Dispatches from Skopje
September 13, 2001
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001
At the main gate to the U.S. military base outside Skopje, Army soldiers in full battle gear offer visitors a crisp salute and an even crisper shout of their squad’s motto—”Strike To Kill.”
The motto predates the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as do the abundant coils of barbed wire and cement barricades around the base, which is home to several hundred U.S. soldiers and has a basketball court, a cappuccino bar, a chapel, a gym, and a mobile Burger King. Security has been raised in other ways because Camp Able Sentry, like other U.S. military facilities, is now on Threatcon Delta, the highest level of alert. The biggest changes have little to do with security, though, and may not be apparent unless you happen to share a mess hall table with a pair of Special Forces soldiers, as I did today. Then you realize how much the world is changing.
“What needs to happen is that lives need to be put at risk,” Capt. Thomas Thliveris told me. “What I mean by that is people in uniform are in uniform for a reason, and our national leadership should not be afraid, because of public reaction, to use us in the way we are trained to be used, and can be used.”
It’s always pleasant, as a journalist, to meet soldiers who speak their minds. In other times, members of the Special Forces might say only the sorts of things their commanders might wish them to say, or they might say nothing at all. But that was in another era, when a portion of Wall Street was not a smoldering mountain of rubble and corpses.
Capt. Donald Schurr spoke up.
“The first thing is that we accepted risk when we joined, but the political leadership has not had the courage to accept that soldiers will lose their lives. That needs to end. And the second thing is—you can apply any word you want—but let’s use assassination. There is a presidential directive which prevents the U.S. government or its operatives from targeting anybody in particular. That’s because we want to be the good guys, and we are the good guys; fair play and all that stuff. But there is a time when you must target those fellas. We have the capability to do that. But we haven’t been able to do anything because we have our gloves on. That needs to change.”
The wide-screen television in the mess hall was tuned to CNN. I heard the phrase “thousands of dead are feared.” The television was filled with unnatural images that my brain has been reluctant to assimilate: planes disappearing into the glassy flanks of the World Trade towers, followed by fireballs at 100 stories. I hope I can get used to seeing these images, but I also hope I never get used to them.
The conversation had begun with Capt. Schurr—a tall, muscular soldier who doesn’t need a Special Forces patch on his sleeve for you to know that he is not to be trifled with—recalling the scenes of men and women jumping from the burning towers. He said it made him emotional. He cried. When I asked what the emotion and tears meant, he said, slowly, “It … is …anger.” Each word was delivered with the force of a punch.
“As the president said, this was an act of war,” Capt. Thliveris noted. He glared at me, an Ali-versus-Frazier glare. “This may not be politically correct, but I don’t want justice here.” His glare did the impossible—it became more intense. “These people do not need to be brought to justice or apprehended. They need to be killed. That’s what you do to your enemy in war—you destroy him. And this is a war.”
This was one of those interviews in which it doesn’t matter what the journalist asks. These men knew what they wanted to say and were going to say it no matter what. I noted that they are members of the Special Forces. Would they wish to be choppered into the mountains of Afghanistan?
“I want to be the first person out the door,” Capt. Schurr shot back. “I’m ready to go. I think to a man every soldier is prepared to do that, and anxious to do that.”
When I sat down at their table the men from the Special Forces told me they would need to leave after 10 minutes. The 10 minutes was up. They grabbed their assault rifles and donned their combat gear—helmets and flak jackets—and strode away, ready for war.
Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001
Night was falling as I introduced myself to four college students in Macedonia Square, in the center of Skopje. What was their reaction to the catastrophe in America?
Ivo, who is 18 years old and studying to be a doctor, was the first to respond, largely because he spoke the best English, thanks to the year he lived in England. The attacks are sad, he said, a tragedy. But then he got to the heart of the matter, not only for him but for many Macedonians who resent what they regard as American support for ethnic Albanian rebels.
“Now you have experienced what terrorism is like,” Ivo said. “Now you can understand what terrorism does, and you should do something about it, especially in Macedonia. You should condemn the Albanians. It’s clear you’re helping them. Even a child knows that.”
His friends nodded their heads in agreement. The rebels are terrorists, they believe, killing civilians and policemen, yet America coddles them, even supplying them with weapons (a popular belief). Maybe, the students added, the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will serve as a wake-up call. “Terrorists have never attacked America with this much devastation,” Ivo noted. “America now should see what terrorism is really about and stop it everywhere.”
The feelings of Ivo and his friends are not unusual. There is no satisfaction in Skopje about the attacks on America—none of the grotesque spectacles, seen on television, of Palestinians and Libyans celebrating the attacks. The expressions of condolence here are sincere, but there is, underneath it all, a strong belief that America has imposed its will on the Balkans in ways that are neither wise nor fair and that America should not be surprised that its actions overseas have brought deadly results to the homeland. The same belief exists in Serbia, which experienced a 78-day U.S.-led bombing campaign in 1999, and it exists among nationalists in Croatia who resent U.S. pressure to extradite war criminals to the Hague.
The sourness surfaces not just in the talk of ordinary citizens but in media commentaries, too. All you need to do is pick up today’s issue of New Macedonia, a pro-government paper. “The attempt by western countries to treat Albanian terrorists as human rights fighters gave them a clear field for seven months of terror against Macedonians,” the main commentary states. “The difference between yesterday’s attacks on the United States and the attacks of Albanian terrorists in Macedonia is just in the capacity and power of their action.” In other words, Now you know how we feel.
