More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 30

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 Mercedes was uncomfortably crowded and I joined an Italian photographer, Luca, in his luxury, rented Italian four wheel drive. The psychiatric hospital drop was achieved and then the convoy moved on. But, as we turned onto a main road, a couple of black Mitsubishi Intercooler Turbos cut into the convoy behind the ICRC lead Range Rover and cut us right out. Gunmen armed with AK47s leapt from their vehicles and signalled us to the side of the road.

Luca, as the driver, made the decision to comply with their instructions. I knew it was a tough decision to make. Did you carry on and risk a hail of fire or comply? Personally, I have always carried on in this sort of situation but, Luca, drafted in from his usual beat doing pics of businessmen in Milan pulled over.

Then he asked if he could take their photographs. Oh, Christ. Thus, we found ourselves standing at the side of the road in front of a ditch with AK 47s pointed at us. And these guys were really unfriendly, unshaven louts, spitting venom. Even worse, we couldn’t understand what they were accusing us of; and they couldn’t understand us. Difficult to build a relationship. Best case scenario, I decided, was that we would be robbed and the car taken; worst case, we would be beaten or killed.

A flash Merc was driving past and diverted their attention. I decided I wasn’t waiting around and legged it as fast as my pins would carry me down the road – half expecting a burst of fire at any moment.

I was really congratulating myself on my successful exit as I flagged down another Merc (everyone seemed to have one around here) and a grinning, smart-suited and moustachioed chap picked me up. He said he was ‘special policeman from Tirana’. Really?

I asked him to follow in the direction of the Red Cross convoy. But instead he pulled off the road onto an unmade track and we were climbing, so far as I can see, to nowhere. He’s looking at my bag, swigging a bottle of beer and, as he stops the car, pulls a 9mm. automatic pistol from his belt. I grin foolishly, playing the idiot, pull a handful of deutschmark notes out of my pocket and give them to him.

He looked pleased and drove me back down to the main road. I asked for the hotel, where I knew the other journalists stay, and we drove on. Frankly, I was getting a bit panicky now, but when he flagged down some gun waving mates in a car approaching and then went over to speak to them, I decided it was time to leg it again.

I dashed across the road, using a truck as cover. There were several cars approaching, so I used the universally successful trick. I pulled out a DM 100 note (almost forty quid or sixty bucks in real money) and waved it about. The effect was magical and another Merc slewed to a halt, I jumped in and, five minutes later – and DM 100 the lighter – arrived at the Hotel Bologna.

The modern Hotel Bologna was on the seafront and was enclosed by brick walls and iron fencing. I climbed gratefully over the fence as the security guards emerged from the entrance. It was reckoned to be as safe as safe could be around here, although I knew that, a few nights previously, a three-hour gun battle raged around the hotel as a gang tried to seize control.

The owner called in his own gang who beat off the putative intruders. Italian journos staying in the hotel had written extensively about the criminal battles in Vlore and they were now none too popular.