Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 30 1999 10:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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"She gave birth right on the mountain! Isn't that a trip?" Claudia Janiszewski said as she led me down the hall at Tirana's main maternity ward. The hall, its walls covered with decades of whatever that oily substance is that settles on walls, smelled of urine, medicine, and nausea. Claudia has that way of speaking that seems embarrassingly inappropriate in places dangerous and poor, but I had already decided that she and her husband, Henry, were my kind of people. They are the rare Americans who go to foreign countries and learn their languages and customs. They also seem to have a knack for dangerous places. They lived in Albania for three years: Henry was working for the U.S. Treasury, trying to develop the banking sector, which placed him at the epicenter of the riots that broke out in 1997. Then they went to Russia, just in time for last August's crash, and then they decided to take it easy and moved to Colorado, buying a house just down the street from that school in Littleton.

While they lived in Albania, Claudia founded a volunteer organization to help the abandoned babies living on the maternity ward. It was a modest nonprofit, with a budget of around $15,000 a year and absolutely no pizzazz to attract media attention and concomitant donations: Reporters would not return Claudia's phone calls, and, yes, someone once asked if Albania was in upstate New York. But when the war put Albania on the American map, Claudia raised about $20,000 in two weeks, and here she was, in Tirana, showing me around the maternity ward, where her organization's work is turning more and more toward caring for the Kosovar refugee women giving birth. The woman who gave birth on the mountain cries for days on end. It was her first child, and she did not know what to do. They walked and hid and walked for two weeks, her husband and a cousin's family and she, and she felt the pangs of labor and tried to suppress them for days until she couldn't anymore. When they arrived, both she and the baby were ill. Now the baby is better, but she won't eat and she cries all the time. When we entered the room she was, finally, asleep under a crude gray and brown wool blanket, and she sobbed in her sleep.

We went to see another woman. Toothless, with sunken cheeks and faraway eyes, she looked 45, but she was 28. Her family had been given an hour to get out of the house, but the 20-minute trip to Kukes, on the Albanian side, had taken all night because there were so many people going to the border. Like virtually all refugees with whom I have spoken, she claimed to be lucky because something did not happen to her: In this case, starting out very close to the border, she did not encounter any Serbs on the way, and nothing was taken from her family (which had not had the time to take anything from home anyway). Then they made the 14-hour bus trip from Kukes to Tirana, and two weeks later, she gave birth to her seventh child. Village women from Kosovo, if they are of child-bearing age, are, more often than not, either nursing or pregnant or both. There are about 20 Kosovar births a week at this maternity ward in Tirana. Exact figures are impossible to obtain, but hundreds of new Kosovars have already been born in both Albania and Macedonia.

"There are too many of them." This is the third or fourth sentence 26-year-old Sreten Koceski, an ethnic Macedonian who has lived in Tetovo his whole life, says to me. Greater Tetovo, which includes the mostly-Albanian villages around the city, has been majority-Albanian for as long as anyone can remember. But the town itself used to be split about fifty-fifty--until the refugees came. "It's not very pleasant for the Macedonians," says Sreten. "We feel we are in danger somehow."

Reader, this was a cheap trick: starting with babies, then introducing a man who is threatened by the sheer numbers of the Other. But interethnic relations, in the Balkans and elsewhere, are the province of cheap tricks and overwrought rhetoric. I put it off as long as I could--until my last day in the region, in fact--but I knew I would have to do it sooner or later: In the only part of the former Yugoslavia that is still holding on to some vision of different ethnic groups coexisting harmoniously, I had to ask their representatives what they think of one another.

Macedonia has, for the most part, preserved the convoluted structures that in the former Yugoslavia went under the name of Brotherhood and Unity but would have been better defined as Separate but Equal. The government was formed by a coalition that included two Macedonian and one Albanian party. Primary education is available in four languages: Macedonian, Serbian, Albanian, and Turkish. Both print and electronic media in different languages are available. At the same time, the Albanian party and one of the Macedonian parties in the ruling coalition have purely nationalist roots, and all existing political parties represent only one ethnic group. Multilingual education means that children of different ethnicities attend different schools and, if they pursue further education, are ultimately insulted (if they are not Macedonian) to confront an educational system defined by the Macedonian culture and language. And Macedonian-language media employ virtually exclusively ethnic Macedonians, while Albanian-language media employ ethnic Albanians, and so on. "It's not so much what the system defines," says Eran Fraenkel, the American executive director of Search for a Common Ground, an international organization that tries to do what its name says. "It's what the system produces: people who may never have contact with the other community."

So I ask Sreten Koceski whether he has any Albanian friends. "Sure," he says.

"How many?"

"At this moment I can say for sure--four or five. Not close personally, but good friends."

Then he tells me again that Albanians threaten Macedonians, sometimes attack them violently--especially now that there are so many refugees here, he says. There have been a couple of incidents just in the last two weeks.

"Have you personally ever had a confrontation with an Albanian?"

"Not yet."

I don't remember where I got Sreten's phone number, so I assume he is a friend of a friend.

"You are a journalist?"

