02 May An Old War Story
It was more than twenty years ago and I was standing near an impromptu checkpoint in northern Albania as the country erupted in chaos and anarchy around me. A few yards away was Ant, a fellow journalist and veteran war reporter I was working with that day.
As the gunmen at the checkpoint slowly interrogated the occupants of the vehicles in front of us we had taken the opportunity to nip off for a quiet roadside pee. We both stood looking out across the rolling fields of the south Balkans, as we emptied our bladders.
Suddenly from the direction of the checkpoint all hell broke lose. Somebody started shouting angrily. And then a long arcing burst of automatic fire shattered the afternoon calm.
It was early in my days as a foreign correspondent for a British newspaper but even I knew that the sensible thing to do – the only thing to do – was to hit the ground. But as I watched incredulously Ant just continued to urinate, apparently without a care in the world.
Then I heard a scrappy, little macho voice inside my head.
“If he doesn’t go down, you’re not going down either,” it said.
Today, knowing what I know now, I would be straight down on my face, regardless of what anyone else thought. I would live with the ribbing and the yellow-green stains. I have seen enough of what a 7.62mm bullet can do to know that it is not something to trifle with.
But back then my ego was still fragile as porcelain. And so, as the bullets swept through the warm afternoon air, I kept a poker voice, feigned bored indifference and finished what I was doing.
And then, to my complete chagrin, as I zipped up my flies and turned and headed back to the car, I realised that in my fright I had peed all over my trousers.
With time, Ant and I became close friends. During my ten years as a war correspondent, even though we were on the payroll of competing newspapers – I worked for the Telegraph and he worked for the Times – we sometimes covered stories together.
Once we spent nearly two months sharing a house on the frontlines in northern Iraq during the 2003 war. When things got rough we headed to the local arms dealer, bought ourselves a Kalashnikov and a pistol each, and spent an afternoon on the edge of town, him teaching me how to handle a weapon and shoot straight. (The photo above is of the two of us in Iraq during that assignment. I’m on the left. I’ll let you guess which of the other two is Ant.)
When the lines collapsed and Saddam’s forces began to flee we were among the first westerners into the northern city of Kirkuk, where we were greeted passionately by the city’s Kurds, who mistook us for American soldiers and slobbered kisses onto us.
And then, in 2005, I quit journalism. The relentless war, the bodies and the suffering had begun to play tricks with my mind. I had just met Kristin, a lady I wanted to spend my life with. We headed off to Canada, bought Wild Bear Lodge, and began to cobble together a wilderness life.
I stayed in touch with Ant throughout the years. Even as other friends and colleagues left the business or took mainstream jobs back at desks in London, he continued to cover wars – Afghanistan, Iraq and, notably, Syria, where he was kidnapped, shot and tortured but somehow survived.
Every few years Kristin and I would visit him and Harriet, his wife, and two daughters, where he now lives in Devon. And we would meet at the Frontline Club in west London, the spiritual home of many a serving and former war correspondent.
And then last month, after years of my nagging, Ant and his family finally came to the lodge to visit. For a week in early April we traipsed through the bush, slogged through the snow, sat around the campfire and, of course, looked for bears.
“Will I definitely see a bear?” he had asked when I first touted a trip to BC.
“Almost certainly,” I had replied with confidence.
But we were having a cold, late spring and, it seemed, most of our local bears had simply decided to hit the snooze buttons on their biological alarm clocks, roll over and go back to sleep. Breakfast wasn’t ready yet, they seemed to be saying, so why not have a lie-in.
We did see a large variety of songbirds, plenty of deer, and had a good viewing of a couple of elk. We saw bobcat tracks and cougar scrapes.
There was one moment of high excitement when, while out on the trails, we came across fresh grizzly bear footprints in the snow. Someone had clearly got up early. Then, a little further on, there was a place where the bear had rubbed himself on a tree. But the bear remained elusive.
Finally, on their last day, it was time to head back to the airport.
“I’m feeling lucky,” Ant said. “Perhaps we’ll see a bear on the drive out.”
But life is no fairy tale. Even though we nearly went crossed-eyed from looking, we didn’t see a bear. Two hours later I dropped Ant off at the local airport, we hugged our good-byes and I headed off to buy some much needed provisions in town.
And then, that very afternoon, even as I headed home, not five miles from our front door, there was a bear. A big, brown beast he just stood there looking at me.
“What took you so long?” he seemed to be saying.
I simply couldn’t believe it. I have seen a thousand bears in my time in the bush and, although I still get great pleasure from each new encounter, the appearance of this bear could not have been more annoyingly timed.
I cursed at the bear, who, jauntily made his way off into the bush.
Regardless of the bear deficit Ant and his family loved the place: the nature, the solitude, the birds, and the river. We ate well, gossiped about old friends, and had some memorable chats. And that was what mattered.
We’d both come through a lot since those early urine-stained days in Albania and it hadn’t all been easy sailing. Ant had kicked a drugs habit and I had worked my way through a decent dollop of mental trauma.
But we had both come out the other side, battered and scarred but still kicking. We both had understanding partners willing to put up with our occasional eccentricities. And we both had lives we loved and believed in.
As for the bears, Ant will have to wait. There will be another chance.