More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 93

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.

Accreditation was the name of the game. In Bosnia, I acquired accreditation from the government in Sarajevo, the Bosnian Croats in Mostar, the government 2nd, 3rd and 5th armies who issued their own individual accreditations, the Croatian Foreign Press Bureau, the Croatian Government Ministry of Information, the so-called Republic of Serbian Krajina (now deceased), and the Republika Srpska – the Bosnian Serb bit of Bosnia.

The last one was the toughest to get your hands on. In fact, in order to get to any destination in Srpska you had to present yourself at an office in Belgrade – in neighbouring Serbia – and get both a press pass and a stamped document. The press pass even specified the border crossing point you were to use and it was only valid for a maximum of 14 days.

The accompanying travel document specified every town on your route and where you were to stay. Deviations from the route were not to be advised. And just in case you had it in mind to take off and go somewhere else, there were checkpoints every few miles where the travel documents and pass were perused and noted in great ledgers. The ledger keepers were not known for their sense of humour and, all in all trips, through ‘RS’, as it was known, were far from jolly peregrinations.

Of course, most countries at war are far from enthusiastic at the prospect of journalists scouring the front lines. The early days of any conflict are the best time to be there – before eager beavers back at headquarters, or some long forgotten Ministry, get to work on control systems. In the early days of the wars in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, you could virtually go anywhere and do anything.

In Sri Lanka, I remember sitting in military headquarters in Colombo in March or April of 1996 trying to smooth my own passage into the war torn-eastern part of the island. I knew that the Tamil Tiger rebels virtually held the east in those days: indubitably, they did so at night and, during the day, traffic – generally massed in convoys – passed through only at their behest. The Sri Lankan military authorities tended to deal with journalists by dint of a charm offensive.

I wanted to go to Batticaloa, which was effectively well inside rebel territory. The army was not keen on such trips but in Colombo they will tell you this represents, “No problem.” Now whenever anybody in an official position says “no problem” you know there really is a problem.

So I spent my time acquiring names and telephone numbers of military commanders, who I assumed to be men of influence, and, with the aid of Word for Windows, sat myself down in the neo-colonial splendour of my suite at the Galle Face Hotel to create my own laissez passer.

A purloined Ministry of Defence letterhead, combined with some cut and paste from some documents acquired at military headquarters, home telephone numbers of generals and brigadiers and expansive statements to the effect that I was travelling with the ‘full knowledge and approval’ of sundry army commanders who could be contacted at home – doubtless over their gin and tonics – was to do the trick. I was waved through every checkpoint by nervous soldiers and NCOs without so much as a hesitation of the hand over the field telephone.

The Central Bank bomb attack in Colombo happened just four days into my first visit to Sri Lanka in January of 1996. Up until that point, I had exclusively reported from the Balkans on the conflicts there. After the Dayton Peace Agreement of November 1995, virtually all the papers I worked for opined that the wars in the Balkans were over and that I should, as Scotland on Sunday put it, ‘look for a new war’. That, of course, was easier said than done.

There were plenty of wars going on all around the globe but the one that I had been ideally suited to cover – in terms of language, geography and local knowledge – now seemed to be over, at least for the moment.

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