CHRISTOPHER A LONG - Reporting The Balkan Wars

Reporting The Balkan Wars

CAL Interviewed by La Voix Le Bocage 08-10-2009

An interview with Christopher Long by Laetitia Lemaire of La Voix Le Bocage
to coincide with the annual gathering of war correspondents in Bayeux, Normandy.

To coincide with the Prix Bayeux, the memories of former war correspondent Christopher Long: "I witnessed the first shots of the Balkan wars"

As Bayeux welcomes some of our best war correspondents to its famous award ceremony – today until Saturday – La Voix le Bocage meets another of them: former war correspodent for the BBC Christopher Long, who covered the Balkan conflicts from 1991 to 1999, and who lives in Pont-Farcy. Far from the prestigious Prix Bayeux, he gives his views on the job and the perils they provoke.

It took him almost five years to forget and almost as long again to rebuild a new life, even though, as he's inclined to murmur: "... perhaps it's still not finished yet..."

In a former life, Christopher Long was a journalist and reporter. A British subject, he worked in England for numerous newspapers, magazines and radio programmes, based in central London where he lived. He remembers that when the Berlin 'Wall' came down in 1989: "It was an event that changed everything, coupled with a huge sense of hope. I felt that now was the time to take a risk." Because in fact Christopher was getting bored. By now an editor-in-chief, he couldn't stand management life any longer, being so far from the everyday reality that he, like any self-respecting journalist, loved so much. "It had become a nightmare."

Intellectuals covered in blood

He went for two weeks to Skopje, capital of what was to become Macedonia. Theoretically it was a holiday. "But a journalist is of course always on the lookout for information."

Drinking a coffee there he noticed an abnormal amount of military traffic. The radio was announcing that the airport was closed. Christopher decided to head for the northern frontier with Kosovo. "There I saw the affects of the first shots in the Balkan wars. There were students, doctors, teachers – the intelligentia covered in blood. It was appalling... the start of wars that were to continue for 10 years..."

He was the only reporter on the ground. In the midst of chaos he sent his report to the BBC. "I waited up all night to hear my report. Nothing!" Christopher only learnt later that the BBC had contacted their Yugoslavia correspondents in Belgrade to get their 'take'. Nothing to report. The BBC thought Christopher had been making it up.

"I was certainly irritated, or pretty angry, but in any case I was bloody-minded enough to decide to start studying the geopolitical background to the whole area.".

Enemies everywhere

This was the turning point. When war broke out in 1991 in what was for a short time to remain Yugoslavia, Christopher was of course there. "I had been expecting a war in Yugoslavia ever since my return to London in 1989. Nobody ['few' people] believed me. Maastricht was the word [in Europe] then, and we were all friends."

But Christopher had been expecting a repetition of the Second World War: "With great troop movements, clear strategies and long, defined front lines." The tangled chaos of these wars came as a complete shock.

"I found myself in a series of mafia wars. They were terrible... catastrophic... There were warring factions everywhere. The victims in one valley were often the killers in the next." He clearly has difficulty in describing this. Is it, in fact, possible to do so ?

"It was all about race and culture. There were no real frontiers, no clear aims... it was very mediaeval in character. In the end I found I was almost reporting a guerilla war. I had certainly never imagined anything so vicious and cruel."

Avoiding the limelight

Nevertheless, Christopher was above all a journalist. He knew how to do the job: ...To note, to observe, to stop and to report exactly what one observes... the facts, without going any further..."

But unlike certain other correspondents who most of all would like you to know they were there, Christopher keeps a certain distance: "When you're under bombardment there's a lot of smoke and dust. You don't see anything. There's nothing to see. And anyway it doesn't achieve anything to say that we've been bombarded three times today. The important things are the consequences of the bombardment and to make these relevant to an audience thousands of miles away and whose everyday problems seem to them just as important,"

Christopher keeps away from the great gatherings such as the Prix Bayeux and others: "It's a great thing that war correspondents can get together but, personally, I prefer to stay here and not have to dress up in a suit. I prefer my way of dealing with it all," he says quietly.

300 kms to cross

And after a few deep breaths to chase off bad memories he hammers home his point: "There's no point in being a war correspondent if you're dead." He could indeed have carried on for a few years after the end of the Balkan wars. He might have been at the front in Iraq or Pakistan.

At least he might have been, but for the check-points.

In his red Land-Rover, which he still drives today, he ploughed across ex-Yugoslvia: Bosnia-Hercegivina and Croatia. And that's what destroyed him.

"It wasn't just living through the bombardments alongside civilians who were a thousand times more traumatised than we were; it wans't the tragedies and dead children. The most difficult thing was going backwards and forwards up to 300 kilometres across the front lines, from the coast to the centre."


The check-points were not for nothing: "We were stopped day and night. The armed guards were often drunk and frequently drugged. We were constantly threatened. In the end the stress of this, day after day, month after month, year after year, was too much."

However, that was a long time ago and Christopher has come to terms with it.

When he came back he was "very disturbed", a bit like someone suffering an overdose: "When one lives through stress like that the abnormal becomes normal [and the normal abnormal].

Now he just wants silence, breathing the calm air of Normandy, alongside his wife Sarah. "Without all that I would never have met her. I would not have needed all this peace."

And seeing him so contented today, not having known Normandy with Sarah at his side would surely have been his greatest regret.

This attempt at a translation comes with many thanks to Laetitia Lemaire who handled a difficult interview with great skill and subtlety.

© (2009) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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