loaded, cranked tight, and ready to roll. Then, I went through my inventory. The Canon 35mm still camera, 20 rolls of 16mm film, 10 rolls of 35mm film, and a black bag for changing the movie film were safely packed in the backpack. The film equipment and stock had been donated by CBS. The still rolls came from Time magazine. The 35mm camera was mine. My familiar tools of the trade were prepped.
Commander Doc, honorable as an ambassador, held authority over all of us in a tough-love mode; calm and strict, he handed out the prime weapon. He opened a dented, large, green metal box and passed the fifteen- pound RPG-7 rocket launcher to Grumpy. Doc’s plan, an attack on a nearby convoy, hinged on Grumpy. Grumpy slung the weapon over his shoulder effortlessly, as if he were bounding into his backyard woods to shoot a squirrel with his brand new slingshot. He would have to fire a warhead that would destroy a Soviet armed vehicle, preferably a tank—a military prize for the mujahedeen.
Doc calculated each attack on the basis of its purpose and his anemic military supplies. He weighed the benefits and losses of the surefire retaliation the Soviets would wreak on local villages. In this case, Doc needed me to capture the Soviet tank attack on film—otherwise known as “blood and guts” footage—to appeal to Western news agencies. The agencies would publicize the Afghan cause, and the hope was that the United States, and possibly Pakistan and China, would send much needed military arms, in response.
The mujahedeen had their supplies ready: over 1000 rounds of AK-47 steel-cased ammunition. Each fighter carried about eight pounds of bullets across his chest. Doc had formed this group three years ago, immediately after the Soviet invasion, when Commander Muslim, the local tribal leader, called him to lead. Doc picked strong men who understood guerrilla warfare. The motto was: “Sting your opponent, get some attention, and then clear out.”
Our motley gang in our pajama-style pants and tunics surrounded Doc. The mujahedeen hoisted their rifles and their Kalashnikovs across their shoulders, ready for the signal to move out. We looked more like Robin Hood’s bandits than a military operation ready to attack the Soviet Union, the Evil Empire that now occupied Afghanistan. Doc posed for me while I took still photos of him standing erect with his gun. He looked strong and fierce, in spite of his casual outfit. His dark brown eyes met mine and held my gaze steadily. He was experienced, having led this kind of action numerous times. I lacked experience but, as I faced him with my camera, there was mutual respect.
A skinny nine-year-old boy, with darting, star-like eyes, ran panting into the middle of our camp shouting in Pashtu, the local language, “The Russians are coming.” In response, the men yelled the chorus, “Allahu Akbar.” God is greatest.
Doc led the way down a dirt path lined with pomegranate trees and mud-baked houses on either side. He was followed by Grumpy, carrying the oversized prized weapon, then me with the cameras. Dopey, Sleepy, and the rest of the mujahedeen, including the two crazy guys, brought up the rear. We walked purposefully, swaggering out in the open under the winter sun. Staring at the bright ball, I tried to absorb the sun’s energy. Then, as I briefly shut my eyes, black spots appeared on the horizon.
As we marched by a village, a gaggle of dirty children in colorful rags stood upright and stiff like small soldiers. The neighborhood was a cross between ancient-looking mud buildings and a modern trailer park, so run- down that there was no landscaping—no grass, no plants. The village was covered in a layer of beige dust, a monochrome site. In the distance, a mother screamed for her brood. The children ran in a pack in the direction of her voice. At the side of the road, an old man with a white beard bent over his work, repairing shoes. He focused intently, hitting tiny brass nails into the heel of a worn-out shoe. He didn’t look up, even as I, a Western woman carrying a camera and surrounded by Afghani guerrilla fighters— not exactly a common sight—walked by.
After a few blocks, we stopped in front of a row of three abandoned dirt buildings, flat topped and shaped like giant, rectangular Lego pieces. Afghani villagers once stored cloths, canned foods, piles of grains, and orange, yellow, and red spices in burlap sacks in these storehouses. Now, these simple structures were empty shells abandoned for demolition. The villagers knew they were too exposed to potential attacks to be used anymore.
The Soviet strategy was to take a few minor hits from the mujahedeen and then destroy village markets, storehouses, and homes. Collateral civilian damage. These actions were intended to encourage the people to turn against the mujahedeen and stop hiding them, but the opposite happened. This strategy incited more solidarity among the Afghani people.
The buildings’ ghostly front walls stood facing the north side of the Kandahar-Herat highway, one of the few paved roads running through Afghanistan. An occasional car sped by on the two lanes. Doc stood next to a lone, bare tree and motioned for us to move into the storehouses. I took deeper breaths and held them longer, while my heart quickened. I recognized my fear, it was part of me but not in control of me. I moved quickly into place, assessing which building had the best view of the road. Then, I chose the middle mud structure, which had two open windows facing the road where the Soviet trucks, soldiers, and perhaps tanks would drive by, a hundred feet away. I crouched inside the sandy-colored shelter, comprised of dirt floors, four walls, and a roof. My fully loaded camera, tightly wound, was ready to go. I gave it one last crank to make sure.
