More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 14

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.

So we press on to the next – shell-shattered – village of Gaj. Unpromising stuff. All the houses are either boarded up or there are gaping holes in walls and roof. The windows of the local shop are blown out and you can simply walk in where the plate glass once was and help yourself. The shelves are fully stocked. Enquiries at a small but well-patronised bar reveal there is allegedly one route open to Pakrac and we press on – after finding the obligatory bathroom.

An hour later and we are driving round this forest on dirt roads which would be fine for tractors – even tanks. We are, of course, completely lost. There are a lot of tree trunks laid deliberately across roads and so there’s a good bit of reversing and enough eleven-point turns on the narrow tracks to get me through the advanced driving test. I casually ask Sherry about her query to the commandant back in Kutina.

“I just asked him what were our chances of getting through to Pakrac.”

“What did he say?”

“Fifty, fifty,” she cheerily reports.

Retracing our steps, we come face to face with a convoy of half a dozen cars: spray-painted for camouflage and with their windows shot out,. Weaponry protrudes from every orifice. I recognise a guy from the bar and he makes the sort of offer you can’t refuse.

“All around in these woods are Chetniks. If they catch you, kill you and play with the women. You come with us to Pakrac.”

And so we commenced a bizarre progress to relieve embattled Pakrac. Our gleaming white VW Golf car in the middle of the convoy, we set out on an odyssey from village to village, collecting men, guns and cars as we went. At every village, the form was reassuringly the same: a sort of party by motorcade. There is much backslapping, laughing and joking, uncertain camaraderie and mutual demonstration of weaponry, which looked as if it had been hurriedly dug out from attics and barns. Some of this hardware might have passed as the latest thing in Chicago in the 1930s but it doesn’t look to me to be up to the task in hand.

Invariably, there were beers and then a bottle of home-made slivovich would be handed around from mouth to mouth by way of a fraternal rite. It would have been churlish to refuse.

The girls were obviously making a big hit with the guys and everything was getting rather macho. I recall, a trifle disturbingly, the words of the aforementioned Mr O’Rourke, who was a great, if misleading influence, upon me at that time: “It will always be more fun to carry a gun around in the hills and sleep with ideology-addled college girls than to spend life behind a water buffalo or rotting in a slum.”

I am a bit alarmed about Judy’s tendency to observe in English how young these guys are and then address them as ‘Bambino’. This they don’t seem to appreciate, and, in view of their assorted weaponry, I find it somewhat tactless. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the girls are my laissez passer and I keep my mouth shut and my opinions to myself.

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