In June 1999 I had travelled west to the city for my usual break. I wanted to see my friends who always had some sort of news about this, that and the other. However on this occasion my usual hosts had gone on holiday and I therefore had no choice but to register at one of the local hotels. After having journeyed seven hours on my motorcycle through the winding mountain roads, I was looking forward to a well-earned wash, dinner and a good sleep.
During dinner I had noticed another westerner. As is customary, after eating we greeted each other and settled down for a relaxing drink and a chat. He introduced himself as a foreign correspondent for a high profile newspaper in
‘My friend, people have the right to know the truth about what is going on and I need your help to tell them.’ I was intrigued.
I knew that historically there were some serious issues of international concern in the region but having no real communications and not having heard anything of consequence in relation to local events, I thought that I had nothing to tell. Being a stranger, anything of a political nature was never discussed by the locals in my presence and indeed I avoided it like the plague as it was usually a sensitive issue.
The conversation continued with him asking me if I had noticed anything unusual in the past month. Now this did ring a bell but I had never pulled the threads together to complete the picture. There had been more military movements than usual, especially of trucks with what looked like ammunition boxes in the back but interestingly, no extra troops. Also there were now police being posted at the local public communications building and what was also a little extraordinary was that my faxes suddenly had to be sent twice, despite the fact that I knew by the sound that they had already been transmitted.
One night when I was sitting in a local restaurant a group of about ten soldiers jumped out of an unmarked local truck and not of the military variety. It struck me that on that night they looked more like militia but what had given them away was the manner in which they treated their weapons. These were laid down in a well- ordered fashion. They also had a very military presence about them, they were disciplined and were too clean-cut for to be militia. To compound matters after they had gone, the person who owned the establishment informed me that they had taken a photo of me when I was not looking. I had thought this unremarkable at the time because people in this region just love to take photographs and be photographed.
Something else which struck me as peculiar at the time was once, when I was up a mango tree in my garden, I had a view into the back of a high-sided military truck that happened by pure chance to be passing. On that occasion I noticed that there were a lot of people in the back and unusually for the region they were all in a seated position. It was normal practice for them to stand up and look around them. A well-armed soldier was the only person upright in the back on this particular day. Furthermore they were dressed in the traditional clothes which are only found in the smaller villages in the mountains.
The journalist then asked if I had noticed any military training areas. I had not, I answered. However, when he suggested two possible locations in the mountains to the south that I had passed by recently, I recalled that they had been newly cordoned-off with signs that made it abundantly clear to travellers to stay out.
With an increasingly stern face he went on to explain that there had been rumours of the military supplying weapons to the militia across the border and indeed that training camps had been set up to get pro-nationalist fighters ready for the forthcoming referendum. There was also information that troops were dressing up like militia, crossing the border, committing atrocities and snatching people who were known to be pro-independence supporters. When I mentioned to him about the possible double-sending of my faxes, he said,
‘My friend, one is going to where you want it to go; but the other is probably going to military intelligence.’
Ripples were rising from the undercurrent and clearly what I had witnessed was proof of the reports that he had come to investigate. Now he wanted to print this back in the
If this paper was printed with my story in it and my name attached then there could be serious consequences for me. Nonetheless, in true Fleet Street manner, ‘the story had to be told’, so I agreed to having it printed but without my name. The words, ‘print and be damned’ took on a whole new meaning.