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 in 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.
In all that was the madness of the Balkans in the mid- to late-Nineties, 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.
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 Co-operation 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 MÃ©decins Sans FrontiÃ¨res to organise supplies to Rwandan refugees.
While covering Bosnia’s attempts to hold post-war 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 co-ordinates to Walker?), but by then we were back in Belgrade, where Tom, his wife 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 following 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.
By Guy Dinmore. This obituary first appeared in The Sunday Times