More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 42

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

The veteran war correspondent, Martha Gellhorn, once said that a correspondent could only ever really fall in love with one war. She was right. All journalists have their favourite war. Mine was Bosnia, although I was not quite as enamoured of the conflict as The Times journalist Anthony Loyd.

He lodged next to me at the Vitez frontline rooming house, known as Victoria’s (named after the phlegmatic lady who ran it). Loyd, a retired army officer with an inordinate love of ‘bang bang’, would write a distinctly peculiar book about his experiences in the Bosnian war entitled, My War Gone By, I Miss it So. Nevertheless, there was something intangibly special about the war in Bosnia. Maybe it was because it was my first, more likely because I knew the territory before the war.

The Bosnian war had the dubious distinction of three separate warring parties: Serbs, Muslims and Croats. Many journalists would also classify the UN as a fourth warring party, as we so often seemed to be in conflict. The presence of so many warring parties in close proximity to each other produced a fund of bizarre stories. If you couldn’t find a story with one side, you just crossed over to one of the other sides.

There was ‘Postman Pat’ who delivered the mail without fail every day in Vitez during the war. He’d be finished by late morning and would then go home for some restorative slivovich and a few beers. This would, so to speak, fire him up and he would then dust off his personal mortar in the garden and start lobbing shells over onto his Muslim neighbours. After they got around to opening the mail, presumably.

Inspector Slavko was a well-known TV detective around Vitez. His exploits were described as legendary – if not miraculous – in certain circles. He believed in old fashioned, no-nonsense methods and was also something of a specialist in a particularly unpleasant and socially threatening crime wave which touched the lives of media stars and their retinue. Don’t be misled, you wouldn’t have been able to follow his adventures on your local TV station – but he did his bit to ensure you actually received your TV news.

Slavko’s ‘patch’ was in the small, once peaceful town of Vitez, in central Bosnia, where back in 1994 there was a surge of crime centring around the TV crews encamped there. As if the poor chaps didn’t have enough problems – what with snipers, three warring sides (not counting the UN) and distressingly little in the way of hard liquour – the local yobbledehoy took to relieving them of their expensive hi-tech gear.

Within two or three months there were half a dozen of these heinous crimes. All were ultimately solved by the determined efforts of a young, camouflage-clad military police inspector called Slavko. Reuters lost literally everything from their lock-up premises: TV gear, satellite dish, wire machines, flak jackets and helmets – even their invaluable stocks of beer. A cool quarter of a million dollars-worth. Technical equipment, not beer, that is. Then Sky TV lost their gear as well.

Slavko set his trap. He kept watch on the TV houses and when local children clambered on the balconies to steal the thirsty TV mens’ beer (they kept such vast stocks, they could not accommodate it all inside), he swooped. “I arrested all the children and made them talk.”

Rumour has it they were stood on wet linoleum for extended periods of time. Gradually, older brothers were pulled in, then their fathers. The missing beer was recovered first, then the flak jackets, then the TV equipment. “At one stage we were holding 100 people,” he recalls proudly.

Eventually, the ringleader was exposed. Somewhat unfortunately for the police department, he turned out to be a policeman. “So we gave him three years inside, instead of the normal one year,” he announces grimly. You somehow get the impression that court formalities were dispensed with.

He thought he had finally cracked the media crime wave until the day ITN cameraman, Nigel Thompson, put down his camera in the BBC’s garden on Vitez’s ‘TV Alley’, as he prepared to do a live piece to camera with defence correspondent, Geoffrey Archer. There was about two minutes to go before Geoffrey’s broadcast. They nipped inside for a coffee, or something similar.

Alas, when he went to retrieve his camera from the ground to beam Geoffrey to the world .

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