Written on: 11. 1. 2012 in the category: Featured

Remembering Paul Douglas

This is a column i wrote six years ago, in June 2006, and I just came
across it by chance; it is about one of the best men I have ever
known: I share it with you now

True greatness is not measured in the plaques or institutes which bear one’s
name, but in the imperishable residue one leaves on the minds and souls of
relative strangers. Fourteen year ago, I went to report on the siege of
Sarajevo. My solitary journey in a little Fiat, with no maps, over logging
roads through forest-minefields was dreadful; but far far worse, was getting
into the city itself, through the front lines, occasionally under direct
fire. As I sped into the city a US camera-crew in their car gestured for me
to follow them towards our common destination, the underground car park of
The Holiday inn, and I did, at terrifying speed.

There were some desultory shots at me as I skidded down the tight descending
loop into the car park, but then I was safe. I sat for a while, swearing
Never Again, before leaving my car, trembling, and walking slowly up the
internal stairs to the hotel lobby. A muscular, radiantly handsome man in a
tee-shirt, standing there smiled at me in greeting. He looked American.

“You certainly got a warm welcome there,” he said drily. Ah. English, not
American. “It can get warmer. Wherever you’ve been before, this is worse.
Believe me, this is worse.” He stuck out a hand. “Hi,” he said, “Paul
Douglas.”

I introduced myself, and he looked directly at me. “Be very careful here, Mr
Irishman,” he said. “Be very very careful. Here let me show you the ropes.”
He escorted me to reception, where at length I was offered a room, but when
he heard its number, Paul tried to get me another one. “There’s nothing else
available,” said the receptionist. “That’s it.”

So, despite Paul’s best efforts, I got the battle-side of the hotel. In the
room above mine lay the corpse of a Bosnian sniper which no-one had been
able – or felt inclined – to retrieve. The plate-glass window in my room had
been shattered by shellfire and the curtains had been simply nailed shut,
which meant I could hear everything from outside. My first night, I listened
to the sounds of a trench-raid between Bosnian and Serbian forces a few
hundred yards away, done without gunfire. When you listen to the final
demented howls of men whose ribcages are being broken open with cold,
kinetic steel, you think things.

In the lobby next morning, shattered, I met Paul. “You hear that stuff last
night?” I nodded. “Don’t dwell on it,” he said calmly. “Put it out of your
mind.” His eyes were steady and wise. I just knew that all that I knew, he
knew tenfold. His own job then was as sound-man to an ABC camera-crew: in
other words, a prime target, but he never complained. Away from the
fighting, his face always bore an easy smile, part of his room-filling
charisma. He was, moreover, as I saw daily, a quiet hero who made it his
business to help vulnerable strangers, as he had helped me. After a week,
and with relief, I fled the city. Paul stayed.

A year later, I broke my oath, shakenly taken in the underground car-park,
and returned to Sarajevo, but this time by plane, and with body-armour and a
helmet. Seventy journalists/cameramen had meanwhile been killed, and when I
arrived by personnel-carrier at the hotel, one of the first people I saw was
Paul Douglas. He too was now armoured-up, but I couldn’t mistake him because
he was the only black man there. I walked over and began to re-introduce
myself, he laughed: “Don’t be stupid, Kevin, I remember you.”

It wasn’t a compliment. Paul simply remembered everyone, just as everyone
remembered him, not just because his race made him relatively distinctive,
but because he radiated a quite mesmerising inner calm. We all knew –
intuitively – that he would never abandon a colleague, that he would always
be the last man standing, the guard who guarded the rearguard. I was never
with him in action, but those who were said he was quite magnificently
brave: cheerful, unflinching, comradely, and soldierly in the very best
sense.

Each morning, I would see him and his unit in the car-park, his face steely
and resolute, his dark eyes darkening, while they psyched themselves up for
what followed next: roaring out in their armoured car and erupting from the
tunnel at full speed to brave the good-morning volleys of Serb gunfire. At
the end of my second trip in Sarajevo, we said goodbye, with the promise of
a pint in the distant peace of some cosy London pub.

We never had that pint, and we won’t now. Last Monday week, Paul Douglas was
killed by a roadside bomb as he filmed in Baghdad. He had advised me when I
needed advice, guarded me when I needed guardianship, and guided me when I
needed guiding. And more than that. Briefly, in the middle of some dismal
Balkan war, for the first and perhaps only time in my life, he gave me the
privilege of knowing a true English gentleman. Paul, my friend and my
protector in battle, now rest in peace.