Cultural Quarterly Magazine Online
literature 3-2012
David Raterman’s Thriller The River Panj
Offers Unique Perspective on World Events
 By Stephanie Krulik 

Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

That is the first line on the first page of author David Raterman's first emergency relief thriller, The River Panj.  He observes, "Throughout literature, there have been Russian-themed thrillers, but we never had a thriller set in Afghanistan and neighboring Tajikistan on 9/11."  There were only about 100 Americans in Afghanistan on 9/11. Most of them were relief workers.

The book is a jarring account of third-world countries in turmoil, of black market politics, frenetic kidnappings and horrendous drug running. It is an exciting page-turner that pits American emergency relief workers against murderous terrorists.

The title of the book comes from the physical river Panj, which is 1,125 kilometers long and forms a large part of the Afghanistan/Tajikistan border. Here, the river is both a visual substance and an emotional border. The World Trade Center in New York City is the other emotional border.

Emotions categorically run high. The story develops in three interwoven parts: one-third in Afghanistan; one-third in Tajikistan and one-third in the United States.  How does Raterman know so much? Because he lived it.

David Raterman is a journalist, novelist and Sun-Sentinel features correspondent who speaks fluent Russian and who has written books for National Geographic and Knopf/Random House.  He is revising a large edition of "National Geographic Miami and the Keys." His Sun-Sentinel Florida-based Lifestyle/Health fitness profiles include tennis sensation Anna Kournikova, race car driver Helio Castroneves and Mrs. USA, Shannon Ford.

Raterman lives in south Broward County with his Russian-born wife, Natasha, and their twin six-year-old daughters, Dasha and Valeria. His life wasn't always so sublime: in 1998, when President Clinton ordered the first bombing to force out Osama bin Laden, Raterman was in Tajikistan. He admits," I was pretty nervous."

This needs an explanation: At the age of 20, when Raterman was a student at Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism, he admits he was getting restless. "I had headaches. I don't know why, but I needed to get away. I had an intense curiosity to see the world." He flew to London essentially for one quarter.  But this peripatetic student spent seven years backpacking around the world. He returned often to complete his journalism studies and to see his parents and two sisters.

Raterman found an intense, diverse world outside.  For six weeks he worked in London's hip Hard Rock Cafe. He flew back to the United States for a U.S. Olympic Committee Soccer Federation internship. He attended college again, only to leave once more to backpack around Western Europe with his best friend, Mike. In 1991, Raterman went to Yugoslavia just as the war began. "This was a very intense time," he says, "it wasn't scary, just weird." He speaks about an amazing train trip with a man named, Alexi, a Ukrainian/Soviet mercenary fighting for Slovenia. "That really opened me up," he says.

Raterman took notes in a journal carried in his pocket. The journal became the backbone of the book written from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., six days a week, for seven months, on his home-office computer. Scenes were forged when he worked in a clinic that made artificial limbs for soldiers and war victims in former Soviet Armenia.  A young Armenian musician named Stanislaw had both legs blown off by bullets from an AK47 rifle. He dragged himself through a field, was captured by the enemy and was saved by the Red Cross. Raterman observes, "I use real events like this and write about aid workers based on real people."

These real people include Peter Goosens, his boss from 1997-1999 when Raterman worked for CARE in Tajikistan.  The book's protagonist and narrator is the emergency relief worker Derek Braun, who played football at Notre Dame.  The character is based on Raterman's uncle and godfather, John Raterman;  is high school friend and recent NFL draft pick Kyle Rudolph; current tight end Alex Welch; and a little bit of himself: David Raterman played wide-receiver at Cincinnati's Elder High School.

Another character, Henry Ames, is an ex-convict, a recovering alcoholic, a born-again Christian and an aging Korean War combat veteran."He needed relief work to atone for all the bad he did," says Raterman. The Zarina Burzanova character is a young Turkish doctor who is Henry's translator and Derek's fiancée. On September 11, 2001, they are working on different sides of the river Panj. Derek receives a phone call from his boss. From the book: I have bad news. The United States has been attacked...thousands of Americans are dead...our driver Tariq was killed...Henry and your fiancé were kidnapped. 

Derek starts on a mission of discovery that finds him in the middle of heroin smugglers, corrupt Russian soldiers and Islamic terrorists who use live bodies of released hostages to smuggle the radioactive cesium 137 powders to America.  Raterman explains, "They would shoot the victim in one kidney, remove it and fill the cavity with a pouch of the cancerous powder." In a second story line, terrorists import this dirty bomb material to Fort Lauderdale and drive it to Chicago's Sears Tower. The book is fiction, yet it reads so real. "Fiction is a different animal," Raterman says. "There is a narrative arc and you don't necessarily know how it will go."

He does know the premise of the next book in this series. Here, Derek Braun is in a war zone, still a relief worker, who tries to get food to refugees. He is a darker character. He is no longer optimistic.

The River Panj was a good starting point. Raterman says. "My story revolves around Tajiks, who are understood, yet are a geopolitically ethnic group. They make for an exciting tale for a developing writer living in a war zone."

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