Reporting From The Front
September 26, 2002
Kim Willsher covered conflicts in the former Yugoslavia for much of the 1990s. As chief foreign correspondent of the Mail On Sunday, she also reported from Afghanistan, the Middle East and Chernobyl. In 1997 she was named British Press Awards Reporter of the Year. She has been working freelance since 2000, contributing to The Times, The Guardian and The Sunday Telegraph.
Despite covering some of the bloodiest conflicts of recent years, Willsher does not think of herself as a war correspondent. “If you are a foreign correspondent, covering conflicts is part of the job”, she says.
Her first war assignment came two weeks after joining the Mail On Sunday.
“In September 1991 the editor decided to send me to try to get into Dubrovnik, the capital of Croatia, which at that time was under siege from the Yugoslav national army and naval gunboats which were bombarding the city.”
On her previous paper, the Daily Express, she had covered the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union, including the Romanian revolution. However, this was her first war zone assignment.
“Yugoslavia, a Communist state consisting of six federal republics, was falling apart, with outbreaks of fierce nationalism which Tito had kept a lid on, but which Slobodan Milosevic was determined to crush. Slovenia and Croatia had declared their independence on June 25 that summer and the war started immediately.
“I arrived in Novi Sad, a coastal town in Yugoslavia, just a few kilometers down the coast from Dubrovnik, with just a notebook, pen, a map and a small bag of clothes. I had no computer, satellite phone, flak jacket or tin helmet – we didn’t get issued with them in those days. I had no means of transport – all the cars in town had been requisitioned by the army – no fixer, translator, nor, to tell the truth, any idea how I was going to fulfil the editor’s instruction: ‘Get to Dubrovnik’.
“Novi Sad was only a few kilometers away, but unfortunately on the other side of a rambling and unspecific front line where there was bitter fighting.
“However, as I was so grateful and pleased that my editor had given me the chance to cover such an important story, I was determined to do my utmost to do so. At that time, the early 1990s, it was still quite unusual to be a woman reporter in a war zone. Though there were already some heroic and high-profile predecessors – Martha Gellhorn and Kate Adie to name but two – newspaper editors were still wary of sending a female reporter into a potentially dangerous situation. So I felt not only under professional, but personal pressure to succeed.
“I was working for a Sunday newspaper so I knew there was no point trying to produce a blow by blow account of the military action which would be covered by the daily papers. I decided that the goal was to reach Dubrovnik to find out what was happening to the people of the city who were cut off without water, electricity or food supplies and under almost constant bombardment on all sides from air, sea and land.
“Actually, I never made it to Dubrovnik, that time, though I nearly lost my life twice in trying. I ended up reporting from the frontline. One of these reports, from a miserable, overcrowded ferry carry thousands of desperate women, children and the elderly fleeing from Dubrovnik, made the splash and first three pages of The Mail on Sunday.
“Wars are confusing situations. Frontlines change, checkpoints move, armies, soldiers, snipers, are in one place one day, another the next. All sorts of otherwise normal, passive people, including children, take up arms and are wont to wave them under your nose while making unpredictable and often unreasonable demands. Mortars and shells come crashing in with no warning. Landmines and anti-personnel mines are scattered around fields, forests, roads, paths and even school playing fields. Wars don’t happen on a neatly laid out battlefield, they overcome an entire area and everyone within it, be they fighters, civilians or visiting journalists, are in danger.
“I have been asked many times if I take risks, but just being in a conflict situation is a risk and therefore dangerous. The vital thing is to be in possession of enough information to weigh up the risk and make a rational, sensible decision about whether it is worth taking, but that is not always possible.
“I had a particularly acute, and near fatal, realisation of this when myself, a photographer and another, more experienced war reporter were pinned down for six hours by guerilla fighters on a remote mountain road outside Dubrovnik.
“To this day I do not know how we managed to come out of the situation alive and I still shiver at the thought of it.”
Press, Don’t Shoot!
Image: Kim complete with flak jacket and tin helmet, on board a UN Transport coming in to land at Sarajevo airport, 1993.
Photo: Kim under more normal circumstances
“We had driven along a remote single-track mountain road, which we thought was safe. The previous day we heard that there had been a ceasefire agreement between Belgrade and Zagreb and that the Serbian forces of the Yugoslav National Army had withdrawn from the area. As the war in the Balkans progressed such so-called ‘ceasefires’ proved to be worthless, but this was one of the very first.
