Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Judging the risks in war zones

THE funeral of the Sunday Times journalist, Marie Colvin, took place on Monday in a church in Oyster Bay on Long Island. She died at the age of 56, while trying to escape the shelling of a house used by journalists covering the bombardment of Homs in Syria. In one of her last announcements she said: 'It's a complete and utter lie that they are only going after terrorists. There are no terrorists here.'

It's a tricky call working in 'war zones' or in dangerous situations under dictatorial regimes. The Scottish anarchist, Stuart Christie, found that out at the young age of 18 years in Franco's Spain in 1964, and he has retold the story well of his rapid arrest and imprisonment by the Spanish authorities in his autobiography 'My Granny Made Me An Anarchist' and in an earlier volume 'The Christie Files'. Being at risk in novel situations concentrates the mind but it is hard to make judgements based mostly on hunches and rules on thumb: does one go where the taxi driver recommends is safe or where one really wants to go? Are the local sources of information reliable or is it best to chase after some previously thought out plan of one's own?

Am I being ripped-off by my taxi driver in paying him £40 in sterling and going to his home town, the seaside resort of Saranda in the troubled south of Albania during the chaos and social disruption that folowed the pyramid sales crisis in 1997? Fortunately in Albania, as is the custom in these southern European countries one doesn't pay the fare until one reaches one's final destination, but that custom could change at the wave of my taxi driver's automatic weapon. I had originally wanted to travel to the nearer inland town of Girocastro, but my driver cautioned me against that place as being too dangerous, and I was later to find out from contacts in Greece that part of that town had in fact been taken over by the 'Mafia Turco'. Driving through the rugged Albanian countryside with its shabby houses and road blocks I began to wish the Greek frontier police had prevented me from crossing into Albania in the first place. But by that time it was too late to panic and in a futile gesture I lowered my head in the back seat of the car imagining that by doing that I might escape the bullets of any possible sniper in the undergrowth as we sped towards Saranda and my interview with a local schoolmistress for Freedom Press. At a road block outside Saranda my driver warned me not to use or to put my camera on view as I was told that in Girocastro, a Japanese journalist had had his camera stolen: the thing was don't have any valuables or money on show, and I had even taken the precaution of wearing a ripped old jacket.

When my wife and I entered Franco's Spain in February 1963 what sort of a risk were we taking, even if we had contact with the young libertarians of the FIJL and Spanish exiles in France - that wouldn't be much protection against General Franco's authorities and in the end we would probably have had to turn to the British Consul if we had got into the kind of trouble that Stuart Christie did: even the establishment critic Malcolm Muggeridge, who later became a devout Roman Catholic, was to write a letter on Stuart's behalf to The Times of London appealing to the Franco authorities on his account and excusing his actions as those of an inexperienced youth; Stuart's Glaswegian mother rushed to the Madrid Court to appeal to the authorities on his behalf at his trial. These dangerous exploits can so easily end in tears and grovelling if not, as in Marie Colvin's case, death or in Stuart Christie's case prison, and my wife was quick to remind me, the night before we entered Franco's Spain, that sentences in that country were vastly longer than metted out by the British Courts at that time in the 1960's for Ban-the-Bomb sitdowns and civil disobedience.

Then there was the time in December 2000, that I stayed on the train and tried to enter Serbia without a visa shortly after the fall of Milosovic as President, in the October of that year: only to end up detained by the Serbian police in a cell with a Kosovan prisoner at the railway station in Subotica, a city and municipality in the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina in northern Serbia, and later to be packed off in the next train back to Budapest. Where I had to stay a night and go next day to the Budapest Serbian Consulate to sought out my visa and papers: giving Freedom Press as my employer and Vernon Richards as the proprietor of the Freedom journal.

In the end for me, once I understood the rules within the social setting of Franco's Spain and in Belgrade at the time of the parliamentary elections after the fall of Milosovic, the danger was not so great and it was possible both countries to navigate the dangers, settling into a relatively safe routine and to enjoy oneself, so long as one respected the local customs and played the system. The anthropology of Spanish culture and customs has been well documented and those traditions continued even under the dictatorship of Franco. My German friends had always warned me that the Serbs and Croats as being less civilised than say the Hungarians, but yet I have fond memories of my visit to Belgrade in Christmas 2000. Albania in 1997, was a totally different matter perhaps because I never found anyone I could trust and never understood the rules, I never felt very safe in Albania even when I stuck close to the frontier within sight of the Greek frontier guards. Each night I would return to my Greek village to eat dinner and drink in the bar and to send my dispaches to Freedom, and to the anarchist, Harold Sculthorpe, and his partner Gwen in Hebden Bridge, and each night I would tell them where I was and what I planned for my movements for the next day.

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