More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 92

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 most war situations, all the warring parties tend to introduce their own press accreditation. There used to be a CIA agent based in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. If you got to know him well enough, he’d turn his computer monitor around to reveal an array of plastic laminated press passes apparently issued by all the parties to the conflict.

He would boast: “I’ve got seventeen pieces of ID here, good for every goddamn corner of Bosnia. And they were all originated on the same Apple Mac back in Langley, Virginia.”

Most of us had to flog our way around the country either with the correct ID or en route to its collection. That was often a Catch 22 situation. I well remember two days sitting at the Bosnian-Serb border at Bosanska Gradiska on the River Sava anxious to go to State HQ in Pale to cover elections there. “No, it is forbidden to travel to Pale without the correct papers.”

Fine, where are they issued? In Pale, of course. And without the papers you can’t go there.

I think I actually got my own back on these obdurate denizens of Radovan Karadzic. In those days, policemen and border guards always liked to rake their way through the boot of your car, helping themselves to anything they fancied. So you would generally leave a couple of packs of cigarettes and a few bottles of beer lying easily to hand – with wholesale supplies hidden somewhere around the back.

Basically, I used to carry three 30, litre canisters of petrol in plastic containers – petrol was well nigh impossible to obtain in warring Yugoslavia – plus an awful lot of beer and plentiful stocks of food. The important thing was to wrap the food in sealed poly bags or containers. The petrol containers – a bit of a mobile bomb at the best of times – tended to ‘sweat’ imparting something of their fragrance to the food. On this trip, I had not been careful enough to wrap up my biscuits. Consumption of just a couple the previous day had led to prolonged periods of discomfort on the pot.

Before I was allowed to cross back into Croatia there was the usual search from the Serb border guards. I was prepared. A few beers readily to hand – and a pile of tasty biscuits. I made a great show of pressing the lot onto Karadzic’s men and, as they waved me off into the distance, they were already merrily munching their way into the laxative biscuits.