EATH OF A NATION
I :1”? "b. 72's: 44.12,? -r , Bosnia in time for the opening of a major retrospective show of his work, PETER HOWSON spoke to Sharon McCord about
St Andrew, 1992-3
the madness of war and how he reacted to it.
he day they took me to Travnik. the Muslims were overrunning the town and 5.000 refugees had to leave. The 40 Minutes TV crew were filming me in the middle of hand-to-hand lighting. Ten yards away a sniper was firing bullets. Then a mortar went off a hundred yards away and l flung myself on the ground. Michael. the director. immediately said: “Peter. do you think you could do that again?”
Peter Howson raises his eyes wearin in memory of the madness of it all. The anecdote perfectly captures the atmosphere of his recent trip to Bosnia as war artist. sponsored by The Times. for the Imperial War Museum. During the trip he was thrown into the thick of the fighting with constant media attention from the 40 Minutes crew tagging his movements adding uncomfortable and unwelcome pressure. It was an extremely traumatic
time —‘the most difficult commission l have ever undertaken’ — but his stories are all underpinned by the kind of black humour which he constantly encountered out there.
Peter Howson has only recently returned from Bosnia. He spent two weeks there during some of the most intense activity ofthe conﬂict but had to be flown home when he collapsed, suffering from dysentery. Back home in Scotland. he is in Glasgow's McLellan Galleries. helping to hang the major retrospective show of his work which opens on 2 July. He appears to be quite shell-shocked by his experiences and winces slightly at the constant hammering in the main gallery next door.
‘l’m still feeling pretty dodgy.’ he says softly. He’s out of his army fatigues and in casual denims. His movements are the slow. heavy gestures of the convalescent but he becomes animated whenever he describes his time in Bosnia. pouring out colourful and emotive descriptions of a country locked in the grip of insanity. The intensity with which he evokes his experiences of the conflict leaves you desperately curious as to what images it will inspire.
He quickly realised that humour inured people to the horror. a quip and a jest often being the only defence against the haphazard sufferings. It all added up to a surreal atmosphere. ‘At first I stayed in the British base in Vitez. One sentry was sniped at every night. Eventually they traced the shots to a Muslim house in the village. A snatch squad went up. kicked the door down and found this pissed guy. clutching a Kalashnikov, surrounded by drink. with his wife cowering in the corner. They took his weapon off him and smashed all the bottles. And then his wife made them all coffee.’
He laughs at the unreality of it all and then describes other characters of the village around the base. where he was billeted at both Muslim and Croatian houses. ‘There was “Postman Splatt”. who spends all his time setting off mortars from his back garden. He’s right next door to the base and keeps drawing fire on them. Then there’s "Mrs. Miggins” who puts up all the soldiers and feeds them pie and cakes.’ he explains. adding a a final bizarre detail to the picture. ’The army have a massive. inflatable Mr Blobby flying above the camp. The Muslims. Croats and all try to hit it.’
His smile fades as he recalls coming across the mortared bus near Travnik where two people were killed and fifteen badly injured. The soldiers were all joking. ‘Watch you don’t slip on the brains, sir!’ but Howson was understandably deeply disturbed by the scene.
‘I was badly affected by it.’ he says gravely. ‘lt was the first time I had seen a dead body. One man’s brains and intestines were spilled across the ground. The driver was slumped across the wheel with a bullet through his head. One woman wearing a white tracksuit was running around covered with red splotches of shrapnel. bits of her body were literally hanging out. One guy had a cigarette which was completely saturated in blood. hejust shrugged and said: “I was trying to give up anyway”.’
He is annoyed that these expressions of anguish and the fact that he left the war zone a week earlier than planned, due to his collapse and severe illness.
12 The List 2—l5 July 1993