- Words by ITV News Senior Correspondent Paul Davies
There is an old saying: "You should never go back" and for more than a quarter of a century that is the way I thought of Dubrovnik.
My first assignment to that stunning walled city had been one of the high points of a long career, an adrenaline charged adventure with my team placing themselves alongside Dubrovnik's citizens on the receiving end of one of the most one sided conflicts of recent times.
It was 1991 and despite its status as a UNESCO heritage site, Dubrovnik was being bombarded from land, sea and air. Croatia had declared independence from the old Yugoslavia and the Serbian-dominated regime was taking revenge by laying siege to the ancient city which was such an important source of tourist income.
There were warships patrolling off the coast, planes dropping bombs while artillery fired in shells from surrounding high ground. Defending Dubrovnik was a small group of citizen soldiers. Most of those we met were hotel workers, tour guides and others who had left jobs in the tourism industry to oppose a well equipped army.
- The report, 'Diary of a Siege' was originally aired in 1991
For my ITN team - cameraman Nigel Thomson, producer Sandy McIntyre, field editor Fred Hickey and sound recordist Richard Berridge - informing the world of this unequal struggle soon felt like a personal battle with the besieging forces.
Initially we used the local TV station to send reports via satellite until successive days of targeted bombing destroyed its transmitter and mast. For several days we then sent the tapes containing our reports on speedboats that left Dubrovnik after nightfall and attempted to slip past the gunboats. That strategy ended when a speedboat was shot up and the skipper wounded.
By the time the unthinkable happened - a full assault on the old city - we were the only international television team there to witness it. Our most significant report, which included Nigel's shocking footage of wire guided missiles crashing into old Dubrovnik, was eventually smuggled out by three members of the team on a ferry boat requisitioned to evacuate women, children and neutrals during a brief ceasefire.
Nigel and I stayed on but the anticipated final assault never materialised.
Our pictures being broadcast around the world coincided with the besieging guns falling silent, for the most part anyway. Our Croatian hosts suggested the two events were linked. A nice thought as we too eventually left after a memorable month.
There wasn’t a lot of time to dwell on such things however. The war correspondents circus moved on and so did I: Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Chechnya, another Gulf War and Afghanistan. Along the way I decided to retire my flak jacket.
Over the subsequent years I have been reluctant to return to Dubrovnik, unwilling to spoil a special memory. It was enough that I remembered the people who helped keep us alive - some of whom did not survive to see the end of the siege.
It was to be 28 years before I went back after being asked to make a film about present day Dubrovnik for ITV’s On Assignment programme and almost immediately I discovered that my preconceived notion that time moves on, and any memory of our stay in 1991 had long since faded, couldn’t have been more wrong.
We had arranged to interview Dubrovnik's mayor, Mato Frankovic, about his controversial strategy of reducing the number of cruise ships to counter overcrowding in the old town. He asked if I could drop into the town hall for a pre-interview coffee and chat where we might be joined by a member of the local press. In fact, I walked into a room full of TV cameras and microphones and a full blown press conference in which the first question was: “How does it feel to be back in the city you helped to save?” The Mayor presented me with a special award as a Defender of Dubrovnik and that evening all three national TV channels and local programmes featured my return with long excerpts from the 1991 smuggled report, saying it had resulted in pressure from Washington and Moscow on then President Slobodan Milosovic to rein in his generals.
We were big news. My On Assignment team cameraman Dave Harman and producer Lucy Towers had to put up with Croatian TV crews following us around and everywhere people wanted to say 'thank you'. It became embarrassing. One elderly gentleman insisted on calling me “The Priest” saying that ITN had sent out the "daily gospel of truth" during those worst of times, independent eye witness accounts they came to trust and rely on as they were re-broadcast on local television.
It was a humbling experience with possibly the best moment coming when we visited a school to talk to sixth formers about the views of a new post-war generation. They told us they had been shown all our 1991 reports in their history lessons as the only trustworthy non-propaganda source of information from that time.
What a wonderful thing to hear and what a reaffirmation of the role of honest eyewitness journalism at a time when it has become increasingly difficult and dangerous to achieve.
- 'Diary of a Siege' received the highest gold award at the Monte Carlo Television Festival in 1992. It won Nigel Thomson the Royal Television Society Cameraman of the Year and contributed to both Paul Davies and Nigel Thomson being awarded OBEs for services to broadcast journalism.
- The report and other work from the ITN team was later key evidence in the war crimes trials of two generals from the Yugoslav National Army and the trial of former President Slobodan Milosovic at the Hague.