More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 39

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.

Nothing beats having your own vehicle and driving yourself in a war zone. Local drivers can work out to be splendid chaps of the highest moral fibre, incisive intelligence and developed instincts. But, usually, they turn out be seriously flawed in at least one of those departments.

In eastern Sri Lanka, a spot of midnight shelling over the roof of the hotel in Batticaloa led the driver to vacate his room and spend the night on the beach. In the morning, he blithely announced over breakfast that he was off, back to the capital, Colombo, and that I should either accompany him or make my own way in the world. I told him to clear off and come back on Saturday (which he didn’t do) and was not altogether sorry to see the back of him. I had only discovered at our first pit stop that he had a prodigious appetite for alcohol, which he expected me to finance.

Travelling in India, I developed the technique of open auditions for drivers. I would go to the busiest local taxi rank and announce that I required a driver. They would gather around like flies but a few sentences of interrogation in the Queen’s English would soon establish who had a reasonable command of the lingo: there’s absolutely no point in taking on a driver who can’t understand a word you say. Having disposed of most of the applicants, you could quickly sort out who to engage. Following the Sri Lanka experience, my preference has always been for good Muslim drivers who don’t drink and, ergo, tend to be much more reliable. Except in Baghdad, I suppose.

The most dangerous place to hire a car and driver, or a taxi, is at an airport. This applies virtually anywhere in the world. Fresh off the plane, even if not exactly an innocent abroad, you are still, jetlagged, disorientated and disorganised, easy meat for predators. The best you will get off with is being ripped off. The worst is ending up deceased. Some airports are worse than others.

Algiers is one of the worst: taking a cab at random there during the 1990s was almost certain to be the last thing you would do, such was the control that militant fundamentalists exerted around the capital. The Algerian government, give them their due, don’t want to lose you either. It’s very bad publicity having journalists knocked off. When I went to cover the election there is 1997, the minibus on which I travelled in from the airport had police cars front and back, motorcycle outriders and half a dozen Interior Ministry close protection agents aboard.

In hazardous locations like Algiers, Moscow, Karachi or Tirana, it’s pretty well essential to arrange to be met: by friends, other journalists or, hang the cost, the hotel limo. Of course that’s all assuming you get there in the first place. Airline services in the remoter, strife-torn parts of the world can be, er, interesting. They’ll never get voted the World’s Most Favourite Airline in some posh magazine, but Djibouti-based Daallo Airlines was an outstanding outfit that certainly reached the parts other operators couldn’t reach.

In the Horn of Africa – where everybody sometimes seems to be fighting someone – Daallo soared high in the sky where others feared to fly. Tiny Eritrea was locked in an on-off war with neighbour Ethiopia in the summer of 1998. Ethiopia uncharitably threatened to shoot down civil aircraft using the airport serving the capital, Asmara. To prove the point, they both bombed airports on each other’s territory and Messrs. Lufthansa, Egyptair, Yemeni Airways and Saudia all chickened out. Even the locals, Eritrean Airways, packed it in. Something to do with the tedious business of insurance cover which, apparently, didn’t bother Daallo too much.

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