Travelling with a purpose to areas of conflict

Tim Butcher’s tells Juno McEnroe about his journeys to destinations that are laden with historical significance

WRITING from the dark enclaves of war zones and regions riddled by conflict brings ineluctable challenges. Beyond the threats of injury or disease, an author often faces the task of drawing readers into their world by moulding stories around firsthand encounters.

Warfare and the minutiae of history become intimately fused with a writer’s own personal experiences.

Such is the style of writing of journalist and author Tim Butcher. In his third book, the former Daily Telegraph reporter invites readers to join him on a winding adventure that follows a fatal path in history.

The Trigger relives the life of a young assassin before he murdered a royal prince in an act that set in motion the First World War. Butcher follows the footsteps of Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian Serb who on June 28, 1914, shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the then-heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, in Sarajevo.

The assassination ignited the four-year war that, as Butcher suggests, was the “fiery forging of a new world” and the end of an old one.

So why did he chose to chart the life of a 19-year-old Balkan assassin for his latest book?

“This kid does something, just two shots, bang bang, the kindling is laid. He’s not the cause of the First World War, let’s not make that mistake, but he is the trigger, he is the spark,” Butcher explains.

“In a way he [Princip] was a freedom fighter, with a desire to throw out his imperial masters [the Austro Hungarian rulers].

“I’m sitting in Ireland. Ask anyone here about the power of nationalism or when is the time to rekindle your identity and get rid of your colonial occupiers,” he continues.

Butcher’s adventure in The Trigger takes him through Princip’s homeland in the Balkans as he retraces the fighter’s steps into anarchy. It is a trip the journalist takes over rustic lands laden with landmines and through areas of conflict he covered during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The journalist also recreated a famous journey in his first book, Blood River, where his route through the Congo covered that of English explorer HM Stanley in Africa in the late 1800s. His second book, Chasing the Devil, followed the footsteps of writer Graham Greene in west Africa through the war-torn nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Butcher’s journeys have hurtled him onto the paths of historic adventurers, writers who equally ventured into dark places on the globe, in search of answers.

But how does a writer set about such ambitious missions, especially where they must juggle work and family life.

“It’s a journey that involves digging out the documentary evidence, the maps, genealogical trails and tunnelling through hundreds of archives. Then the mission begins, once the groundwork is done.

“It is a challenge in itself, but nothing that is rewarding is straight forward and easy.

“I use travel as a device. I love travel per se, but in the case of this I love it because it is a device to unlock a particular issue.

“You say Congo to people and they say ‘Oh, it’ s a bit dark, a bit crazy, a bit heart of darkness’. “You say west Africa and people have to extrapolate the problems there — tribalism or child soldiers or the wars in the 1990s where Charles Taylor [the former Liberian warlord] is involved. They kind of reel away from them.”

A similar mystery and murkiness surrounds the Balkans, he contends: “I get off on finding a journey that takes on these issues which are interesting and charged. There are still people rowing about the origins of the First World War,” adds Butcher.

Research is central to the English writer’s journey but not a dominant feature in his works.

In a way, there is the need to deliver an informed read but it should also be a page-turner.

“If you do them [the books] like a historical treatise, you’ve lost me by page three. You’ve got to do the big slabs of data, of factoids and dates...do a journey and I think you’ve got a chance.”

The author was amazed at how he was able to trace Princip’s turbulent life, when he went digging, and about what put the young Serbian on a course to change world history.

“His school reports are there to be seen and you can see who he’s being hanging with. He starts off as a square child and by year four he’s hanging out with these anarchists and radicals. As he grows up, his truancy is going up and his grades are going down.”

Researching and writing The Trigger brought risks with Butcher and his guide hiking across lands covered in landmines. The author went from the village of Princip’s birth, through the mountains of the northern Balkans to Belgrade and ultimately Sarajevo.

In his other two books though, Butcher faced greater dangers, in the Congo and Sierra Leone. So how does a war journalist ultimately face down their own demons after coming through disturbing war-torn regions?

One of the best ways of dealing with any post-traumatic stress syndrome is to talk or write about it, which journalists are fortunate enough to do for a living, explains the author.

“I got shit scared in Sierra Leone,” he says, describing how friends of his were killed.

“Part of these journeys is a catharsis, to go back and pick off the scabs which aren’t fully healed. There’s nothing worth doing unless it’s a bit difficult.”

“If you have been a journalist and you walk through body parts, are you going to talk about how your mood is?

“Let’s talk about the mother of that child who’s been decapitated by a mortar shell. You’ve got to strike the right balance, you refer to it without dramatising it.”

So what is next for the now South Africa-based writer?

“It’s all about finding issues that can be teased out through the device of issues. And the world are full of those,” he says.

Butcher is looking at a project on the Middle East, where he was formally a correspondent.

But as one colleague has warned him, one thing the Middle East doesn’t suffer from is a lack of books. “I’ve got to be slightly careful about adding to that pile,” he concludes.


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