On assignment in Kosovo
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 The Serbian army had withdrawn but there were still troops at the airport.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