"No, I run a youth center that encourages ethnic tolerance."

That's right. I got his number at Search for a Common Ground. He gives me a flyer on his organization, called the Youth Information Center of Tetovo. The flyer is bilingual, Macedonian and English. The six-member board listed on it includes one ethnic Albanian; the executive committee and staff are all Macedonian.

"So, what do you think is going to happen?" I ask everyone this.

"You know, old people, both Macedonian and Albanian, say, 'Sooner or later, it will have to be decided who lives here: we or they.' Sometimes I think that may be true." A minute ago he was telling me the reason for his center is that young people are the only hope for fostering new interethnic relations. If things begin going awry here, he wonders--and he thinks they probably will--whose side will NATO take: the Macedonian government's or the "radical Albanians," of whom, he thinks, there are too many? All he ultimately cares about, says Sreten, is the integrity of Macedonia, which is endangered by having too many Albanians, who are surely intent on driving the Macedonians out.

So, I go to see a self-described moderate Albanian, Kim Mehmeti, who heads a Skopje organization called the Center for Multicultural Understanding and Cooperation. This group actually has a multiethnic board of directors and a varied staff. Kim tells me Macedonia is a country of fictions: a fiction of ethnic tolerance buttressed by education in different languages--but in fact, Albanian-language textbooks are just translations of Macedonian-dominated versions of literature and history; a fiction of a multiethnic government, when, in fact, there are only ethnic Macedonians and Serbs in the police, and that's what matters; and a fiction, propagated by the Macedonians and Serbs, of Albanians who want a Greater Albania.

"It's not that some Albanians don't want it," he says, "but we realize that borders cannot be changed. I assure you, at this moment Macedonia is in danger from ethnic Macedonians. If they don't realize that only NATO can protect this country, then we will have war. These anti-NATO demonstrations are, in fact, anti-Albanian demonstrations."

If only they listened, he says, they would realize that local Albanians are interested in having the refugees return to a liberated Kosovo--"and then the Macedonians' dream of fewer Albanians in Macedonia will be realized."

"And what if this goes on for a long time?"

"Then the Albanians will be fighting Serbs for 100 years." And more and more local Albanians will go into the KLA, and more and more Macedonians will show they are really Serbs, he says.

"And what do you think is going to happen?"

"The West will turn Macedonia into a banana republic."

"And the Albanians?"

"The Albanians will be eating bananas."

"And you?"

"I will be heading the Center for Multicultural Understanding and Cooperation." At least he has a sense of humor. I think.

You see, I tried to ease myself into this. I thought I'd go see the "moderates" and then go to an anti-NATO demonstration scheduled for today, and that would be that. But the demonstration was postponed until May 9--the anniversary of the end of World War II, according to the Eastern European calendar--so I had to go to the organizers, the Serbian Democratic Party of Macedonia. I identified myself as a Russian journalist and was greeted with open arms, told that this was my home, too.

"I'm sorry, I don't speak Russian," Dragisa Milesic (DRAH-guee-shah MEE-leh-shich), the bearded and bespectacled president of the party, said in Serbian.

"Do you speak English?" I asked in English.

"No fascist languages," he responded in Serbian.

I was offered coffee and asked for Turkish. Dragisha said I'd get Serbian. It tasted Turkish to me; it was very good. Dragisha said Serbian-language education was a hoax and the government was traitorous, but the people of Macedonia were good. He said he was most concerned with the integrity of Macedonia, which is threatened by NATO, Albania, and Bulgaria, and the KLA, which is operating in Macedonia. He said more and more Macedonians were joining the Yugoslav army as volunteers, because the Macedonians were basically good people who realized they were related to Serbs, and only Serbs can save them. He also said that he works just across the border in Kosovo, as the marketing director of a large building-supply company, and he goes to work every day.

"Is there anyone left there?"

"Do you mean Albanians or Serbs?"

"I meant people."

He laughed. "Sure, there are lots of people left."

"And what about Albanians?"

"Those who are loyal citizens are still there. The rest are running away from NATO bombing. But the Serbs can't leave, because they don't have a motherland in reserve, like the Albanians."

I was relieved to end up in the company of my friend Vlera. But, as luck would have it, she and Ardi came with another friend, Bekum, a 30-year-old Skopje Albanian businessman.

"Where are you from?" asked Bekum.

"Moscow," I said. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Vlera comforted me. "It doesn't irritate us as much as you think. Just say you are Jewish."

"I hate Russia," said Bekum.

"Have you ever been there?"

"No. But I am sick of Slavic peoples."

"I'm not Slavic," I said, before I could stop myself.

"I know. You are Jewish."

"Yes."

"Do you think I'm wrong?" This was a loyalty test.

"As a matter of fact, I do."

We fell silent. It was too clear that I was too tired and Bekum too uninterested to continue the discussion.

Maybe I put this off until my last day so that I would feel disgusted enough to want to go home. It's time. The other night I dreamed my dog told me she was in love with a Rottweiler. I took this to mean I had been away for too long and had grown too aware of provenance. At least I didn't dream she said she was in love with a Dalmatian.

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.

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