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Friday, December 4, 1998 Published at 17:00 GMT

Allan Little

Allan Little talked to Newstalk on Sunday 3 May.

Read your questions and his answers on the Russian mafia and how he coped with the horrors of war in Africa and Yugoslavia.


The name of BBC correspondent Allan Little is firmly associated with two regions: Africa and the former Yugoslavia, both of which he covered for many years. Since early this year he has been the BBC's correspondent in Moscow.

A trademark report focussing on the human casualties of the war in former Yugoslavia
I've worked for the BBC for 15 years, since joining BBC Scotland in Glasgow as a television news researcher in 1983, straight after university in Edinburgh.

I trained as a radio reporter in local radio in London and worked for a couple of years in Southampton and Portsmouth before going to Radio 4's Today programme. It was at Today that I started getting involved with foreign news, covering the eastern European revolutions of 1989.

I will never forget standing in a freezing but beautiful Wenceslas Square with 400,000 Czechoslovaks gasping in disbelief and choking with emotion as they realised that the frail old man who was about to address them was Alexander Dubcek, the leader who had been deposed by the Soviet invasion 21 years earlier and who hadn't been seen in public since.

By the time he'd finished speaking most of the people in the square were in tears as they sang their national anthem, which seemed at that moment to be a sweet and haunting evocation of the sadness and tragedy of so much of Czechoslovakia's recent history.

Gulf War

In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait and I went for the first time to the Middle East. I covered the build up to the Gulf War and then, in 1991, the war itself for BBC radio, from Baghdad.

The BBC's Alison Rooper introduces Alan Little reporting from a bunker in Baghdad
Being on the Iraqi side, I missed out on the video-game imagery that so many people in the west associate with that war - I simply didn't see any of that footage until long after. My own view was very much from beneath the rockets.

With my colleague, and fellow correspondent Jeremy Bowen, I made the long and terrifying drive across the desert from Jordan and inadvertantly drove right though an allied air raid on a town in the west of Iraq, as an oil silo on our right hand side erupted in flames after being hit from the air.

The sinister atmosphere of the Al Rashid hotel in Baghdad was waiting for us with its three quarter inch thick bomb and bullet proof windows, through which we watched, each night, as the allied aircraft returned again and again to strike at the same targets, over and over, in the city that was spread beneath our feet, the light from the burning buildings casting flickering orange light through the deserted streets.

On our first night we had three air raids - dusk, midnight and dawn. I had never heard such thunderous noise, or witnessed such an impressive mustering of brute force.

In the morning I switched on the BBC World Service to hear one of my oldest and closest friends in the business - a fellow reporter based then in Saudi Arabia - interviewing British pilots and asking them how it had gone! (Wait till I see you next time, I thought, I'll give you a very clear impression of exactly how it went...)

[ image: Wreckage at Al-Amariyah]
Wreckage at Al-Amariyah
While Jeremy and I were in Baghdad, the allies struck an air raid shelter - at Al Amariyah - where more than 300 people were sleeping. Most of them were women and children, though a few dozen were elderly men. The allies said it had been an Iraqi military command bunker. The veracity of that has never been proven.

But there were very few survivors. I counted the bodies myself and reached 311. But some had been fused together by the searing heat of the blast. We were criticised by many for reporting from 'enemy territory'. Some said we were allowing ourselves to be used as instruments of propaganda for the Iraqis. I have always believed it was legitimate and right for us to be there.

The Yugoslav wars

[ image: Yugoslavia 1992]
Yugoslavia 1992
The most difficult assignment I have ever taken on was the war in former Yugoslavia. I went to Croatia in the summer of 1991, when the Yugoslav Army was beginning its attempts to separate the parts of Croatia which had large numbers of Serbs living in them from the rest of the republic.

I had no idea at that time how large that country would loom in my own life and how important it would become to me. Within a year war had also broken out in Bosnia and by now I was engaged in this full time.

I stayed there until the beginning of 1995. I say it was a difficult assignment not only because of the physical and logistical hazards of being caught up in a war with shifting front lines and breath taking brutality against civilians, but also because of the editorial and political controversy it generated.

I quickly realised that my own perceptions of why the war was taking place - my own understanding of the central dynamic of the conflict - was radically different from those of many people back home, who treated it as the inevitable result of a deep seated ethnic hatred that couldn't be prevented.

Few of the foreign correspondents who worked in former Yugoslavia took this simplistic view, but it was a perception that seemed to drive so much of western policy towards the war. We found ourselves denounced by leading British politicians as "lap top bombadiers" for arguing that "the peace process" was flawed, and only the credible threat of military force would stop the aggression.

In the end I took time off reporting to co-write a book, called "Death of Yugoslavia". For me it was a way of drawing a line under more than three years and a profoundly disillusioning experience, and of getting out.

A new start, a new continent

After that I left the Balkans - but not for good - and took up a new job as the BBCs Africa correspondent based in Johannesburg. I arrived in South Africa at a time that I now think of as a golden moment in its history.

The country was still basking in the euphoric after-glow of its remarkable, brave transition to democracy. It was becoming a part of Africa for the first time, stretching a hand of friendship across the Limpopo to a continent it had spent 300 years fighting to hold at bay.

South Africa is a magnificent country and I loved the South Africans for the broadness of their generosity and their readiness to believe in their own miracle and make it a reality, and for the courage they had in daring to hope.

Sadly, some of this spirit is now diminished by nagging anxiety about the country's shaky economy and persistent and justified fears about the level of violent crime. But to me, as to much of the world, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are heroic and inspiring figures and I count it as the greatest privilege to have been able to meet them.

[ image: Rwanda 1996]
Rwanda 1996
I also spent a lot of time in the centre of the continent, in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda and the subsequent civil war and revolution in Zaire/Congo. If South Africa was the bright light that Africa can show to the world, this was the terrible darkness into which the continent all too often sinks.

I covered the fall of the dictator Mobutu sese Seko and the capture of the country by the Rwandan backed rebels led by Laurent Kabila.

I interviewed Kabila when he was a little known rebel commander in control of two small border towns on the Rwandan border and I remember scoffing, with the other journalists there, about his boast that he would capture the whole massive country in just eight months.

It seemed an absurd claim. In fact he did it in seven and I was there when his troops arrived in Kinshasa to install him as president of what is - potentially - one of Africa's richest countries.

Moscow chill

In two and half years I reported from 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. I came to Russia in January in the depths of the grim Moscow winter, to start my new job as Moscow correspondent.

[ image: In the Russian Urals 1997]
In the Russian Urals 1997
Like South Africa this is a country in the throes of a profound transition. But its direction and final destination remain a mystery. Everyone knows what Russia is in transition from; no-one knows what it is in transition to.

Unlike South Africa, however, what happens here is of immense global geo-strategic consequence, and the Russia that finally emerges from this transition will help to shape the world that emerges from the ruins of the bi-polar Cold War whose dynamics had become so familiar and - to some people - dangerously comfortable.

It is a demanding but fascinating and compelling assignment - but it's just begun.

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