I'm Invincible, Nothing's Going to Affect Me

I've always been a slightly nervous person. I laugh a lot and cry a lot, and I wear my heart on my sleeve. But, I have never had a problem. I got the occasional dizzy spell from being completely hyper, but nothing else; I just lived my life and it was fine.

I've always been a slightly nervous person. I laugh a lot and cry a lot, and I wear my heart on my sleeve. But, I have never had a problem. I got the occasional dizzy spell from being completely hyper, but nothing else; I just lived my life and it was fine.

Then, when I got a job with an independent media agency, I suddenly realised there was this whole new world out there which I wanted to be part of. I think I wanted to test myself; to test my courage

I was sent to Romania to do a piece about a new British charity that was setting up an orphanage for children who had been abandoned. But when it didn't work out, I did a piece about children with AIDS. Blue Peter used it, and from there my career really took off.

The first time I saw any kind of war was when I went to Baghdad, just after the Gulf War. I'd been given two days training with a Beta camera, and was sent to Baghdad for a month. That went comparatively well. In fact, there was only one bad experience.

It was a huge demonstration, organised by the secret police as usual, involving hundreds of people. Someone set fire to himself right next to me - deliberately, so I could film it. All I heard was "Allah Akbah", and, when I turned round this guy was completely in flames. I filmed it, square on. The police then grabbed him and threw him into a truck. He died later.

The agency was delighted because the pictures were used all over the world. I was delighted too, and I didn't feel stressed. Okay, it was shocking, but I was perfectly all right about it.

After that, all the doors just opened for me. I ended up running the Sarajevo Agency Pool for a month, which was the first time I'd ever been to a proper combat zone. Between 1992-1997 I worked there on many occasions, going in for a month at a time. It was always an intense experience because of being so close to the story.

When I first went, I was really, really scared. I think anyone would be. But, once you are there, there is no kind of escape. You just get on with it, and it was a huge learning process, because I insisted on getting right to the action. I didn't want to stay in the office all the time, and just sneak down sniper alley to the hotel at night. That wasn't journalism to me.

After a while you get used to all the violence. The first time I became involved was when a group of people, who were looking for water at a standpipe, were hit by a mortar. Seven people died - four children and three adults. We got there seconds after it happened.

I had never seen anything like that happen before; I'd never seen a baby with no head - you know, just, pouf! But again, I got on with filming it. Yes, it was horrid, but it didn't really affect me. I talked to everyone about it afterwards, and of course, we drank a lot.

It went on like that for about two years; first Sarajevo, then Chechnya. In the worst part of the war, it is said that one thousand eight hundred shells a day fell in Sarajevo. And, in Chechnya, at the start of the war, one thousand eight hundred shells an hour fell on Grozny. It was completely and utterly destroyed.

I actually saw people crushed by tanks. It wasn't frightening because it was just like a cartoon. It was plainly a person, but completely flattened, with a bit of flat brain. And, you just think, 'Shit!' But, you just get on with it, and you don't think about it. I now understand that all these experiences had begun to mount up, but I didn't realise it.

Things started to go wrong when I was in Croatia. The Croatians were finally pushing the Serbs out of southern Bosnia, and were burning all their houses to get them out. This was exactly what the Serbs had done to the Croatians several years before, so it was violent revenge really.

By this time, I had moved agencies because of a job offer, and, I had built up a reputation of going to really crappy places. I never did anything nice. It was always, 'Oh, we'll send Rob, he'll go'. But, this time it was so dangerous that no one was willing to go with me. In the end I went in with a South African cameraman.

Two Russian UN peacekeeping monitors took us to an area where these houses were being set on fire. We began to film them when we spotted a really big blaze at the top of a hill. So, we drove up to it. It's a terrible thing to say but I thought, 'Great! What great pictures!' Then, I looked through the window and saw a woman tied to a chair. It was an older Serbian woman, all in black, screaming.

I said to the cameraman, 'We've got to try and get her out'. He agreed, so we put the camera down, and just as we were about to get in through the window, these five guys came round the corner; all Croatian irregulars. They had mohican haircuts, gold jewellery, and all were carrying Kalashnikovs.

My instant thought was, 'Oh, shit! This is really bad'. But, I also thought we'd be okay because we were accompanied by the UN monitors, and it wouldn't look good for them to go missing.

The Croatians marched us to a house, and kept us there for about eight hours. For three hours their gun was pointing right to my head. My thoughts were, 'I wonder what it's like to die, I wonder if it's quick'. And I hoped that it would be because I didn't want to suffer.

I also realised that the Russian monitors were really, really scared. And, that's when I got scared. I thought, 'If they're worried, then so am I'. By this time everyone was worried sick about me at home. I'd disappeared, basically; even my office was concerned. But, luckily for us, a rather roguish Croatian Commander arrived.

He asked, 'Do you want a drink?' I said, 'Yeah, give me something'. There was a bottle of Glenfiddich on the side and I said, 'Well, I'll have some of that'. So, he poured it out. It was white liquid, so, I said, 'That's not Glenfiddich, it's one of your local rubbish brews, isn't it?' He replied, 'Oh! You don't like our brew'? That was how I was able to connect with him a little bit.

And, from there, it was all right because he told me he had been in the merchant navy, and used to go to Liverpool a lot. When I told him that was were I was from, we formed an closer rapport.

In the end, they drove us to a local police station. Then, just as an act of bravado, he picked up a puppy that was in the corner and shot it through the head, as if to say, 'Next time you come, that's what we'll do to you. Bye, bye'.

I drove back to Split, and rang the office. Their response was 'Oh, thank God you're okay! By the way, Dubrovnik's being shelled; you've got to get down there'. So, that was about it. That was their sympathy level.

A little while later, I was on a plane flying from Zagreb to Split because I was going on leave for a week. And, just as the plane was about to take off, I suddenly felt scared.

My heart started to beat like it wasn't going to stop; I couldn't breathe and I thought I was going to die of a heart attack. All I wanted to do was get off.

Luckily, it was only a half-hour flight, but I drank about three whiskies, and my legs, when we landed, were completely solid; I could hardly walk off the plane.

When I got back to the UK, I went to see the agency doctor who said it was probably a bit of stress. I thought, 'well yes, it probably is'. So, I had a couple of weeks off, and felt a lot better.

But, when I went back to work I kept waking up in the morning, shaking. I was literally like this for about fifteen minutes until I calmed down. No bad dreams, but I was shaking all the time. And, I wasn't the normal happy and bouncing Rob. I wasn't the same person.

I was then sent to Albania just as the war was kicking off. It was just like the Wild West. I was particularly concerned about a Croatia crew in Vlore, so I went there to see for myself what was going in. The crew were extremely frightened, and considering they were all Croatian war veterans, I knew that this was very bad. In fact, at one point, a cameraman and myself ended up having to crawl on the floor of our hotel because bullets were flying above our heads.

When I told the agency that I wanted to get the crew out they said, 'We're not going to stand in your way, but can you please stay one more day?' I didn't think that was very helpful, especially as there was a real problem of how to get them out anyway. We ended up asking the Italians to help us. They actually sent in their Commandos to get us, and I believe this saved our lives.

I then got a call from my boss who said, 'what the f..k are you doing letting these people out? We could have got exclusives for weeks on there. You must be mad! How dare you do this without referring to me?'

I knew my time at this agency was drawing to a close after that.

From Albania I went straight to Zaire, and did all the cholera stuff. It was just unbelievable; there was so much death, and a constant stink of rotting flesh everywhere you went.

There were huge pits into which they flung bodies. The Red Cross had hired local workers, and they were stepping on the bodies trying to find if there was any money in their pockets before they buried them. The locals were walking in flip-flops over these rotting, cholera-infected corpses. One guy cut his foot on something, and picked up a bit of shroud from one of the corpses and wiped his foot! You know, you watched it and think, 'I can't believe this, it's completely surreal'.

We found a crack in a rock where someone had stuffed their dead baby. People had also hung themselves, and there had been revenge killings before they fled. So, when you opened the tents they lived in, there would be people, hands tied behind their backs with machete wounds.

All this stuff sinks in, but to be honest, even then I didn't really associate it. I thought I was working too much. I didn't have any dreams; there was no terror in the night. But now, having spoken to people, I guess I was severely affected.

Anyway, after six years of doing this kind of work, I started shaking. So, I asked my agency if I could work in London for a bit. I've never asked for anything before. Their reply was, 'Yes, you can work in London but we're going to pay you £15,000 per year less than we do now'.

It put me in a terrible position. I was stressed anyway, and now I was afraid I would lose my job, or not have enough money to pay the mortgage. That's when I got worse and worse. The panic attacks started happening more regularly, so, dealing with everyday life became very frightening. The attacks manifested as pains in my chest, and dizziness in every kind of situation, even if I was just visiting my parents.

The panic attacks were always associated with being locked in somewhere. Meetings therefore became really difficult when the door closed. I couldn't breathe sometimes, but I didn't tell anyone. And, if I got stuck in traffic on the motorway it became blind panic because I couldn't get out.

There were bad days, and not so bad days - but there was never a day when I didn't feel stressed in some way. By the time I joined the BBC, it got so bad that I had a little flask of whisky in my bag as a kind of brace in case of emergency. I'd go to the toilet and have a little tot to feel better. I put up with it, because I afraid of losing my job. I just assumed my boss' reaction would be the same as my previous agency.

It was made worse when I was doing The World Duty Editor's job, because I had to look at some awful pictures coming in - some of them were of places I knew. My reactions would be, 'My God, I used to get my kebabs from there, it could have been me'. I had to go out of the room, and come back later. It was particularly devastating because I was so afraid of the panic that I stopped myself from doing jobs I was capable of. I was also terrified of people seeing me like this. Everyone knows me as nice Rob who constantly chats and laughs - which I do - but I carried this secret fear all the time. The thing I hate most of all is that people will think I'm a nervous wreck.

All this has really made me question myself, and the effect this job has had on me. The first thing you think when you first go to these places is, 'I'm invincible; nothing's going to affect me. People die by being in a bad place at the wrong time - and it won't be me'.

But, after seeing those things, I now think how cheap and easy it is to die. That thought lives with me constantly. For instance, I walk into a bar wondering if someone's put a bomb in there.

I spend the whole time thinking when will something explode? Will something happen? I've been standing at the BBC windows and thought, 'Will someone shoot me from the flats over there'? I don't know why. I mean, why would they? But, one minute you could be there, and the next, gone.

About four months ago, I gave up trying to deal with this on my own anymore. I went to the doctor who gave me some pills, which have helped enormously. I also have a very steady job, with regular hours, and, I have spoken to people about what's going on for me. So, I feel much more supported, which has helped me to calm down to some extent.

But, to be perfectly honest my choice now would be to give up journalism. When you've sandwiched a twenty-five-year career into ten years, you feel as if you've done it. There's nothing left to do. Nothing excites me any more.

I watch the kids at work, twenty-five-year-olds, and they're all desperate to go off. 'Cor, it must be fantastic', and, 'we wish we'd had your life'. And, I think, 'Well, don't do it because you might end up like me'.