Life on the front line: ‘the sniper opened up with a burst of bullets...’

Phil Davison was shot covering the Balkan conflict


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The Independent Online

12 November 1991

My wound is nothing compared with the physical and mental scars being carved on the people and city of Dubrovnik. But it was not without significance. The fact that a Yugoslav army sniper opened fire on the doorway of the Hotel Argentina, where EC peace monitors are staying and have hoisted their flag, is not a comforting omen.

I had seen the sniper on the move, on the ridge above us and to the left, moments before and had asked a policeman guarding the hotel whether the city’s Croatian defenders were in that position. He and I and four others edged back beneath the hotel’s front door canopy, but we were fractionally too late.

The sniper opened up with a burst of half a dozen bullets, hitting me, the policeman, the hotel chef and a fourth bystander. The impact on my lower leg was terrible, throwing me on to the ground before I crawled back into the hotel lobby. But I was lucky. Although bloody, my wound turned out to be light, the bullet grazing my shin but leaving me with nothing more than a temporary limp. The other three were also hit in the legs and feet.

So bad was the mayhem in this once-peaceful Adriatic resort on Sunday that an ambulance could not reach us. We lay on the hotel stairwell as a barrage of federal army and navy fire made the hilltop sniper seem like no problem at all. A tourniquet from an International Red Cross doctor called Didier, a hip-flask of Scotch from a young American journalist who helped to drag me to cover, and I was later able to join the ITN crew in an evening rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. The locals think we are nuts.

There seems no doubt that the federal forces are coming. The hilltop sniper showed that they have moved well beyond us from their previous front line at Zwarkovica to our east. As our magnificent hotel staff were providing us with lunch yesterday, we had to scramble from the seafront dining room when gunboats landed shells just off-shore, throwing up plumes of spray and causing our building to rock.

At least 17 people were killed, dozens wounded and many buildings destroyed as federal forces fired thousands of naval, tank and artillery shells and tens of thousands of bullets at Dubrovnik. The Hotel Belvedere, formerly one of the town’s finest, was targeted only hours after hundreds of refugees had fled its basement shelter down the coast road to our hotel.

Elderly refugee women gazed and wept as flames and thick black smoke billowed from the Belvedere. It was, they said, a symbol of Dubrovnik, the flames an omen of what residents fear is to come.

While federal forces shelled the coastline, the commercial area of Gruz and the residential areas of Lapad and Babin Kuk, we thought the historic Old Town was being spared. But at 3.20pm, three shells from we know not where crashed into the Old Town centre near the renowned landmark known as Onofrio’s Large Fountain. We are sleeping with our clothes and boots on now, in little doubt that the army will be here.

A group of Croatian fighters with blackened faces and black Rambo-style headbands, who came into the hotel on Sunday night, quickly disappeared after we and the EC men protested. We do not want armed men here if or when the federal troops come in.

The British Honorary Consul, Sara Marojica, has pinned the Union Jack from the balcony of her room, number 608. It was somehow comforting to see the flag go up, complete with a consular crown, that makes at least the room the temporary residence of Her Majesty’s Honorary Consul. But we have considerable doubts as to whether the red, white and blue will mean much to the approaching army...

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