White-suited and clean-shaven even in war zones, foreign affairs correspondent Martin Bell OBE was a familiar figure reporting for the BBC on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s: the 11th such conflict he had covered for the channel. On our televisions his voiceovers to atrocities such as the ethnic cleansing of Zvornik and the siege of Vukovar were always terse, precise, and near poetic in their ability to evoke the reality of war in the briefest number of words. Perhaps the most famous of all his broadcasts came from Ahmići, where Croatian forces had massacred Muslim civilians in their homes. Reporting from the charred remains of a house where an entire family had been burned to death, Bell – constrained by BBC guidelines – still managed to convey the horror of what had happened – by showing the fist of one of the corpses, blackened and clenched in agony. Bell’s broadcasts are some of the most memorable of the war, and though he downplays his bravery – he belongs, he says, to the ‘Get Me Out of Here’ school of war-correspondence – he both pushed the boundaries of what he could broadcast on television and consistently put himself in danger, on one occasion getting seriously wounded by shrapnel while delivering a report on Sarajevo. Now 20 years after the war’s end, he shares his memories of the time, recalling leading players like the ferocious, ‘superficially charming’ Serbian paramilitary Arkan, the Bosnian-Serb vice-president (and Shakespearean scholar) Nikola Koljević, and the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ himself, General Ratko Mladić. Along the way, we discuss a host of other issues: the nature of evil; why the Bosnian war was, for journalists, the last war of its kind; and why, despite all that occurred in the Bosnian War, he still has some sympathy for the Serbs.
Robin Ashenden: You say in your book,’For all of us who came to it from the outside, the Bosnian conflict was not just another foreign war, but a shocking and defining experience, which changed our way of doing things and seeing things.’ Would you say what you meant by this?
Martin Bell: I meant that it was a war among the people. It was a war in which an important component was the siege of 300,000 people for three and a half years. And that we as journalists were in a privileged position, able to get in with our UN passes across the airport runway. So to a limited extent we shared the hardships and the dangers, and therefore I think we came to empathise with the people. And that includes the Serbs and Croats as well as the others. And I think it was the horrific nature of it, the fact that there was no real distinction between soldiers and civilians. And we were there for such long periods and living there for a lot of the time in a hotel[i] that was – what? – 200 metres from an active front line. So it was unlike other conflicts which were fought between armies, where one either was embedded with the troops or staying in a remarkable, comfortable hotel, and going out to the war. That applied even to Vietnam. So it was different in that respect.
RA: What strikes me about the war was what a tiny little world it was.
MB: It was a tiny little world and towards the end of the book I actually complain it was too small. And for most of the press it was just a two-mile length of the big main street…. So mostly it was covered on that axis. And from October 94, of course, Serb-land was denied to us. We were shut out after they rejected the Contact Group plan[ii]. So Vladimir for instance would come in with some correspondent from Belgrade who worked the Serb side, and we stayed on the other side, and we couldn’t get across. And we had really good access too to the side-war, between Muslims and Croats. In which obviously there was a national interest because there was a British battalion in Central Bosnia. And we were able most of the time, if you were willing to take the risks, to get down to Mostar. In fact the guy who was charged with responsibility for blowing up the bridge[iii] was Slobodan Praljac. I got a message from his lawyer a long time afterwards. He was on trial for this at the Hague. And he said, ‘Ah, I’ve got an alibi because Martin Bell was with me in Prozor on that day.’ Fortunately I keep a record of where I am. He was just one day out. So as an alibi it didn’t work too well…
RA: When speaking to the Cheshire Regiment, you said, ‘they would find their tour of duty in Bosnia the most worthwhile six months of their careers. I’m sometimes wrong about quite a lot, but I’m sure I was right about that.’ Why did you feel this?
MB: …They felt they were doing something worthwhile, they felt they were saving lives. And this made it a more popular duty with the families. I mean, obviously the man was away for six months, and the mandate was deeply frustrating, though they did push the limits as time went on. They knew what they were doing, they knew… Of course, there was a big element of guilt that went with it. Especially in relation to the Ahmići [iv]massacre. It just happened – what? – two miles from their camp.
RA: Which is one of your most famous broadcasts, with the clenched fist.
