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

"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."

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears