Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 23 1999 11:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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In the light of day, Shkodra, Albania, defines poverty. This is city life, but with no extras. There is a lot of trade but no stores--the closest things are garage-like warehouses with metal grates that slide up during the day to allow customers to enter. Most of the sellers are on the sidewalk, where a tarp to protect their wares from intermittent rain is a luxury. Most merchandise is laid out on the pavement, and here you can find hundreds of pairs of shoes already beaten and discarded, probably by Italians, and piles of used underwear and worn pantyhose. The sidewalks have no space for the beggars, who sit in the road in rags with a few coins laid out in front of them. In the dust that turns to mud and back instantaneously all around them, horse-drawn carts compete for space with bicycles and Mercedes cars--a knowledgeable relief worker tells me that Albania has the largest number of Mercedes per capita in the world, all of them stolen and smuggled in through Montenegro, that land of many borders. The best Mercedes in Shkodra, a red 600, sports a KLA logo on the hood.

The KLA has an ostentatious and comical presence in Shkodra. There are probably serious men in the KLA, experienced and devoted warriors. There have to be. But I have never met them. Last year in Kosovo I encountered only frightened characters who were playing at being guerrillas by spending their days with their Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers up in the mountains, and coming down into the foothills to spend the night in the villages with their wives. This is strange behavior for guerrillas, warfare ineffective in the extreme. The fighters I saw in Chechnya, for example, would go up into the mountains at night, when it was easy to pick off or ambush unsuspecting Russian soldiers, and would come down into the villages to do their work in the day. I assumed that in the past year the KLA learned the craft of war, but the Brooklyn boys who are hanging out in Shkodra clearly weren't in on the training.

I met two of them in the hotel lobby, an odd couple of guys in their late 30s, one with a beer belly of immense proportions, the other a skinny guy with enormous biceps--a construction worker. They told me they'd come to help the refugees, but the refugees were hard to help, being so disorganized, so they would distribute some food and clothes and go back to New York, where, they made a point of telling me, they were not living on welfare. I believed them, give or take a few details. But I also asked around for the KLA guys who I'd heard were staying in the hotel. I tried to be discreet, asking for "the guys from New York, the ones who came all together."

"You mean the KLA guys?" the maid laughed, and grabbed a key and let me into a room where a handsome young man with curly black hair was sleeping, his pristine KLA uniform laid out on the chair. The maid had a few choice Albanian words for someone who sleeps at 11 in the morning.

"I have to make sure the refugees staying in the hotel are secure," the young man explained to me. His name was Victor, of course--and other KLA-ers in the hotel had already told me that Victor was the head guy, the spokesman. "So, I stay up very late, and she comes every morning and screams at me."

"So, what do you do at night?"

"I have to be in the lobby until everyone is asleep, so I play cards."

There had been a few people in the bar the night before playing chess, but I did not see anyone playing cards, nor did I see Victor. I think I would have noticed him, though I may not have recognized him standing up--our entire interview was conducted with him lying in bed. I'd offered to step out to let him get dressed, but he said he was happy to talk with me, since I was an American. He doesn't hear a lot of English these days, or so he said, probably meaning that the other guys who came with him are émigrés. Himself, he was born in New York. His parents are Catholic Albanians from Montenegro; his father owns a few restaurants--Italian, of course. Victor has never been to Kosovo, but he expects to go, now that he is in the army.

There was just one caveat, he said: "You can't print anything, because no one can know we are here, in this hotel."

"But everyone knows!"

"You don't understand how dangerous this can be. If they find out the KLA is in this hotel, they can blow it up. They already blew up a building a few days ago, you know, near here. They may have been aiming for the hotel."

"Who is they?"

"You don't know anything. Serbs."

"In Albania?"

"You don't understand. We are very close to the border. And the border is higher than we are. They could aim down." They'd have to aim pretty well, 30 kilometers as the crow flies over the mountains.

"You're saying Serbs blew up that building the other day?"

"It's possible."

"But the local authorities say it was an empty building blown up over a gambling debt." This sort of thing happens all the time in Shkodra, where no one but no one goes out after dark.

"Yeah, maybe, but you don't understand, the Serbs are everywhere, and they could blow up this hotel. It's not myself I'm worried about, it's the other people here. So, don't print anything until I leave."

So, he contradicted himself. He also told me that he had been involved in KLA fund-raising in New York for a year, organizing weekly parties in a club on the corner of 25th Street and Second Avenue, though he could not remember the name of the club (he was sleepy). And he said that the KLA has existed for less than a year (not correct, as far as I know), and that it was organized by six men, with a bearded guy whose name he did not remember at the head, and that "it started official when they marched."

"Marched where?" I'd thought the KLA started when it sent out faxes claiming responsibility for some murders, but I liked this mythology in the making, especially the marching part.

"In Kosovo."

"Where in Kosovo?"

"I don't know. Somewhere. They marched." He got a romantic look in his eyes when he imagined the six men marching somewhere in Kosovo, and also when he spoke of the Brooklyn Bridge, which he will see when his tour of duty is over, in a year. The war will have been won by then, and he will help rebuild, and then he'll see the Brooklyn Bridge from his father's restaurant. "If I come back, that is," he said, remembering why he was here.

Confused as he was, this 23-year-old was no fake. It's boys like him who fight wars and die in them, and his uniform was genuine, and he claimed to have a weapon under the mattress, and I believed him, because, as he pointed out, "This is Albania, where everybody has a gun."

I am writing about him because, as it turned out, he was leaving the next morning to go to Tirana to get his orders. Just in case, though, I won't mention the name of the only hotel in Shkodra: I think that's a precaution he would want me to take.

And one last thing. As I was leaving, I asked, "Who drives that red Mercedes?"

"I don't know," he said. "If I did, I'd take you for a spin."

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.