MB: I think it was responsible for Margaret Thatcher cancelling a visit to receive an honorary degree at Zagreb. But I think the viewers at home up to that point had tended to think about good guys and bad guys. Well, there wasn’t a Serb with 15 kilometres of that massacre. So it did get a lot of attention, yeah. And technically, everything changed for us when we stopped shooting film, which was processed and air-freighted to London, and you had this light hand-held video camera, and a satellite in the fields – therefore as the correspondent on the spot you had to decide how much horror the viewers could take. What I used to do is I would put as much in as I thought was acceptable, and there would be an emblematic horror image and that would be a burnt clenched fist. But I also put at the end of the report a lot of what we call gash footage – wide shots and so on so they could re-edit if they wanted to. In fact they didn’t.
RA: There does seem to be a tension in the book between what you want to show and what you feel it’s necessary to show people so that they’re not getting a false idea of it, and what you’re actually allowed to show by news guidelines.
MB: This was an argument that I had uphill and down dale for the three and a half years of the war. I did a Panorama which was broadcast in February 1993. And I don’t think the BBC these days would allow images that graphic to appear. And as the war went on I felt the pressures on me were greater. There was an occasion in Vitez… A village outside a Croat outpost got overrun in the morning fog, and the Croats were all killed by (I think) the Mujahideen. And not only was I not allowed to show the images of the dead, I wasn’t even allowed to show the grieving of the mothers when they found out. And I objected on the grounds that, if you take out the bloodshed, then war becomes an acceptable way of settling differences. Especially if you’ve got political leaders as we now have and had then with no experience of warfare. So I think it had a sort of knock-on effect. But essentially I lost the argument.
RA: Did you wonder about the validity of what you were doing, given the fact that in your own words it was ‘prettifying’ war so much?
MB: Well, I felt it could do harm. But there was… you know…after the Croatian conflict this was the first war on the continent of Europe since 1945. So I felt it important to be there as a witness. Although of course all war-reporting is fragmentary. But ours was more fragmentary than it needed to be, because of the element of self-censorship on the images of violence.
RA: Where would you draw the line on this?
MB: I think you show war as it is. I mean, for instance, we were not allowed to show anybody being killed. Well, as it happened, one cameraman working for me was shooting a HVO [v] patrol going through the snow, and you saw guys suddenly fall. I put it in the report, and didn’t say what it was. But nobody actually noticed and it got on air. I mean: a war in which nobody’s killed? It doesn’t make sense. So I would not have the pictures of violence to be repetitive. You can’t bang on endlessly because then you alienate people. But let’s just say we should have shown much more than we did.
RA: And real violence doesn’t look like movie violence.
MB: That’s absolutely right. One of the curious things, though: you find that soldiers sometimes imitate soldiers they’ve seen in the movies…. So art does sometimes imitate reality, and reality does sometimes imitate art. But I often felt, and I felt not only there, but in Belfast, Vietnam, everywhere – if I were a movie-maker, how could I recreate this scene? It’s the telling detail, the total devastation… I think I’ve walked out of every war movie made about all the wars I’ve been in.
RA: If the Bosnian war were to break out today, how different would your situation as a reporter be? How differently would it be covered?
MB: I think we’d face much more intimidation. The worst thing that could happen to us in that war 92-95 was being caught in the crossfire. We weren’t targeted. But I think if the war were to be restarted there would be a bigger Mujahideen element, more foreign fighters from outside, and the press would definitely be on the target-list, including certain individuals who they were after. We were very lucky to get away with it when we did, but… you know, we could… The Serbs were actually very hospitable to us, at least in the early months, until they thought that the tide of opinion was turning against them and they then blamed the press. So I think it would be much, much harder to cover. I guess if the British were involved, we would be embedded. We were not actually embedded. We just came and went. We churned around in the wake of their Warriors[vi]. And so we came and went as we pleased. But it would be formalised and there’d be… probably censorship. So it would be much harder in every respect.
RA: Do you think it’s the last war where you would have had such freedom to rove around?
MB: I think that it also applied to Kosovo. Everything changed in 9/11. It was 9/11 that was the end of the old journalism. And the journalists then retreated into their Green Zones and fortified compounds and odd hotel rooftops… What do we know what’s going on in ISIS territory? We haven’t got a clue.
RA: Why, because it was impossible after that to be impartial?
