Farewell Tom, a nice guy on the front line
We salute Tom Walker, the Sunday Times foreign correspondent who died from cancer last week aged 44
In all that was the madness of the Balkans in the mid to late 1990s, there was no better companion to help steer you through the demented chaos than Tom Walker. As we covered the final death throes of Yugoslavia and the anarchy that gripped Albania, Tom’s calm and sunny disposition smoothed our way through checkpoints at gunpoint, torched villages and ethnic cleansing.
War correspondents always have different ways of dealing with stress – not unlike movie stars and top athletes, I suppose – but with Tom as your soul mate, sanity and survival were assured by his laughter and unfailing good humour.
There was no callousness in the hilarity, however. Tom was an extremely sensitive man, a gentle giant who always felt for the people caught up in the turmoil and drama of those times. His sense of a story was invariably how earth-shaking historic events touch on individuals and their ordinary lives and, in the Balkans, usually their losses.
One evening in the Belgrade winter of discontent during 1996-97 he came back to the office we shared, not just with another insight into the mass but flagging street efforts to unseat Slobodan Milosevic, but with the acquaintance of a young student protester, Milena, with whom he was soon deeply in love and proposing marriage.
Tom’s rapid and emotional absorption into his new and heart-welcoming Serbian family was sorely tested by the atrocities we witnessed by Serbs against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. In the capital Pristina we “stringers” (not many media outlets then kept full-time correspondents covering the conflict) shared a second home together with Dutchman Harald Doornbos and the Belgian Philippe Deprez.
Across the street lived a Serb Orthodox priest whose son would occasionally take pot shots at us with a small rifle as we aimed our satellite dishes in his direction.
A normal day would begin simply by jumping into someone’s armoured Land Rover and driving off in search of a story. One memorable day found us, along with John Devitt of the BBC, deep in the heart of Kosovo, where we saw smoke streaming from valleys and villages in a key offensive against the Kosovo Liberation Army. Caught by surprised Serb paramilitaries, who were blackened by the smoke of the farms they were torching, we wondered whether we would ever get back to write the story.
Eventually we were told to get out fast. But Devitt, who was driving, cooly tapped on the windscreen and signalled to one genocidal-looking goon to adjust the wing mirror so he could make the tight three-point turn. I was screaming to get out, especially when Devitt did it a second time, but the gun-laden brute politely obliged.
Tom remained calm throughout and we laughed all the way home, stopping only to listen to the BBC Saturday football results as we did every weekend, sometimes taking cover in hedgerows. Tom, like two generations of Walkers before him, was a passionate supporter of Bolton, despite growing up in a south Wales village. (He also followed the family tradition of driving Volvos and was surely the first war correspondent to go through front lines in an eye-catching 480 coupé with pop-up headlights that impressed the goons.)
Tom had the knack of disarming people and persuading them to talk, even in the most difficult of circumstances. In Tirana, the capital of Albania, we interviewed Leka Zog, the pretender to the throne, armed with ivory-handled pistols, shortly before he marched his supporters down the Boulevard of Martyrs into a gun battle with security forces.
In a typically zany Balkan scene, plump election monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe carried on with their slow laps of the hotel pool as Albanians – and Tom – dived for cover nearby.
In all this, Tom worked and shared with other reporters, even his competitors. He never had that cutthroat instinct and it was no real surprise to discover he had once been an aid worker, hired by Médecins Sans Fron-tières to organise supplies to Rwandan refugees.
While covering Bosnia’s attempts to hold postwar elections, and Montenegro’s efforts to get independence from Serbia, Tom and the rest of us hit on the fun idea of opening a bar in Pristina. We called it Tricky Dicks (apparently after US negotiator Richard Holbrooke rather than Nixon) and decorated the walls with cartoons of Balkan leaders by Belgrade’s best satirist. Tom’s great sense for a story was matched by his hopeless efforts at making money.
Things didn’t get off to a great start when we invited the top international diplomat William Walker for a free pint, and someone tried to take a pot shot at him as he left. A few months later Nato started bombing (amazingly Tricky Dicks survived – did Tom give the coordinates to Walker?) but by then we were back in Belgrade, where Tom, Milena and I watched that first night as cruise missiles skimmed the hills from the vantage point of my home in Senjak, not far from the soon to be hit Milosevic residence.
Just as Tom had brought balance to his coverage of Kosovo, now we were reporting on Serbs under attack from Nato. One trip took us to Aleksinac, where Nato jets had destroyed a couple of streets by mistake, killing many civilians. We were nearly lynched by an angry crowd and had to do a runner, just as one of our French colleagues was obsessing about trying to buy his croissant. Tom’s knowledge of the language helped us out again.
We were later pilloried by Tony Blair’s spin supremo Alastair Campbell, who effectively accused us and other western reporters in Belgrade of helping the enemy Serbia. Milosevic had us expelled anyway. Milena and Tom moved to London, where he eventually joined The Sunday Times.
In late 2002 Tom met me in Iran, after a tip-off that one of Osama Bin Laden’s wives had taken refuge there after the fall of Afghanistan. In a little adventure that smacked of the old Balkan days, we drove to Hamedan and tried, as casually as possible, to ask bemused Iranians whether they had seen Mrs Bin Laden. They hadn’t, but our search did lead us to discover that one or more of his sons had indeed passed through Iran.
It was during that trip that I noticed Tom seemed to have a swelling at the base of his throat. Returning to London, he found it was cancer and there started his long last struggle. But till the end, he radiated the warmth we knew so well, Milena always at his side.
Tom Walker, assistant foreign editor of The Sunday Times, died last week aged 44. After Shrewsbury school and Newcastle University, he worked first for BBC radio and then for The Times in Brussels before the Rwandan genocide of 1994 convinced him to become an aid worker. He arrived in the Balkans as the European commission’s spokesman in Sarajevo but soon returned to journalism