“A few kilometers along the road our car came under fire. As the road was too narrow to turn around and retreat back the way we had come and we judged it too dangerous to keep going, we decided to get out of the car – which by now was obviously being targeted – shelter behind a stone wall and shout out to our attackers that we were press and unarmed. We yelled in English and Croatian English, ‘press, don’t shoot’, but instead of halting the assault the bullets came faster and heavier each time.
“Fortunately the angle of the wall and the hill the other side meant our attackers couldn’t actually hit us if we crouched low and tight against the stones. Hail after hail of bullets pinged off the top of the wall and at one point the gunmen were so close, I heard the click-click action of a new magazine of bullets being loaded.
“For hours, we remained there, cold, wet from rain (our coats had been left in the car in our scramble to get out) and paralysed with silent terror, not speaking or moving, just waiting for our attackers to come over the wall and kill us.
“After about 30 minutes of shooting, my journalist colleague decided to crawl back to the car and try to reverse it back along the road. As he started the engine, trying to keep himself down in the footwell, there was another burst of gunfire, which slammed into the car. I couldn’t see my colleague and for one awful moment thought he had been hit, but after what seemed an age he emerged from the car and crawled back behind the wall.
“As night began to fall, the gunmen decided on one last assault, firing rifle launched grenades at us, designed to hit the tarmac, release thousands of pieces of shrapnel and kill us that way. I remember that as they hit the trees a few feet away they fizzled harmlessly like pretty fireworks, lending a rather surreal touch to this terrifying situation.
“There really seemed no way out. The road was remote and nothing had passed by or was likely to. The nearest village was several kilometers away. And the idea of making some heroic run for it, or throwing ourselves over the wall on the other side of the road and escaping through the fields, when we had no idea where we were going or if there were mines, more soldiers or a twelve foot leg-breaking drop the other side was ruled out.
“Eventually, we decided to crawl back along the road, hoping that the gunmen were not watching us through their nightsights. In the meantime, the Croatians had returned to man their checkpoint and reacted predictably to three shadowy figures emerging from the other side. Suddenly we found ourselves sprawled on the road with guns at our heads and being bombarded with questions.
“Fortunately these young men, most of them students, teachers, local tradesmen who had only taken up arms to defend their village, were not of a mind to shoot first and ask for details later.
“In fact they were our saviours. They led us back to their bunker – walking around us in a circle to protect us from any fire – and arranged for us to be taken back to safety.”
“There have been many other occasions where I have felt in real danger and frightened.
“In the Balkans, where every man with an item of camouflage in his wardrobe and a gun on his hip saw it as his God-given right to set up a checkpoint and make a national sport of giving handcuffing gestures and threaten to take me off somewhere where something horrible would undoubtedly be done. The Serbian border guards at the Kosovo frontier, where in the confusion of crowds of fleeing refugees I took a few paces too far and found that I and my Albanian Red Cross translator – a doctor by profession – had crossed the unmarked line marking Serbia and Albania and were arrested. We were separated and while I was harangued and accused of being a spy he had a gun held to his head and was told to look out at his countryside as it was the last time he’d ever see it.
“There was the day I arrived in Kabul and found myself confronted with a teenage Taliban who took the safety catch off his Kalashnikov and shoved the barrel in my face while screaming at me to pull my all-encompassing scarf up to cover my eyes and nose.
“And the sheer terror of sitting in the family flat of two sisters I befriended in Sarajevo, while shells crashed down outside flinging deadly pieces of shrapnel through the wafer thin apartment walls.”
Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour. While in the Congo when President Mobuto was overthrown in neighbouring Zaire, Willsher tried to cross the river Congo from Brazzaville to Kinshasa. Unfortunately, the only way to across was by canoe. The locals who offered to transport her didn’t fancy her chances, cheerfully warning her that thanks to the rapids, crocodiles and trigger-happy soldiers on the opposite bank her chances of surviving the trip were around one in five.
“Having said that,” she continues, “for all the dangerous situations myself and fellow journalists have been in we had chosen to be there and could always go home.
“For the civilians caught up in conflicts, there is no choice and often no escape from the danger.”
Holiday Inn Sarajevo
Photo caption: Kim and UN troops playing with a dog they found.
Journalists might be in a war zone for limited periods, but even so, try their best to make their stay as comfortable as possible. Correspondents tend to look out for one another, and, where possible, congregate in the same hotels.
“Working for a Sunday newspaper meant I often had to go my own way, apart from the pack, to find a story which would not be in the daily newspapers. However, I have always found that newspaper journalists in a war zone work together in a way that they would never dream of doing back home.
