More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 81

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.

War is a fairly random affair. Life is preserved or death arrives on an entirely indiscriminate basis.

It was difficult for any reflective journalist in the Bosnian war. So much to see, to do, to experience, to digest and to reconcile. For most of us I suspect that the only way to handle this was, contrary to Martin Bell’s thesis, by adopting the journalism of detachment.

Most often, we focused firmly on the story and actually tried not to be too distracted by the horror, by revulsion or, simply, by thinking too deeply about things. I know that most war photographers concentrate on looking through the viewfinder. That’s not altogether a technical requirement but it does serve to suspend the reality of horror. Sometimes the strategy did not work: the very power of what was going on before your eyes took over.

There was an experience for me which stood out amongst the many. I knew a family. An ordinary family in many ways. Although, in many respects, the Bajramovics were more akin to a Western family than most were in beleaguered Bosnia. Their own particular circumstances meant that they were able to survive financially, whilst all the time subject to the everyday pressures and anxieties of life in a town on the frontline of the battle for Sarajevo, just a few kilometres away.

I suppose I climbed the stairs to their first floor flat dozens of times. It was a neat, comfortable home in a modern, low rise block in the centre of the town of Breza. The first thing you would notice was there was no glass in the windows at the front. That was explained by the enormous shell hole in the facade of the block less than twenty feet above their windows.

It had been eighteen months or so since I had met 19 year-old Alma in a modern, noisy bar in the town when I stopped for a lunchtime drink with my traveling companion, Chris Bellamy, then defence correspondent for The Independent. A self-possessed, engaging girl came to our table and offered, in her excellent English, to show us her town.

The first stop was her father’s office on the ground floor of the apartment block. Izet turned out to be probably the most respected member of the 18,000 strong community. Its largest employer, he had continued to run throughout the war, under the most difficult of circumstances, a textile factory within 400 yards of the front line.

The workforce varied in numbers according to the intensity of the conflict, and the weaving halls and most of the equipment had been destroyed, but when I visited him later in the war he seemed quietly proud of his achievements: a workforce up to 3000, from a low of just 100, and a single weaving shed back in production, the machinery reconstructed by his workforce, which now consisted entirely of women and a few old men, as the younger men disappeared to the battle for Sarajevo.

Izet worked himself hard but always had time for a joke with a visitor and for a cup of traditional thick Bosnian coffee washed down by a glass of local slivovich.

Above the office, the visitor was always assured of courtesy and hospitality in the Bajramovic home presided over by Alma’s mother, Zelena, a strong and philosophical woman who bore the strain of raising a family in war with extraordinary equanimity.

I suppose that was what I particularly valued about their welcoming home: a sort of haven of calm, sense and sanity. Outside, the murder and mayhem might seem to reign unchecked, but here inside the peace seemed somehow inviolable. That, of course, was an illusion. On the wall of the sitting room hung an enormous oil painting of the ancient bridge at Mostar, painted by Izet when he was an art student, but now, in the depths of the River Neretva, it was as much a reality as the broken windows all around.

Izet’s position as one of but a handful of remaining Bosnian industrialists allowed him and his family an unusual freedom. He was able to obtain passports and tickets for his family notwithstanding the war. Alma was able to go for a few months to Italy and her 13 year-old sister, Selma, spent six months at school in Switzerland.

Seventeen year-old Adem, Izet’s only son, went to Libya for six months and returned speaking fluent Arabic, and, most importantly, with an offer for work and study in Malaysia. Before he went to Libya he had been slightly injured in the stomach by a small piece of shrapnel and he liked to pull up his T-shirt and show you the white scar where the molten metal had grazed his skin. Since then, though, he was frightened to go in the street and developed into a quiet, charming youth who spent most of his time in the peace and tranquility of the family home.

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