Monday Book: Getting too close to the story

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The Independent Culture
ANTHONY LOYD has had several wars - Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Chechnya - but it was Bosnia that engaged him fully. It left him, like most of the journalists who stalked its shell-scarred moonscapes, spinning in its emotional slipstream. Bosnia is the focus of this powerful and moving book.

With his ponytail, battered Lada and unrivalled access to the frontlines, Loyd - as a correspondent for The Times - was one of the bravest and most familiar figures covering the Bosnian war. His base was the town of Vitez, site of the British UN headquarters, rather than the capital Sarajevo, and his war the sporadic struggle between the Bosnian Muslims and their sometime allies, the Bosnian Croats. This peculiarly squalid conflict witnessed some of the war's ghastliest atrocities, such as the 1993 massacre of Muslim villagers at Ahmici by Bosnian Croats.

Bosnia then was a bizarre mix of the deadly and the banal. As Loyd's predecessor at Vitez for The Times, I remember a bright spring morning in 1993, watching housewives hang out their washing as a few feet away armed Bosnian Croat militiamen darted from house to house, attacking Muslim troops. Meanwhile, the local postman (nicknamed "Postman Splat") set up a mortar not far from the British base and loosed off a round whenever he felt like it. No wonder this war of killer postmen and insouciant washerwomen was summed up by a British officer as a "Bosnian mind-fuck".

In these often elegantly written pages, Loyd describes at length how his own mind began to get fucked up. His fractured relationship with his father, combined with repeated exposure to scenes of barbarity, drove him to seek refuge in heroin. At times he admits that he almost had a death-wish, driving himself ever further into the killing zone, in action with the Bosnian army.

The newspaper executives to whom Loyd filed his graphic accounts of horror of course loved it. They had never heard a shot fired in anger but their man was out at the front, pushing the journalistic limit far beyond acceptable risk. That Loyd was, at times, teetering on the edge of insanity and clearly in need of professional help seems not to have occurred to them.

As a former soldier in the British Army, Loyd admits to a long fascination with the military. At times, his fetishisation of killing machines can become wearying, particularly when he writes almost admiringly of a single long-range sniper shot that killed an aid worker.

His near-descent into the abyss is best illustrated by the episode in which he plots revenge on a Bosnian Croat who killed a favourite puppy. Loyd swapped a bottle of beer for a hand-grenade - a simple enough exchange at Vitez - with which he planned to booby-trap the dog-killer's outside toilet. He was persuaded to abandon his plan after it was pointed out that there was no guarantee that the dog-killer would be first to use the privy. This is what is known in the trade as "getting too close to the story".

The hazard of war reporting is that correspondents increasingly churn out copy they themselves dub "war porn": bite-size stories of unending horror to titillate suburban readers over tea and toast. The worse the scenes of death and destruction, the better the copy, and the more space it gets on the front page.

Then the journalist becomes a vulture, pecking at the carrion of other people's misery, seeking ever more gruesome tales to stimulate the palate of jaded editors. Of these, Loyd has no shortage. But, vultures or not, it was the media reporting of the killings in Bosnia and Kosovo that helped to end those conflicts. And being there was an awfully big adventure.

Loyd is painstakingly honest about the sheer excitement of war, and breaks the often unspoken taboo of war correspondents - that battle can be a better high than sex or drugs, the whip-crack of bullets and the whistle of shell-fire the deadliest siren call of all.

There are few thrills like that of driving into a frontline town under fire, its rubble-strewn streets silent and deserted, your senses tuned to a higher pitch than you ever believed possible. The very air itself is tense with the anticipation of the next impact that will surely tear it open with high explosive and shrapnel.

A couple of hours later, you high-tail it back to safety, weaving past the tank traps and gun emplacements, stereo blaring, laughing hard on an adrenalin buzz and the taste of that evening's first drink in the hotel bar. Our war gone by, we miss it so.

Adam Lebor

The reviewer's book `A Heart Turned East: among the Muslims of Europe and America' is published by Little, Brown