Media: Post-traumatic press syndrome

Journalists enjoy their hard-bitten, cynical image, but many feel that the brutality of Kosovo has taken its toll. By Kim Sengupta
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The Independent Culture
"HOW MANY bodies were there in your mass grave then... 20? Bloody hell, we found more than that on our first day here - you've got to do better than that."

It was a fairly typical bit of banter at the restaurant of the Grand Hotel in Pristina, after another day of reporting Kosovo, among journalists trying to live up to their cynical image. Two nights later, the same man at the same restaurant was staring down at the table and asking, "Are you having dreams? I am having some terrible dreams, you know... terrible. There are bodies and blood everywhere...."

The only recurring dream I have is about something we saw north-east of Podujevo. There is no blood, and just one body - that of a curly-haired boy of about seven wearing a frayed Batman t-shirt. He had died, probably through hunger or simply hardship, while his family were hiding in the hills. He looked asleep, at peace. A young lieutenant from the Household Cavalry who picked up the body kept saying "Look, he doesn't weigh anything at all," with tears running down his face.

Not all the journalists who were in Kosovo had nightmares of course, but few have remained unaffected. Most of those there had experience of covering wars and conflicts - the Falklands, the Gulf, Bosnia and Northern Ireland - and disasters such as Lockerbie and Zeebrugge. Yet many of them found Kosovo peculiarly distressing.

Perhaps it was the remorselessness and curious intimacy of the violence, waking up every morning knowing you were going to see bodies and limbs, that got to us. Or perhaps it was the dreadful symmetry of the whole thing. One saw the misery of the refugees in Macedonia and Albania, heard tales of what had happened to their villages and towns in Kosovo, and saw the charred shells of their homes, and the graves of children, parents and friends of those you had met. Some examples of organised cruelty were particularly difficult to cope with: few could forget the quarters of the MUP, the Serb special police, in Pristina, with its torturers' paraphernalia.

It also became quite personal for many. Tim Butcher, The Daily Telegraph's young defence correspondent, painstakingly tracked down friends he had made before in Kosovo. He wanted to make sure they were alright. Harry Arnold of The Mirror managed to reunite five-year-old Jehona with her family in Prizren. She had been found wandering around a refugee camp in Macedonia, lost and frightened.

Not all such quests were successful. Danny Richards, a cameraman, is still making endless phone calls to refugee agencies to find the whereabouts of a young brother and sister at Pec, whose parents had disappeared. I was asked by Fadil and Almi Berisha at a Macedonian refugee camp to try to find their 19-year-old daughter, Samira, separated on a day of violence and confusion near Batlava. I went to their home town to be told she had been taken away by paramilitaries. An old man showed me the stretch beside a stream where he thought she and a few others were buried. Returning to Stenkovec 1 - the "celebrity camp" where Blair and Clinton, Richard Gere and Vanessa Redgrave were much photographed - I found the Berishas had gone, and felt relief at not having to give them the bad news, and also the failure, on my part, to give them some hope.

Signs of one's own vulnerability were never far away. Hearing that two German reporters had been executed after being stopped by paramilitaries was worrying. Then came the news that two friends from the Daily Record, Simon Huston and Chris Watt, had been grazed by bullets when their car was ambushed. It was hard to keep track of which roads were safe. Patrick Bishop, of The Telegraph, went to cover a story in Vrbica with his translator, to be told that he had just driven over a road full of mines. The KLA pointed out all the unexploded devices he had somehow managed to miss.

For Bishop, who had been covered wars since the Falklands, it was the "promiscuity of violence" in Kosovo which made it different from other conflicts. To him, Kosovo "is a blighted land of blighted people," and he was glad to be back home.

But returning from Kosovo to "normality" has been a strange experience for many of the journalists. A few who immediately went off on holiday found it almost impossible to relax or enjoy themselves. Danny Richards came back after four days of a week's break in Corfu. "It sounds absolutely crazy, but I began to resent the place, the holidaymakers, the hotels, the whole tourist thing," he said. "Mind you, back in London not many things seem important either. I am a freelance cameraman, and one of the American companies asked me to go to Dublin to cover that Beckham and Posh Spice wedding. I just laughed."

Harry Arnold, a Fleet Street veteran, said: "I covered Aberfan, I covered Bloody Sunday, but Kosovo was certainly the most traumatic - the terrible suffering of refugees in the camps first of all, and then Kosovo itself. I have had a few strange dreams, not particularly dramatic, but just odd. One was about the KLA. Getting back, everything does seem a bit odd."

One's perspective of relative values also changes. Michael Evans, the highly respected defence editor of The Times, said: "It is very difficult to feel too agitated about a broken washing machine. No doubt one will soon get back to worrying about things like that. But we have all experienced certain emotions which are bound to affect you."

Tim Butcher is waiting for his memories to visit him. A fluent Albanian speaker who's immensely knowledgeable about the region, he has squared the circle in seeing the onset of ferocious Serbian repression and then the liberation of the province. "I watched the last Serbian tanks leave Kosovo, and it was an incredible feeling, seeing the terrible sights. One of the worst things I saw was the mortuary at Pristina. The scenes were indescribable. I am bracing myself for what is to come, but that is the price you pay."