Anti-Americanism in the Balkans is far from murderous, as it is among Islamic extremists in the Middle East, but it is serious enough to have prompted the evacuation this summer of nonessential personnel from the U.S. Embassy here. If you want to know the consequences of America’s unpopularity, you only need to call 011 389-2 116-180, the Embassy’s number in Skopje. If you press 5 for the options in English, the first words you hear are the following: “To report the death, hospitalization, or arrest of an American citizen, press 3.”
Monday, Sept. 10, 2001
“Hi, my name is Josh.”
This was not what I expected to overhear in Brodec, a mountain village where ethnic Albanian rebels were handing in their weapons to NATO troops. The greeting came from a chubby rebel wearing combat pants and a black T-shirt with the red-and-black insignia of the rebel army, whose initials in Albanian are UCK. His greeting was directed at an American G.I. near me.
“Uh, hi,” the G.I. replied, warily. “I’m, uh, Mark.”
“I lived in the U.S. for 17 years,” Josh continued, delighted to have found someone to speak English with. “I love America.”
“Of course I am.”
Josh Balazhi, as it happens, was born in Macedonia and emigrated to Chicago in his teens, winding up in the restaurant business. He returned to Macedonia six months ago to fight with the rebels in the hills above Tetovo.
Mark, an Army intelligence officer who asked—ordered, actually—that I not disclose his full name, had a video camera that he pointed at his new friend from the UCK.
“Hello America,” Josh waved.
Strange, but not the strangest scene in rebel territory on Sunday. For the past few weeks NATO soldiers have been collecting rebel weapons, and Brodec is the latest collection site. The Macedonian government has pledged, as its part of an ultra-shaky peace deal, to expand political rights for Albanians. This is supposed to end their war.
It was a slow day in the farmhouse basement where French soldiers registered the day’s catch, sitting behind desks like warehouse clerks. Nearly half of the dozen or so rifles I saw on the dirt floor were hunting weapons with wood stocks, dusty and neglected and quite old; it was hard to imagine they posed a serious threat to even the lamest of wildlife, let alone soldiers.
A Swedish journalist looked at the sorry items on display and said, laughing, “This must be the village museum.” Krale Spancevski, a member of Macedonia’s parliament who choppered into Brodec as an observer, just shook his head. “These guns are not from this war,” he said. “Maybe from the Chinese revolution. Maybe from the first Balkan war.”
That was in 1912.
The sights and sounds of Brodec convinced me that Macedonia needs fewer war correspondents and more film critics. The weapons-collection program is, in many respects, a big-budget production that would be better appreciated, and better analyzed, by journalists accustomed to the world of make-believe. NATO has even given the 30-day program a somewhat catchy title—Operation Essential Harvest.
NATO hopes to collect 3,300 weapons, which is widely believed to represent a modest portion of what the UCK possesses. The problem, as NATO knows, is that the UCK will not surrender a meaningful portion of its arsenal. So the U.S.-led alliance is pretending disarmament is occurring and pressing the rebels and government to find a way, in the coming weeks and months, to not resume fighting. What’s being wished for is a military version of the placebo effect.
This provides for bitter amusement in the parlors of Skopje. Darko Mitrevski is a film producer who has the wry sense of humor common among unlucky intellectuals in the unlucky hotspots of the Balkans—notably Sarajevo and Belgrade, and now Skopje. Darko was dressed in trendy black at his elegant office when I visited the other day with Ed Joseph, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. The discussion turned, inevitably, to weapons collection.
“It’s Disarmament—The Movie,” Ed suggested. “But don’t blame NATO. It’s the deal they’ve got.”
“Perhaps,” Darko countered. “But the parody of disarmament shouldn’t be so obvious. I could do it much better. It’s a very badly directed production.”
In a way, Operation Essential Harvest is an upside-down version of Wag the Dog. Instead of directors and actors producing a phony war, generals and soldiers are producing a phony disarmament. It’s an odd thing for generals to do, but even odder is the prospect it may do some temporary good by keeping the guns silent for a bit longer.
At least it is inspiring better productions. The other day I attended a mock weapons collection in front of the run-down parliament in Skopje. It involved several thousand ironic Macedonians poking fun at NATO by piling their “weapons” onto the street, which was closed to traffic. The asphalt was littered with water guns, toy pistols, model planes, paper gliders, watermelons with fuses, slingshots, cardboard swords, and so on. I noticed a man holding an unrolled condom above his head; I asked a student what that was about, and I was told, “Defensive weapon.” The condom was tossed onto the pile.
Of course the situation in Macedonia is not a joke. Many people have been killed, and many more will be killed if the fighting resumes once Operation Essential Harvest finishes its run. Outside the farmhouse in Brodec, I asked Josh, the friendly rebel, whether he would return to Chicago soon. He said he hopes so but doesn’t know for sure. I then asked how to spell his last name. He gave me the Albanian spelling, Balazhi; the Americanized version, he noted, is Belushi.
“You know, I’m related to John Belushi,” he said, smiling.
I could not tell whether he was serious or pretending.