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In the line of fire

By The Drum | Administrator

March 26, 2004 | 12 min read

Their eyes were coals of hate. When the punching and kicking finally stopped, I knew I was going to die. I was on the ground, my hands tied behind my back. My mind racing, trying to find a way back from the abyss and the loneliest of deaths at night in the Bosnian countryside. There were three of them, one carrying a Kalashnikov, the other two with pistols hanging from their belts. I could smell the booze on his breath as he leaned over and spat in my face, the pain in my groin making me almost pass out as I was dragged to my knees. I looked down into the darkness of the ditch. Someone spoke and I heard the pistol being cocked, then felt it cold against the back of my head. There was an empty click and some mocking laughter before another blow sent me into oblivion.

“Something happened to me that warm June night in Mostar in 1995, not just an abduction by Croatian militiamen. Something that was etched indelibly on my heart and mind. Even now, I find it difficult to think about what those men became, and did, during my short captivity. I once read somewhere, I think it was Dostoyevsky, about how a group of prisoners, having faced a mock firing squad, died of shock or went mad. That night I didn’t die of a bullet to the brain, or of trauma, but afterwards, I very nearly went mad.”

It may read like something from the latest Tom Clancy novel, or indeed an extract from the latest literary work by SAS man-turned author turned media celebrity Andy McNabb. In fact they are not the words of a soldier caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the words of the Sunday Herald’s foreign editor, David Pratt, writing about the night he almost lost his life doing the job that has taken up the last 20 years of his life.

Fortunately the closest most Sunday Herald readers get to situations such as the one above is through the eyes of international correspondents such as Pratt, who venture fearlessly, and fearfully, into the most inhospitable war zones to bring readers the real stories from the ground.

Pratt has been with the Sunday Herald almost since it launched around five years ago, but his career as a foreign correspondent has spanned more than two decades and during that time he has reported on and from just about every major conflict the planet has seen.

He says: “I had a very convoluted way in to journalism. I actually trained as a painter at Glasgow School of Art, but photography was always my first love. I was also passionate about politics as a student, so I suppose photo journalism seemed like a pretty good marriage for me. I have always produced words and pictures I have never worked singularly as a photographer or a writer.”

Pratt’s first foray into the dangerous world of international reporting came when he embarked on a trip to Nicaragua and El Salvador in Central America during 1979. It was during the Sandinista Revolution and Pratt planned to take photographs of these war ravaged countries and exhibit the results when he returned. However, during that trip he began being asked to provide words for newspapers and was “sucked into journalism” that way.

So, Pratt had found his niche in journalism, but it was ultimately one that would almost take his life during his time covering the conflict in Bosnia during the Nineties.

He says: “The kidnapping took place in a small village called Chickluk, near Mostar which was one of the bloodiest battles that went on between Croats and Bosnian Muslims. It was at a stage of the war when all sides were suspicious of the media and they had become fed up with the media. The whole country had broken down, basically into freelancers and gangsters. It gave the opportunity for people to partake in criminal acts.

“The pressure was on to get more access journalistically. So, I ended up getting involved with a group of Herzegovan Croat militia. I say militia, but they just turned out to be gangsters. Myself and a Bosnian Muslim journalist and his fixer, who were meant to be given access by these guys, found them turning on us and abducting us. They kept us for some time during which time the Bosnian Muslim journalist and the fixer were both shot. I was beaten up and then taken out and put through a mock execution, which subsequently nearly made me give it all up. It knocked me off the rails quite considerably.

“I was taken out in the middle of the night, tied up, made to kneel by a ditch and a pistol put to my head. The trigger was pulled and I still do not know whether it was simply some kind of perverse joke on their behalf or whether indeed they just made a mess of it. But anyway, I was knocked me unconscious and put me in the ditch. It took me some time to cut myself free on a fence and got away. We were held for a few days and during that time I was made to witness the deaths of the two other guys. They were shot in front of me. We were all beaten continuously, up until they were killed.”

Three years after this experience Pratt found himself at the helm of the Sunday Herald’s foreign desk. And he says that it is only the newspaper’s commitment to foreign coverage that has enabled him to continue to use his experience in the field to ensure that Scottish readers are not being short changed.

He says: “There are a number of papers who in the past have had fantastic reputations for their foreign coverage. But for whatever reason they have trimmed it back, which is strange because there is now more interest in foreign news now than there has ever been. Since 9-11 it has been amazing. It is incredible that as we are being affected by things such as the recent Madrid bombing, that foreign coverage in Scottish newspapers is being trimmed back. The reason for this are largely financial and logistical, but there are ways around those constraints. If you are committed to decent foreign coverage then you will find ways around budgetary constraints.

“I am a big fan of having your own person on the ground. There is no substitute for that. The wires are very good, things like Reuters, AP and FP, but the idea is not to compete with them. The idea is to try and look for something that is not just a straight wire story. Take a different sideways look at something and having a stringer on the ground can do that for you. If you sit and compare wire copy with your own person’s view on the ground then there is just no comparison.”