Grumpy hung outside the buildings, patiently pointing his missile launcher over the roof for an arc-like trajectory. Rumbling started like a small earthquake. I heard loud whispers in Pashtu but couldn’t make out any of the words. Dopey ran away, back to the edge of the town, like a deserter; a panic attack had gotten the best of him. The two crazy guys stood by the lone tree, arms folded, waiting for the action to begin.
I pointed my long telephoto lens through an open window at a rainbow steam mirage rising from the pavement. I stared through my camera’s viewfinder. I’d been trained to aim and shoot one thing at a time, but never in a war zone. I would need to remember to hold the image steady, in order to succeed in the midst of the chaos that was about to ensue.
The first Soviet military truck passed in front of the storehouse where I was hiding. The open window gave me a perfect view for filming the attack on the convoy. The ruddy, clean-shaven face of the blonde Russian driver looked straight ahead. He was no older than the Afghani mujahedeen. On the passing truck, the red flag stamped with a hammer and sickle and a golden star stood erect, flapping in the wind. Six more trucks followed. No tanks.
Some soldiers rode an open-air, flatbed truck. Ricochet gunfire blasted from both directions. The Soviet soldiers pointed their sleek automatic rifles toward us. The soldier passing in front of my camera had his eyes focused through the rangefinder of his AK-47. It was the first time I saw a loaded gun pointed at me, but I was not afraid. I was breathing deeply and my heart was beating slower. The action slowed time down. My right thumb held the camera button down. The smooth whir, a gentle mechanical sound, assured me that the film inside the metal camera box was capturing the ambush.
I was calm, fearless. I was in a zone that hardened me—I felt invincible and calculating, filled with courage. There was a pause in the matrix, sounds muffled. I had entered an alternate reality, like a ninja who could grab a speeding bullet because it moved in frozen time. I photographed the scene.
A distinctive whirring sound ripped from behind me. Grumpy’s warhead had been launched from outside the building. Then there was a loud explosion. He’d done it. Through the window, I saw in my viewfinder that he had hit one of the smaller Soviet trucks. Smoke billowed from the blazing truck. Flint particles flew into the room through the window and scratched my arms. Two Russian soldiers jumped out of the front seat of the truck and dashed away from us. The burning truck blocked the caravan’s passage.
After four minutes of shooting, winding the camera crank counter- clockwise every 28 seconds, I heard a loud click. The film flapped on the bottom camera spindle, hitting the inside of the metal box. I grabbed my backpack from the floor and ran outside to sit under the lonely tree in the back of the building. Under a patu blanket, my hands slipped into the sleeves of the black changing bag. I knew what I needed to feel: the smooth canister of 100-foot 16mm film. I unlocked the camera, unhooked the bottom reel, opened the cool metallic can, took out the new roll of film, placed the exposed film in the can, and taped it shut to keep the light out. After threading the fresh film, I measured the loop for the perfect tension using my left thumb and closed up the camera. Just then, a deafening explosion pounded the ground.
The building in which I had been filming in minutes before was shattered in seconds. Clouds of beige dust covered us, bits of clay flew through the air, and the wooden door fell flat on the ground. The scene was as dreamlike as a Schwarzenegger action film in a Cineplex: mujahedeen soldiers ran through the blast, out of the buildings, leaping from harm. Walls collapsed, the ceiling fell and broke into large pieces, becoming a pile of rubble. Smoky dust was everywhere. But despite the destruction around me, I felt calm. I seemed to have no relation to my healthy body sitting on the ground, felt no connection to the decimated building 40 feet away. Instead, I was pulled into a sense of timelessness, weightlessness, absoluteness.
Nobody on our side had been hurt. Our gang bolted. We grabbed our things and ran, past the shoe repairman, who was still sitting by the side of the road as if it were an ordinary work day. The Soviets did not pursue us. No, that was not how guerrilla warfare worked. They would pick some local village and destroy the livelihood of the villagers, damage aqueducts, and turn homes into rubble. It was the women, children, and old people who suffered the most in war.
Melissa Burch has worked as a writer, filmmaker, producer, and former war journalist for the BBC, CBS, and other networks. Her team was one of the first documentary crews in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and a story about her in Afghanistan was featured in The New York Times. Burch was the executive producer of “Women in Limbo Presents,” a national public television series about women’s lives, and she served as President of the New York Film/Video Council. Her book, The Four Methods of Journal Writing: Finding Yourself Through Memoir, was a #1 Amazon bestseller and is still in the top 10 in its category. Also a homeopath, she co-founded the Catalyst School of Homeopathy, and produced and hosted one of the first successful radio shows on Voice America on homeopathy. When she’s not cooking dinner for friends and family, she enjoys traveling and her spiritual practice. Click here now to get a copy of My Journey Through War and Peace and click here to visit Melissa Burch’s website.
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