More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 84

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.

I traveled several times to Kosovo during 1993 and 1994 predicting, as most journalists did, that the repressed province of Serbia would, in the end, explode with dire consequences.

After I had written this a couple of times, editors asked me to give Kosovo a miss until Armageddon might eventually arrive. It wasn’t until 1999 that Kosovo ultimately imploded and that year I had other commitments.

I crossed the Pacific at the beginning of the year and returned to the UK to go to Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, a tiny Christian enclave in the Caucuses, together with a team from Christian Solidarity, led by the leader of The House of Lords, Baroness Cox. She is a remarkable lady who spends what free time she has with threatened Christian communities wherever they might be in the world.

I first met her in Lokichokkio, in northern Kenya, as she came out of Sudan where she had uncovered evidence of the massacres of Christians. She told me of her experiences and I wrote them up for The Scotsman which made the story their front page ‘splash’.

During 1988, I had done a lot of work in Africa. The World Food Programme had ferried me around southern Sudan, where hundreds of thousands of people were starving largely as a result of the food insecurity caused by civil war, and Somalia, where the picture was much the same: famine had come with war and flooding had compounded the problems.

War with Ethiopia took me to Eritrea. Quite apart from the border conflicts which mar life there, Eritrea is one of the most charming, and safe, countries in the whole of Africa. A former Italian colony, it boasts a pleasant capital in the city of Asmara replete with coffee shops and ice cream parlors. Amnesty International will tell you of the country’s poor human rights record. But it is, at least, completely safe to walk the streets at night. I enjoyed my time there.

I had gone to Uganda to visit Acholiland, in the very north of the country, which was being ravaged by a particularly unpleasant character called Joseph Kony who headed something up called The Lord’s Resistance Army. He saw himself as a religious prophet. Quite how, beats me.

His specialty was kidnapping and brutalizing children: the boys were turned into fighters and the girls into sex slaves. One night he took more than 100 girls from St Mary’s School, a Roman Catholic boarding school in Aboke. I went to the school and interviewed the sisters and three girls who had managed to escape the clutches of Kony. Theirs was a remarkable tale of survival.

These competing ‘attractions’ meant that my attention had shifted away from the Balkans, where I had served my apprenticeship. I didn’t ‘do’ the war in Kosovo, although, in advance of NATO involvement, I received an invitation to address some unspecified ‘key’ people and brief them on Kosovo and journalistic techniques of intelligence gathering.

Prior to the West’s involvement in Kosovo, the buzzword, in intelligence circles, was ‘HUMINT’: human intelligence. Previously, far too much emphasis had been placed on satellite-provided information and electronic interception. As a result of the development of ‘hot’ conflict in places like Bosnia and Somalia, where western interests were directly threatened, it was realised that on-the-ground knowledge and ability to gather information was of inestimable value.

Of course, the people who are best at that are . . . journalists.

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