Bell reflects on toll of Sarajevo’s war: Maggie Brown talks to the BBC foreign correspondent wounded
Author: MAGGIE BROWN
Then Mr Bell, 53, was on the ground, in his trade-mark white suit, clutching his groin after being hit by mortar shrapnel while speaking to camera in the Muslim-controlled part of the city. It was a reminder of the constant danger endured by those trying to piece together the conflict for audiences sitting safely at home.
A bottle of champagne stands waiting; his girlfriend, Katerina Geissler, is by his side after travelling from Berlin. ‘In myself I feel absolutely fine,’ he said, as he talked with intense, compressed vividness.
The drip to which he is attached is the only visible reminder of the deep flesh wound to his lower abdomen which missed all vital organs, but led to two operations, one in the UN basement field hospital and a second after being rushed to London. However, one small piece of shrapnel will remain embedded for life, too dangerous to remove. ‘My first thought was, ‘Oh God they’ve got me at last’. But I knew within a fraction of a second it wasn’t serious. I never lost consciousness. Had nothing more than bad abdominal pain.’
The war in the former Yugoslavia is taking a terrible toll of those sent to report it. Some estimate more than 30 journalists have been killed in a year, more than the toll of western journalists in 10 years of war in Vietnam. Mr Bell believes, it is more dangerous than any of the wars he has reported upon.
There is, he said, absolutely no safe place in the city, the shelling and attacks are indiscriminate. The trick, every time you venture out, is to know where the snipers are, up in the hills, to the right. The choice lies in going down the exposed main street fast, or the back streets more slowly.
And you have to be accompanied by an interpreter and keep asking questions – ‘One of the secrets of staying alive.’ He was caught out while reporting from the shelter of a large factory because the mortar bomb came from an unexpected source.
Some of the best footage of the fighting, he said, had been taken by camerman Nigel Bateson, after leaving his camera on its tripod on the balcony of the BBC team’s flat while he went inside to cook spaghetti. It was the photographers taking still pictures who were in the greatest danger, Mr Bell said, because they had to get so close.
He said he had thought a lot about whether the Serbs deliberately targeted journalists to prevent accurate reporting, concluding: ‘My own feeling is that there are a lot of snipers and freelance operators who have no function in life but to snipe and fire mortars. There are not so many targets in no-man’s land but ourselves and the United Nations. I think they kind of shot at us as easy and available targets. There is not much discipline.’
Journalists are tempted to overestimate their own importance, but in the former Yugoslavia they had a vital role and function he said. ‘There are no independent witnesses. The UN is pretty chaotic. There are no impartial observers, apart from the press. The two sides do behave better when the press is there. They like you to be there for an exchange of prisoners, to ensure the sides stick to the rules.’
Does he have doubts about what he is doing? ‘A still voice says this is a stupid way to earn a living. On the other hand, I couldn’t do a desk job, I’m the only BBC journalist who can’t use a computer.’
And will he go back? The answer seems to be yes, but not yet. ‘I’m not a war freak. I’m interested in a fascinating little hinge of history, especially a country with more history than it can consume locally. What you are seeing is not just a clash of good guys and bad guys. It’s a story of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
‘ But I’ll be quite happy never to hear a gunshot again in my life. I’m in pretty good shape, planning a fairly long convalesence, I’ll not go back in a hurry. I have never refused an assignment, but I have a bit of thinking to do.’
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