More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 52

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 war tourists are a curious breed. They are a curious mix of intending ‘do gooders’, hopelessly-out-of-their-depth academics and thrill-seekers with battered copies of Combat & Survival stuffed in their flak jacket pocket. In Croatia, I once encountered a mercenary who confessed to arriving just with his passport and a copy of Combat & Survival. That was a stroke of luck for me as I wrote for the magazine and it provided some excellent copy.

For months there was a young chap hanging around the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, perpetually drunk, sporting a press pass and sleeping in the hotel’s laundry cupboards. We called him ‘Finnbar’ and were quite taken in for ages. It turned out he was a 17 year-old schoolboy who’d expertly conned a press pass out of the UN using his school magazine and who was there to write his final year thesis.

During the 1990s, Algiers was one of the most dangerous places in the world. A former SAS man of my acquaintance, then working in the oil industry protection business, told me in 1997 that my survival time on the streets, without protection, would be around 12 minutes. However, notwithstanding the constant noise of police sirens, fire engine klaxons and the bomb explosions, Algiers is a beautiful city more redolent of Marseilles than Baghdad. At least it seemed so to me, writing on my balcony at the vast, modern Hotel El-Aurassi, known to its residents as ‘Fort Aurassi’.

We were a mixed bunch – international journalists and election monitors there to watch Algeria vote after a six year-long democratic hiatus. You could tell the hacks apart from the monitors: the journalists were a scruffy lot in those securely zipped, multi-pocketed waistcoats, and the election monitors, usually retired intelligence officers and military men playing James Bond in their dotage, either wore dark suits or had gone quite native. There was a Swedish one in a crisp, tailored safari suit straight off the set of Out of