More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 17

Over the next few weeks, allmediascotland.com 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.

Three weeks later, I was doing my couch potato thing back home in Scotland. As I flicked idly from channel to channel, I caught the News at Ten on ITV and some immortal words to the effect that there now followed an exclusive report from the Croatian town of Pakrac.

“Besieged for two months, an ITN crew was the first to reach Pakrac as it was relieved by Croatian National Guard . . .” Now, I could have sworn that those were some of the same guys we passed going in the opposite direction.

Croatia, and specifically the town of Pakrac, provided my introduction to the shooting war. Slovenia had really only been a warm-up. Six months after the conflict in Yugoslavia started, I would find myself in Slavonia, on the eastern front, and then in Karlovac for Christmas. It was my first ‘festive season’ at war, in Croatia on the border with the breakaway Serb region of Krajina, which first brought home the savage realities of conflict. Christmas in a war zone is always particularly poignant and I had never before experienced the unique sensation of observing life and death at close quarters at the time of Christian celebration.

For me, Christmas in Croatia brought the challenge to try and convey to people at home back in Scotland what was being endured in former Yugoslavia. I was personally moved by what I saw and the challenge was to find an adequate form of words. My writing on the bitterness of Christmas in Croatia was published in Scotland on Sunday and The Scotsman.

It had a freshness and an honesty, a sense of revelation and personal discovery that I would be unable to retain for much longer. Everything was so new and terrible. The freshness of the writing could not last. This was what I wrote in December of 1991 in my article, ‘Christmas in Croatia’.

‘It is the season of goodwill to all men and a small Christmas tree illuminates the bleak corridor outside the mortuary at Djakovo Hospital, just a few kilometres from Croatia’s eastern front. The bodies of the three Croatian National Guardsmen were brought in around midday on stretchers and laid out in the white-tiled room for postmortem. Still dressed in their dark green camouflage uniforms, their features were frozen at the moment of death. The yellowed pallor and the staring expressions – of seeming disbelief at their fate – lent them the appearance of skillfully executed waxworks. But waxworks they were not. Brutal execution was what had cut short their lives but a few hours previously.

‘Their features aged in death, these three young men were just 23, 25 and 28 years old. They had all lived in the same village of