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10: "People Were Dropping Like Flies"

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People Were Dropping Like Flies(1)


Tim Foote and I were roving the town when a rebel came up and said, "They are shooting on the other side of the city."

I said, "Let's go."

The rebel said, "No, it's dangerous."

He should know, I thought. But the place was two kilometers away, so I said, "Why not go one kilometer and see?"

As we walked along, trucks jam-packed with screaming women and boys with guns and revolvers passed us. They hardly knew how to use the guns and were breaking them open to see how they worked.

We came to a square with a park in the center of it.

We heard shooting, and then we saw a tank facing a large modern building at the end of the square. It was held by the AVH (secret police), who were firing from the windows.

My first instinct was to get behind the tank. It would give us some shelter and I would be close enough to photograph the action. Halfway to the tank we found ourselves in the open park. Bullets began zinging past our ears. We fell flat on our faces. I tried to hide behind a young tree. I wished my tree was bigger and I tried to make myself smaller.

It must have been in that rain of bullets that Tim got hit in the hand.

I was still hoping to get behind the tank, but then it moved off. There we were, stuck, half a dozen rebels, myself and (I kept thinking) Tim beside me. I didn't dare look. It was not very nice here.

I started to crawl back through the park until I got to a shed and some bushes which provided cover. I couldn't see Tim anywhere. A rebel came up and said to me in German, "They took your friend to a hospital."

I was not sure he was talking about Tim, but it shook me. Then I found a girl who said yes, it was my friend, "but don't worry, he is taken care of."

The fighting really began to flare up. People were dropping in the park like flies.

White-coated first-aid people, mostly women, were coming and going in private cars to collect the wounded. Then I noticed the first-aid women were being shot too. Youngsters -15, 16 and 17 years old- took over from the women. I saw a kid running bent double, with no protection at all, to drag a wounded man to shelter. I saw one of these boys get hit. His partner dragged the loaded stretcher back with one end on the ground.

A truck arrived with ammunition for the tank. There was a scramble to carry the heavy shells -two or three people carrying one shell. They were like people who haven't eaten for weeks scrambling for bread.

Suddenly we saw a scurry of people. Then a tank, another tank, a third, a fourth -five in a row altogether- flying Hungarian flags.

Two of the tanks turned right when they had crossed in front of the AVH building. Three continued on. Then there was a dead silence. A fantastic suspense. Four or five minutes went by.

As the three tanks came on down the square a mass of people tore off. They thought the tanks might have come to help the secret police. A rescue worker pulled at me, saying, "Don't run now. It's too late." She dragged me behind a car.

One of the tanks kept turning its turret slowly in full circle, very slowly, and every so often I would be looking straight into the barrel of its gun. They were rebel tanks. One of them fired at the building.

After a few minutes the rebels began to move closer to the building. You would see three and four men lined up behind a tree. Look again and the men were four bodies on the ground. A child couldn't hide behind those trees.

Flat on the ground, I managed to get in front of the tank that was firing. The heat of its gun going off was unpleasant. It was like opening the door of a hot oven.

After a bit I heard the noise of people running in the street on the far side of the AVH building, running toward the building. Now they were closing in on it fast. We met another group led by a man carrying a huge flag. "Come on, come on, it's ours," he was saying.

Other groups of rebels were coming in from the side, screaming and going into the building. There was only occasional machine-gun fire from the top floor, but people were still being careful. At the front of the building there were 30 to 40 people dead. They were lying almost in line. As one had been hit the man behind had taken his place -and died. It was like a potato field, only they were people instead of potatoes.

Now the AVH men began to come out. The first to emerge from the building was an officer, alone.

It was the fastest killing I ever saw. He came out laughing and the next thing I knew he was [40/41] flat on the ground. It didn't dawn on me that this guy was shot. He just fell down, I thought.

Then the rebels brought out a good-looking officer, his face white as chalk. He got five yards, retreated, argued. Then he folded up. It was over with him.

Two AVH men next. Rifle butts pounding. Punching and kicking. Suddenly a shot.

Six young officers came out, one very good-looking. Their shoulder boards were torn off. Quick argument. We're not so bad as you think we are, give us a chance, they were saying. I was three feet from that group. Suddenly one began to fold. They must have been real close to his ribs when they fired. They all went down like corn that had been cut. Very gracefully. And when they were on the ground the rebels were still loading lead into them.

They were all officers in that building. Another came out, running. He saw his friends dead, turned, headed into the crowd. The rebels dragged him out. I had time to take one picture of him and he was down.

Then my nerves went. Tears started to come down my cheeks. I had spent three years in the war, but nothing I saw then could compare with the horror of this.

I could see the impact of bullets on a man's clothes. You could see every bullet. There was not much noise. They were shooting so close that the man's body acted as a silencer. This went on for 40 minutes.

They brought out a woman and a man from the building. Her face was white. She looked left and right at the bodies that were spread all over. Suddenly a man came up and walloped her with a rifle butt. Another pulled her hair, kicked her. She half fell down. They kicked her some more. I thought that's the end of that woman. But in a few minutes she was up, pleading. She said she was not an AVH member. Some of the rebels decided to put her in a bus which was standing nearby, though there were shouts of "No prisoners, no prisoners!" As far as I know she is still alive.

There was still shooting inside the building. Occasionally a small group would come out. One man got as far as the park, which was a long way, but there he was finished. Two more came, one a high-ranking officer. His bleeding body was hung by his feet from a tree and women came up to spit on him.

Two or three men, apparently the top officers, were hung like this.

Then came a last scuffle at the building entrance. They brought out a little boy. They were carrying him on their shoulders. He was 3 or 3 , with a sweet face, looking left and right. There were shouts:

"Don't kill him, save him!" He was the son of one of the AVH officers.

To see this little face after what you'd seen a minute ago made you think you'd had a bad dream and he had wakened you.

Going back through the park, I saw women looking for their men among the bodies on the ground. I sat down on a tree trunk. My knees were beginning to give in, as if I was carrying a weight I couldn't carry any more. [41]

1. John Sadovy, "People Were Dropping Like Flies," Life, XLI (November 12, 1956), 40 - 41, Courtesy LIFE Magazine. Copyright 1956 Time Inc.

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