Scotland

What happens when a war correspondent goes home?

Iraqi soldier near Mosul Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Iraqi and Kurdish forces are attempting to drive so-called Islamic State from Mosul

The sudden, loud crash was enough to send David Pratt - a reporter who has spent some 30 years covering the world's worst warzones - and his colleague diving for cover.

Cowering behind their bar stools, they quickly realised that the shattered glass had been caused not by shellfire, but by a full bottle of wine being dropped on a tiled floor.

They were, after all, in a bar in Glasgow - with only the egos of the two embarrassed journalists suffering any harm.

Mock execution

In his decades reporting from the frontlines, the Sunday Herald's foreign affairs editor has been subjected to a mock - or possibly just botched - execution after being taken hostage in the last months of the Bosnian war.

He has seen a man have his leg blown off in Afghanistan and then hobble around with the limb attached by a string of tendon.

And most recently he has spent two weeks on the frontline around Mosul as Kurdish and Iraqi forces prepare for an assault to capture the city from militants loyal to the Islamic State terror group - an operation he predicts will lead to a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale.

Less than 12 hours after leaving the suffocating heat of the Iraqi desert, Pratt was sitting in his local in Glasgow enjoying a pint and a chat with friends.

Image caption David Pratt has recently returned from two weeks on the frontlines around Mosul

Far from being overjoyed at returning to the safety of Scotland, Pratt says it is a time for relief, for quiet reflection - and sometimes for wrestling with the personal demons left by what he has seen.

As well as being startled by sudden noises when he first comes home from war, he admits to finding it increasingly difficult to talk to friends and family about his experiences.

This is partly because he doesn't want them to worry even more the next time he goes away - but also because it feels to him like he is merely "going over familiar territory".

Shopping bags

Speaking on BBC Scotland's Kaye Adams programme, Pratt said the everyday lives and problems of people back home can often appear trivial compared to those he has encountered in conflict zones.

He explained: "You come back and there is maybe a letter from your bank manager or your dentist appointment or something like that, or a friend moans about something and it clearly is hugely significant, and understandably so, within their life.

"But given what you've just encountered it seems to pale into insignificance alongside, for example, the problems of the woman and her little girl that I met last week who had walked for six hours across the desert to escape IS carrying everything they had in a couple of shopping bags.

"Where was their future? What was going to happen to them? They couldn't leave and I could. So what happens here often pales into insignificance alongside it."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Thousands of people have fled from Mosul ahead of the offensive, but many more remain trapped inside

He admits this can lead to him emotionally distancing himself from friends and family - a feeling that was shared by many of his colleagues who opened up about the impact their work had on wives, husbands and partners during a behind-closed-doors session last year.

"There is a natural inclination for them (relatives) to want to know what you've gone through, and at the same time you want to hold back some of that information because you don't want to worry them the next time you're off on an assignment," he says.

"Although my partner has become super familiar with the world's warzones and can gauge how difficult a job's going to be by what I pack when I go away, so they are picking up these kind of vibes and messages all the time".

Choo-choo train

Even when he is on assignment, there is often a surreal juxtaposition between conflict and peace.

The frontline around Mosul, for example, is a short distance from the city of Erbil, which effectively acts as the Kurdish capital and has been left comparatively untouched by the conflict raging nearby.

He said: "Erbil is like Glasgow. It has got shopping malls, you can have a Starbucks - I was sitting in a Starbucks one morning and there was a little kind of choo-choo train carrying the kids around the shopping mall.

"Forty five minutes later I was watching an IS suicide truck bomber ram tonnes of explosives into a frontline position."

Pratt says he has often, briefly, wondered what on earth he was doing in the middle of a warzone, and promised himself he would never do anything so stupid again if he made it out alive.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption About 100,000 people are thought to have died in the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1995

His worst experience came when he was taken hostage during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, with the Bosnian journalists he was with being shot dead in front of him.

In the final stages of his captivity Pratt was taken outside and made to kneel by a ditch before a gun was put to his head, cocked and then fired.

To this day he does not know why he wasn't killed, with his drunk captors instead knocking him unconscious into the ditch where he later awoke to find the soldiers gone and the ditch full of the lifeless bodies of those who had been less fortunate than him.

"It would be very easy to go to these places and come back with an incredibly negative and downbeat view of humanity", he says.

"But for every bad person you meet, you meet two that are absolutely amazing and the hospitality and people I've met along the way who will take you into their homes when they have nothing, literally nothing.

"That in itself acts as a sort of checks and balances for the whole experience and ultimately gives you a very positive view of the way people are, not a negative view."