More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 35

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 sleek, rather un-Skoda-like lines of the coupe driven on British plates and sporting the St. Andrews Cross of Scotland tended to occasion curiosity wherever it went. Police and military checkpoints were a universal feature on virtually all the roads. Skoda jokes also seem to be universal. Serb policemen cheekily enquired why a supposedly rich western journalist couldn’t afford a proper car.

The car was a great icebreaker at normally tough checkpoints. There was usually guaranteed to be an officious chap who wanted to look everywhere. Inside, under the seats and in the boot: sometimes he insisted on the ‘boot’ being opened up. Making sure the others are in on the joke, I made a great show of refusing. “Nothing in there.” Then I would shrug my shoulders and open up the ‘boot’ – to reveal the engine. Everybody got a good laugh – and then the inevitable drinks and cigarettes were handed round.

It got me places an ordinary car wouldn’t reach. In the second year of the Bosnian war, I travelled the notorious northern corridor – the Serb ‘lifeline’ through northern Bosnia – without any of the many necessary permissions. It was partly down to the ostentatiously bizarre nature of the car and partly due to the strategy of giving lifts to the drunken and licentious soldiery.

“Take us to kill Croatian ustase in Brcko!” Camouflage-clad young Rade gestured insistently with his Kalashnikov and breathed his beery breath on my driver Igor and I through a set of spectacularly broken teeth. Waylaid outside a smoke-filled bar packed with soldiers in Prnjavor in northern Bosnia, we could hardly fail to be impressed by his zeal for killing Croatian ‘fascists’.

But it was much against our better judgement that we reluctantly agreed to take him and his fellow fighter, Goran, to the front. We were in the so-called 300 kilometre long ‘northern corridor’ and only too well aware that to have two uniformed and armed Serbs with us could indeed be something of a mixed blessing: on the one hand, a distinct advantage at the Serb checkpoints for two journalists travelling on dubious accreditation in a sensitive zone but, on the other hand, a tempting target for the Croatian snipers and mortar positions just two or three kilometres to the north and south of the road.

The ‘northern corridor’ snaked its tortuous way through northern and eastern Bosnia, connecting Serbia proper to the Serb strongholds in Bosnia and Krajina. It was the only supply link: as such, it was then the indispensable key to the creation of a Greater Serbia.