MB: No, it’s a matter of access. You couldn’t get in without being kidnapped. I mean, brave people tried. Anthony Loyd, I think in February this year, was kidnapped near Aleppo by his minder actually, who he had trusted, and shot in both ankles so he couldn’t escape. It’s a question of physical access. You can’t be on the ground, so you’ll stand there on the Turkish border… speculating about unverifiable videos. The BBC now employs people – Arabic speakers – to listen to the accents and see whether they might even be authentic. And they can…. It’s guesswork. It’s guesswork. And you can’t really cover wars from among the people any more.
RA: Do you feel very lucky to have covered the last war of that kind?
MB: Absolutely. I’m always suspicious of Golden Age theories, but there was a Golden Age, between the introduction of the portable camera, and editing in the field, and the wonderful freedom it gave you, and I suppose… well, obviously 9/11 was when it ended, but the shadows were beginning to close in on us – I think from the time of the arrival of the mobile phone in the front line. You know, you’d be doing what you thought was the right thing and there’d be a call telling you what ‘the feeling of the meeting was’. Well, bugger the feeling of the meeting.
RA: So if you were a war-reporter starting out now, would you find a happier place on Youtube rather than on one of the state channels?
MB: Well, of course then you have to keep twittering all the time. I don’t understand any of it… But you see, we still could then go out, find a story and come back. At the height of the sidewar between the Muslims and Croats I thought I had to slip back into Sarajevo one day and find out what was going on. So I talked my way through Sierra 1 which was the Serbs’ main road-block. Got to Grbavica, met the bloke who was a newspaper editor and one of the principle defenders, he’s in my book – who was wounded twice in defence of the city. And he gave me marvellous access, and we saw their one tank firing away and the blankets they across on wires across the street so they could move about blinding the snipers… And when I go back to Sarajevo nowadays ‘Oh, no they didn’t shoot civilians’ but of course they did – everybody shot civilians. But then you could take it back, edit it and it would be okay. And sometimes you drew a blank, sometimes nothing happened and sometimes you couldn’t get past the last roadblock. But there was a degree of freedom. But I think it was easier for the scribes, the press writers, because they could sit there in the Holiday Inn and write their stuff without ever having to be there. Well, we had to be there.
RA: Is there a kind of bond between the people who were there now?
MB: Oh yes, there was. On the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the war in 2012, I think I was doing something else, but about 100 of them gathered… I didn’t go because I thought it was celebrating a war. But they all stayed at the Holiday Inn, they had a magnificent banquet. The point made then was that there was no other war that we’d been in that would draw us back in this way. It really did… It sorted people out. There were some very weird people who would come in, sort of paramilitary types, soldier of fortune types. Sort of trying to prove their own courage to themselves. But they didn’t last very long.
[To read PART 2 of An Interview with Foreign Correspondent Martin Bell OBE, please click on the image below.]
[i] Holiday Inn, Sarajevo
[ii] The Contact Group Plan was formulated in 1994 by representatives from U.S., Russia, France, Britain, and Germany, to restore peace to the Balkans. It proposed the preservation of Bosnia as a single state, with territory divided 51/49 respectively between the Muslim/Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serbs; constitutional structures; free and fair elections, and respect for human rights. Alas, it was rejected by the Bosnian Serbs in a referendum in August 1994, and the war would continue for almost another 16 months.
[iii] Stari Most, an Ottoman bridge that had connected the two halves of Mostar for 427 years, before being destroyed in November 1993 by Croat forces. It has now been reconstructed.
[iv] The Ahmici Massacre, in which Bosnian Croats killed over 100 civilian residents of a small Bosnian village, in April 1993. Some – including women and children – were burned alive in their houses, the corpses so charred as to be unidentifiable.
[v] HVO – Hrvatsko vijeće obrane, effectively the Bosnian-Croat army during the Bosnian War.
[vi] The white painted Warrior Armoured Vehicles, used by UNPROFOR for peacekeeping missions in Bosnia.
Martin Bell’s In Harm’s Way: Bosnia: A War Reporter’s Story, is available from Amazon priced £9.98 (£5.03 Kindle Edition). His book of poetry For Whom the Bell Tolls: Light and Dark Verse (2011) contains many memories of his time in Bosnia and its leading players, and is available in hardback for £9.99.