On as­sign­ment in Kosovo

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Content -

I’D NEVER BEEN in a mine­field be­fore and had just one in­struc­tion: ‘Do not cross the red tape.’ Twice, with­out think­ing, I lifted up the tape to go un­der, and twice peo­ple screamed at me. Vaughan, my fu­ture hus­band, was the cam­era­man on the doc­u­men­tary we were film­ing for BBC Two, but he was an ex-soldier so had all the train­ing. I had none.

I started work­ing as a fixer by ac­ci­dent. I was a 19-year-old ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dent liv­ing with my par­ents in Pristina, the cap­i­tal of Kosovo, when the Nato bomb­ing started. On 12 June 1999, Nato ground troops rolled in, and with them came the me­dia. My mum and I were among the first peo­ple on the streets and, be­cause I spoke English, I ended up trans­lat­ing for the jour­nal­ists.

My first as­sign­ment was ter­ri­fy­ing. The Ser­bian army had with­drawn but there were still troops at the air­port. I had to ask them why they were there. I sus­pected they would hit us, so tried to make my ques­tions sound nice. They didn’t, and it was fine.

As a fixer, you have to know ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one, from politi­cians to late-night bars. A crew flies in for a week, and they are un­der pres­sure to get a story. They get up early, and work long days, so you have to keep them mo­ti­vated.

I found the work end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing – there was such a mix of per­son­al­i­ties and ex­pe­ri­ence. Kosovo wasn’t a very touristy place and I hadn’t trav­elled much as a child, so it sud­denly felt like the whole world had landed on our doorstep – hun­dreds of NGOS, sol­diers, UN staff, and jour­nal­ists from all over.

As the restau­rants were closed, we mostly ate on army bases. For lunch, you wanted to be with the Ital­ians, who served pasta, lots of fresh veg­eta­bles, sal­ads and espresso. And for din­ner, you were ideally with the Gurkhas, who served cur­ries and were great fun. I had my first ever curry in a Gurkha mess tent. The Dutch and Ger­mans were friendly but more for­mal, while the Bri­tish were al­ways very help­ful, but their food was no good. Think full English break­fast crossed with school din­ner.

As a fixer, I was paid in cash and earned in a day what my dad earned in a month; I don’t think the rates have gone up since. In this pic­ture, I was work­ing on a doc­u­men­tary about an air­ship owned by Richard Bran­son that used radars to lo­cate land­mines. I had tired of cov­er­ing the daily news by this point. The Ser­bian army were gone, Al­ba­ni­ans were com­ing back, and they were at­tack­ing Ser­bian civil­ians, who had no one to pro­tect them. It made me sad; I’d hoped we’d got over that sort of thing. A few months later, I left Kosovo for Lon­don. Vaughan and I got mar­ried and, in­spired by our shared ex­pe­ri­ence in Kosovo, we set up the Frontline Club.

Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the war in Kosovo – liv­ing with the daily fear and prox­im­ity to death – has changed how I look at the world to­day. If it’s grey and rain­ing when I wake up, I still think it’s a beau­ti­ful day, be­cause it’s a day.

We re­cently started a fund to sup­port fix­ers. When you hear a story of a jour­nal­ist be­ing killed in the news, there’s of­ten a fixer in­volved too. — In­ter­view by Jes­sica Hatcher front­lineclub.com

The Bri­tish were al­ways very help­ful, but their food was no good. Think full English break­fast crossed with school din­ner

Pran­vera Smith, left, on a clear path through a mine­field in Kosovo, 2000

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