Drinking Holes From Hell
Having passed most of the Bosnian war in a blur of Jack Daniels and slivovitz, I can confirm that some things in life - performing a three point turn in the middle of a minefield, speeding down Sarajevo¹s sniper alley - are best done with a drink close at hand. But at least journalists and soldiers are on the same wavelength: the young, male and stupid wavelength, that is. No front line trench in Bosnia was complete without its own drinks cabinet. And no front line tour was complete, alas, without an enforced swig of home-made plum brandy. If you managed to avoid Uncle Slobodan's finest, then there was always a Hungarian digestif called Unicum.
Imagine downing a glass of Night Nurse laced with creosote and you'll get the general idea. Whenever we pulled faces, our hosts would swear that Unicum was a "medicinal" drink in the Balkans. No one made clear whether you took it before or after being admitted to hospital.
When the trenches ran dry, there was always the hotel bar. There's something about the mythology of modern wars which dictates that journalists have to colonise some dive or another: the kind of place where secrets are shared and love blossoms (etc, etc) under shellfire.
In Beirut, reporters tended to slum it at the Commodore hotel. In Sarajevo, we all congregated at the Holiday Inn: a Seventies breeze block in yellow and brown, like a bruised banana.
Far from being a refuge from shells and snipers, the Holiday Inn was often their intended target. The first shots of the war in April 1992 were fired from the hotel roof, when rebel Serbs took aim at the peaceful demonstrators down below. The gunmen were always there.
One night we decided to film from the top floor, in search of the shells which rose and fell, like medieval spears, over the ruined city. Nothing happened for several minutes; we were clearly wasting our time. And then I noticed a fierce red dot, the size of a penny piece, dancing and jigging along the back wall. Somewhat bemused, I turned to the cameraman. "Look at that," I said, as if this was an afternoon laser show at the London Planetarium. He looked and then moved very quickly. "That's the night sight of a sniper rifle," he said sharply. "Time we got out of here."
After moments like that, we needed a drink. We needed several drinks, and the Holiday Inn was always happy to oblige. One of the mysteries of the war in Sarajevo - and a rather disturbing one given the state of siege around us - was how the hotel managed to keep its guests fed and watered. Bottles of Montenegrin wine and Serbian beer would regularly appear on the dining tables. Niksic, a rough edged beer from southern Serbia was a particular favourite, at least when compared with some of the other curiosities on offer.
Once a week there was even a special buffet: waiters would don olive green jackets and black bow ties as if the war had never happened. These evenings always had a desperate, melancholy edge to them: they were a reminder of what had been lost. We all knew that while Sarajevans starved, our food and drink was smuggled in at grotesque expense.
Bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label, a particular Balkan favourite, and Beefeater Gin would pass between darkened tables. For a while, one could forget. At least until the hotel windows shook and rattled with the latest mortar blast.
Camaraderie plays its part at such moments. But there's competition too. The ideal wartime bar commands a view of the hotel reception area: that way, one keeps an eye on the opposition and another on your glass of molten raki. The Holiday Inn's ground floor bar - a drab cafe style number under a tattered, dusty canopy - was part Rick's Bar, part Animal House.
Now and then a group of French journalists organised abseiling contests from the hotel ceiling, eight storeys up. If you got bored with that, then there was always the agency sweepstake: freelance photographers took dollar bets on the number of mortar rounds hitting the city in any given minute. The only threat to this languid routine was the sight of the then BBC reporter Martin Bell, scuttling around in his lucky white suit. That was often a sure sign that something was happening, or was about to happen.
Of course, we weren't the only ones who treated the Bosnian conflict as a late night lock in. Most of the soldiers thought the same way too. If you want to know what the war was really like then think of that horrible moment, around 11.30 on a Friday night, when thousands of hollering, glassy-eyed young men are hurled out of Britain's pubs and bars, aching for a fight. Then imagine giving all these testosterone - fuelled fools a Kalashnikov and a few hand grenades to round off their evening. You get the picture. Bosnians were trapped in that psychotic, little boy's world for almost four years.
I've got happier memories too. We wasted so much time in clubs and bars that one of my colleagues suggested we write a book together called Nightclubs of Yugoslavia. If we ever get round to this delightful task, then pride of place will go to the Hollywood Bar in Bihac, Northern Bosnia.
Like Sarajevo, Bihac was surrounded by artillery guns and its inhabitants were shelled relentlessly. When the bombs got really bad, people headed for the Hollywood Bar. We wondered whether that was wise, all things considered. Surely people were better off hiding in their cellars? "Sure," said our interpreter, a local student. "But the louder the shells, the louder the music." Even in the middle of a war, people demand their democratic right to have a good time. And we'd all drink to that.
Peter Morgan is a reporter for ITN's Channel Four News. His account of life in wartime Serbia, A Barrel of Stones, was published in 1997.
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