“It doesn’t matter if your colleague is from your newspaper’s biggest rival, we share cars, satellite phones, computers, hotel rooms, floors, food and especially cigarettes and drink. Of course, there is always a certain professional rivalry and no journalist would share a scoop, but there is generally a fantastic camaraderie and a sense of helping and protecting your own in such situations.
“The most notorious hotel was perhaps the infamous Holiday Inn in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. It was a ghastly modern mustard yellow and brown edifice even before Serb shells smashed a huge chunk out of it and the snipers took up residence in the neighbouring blocks of flats.
“You always had to plead for a room (“Sorry, we’re full, Madam”) and despite my expert grovelling, I always managed to get put on the eighth floor, smack bang in the line of fire from the surrounding hills. I knew it was smack bang in the line of fire because the room next door was destroyed. During particularly heavy bombardments I would drag the mattress off the bed and install myself on the bathroom floor.
“For an inordinate amount of money – which as I recall increased in direct proportion to the decline in services but was somewhere between £100-£200 hard cash a night – you had a room on the umpteenth floor with no lift, no heating, and no running water. If you were fortunate, the bath had been filled with cold water during one of the brief moments the supply was reconnected, which you used to flush the toilet and wash. If you were clever you rationed your bath of icy cold water to last out until your final day in the hotel. If you were not so clever, you took a celebratory cold bath before you left, pulled the plug and checked out – only to find that a fierce bout of fighting had broken out, you couldn’t get to the airport and you had to return to your room…without any water.
“If the hotel really was full, you might find someone willing to share their room. If you were lucky it would be someone from the BBC whose correspondents always seemed to have an impressive supply of food and drink. If you were unlucky it would be with someone who snored and whose socks were ready to make their way home under their own steam.
“Getting in and out of the hotel also required nerves of steel as it was situated off the main road into Sarajevo known as Sniper’s Alley. Each morning the doorman would take stock of where the shooting was coming from and advise guests in which direction they should run.”
There may have been safer hotels than the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, but working in a war zone usually means sleeping rough.
“I remember arriving at a British army base in central Bosnia with a female photographer, Lynn Hilton, and two male colleagues one evening. After being well fed and watered in the officer’s mess, we women were offered “comfortable” beds in the main building while our male colleagues were told they’d have to spend the night on the floor of former aircraft hanger which had been taken over by the military. In a spirit of solidarity we insisted we’d rough it with the boys, were given sleeping bags and pointed in the direction of an apparently empty aircraft hanger.
“While the two others chose a spot in the corner, we made our way in the dark into the middle of the concrete floor. We woke up the next morning to find that we were completely surrounded by British squaddies who were sleeping in the same hangar and who we hadn’t spotted in the dark the previous evening. I don’t know who was more surprised, us or them.
“In Kukes, Albania, on the border with Kosovo, where I spent a total of seven weeks before NATO forces went in, in the Spring of 1999, the photographer David O’Neill and I had rented a squalid, cockroach infested flat from some locals. One night Dave had gone to clean his teeth but found the water had been cut off. It wouldn’t have been a problem except he forgot to turn off the tap. At 5am there was a knock on my bedroom door and Dave entered, his trousers rolled up, wading through several inches of water. Fortunately the owners of the flat, to whom we were paying a vast sum of dollars in rent, were understanding.”
Getting The Balance Right
Photo caption: Kim travelling in a British Warrior.
Being in the front line often endangers a reporter’s ability to give a clear picture of what is going on.
“In most situations it is impossible to get a “balanced” view of what is going on in the whole arena of a conflict if you are in one particular part of it. This will depend on your access to wire reports, television and other media which may be reporting from the other side, and the physical ability to get from one side to another.
“On the whole I attempt to report on the consequences of conflicts on human beings, that’s to say the majority of people who for reasons beyond their control, find themselves caught up in tragic events. Of course, this is often extremely personal and therefore not balanced, but it is a faithful account of one person, or a group of people’s suffering. The only way to remain balanced, if there are different sides to this suffering is to make every attempt to go to the other side and report from there.
“When I was in Israel, there was a suicide attack at a shopping centre which killed a large number of people including three generations of women from one family. I reported on that tragedy and spoke to the families of those who had died. The following day I went to Gaza and spoke to people living in the refugee camps, including one family whose son had been recruited to be a suicide bomber, to report on what makes a young man or woman do such a terrible thing.
