More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 82

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.

In the last year of the war, Breza turned into a virtual ghost town. The Bosnian government forces’ battle to free Sarajevo was launched from this town and the Serbs punished it terribly.

One grey day, as I drove in, there was no-one in the streets apart from a few soldiers. Everywhere there was evidence of recent shelling – holes in roofs and the front of buildings which I did not remember from my visit the previous month.

The square in front of the apartment block for which I was headed was ominously deserted and I parked the Skoda in as much shelter as I could find and darted up the stairs. Young Selma opened the door and smiled a youngster’s familiar and uninhibited welcome. But I could already sense somehow all was not well. When the normally ebullient Izet appeared in the dark hall of the generously proportioned apartment I knew something terrible had happened here.

Kako ste ? I asked. How are you? Izet made a comme ci, comme ca gesture with his hands and his gaze shifted to CNN on the TV in the sitting room. I know he does not speak English but we were usually able to communicate. But usually, his restless energy does not allow him the luxury of TV.

Selma breaks the news in her Schweizerdeutsch learned in Switzerland. “Adem ist getotet.” Adem has been killed. I struggle to take this in; to make some sort of meaningful response. I have known many who have died in this war. But they have usually been soldiers or journalists. They knowingly take the risks. But Adem was an innocent. Alma and her mother enter: her mother wears a black shawl.

Alma explains. “My brother was killed by a shell just outside. A piece of shrapnel cut his neck and throat almost all around.” She gestures like in a scene from a bad film. But this is real. “We have just buried him.”

It is customary in Bosnia to produce a printed death notice with a photograph in the corner. Tens of thousands of deaths had been commemorated in this way in the last three years.