How We Met: Michael Nicholson and Natasha Mihaljcic

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The Independent Culture
Michael Nicholson, 56, is chief foreign correspondent of ITN. Since 1963, he has reported on wars in Biafra, Vietnam, the Falklands, Cambodia, and the Gulf. In 1991 he was awarded the OBE. His most recent book, Natasha's Story, will be published next week. He is married with two sons and lives in Surrey. Natasha Mihaljcic, 10, was born in Sarajevo. She was abandoned by her mother at the age of four months and lived at the Ljubica Ivezic orphanage, where she was known as Number 388. She has lived with the Nicholsons, who are in the process of adopting her, since July 1992.

MICHAEL NICHOLSON: The first trip I made to Sarajevo was on the very first RAF flight, so that was exciting, not knowing what the reception would be. That week they seemed to be aiming for journalists, and two of our guys got hit. London panicked and said, 'Oh, you'd better come out.' We arrived back in Belgrade and they said 'Go back again' - you know how wonderful bosses are. So I went back again and it was on that trip that I met Tash.

It was just over a year ago and the same story was making the headlines: 'The children of Sarajevo, we've got to get these children out'. It makes you a cynic in the end. People are still saying, 'Oh, we must do something for these poor children', quite forgetting that it's a year since they last shouted that, and in that time 6,000 children have died.

We had gone up to the Ljubica Ivezic orphanage. It was a pretty grotty place - a big old house on top of a hill in one of the old parts of Sarajevo, with about 2,000 kids of all ages. There were 55 babies in the cellar - the week before, the Serbs had hit the nursery. We'd picked out some children, going for the faces as you do on television, and we'd got ourselves a nice little story and were just packing up, when suddenly a little girl came and stood by me, pushing herself on me. Now I know her, I realise she was very uptight that we hadn't filmed her. I said, 'Oh, she's rather a pretty little thing, let's do this one too.' Her name was Natasha.

As we were leaving she said something to Jacko, our interpreter, and he laughed and said, 'She asked where you come from and I said England and she said, Oh, she wants to go to England.' Of course, everyone said that - I'd been receiving an awful lot of very attractive propositions from some very attractive women . . .

Anyway, the story was done and we rather forgot about the orphanage until we came into contact with a French charity called EquiLibre which had brought in lorries full of food and was planning on taking children out. I thought, what a tremendous story, I'll go out on the convoy, too. And then I thought, here I've been, shouting my mouth off on TV every night about how disgraceful it is, well, I can actually take one out myself this way.

Natasha wasn't a war orphan, she'd been in the orphanage all her life. She was terribly thin - she was under four stone when we came here - with nasty sores on her lips and a burn on her neck where she'd been bullied. But she was a great-looking kid. She was very bashful when I went back to the orphanage. She can still be bashful, but like most 10-year-old girls it's all part of the showbiz. I thought she was just a timid little orphan, but in fact there was a little more cunning to it.

I knew that if I was going to get her out to England, I would have to do it illegally, so I had to keep it a secret from the crew. We left the convoy at Split and took a taxi to Zagreb - the driver was suspicious so I had to give him extra money. The night before the flight I had altered my passport and a few other documents - I'd put her on the ticket as Natasha Nicholson and bought two business-class tickets. We managed to get on to the plane - she was on cloud nine, but I tried to tell her not to talk. And then what happens is the pilot comes back - he had recognised me from television - and he said: 'Would your daughter like to come up in front?' and boom, she was out and up the front. My heart stopped. When she came back she was babbling to him in Serbo-Croat and I thought, it's finished. But he said to me, and whether he was having me on I'll never know, 'Your daughter speaks the most perfect Serbo-Croat; you must be very proud,' and off he went.

Immigration at Heathrow were amazing and I took her home to Diana. A lot of people think I was a bit of a barbarian, a brute to do it the way I did - I'd only rung Diana when it was too late. She said that she would have preferred to have had a five- year-old or a four-year-old, as it would have been easier to train her into our ways, to make her English more quickly. But in fact Tash has absorbed English ways astonishingly well.

She seldom talks about Sarajevo now. You have to press her. She's a very determined girl, extremely competitive. But she's great fun really. She makes me feel younger - depending on her mood. She's seen the sea now. It wasn't until about a month ago when we took her down to Wittering on the coast that she'd made a sandcastle. Her first sandcastle - at the age of 10.

NATASHA MIHALJCIC: I remember Michael coming to see me in the orphanage the first time. When he asked me stuff I didn't understand it. I didn't think about whether he was a nice man or not. Another time, I was woken in the morning and one of the ladies she told me to dress nicely and I went downstairs and I saw Michael. He was talking and stuff to the other people. I was a bit shy. He showed me pictures of Diana, and Max and Zimba, their dogs. And I saw Diana in the picture and she looked nice. And then they asked me if I wanted to go with Michael.

First we went in the bus to Split. If they had asked me now if I wanted to go anywhere I would say no. I used to get very sad when I first lived here because I left my friends in Sarajevo. I thought I would only be here until the bombs stopped. I thought I would come back then. I don't think I will ever go back now.

I stayed in Split in a hotel and then we went to Zagreb and stayed in another hotel. In the morning I went in the aeroplane with Michael. It takes about 20 or 40 minutes to get to London in England from Zagreb in an aeroplane. It was exciting - we had this little meal on a tray and I spoke to the man who was driving. Michael didn't want me to talk too much, but he doesn't speak Serbo-Croat and I was just helping people.

The first time I saw Diana she was holding the dog - the big one - on the lead. It was a bit difficult to begin with. I was a bit sad. I went in the swimming pool the first day - it was raining and we were all in the swimming pool. When I first came they were chatting and chatting and chatting. I did understand 'thank you' and that. In Sarajevo in the school we had one English book and we learnt from that. I knew 'thank you', 'no' and rude stuff. I don't say them now, but I haven't forgotten them.

Now I can't speak Serbo-Croat any more. I've forgotten it all, now I speak English instead. Next year at school, we're going to learn French and I'm worried I'll forget my English then.

I do watch some news, of Sarajevo and that, but it's a bit boring. I like my new school. I like swimming - though I like going to the indoor pool in Guildford best, with the chutes. I have nice friends. And I like Dominic and William, though sometimes they annoy me. My birthday's in October - my second one here. Last birthday, I had a gun - a water pistol with a battery. It was small, but powerful. I got Moppet the cat - she ran away] This year, I'm going to get a mountain bike. Michael promised me. There's a bike here, but it's old and the back brake doesn't work. I have to use the front brake all the time.

All my friends say, 'She's got a swimming pool. She's got a tennis court. She's got a donkey. She's got the dogs. She's lucky.' But my friends in Sarajevo, they don't know where I live. When I was there I told them I was going to a house, but I didn't know how big it was.-