“However in Bosnia, the situation was very different. In Sarajevo at the height of the Bosnian war, the suffering of the mainly Muslim population of the city, who were encircled and under daily and nightly bombardment was difficult to balance. In fact, there was no balance. There was no balance in the war or scale of aggression, therefore there could be little balance in the reporting of it.
“Here was a population under sustained attack, and apart from giving the political reasons for the vicious and bloody assault on them, which could in no way justified it, it was hard to see what other side could be given. You could make the journey by armoured car across the mountain to the Bosnian Serb side at Pale, and speak to locals there, as indeed I did, but they weren’t being killed in their scores by the day.
“How could anyone be ‘balanced’ about Srebrenica from where an estimated 30,000 Muslims, mostly men and boys, were ‘ethnically cleansed’ by Bosnian Serb forces and perished?
“I was recently in Sarajevo to report on the 10th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war and the ongoing search for those believed to be lying in mass graves across the region. I spoke to many Bosnian Muslim families and, yes, I went to the Serbian side and spoke to those who are also still looking for loved ones.
“The loss of any life is a tragedy for the family involved, but it is impossible to be balanced when one side’s loss so vastly outnumbers the other’s.
“At other times in the Balkans it was possible, as in central Bosnia where there was areas of equally bitter and bloody fighting between Muslims and Croats, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in which many innocent Serbians died, and in the aftermath of Kosovo, when Albanians who had suffered during the ethnic conflict took revenge on Serbs.
“If I have been in a country or region and an atrocity has been committed I have always tried to report on it regardless of what side or ethnic group has been responsible.
“On the question of balance, I think it is important to mention the pernicious influence of propaganda. One side’s ‘massacre’ is often another side’s ‘collateral damage’.
“The end result may be equally condemnable, but again, for a journalist it is a question of scale and credibility. I have lost count of the times I have been told a particularly gruesome story, only to find when I dig a little deeper that the person recounting the events didn’t actually see it themselves, but heard about it from someone else, or someone else’s cousin twice removed.
“At one point in the Balkans, television footage of atrocities would go out on various television stations with each side claiming they were the victims and the other the perpetrators. Personally, I have always verified the facts by going to the scene myself, or finding honest and credible eye-witnesses who can give a first-hand account.”
Seeing the results for yourself is one sure way to discover the truth of conflicting stories. This, too, has its problems, as Willsher found, to her horror.
“I returned from a trip to Croatia just before Christmas 1991 having seen a massacre. When I say seen, I mean I saw the results and it was not a pleasant sight. I was so convinced it was a piece of propaganda being put about by the Croats that I insisted most vehemently and rather stroppily on seeing the bodies, believing there weren’t any. When I did see them, I almost wished I hadn’t asked, though of course I had to.
“I had never seen a dead body before and certainly not one that had been sawn in half with a chainsaw, or had half a face blown away by a close range gunshot.”
Willsher agrees that most people would be traumatised by such a discovery. She insists that correspondents simply deal with shock “as best they can,” and that she’s been lucky to escape more permanent damage.
“My response was to talk, talk, talk about it to anyone and everyone who would listen. I bored for Britain about it, but I suppose it was my way of dealing with the trauma.
“Most war correspondents find the writing about such events and talking about it afterwards the most cathartic response and I can’t say I feel that I have ever suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.
“I do know some who appeared to have been deeply and personally affected in the long-term. Strangely, they are all men.”
Willsher now lives in Paris, where she has recently reported on the very different dangers of French traffic, and virulent clash between competitors for the title of Miss France.
“Being in Paris is not a life-threatening situation,” she says, “apart from manic drivers and mad motorcyclists on the pavements. But dealing with French bureaucracy can sometimes be as frustrating as negotiating a Balkans checkpoint!”
Despite la vie en rose in France, Willsher still feels the lure to conflict reporting. She is in the process of applying for an Iraqi visa.
Her description of life on the front line suggests that one would have to be mad to choose to do it for a living. So what’s the attraction?
“Where do I start? The opportunity to be somewhere where history is happening when it is happening, the privilege to share people’s lives at the best and worst of times, the chance to give people who don’t have a voice a means to be heard, to highlight the courage and suffering or ordinary people in extreme and extraordinary situations, to point the finger at injustice and brutality.
“And to make people living comfortable, peaceful lives in Europe realise that just because something terrible or momentous is happening far away and doesn’t directly affect them, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t care, be interested or concerned about it. It is worth it because the job is interesting, challenging and deeply rewarding.”