Shortly after his trip to Central America in 1979 David journeyed to Afghanistan for the first time to cover the Russian occupation. During that time he lived with guerrilla fighters, moving with them at night, sleeping in caves with them to really get under the skin of the country, its people and the issues it faced. It was the beginning of a love affair with what most Westerners think of as one of the most dangerous and evil countries in the world post 9-11.

David says: “Afghanistan is like nowhere else on Earth in the sense that while it has changed a little since 9-11 it is an absolutely inhospitable place. It’s like stepping back in time. Admittedly Kabul has seen a certain amount of modernity come along as a result of the allied occupation. By and large the country is physically beautiful – the mountains, deserts – but still very inhospitable. Most of it you can travel through and its like going back to the middle ages. It really is a cultural leap. It’s not like being in the Middle East where there are trappings of Western society. Then there is the fantastic hospitality. Afghan hospitality is absolutely phenomenal. Some of them can be very nasty, but on the whole they are very kind.”

So, with an international perspective on most things, where does David stand on international terrorism?

“Terrorism is with us and I can’t see it going away in the foreseeable future,” he says. “I am reluctant to get into the grand idea of a war of the worlds, the Western stroke Christian world against the Eastern stroke Islamic world, and any apocalyptic notions like that. The vast majority of Muslims are like everybody else on the planet – peace-loving and they abhor terrorism. Terrorism is the preserve of a twisted minority no matter where you go in the world. That said, the die has been cast. There are deep divisions within our society whether we like it or not, which have been exacerbated by terrorism.

“I am also very worried about the United States’ political vision of the world. The Sunday Herald’s Neil Mckay has written a lot about New Conservatism in America, the project for the new American century. There is a kind of pax-Americana. In a way 9-11 gave them an excuse and justification for something already planned, or rather some right wing think tanks were thinking about years prior to that.

“It’s a kind of pessimistic view I have of the world, but one which I think all the more reason why foreign coverage is crucial. I find it particularly important here in Scotland. I hate the idea of a Scottish press that is parochial. And the Sunday Herald has consistently tried not to go down that path. We would be short changing our readers and the Scottish people if we suggested that they had to get their foreign coverage from the broadsheets in London. We have our home grown journalistic talent and we have a take on the world as Scottish-based newspaper with an international perspective.”

While David now splits his time between the foreign editor’s desk and the field, he belives that the world is a more dangerous place today than ever before.

He says: “It’s more dangerous for journalists now because there are instances where they are clearly being targeted, there’s no question about that. A lot of that has to do again with the conflict between the Islamic world and the Western world. We, the journalists on the ground, are representatives of the Western media and so we are fair game as well. So many conflicts are civil conflicts now, insurrections that break down into anarchy and looting. I am more afraid frankly of the general anarchy you witness, such as when Kirkuk fell or Mosel. If you lift a camera to film a man crashing into a shop then they obviously do not like it because they are committing a criminal act. That in a sense is more dangerous and journalists are much more vulnerable. There are none of the conventional armies anymore, two sides, with, all be it, notional ideas of protocal with regards to the press. That does not exist any more.”

Having spent time in hot spots such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Cambodia, West Africa and more recently Haiti, which region puts the fear of god into him?

“There are certain parts of the world that terrify me more than others. Not so much the regimes, but the political or the geo-political climate that lends itself to real nastiness. West Africa always terrifies me. When I am in Sierra Lione and Liberia. That has a lot to do with the fact that they are civil conflicts, there’s a total break down in law and order, but also a lot of the combatants are very young in Africa. You’ve got kids as young as ten years old on drugs walking about with AK47s and none of the hang-ups their older counterparts might have, not that they usually do. But Africa, when it breaks down can be terrifying. Even in Afghanistan during its Russian occupation, you never saw the kind of civil break down that you see in Africa.”

At 46 Pratt acknowledges that his days of reporting from the field may be numbered. But he is considering a number of other projects. During his time in Haiti recently he not only covered the uprising for the Sunday Herald, but also sent television reports back for Scottish Television. He says it was a return to his days of documentary film-making and something that he intends to do of in the future.

He says: “The Sunday Herald’s foreign coverage has now reached an excellent level and that’s because there has been a commitment from on high to doing that. I am under enormous pressure by various people to write a book, I have been for 15 years. But I am not sure I want to write my journalistic memoirs. I would rather write a novel that incorporates my experiences rather than just write another ‘journalists tales from the frontline’ kind of thing. I would also like to do a number of in-depth film projects.

“I do regard myself as being very fortunate. I have been lucky physically no doubt about that, but I have made my own luck. I have simply stuck to my guns. There are too many young foreign correspondents that expect it just to be put in their lap. They are not prepared to take risks. I don’t mean physical risks, but the risk of running at a great financial loss for some time before making their mark. I suppose if I have any regrets from the last 20 years it is that I would perhaps have liked to have spent more time based in certain parts of the world. But there’s plenty of time yet.”

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