The man in the white suit
Martin Booth praises a civilised, compassionate observer of the bestiality of war; In Harm's Way: Reflections of a War Zone Thug by Martin Bell Hamish Hamilton, pounds 15.99
Saturday 21 October 1995
So it is for Martin Bell, who has been at - and often in front of - the barricades of Vietnam, the Middle East, Central America, the Gulf and now Bosnia. As a BBC television reporter, he has dug fox-holes with the Desert Rats, invaded Iraq with the Irish Hussars, suffered from current BBC jargon (under the rule of "bimediality", he had to provide a contribution from war-torn Vitez for Radio 4's Farming Today on agriculture in Bosnia: there was none) and, most famously, stopped a bullet on camera in Sarajevo in 1992. It is apt his book is called In Harm's Way, for Bell deliberately steps in harm's direction. It is what he is paid to do, on our behalf. Yet he is far from being "a war zone thug'': his story is that of a civilised and passionate man cast into situations fraught with danger and livid with mankind's bestialities.
Although the book touches on National Service and journalistic stints in earlier wars, it concentrates mainly upon the Bosnian conflict, which Bell has reported almost from the start. More than any of the other 11 wars he has covered, Bosnia has been "a shocking and defining experience" which has fundamentally changed Bell's outlook on the world. The sheer brutality of ethnic hatreds, the settling of old scores by genocide and the impotence of peacekeepers has deeply dismayed him as well as fellow battle-hardened observers. He comments upon these realities not with the detachment of one who has seen it all before, but as one who is attached to the anguish of those caught up in the maelstrom. He also criticises the morality of politicians and the motivation of fighters and UN personnel alike. The war in Bosnia is, he plainly states, an indictment of all mankind.
Yet Bell also writes anecdotally and lovingly of people he has encountered in Bosnia; of the man who herded 11 goats and a BBC crew, and who was shot by a sniper while digging his smallholding; of fellow correspondents such as CNN's Christiane Amanpour who "didn't want her bones jumped"; of the mother in a subterranean bunker in Sarajevo who said her little girl asked, on hearing a gun fire, if this shell was the one to kill them.
Bell's humanity and personality come across with far greater strength here than in his fleeting, charismatic on-camera performances. Despite a life of intense if terrible excitement, he is still one of us, an ordinary man caught up in the annals of politics. In Bosnia, he drives Kevlar-plated Land Rovers called Miss Piggy and Kermit. A superstitious gambler, he carries a lucky silver dollar into battle in the pocket of his lucky white suit. Quite how this suit stays so pristine in the grime of war is one of his best-kept secrets: even when he was shot, it seemed to be spared a smearing of blood. Despite the danger, he only wears his flak jacket on camera, to satisfy BBC bosses: he otherwise removes it to avoid, as he puts it, the status of indemnity.
In his Prologue, Bell writes that this is his first and probably only book, adding it was hard work because he had to spell and punctuate correctly. Television correspondents, after all, speak their lines. Such is his modesty. One must hope he will take heart and write another. His sanity, clarity of vision and humanity are rare, especially coming from the savage world he inhabits and records for others.
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