More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 49

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.

When I first went to war in Slovenia and Croatia in the summer of 1991, I have to admit that I was fairly oblivious to the danger and the threat of personal injury. That was a sort of glorious innocence; a honeymoon period when it all seemed like some sort of movie in which other people got injured and killed. After you’ve survived a few scrapes, you subconsciously assume you’re immortal, untouchable. You’re also buoyed up by the incredible adrenalin surge of simple survival.

In those early days, I suppose I spent too much time with ‘bar room’ fighters: young men in camouflage uniforms, generally festooned with grenades, knives and guns, who, for the price of a few beers or ‘shorts’, would regale you with their tales of ‘derring do’ at the front.

In retrospect, some were doubtless pure invention, most were the stuff of generously-elaborated fantasy. They were supplemented by extravagant affirmations of patriotism and nationalism which inevitably seem to accompany the intake of copious amounts of alcohol wherever you might travel in putative or newly-independent countries. Nevertheless, such situations delivered up much in the way of useful anecdote and just occasionally led to a decent story.

Stories about women always sold well back home. My story about Yugoslava of Yugoslavia went all over the world. Her Dad didn’t exactly do her any favours when, 24 years previously, he christened his bouncing baby daughter, Yugoslava. But, then, that was in the days when naming your offspring after the Yugoslav federation was a fashionable expression of patriotism. Who was to know, back in the early 1970s, that the dream would fall apart so catastrophically? In the 1990s, it was a difficult handle to live with.

But if father failed in the nomenclature department, he certainly made up for things elsewhere. For Yugoslava Siljak grew up into a tall, striking and statuesque blonde. Then she applied for the plum job as an announcer on Pale TV, the personal fiefdom of Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic.

War brought her a not inconsiderable degree of fame with the Bosnian Serbs. Bosnian Serb TV was one of the first goals of the nascent Serb republic. It was regarded as pivotal in the establishment of the breakaway state and it was established very soon after the fighting started. As BBC TV reporter, Martin Bell put it: “I know, they pilfered most of my equipment.”

Whilst I was lurking in newly-relieved Sarajevo, the locally-based political magazine, Slobodna Bosna (tr. Free Bosnia), published a caricature on its front cover. The image depicted so-called High Representative, Carl Bildt – the enigmatic Swede (aren’t they all?) in charge of implementing the civil aspects of the Dayton Agreement – playing the new Bosnian lottery.

On the magazine cover, perched provocatively next to Bildt, with her back to the reader, is the voluptuous figure of a long-haired blonde. The suggestion is clear. Although Bildt, by his own admission, spent his youth reading military magazines, playing war games and making model aircraft, it seems his interest in blondes came later.

What I wanted to know (purely on behalf of my readers in the UK, of course) was