As I knelt in the snow, hands over my head, not feeling the cold on my bare legs, I remember thinking to myself, "Please shoot me in the leg or shoulder, not in the chest."
In front of me a Macedonian soldier, his baby face contorted with fear and anger, pointed his automatic rifle at my heart. He yelled something in Macedonian that I couldn't understand, but I interpreted as, "Get down, don't move, or I will shoot." There was a lot of noise: Two other young soldiers were on the periphery, also yelling, and my friend Steve, behind me, shouted back at them. When I heard Steve say, "We're Americans," I suddenly remembered a phrase from my Macedonian language class -- od America (from America) -- and I screamed it over and over. I also heard myself saying in English, "Don't shoot, don't shoot," while my mind willed the rifle away.
The day had started innocently enough, when Steve and I decided to take a hike near the town of Struga on the shores of Lake Ohrid. We had come to Ohrid, as many Macedonians do, for a weekend of rest and relaxation. The Ohrid Women's Association, Brezera, had invited Steve to a reception because his organization had given them a grant. Since the Saturday night event presented a great excuse for spending the weekend in this lovely place, he decided to accept the invitation and asked me along. I quickly agreed.
One of Ohrid's many allures, besides the huge, translucent lake and the charming old town graced with three fresco-laden Byzantine monasteries, is its proximity to mountains. We had brought along our boots, anticipating a hike to take advantage of the springlike weather that had unexpectedly graced Macedonia that winter. Sunday dawned clear and warm and we pointed the car west, toward the Albanian border and a line of graceful snowcapped peaks. A typical hiking strategy in this part of Macedonia is to locate a village on a mountainside, drive to its highest point, park the car and start walking. We ended up in the small Albanian-populated town of Radolista.
As in many small towns, the children's intelligence network immediately went to work, and before we could even remove our gear from the car, 20 Albanian children in various states of undress peeked at us shyly from across the way. When Steve pulled out his camera, they started posing and laughing and having a grand old time. They invited us to play jump-rope, which is particularly difficult in hiking boots. By the time we set out on the trail, even some adults had shown up.
We waved goodbye to our entourage and started following a goat trail up into the mountains. High above us on the ridge we noticed a strange castlelike building, which we assumed must be some kind of border outpost, since we were so close to Albania. As every good hike requires a goal, we began to think of this building as our destination.
In the middle of 1997, largely because so many people had lost their life savings in failed pyramid schemes, Albania's economy fell apart. During the subsequent unrest, armories were looted and most people armed themselves. It was now more likely that Albanians trying to enter Macedonia illegally would be carrying sophisticated weapons. Macedonian border troops, usually 19- or 20-year-old kids doing their mandatory nine months of military service, are rightly afraid of surprising illegal Albanians in the woods.
After about two and a half hours of strenuous uphill hiking, we crested a hill and came upon a pyramid-shaped marker delineating the border. Above us, up a 100-yard snowbank, the strange turreted structure beckoned. Below us, Lake Ohrid stretched like a blue ribbon across the horizon. We were high on endorphins, the view and our exotic perch on the Macedonian-Albanian border. After a perfunctory discussion of the prudence of crossing into Albanian territory, we joyfully scrambled up through the snow.
The view from the abandoned border station was breathtaking. To the west,
the mountains of Albania disappeared into the mist. Somewhere out there, I
knew, was the Adriatic Sea. To the east lay Lake Ohrid, backed by the
Galicia range. And to the north, looking down the ridge, was a
modern-looking ranch-style building flying the Macedonian flag. We guessed
that this was a Macedonian border station and didn't think much else about
it. The strangeness and beauty of our location enhanced our lunch of goat
cheese, bread and chocolate. Little did we know that as we ate and then
posed for each other's pictures, someone in that border station was
observing us through binoculars and radioing his counterparts that two
suspicious men, possibly Albanians, were preparing to enter Macedonian
When it was time to head back to the village and our car, we were so excited
about our adventure that we practically ran down through the snow. For the
first time all day, probably because we were going downhill, I was in
front of Steve. Suddenly I saw movement, heard loud voices and
found myself staring at a soldier in camouflage, yelling something
unintelligible and pointing his rifle at me. He looked angry and scared in
his olive-green uniform. With the rifle, he gestured for me to
get down, and I dropped to my knees, held my hands over my head and
whimpered, "Please don't shoot, don't shoot." He continued to point the gun
and scream. I heard Steve angrily yelling back, and I started
repeating, "Americans, we're Americans, Americans." Although the other two
soldiers had emerged into view, my eyes were fixed on the rifle
barrel in front of me.
At some point I noticed a Macedonian flag on the soldier's uniform, and I
felt a vague sense of relief; Macedonians generally like Americans
and I was a guest of their country. Still, I believe these guys were
willing and ready to shoot. Slowly, still yelling, the soldier approached.
"Please don't point that gun at me," I pleaded. Suddenly, when he was
only a foot or two away, he raised the butt of the rifle as if to slam me
over the head. I heard Steve's voice becoming more frantic as I ducked in
preparation for the blow. When it came, it was only a light slap with the
palm of his hand against the side of my head.
I realized then that we probably weren't going to be shot. But we were
still dealing with nervous kids with guns. They ordered us to stand and
marched us up the hill, toward the border station. It was impossible to
relax with loaded rifles aimed at our backs. As we got closer to the
station, another contingent of soldiers came down to meet us, and their
serious looks quickly turned into bemused smiles when they saw us decked
out in our hiking gear. By the time we arrived at the building and they
sat us down in their eating and television room to wait for the captain,
they had resumed being the typical young Macedonians we knew -- kind,
good-humored and curious.
For the next couple of hours we sat with the soldiers, watching television
and asking each other questions. They told us they had watched us from the
border station and radioed a patrol to expect us on the way down. They
said they encounter Albanians every day. "Have you ever had to shoot
anyone?" we asked. "All the time." The only reason they hesitated with us,
they said, was because we stopped, were unarmed and didn't make any sudden
moves. We kept apologizing to each other, they for almost shooting us and
Steve and I for putting them in that situation. Although none of them were
from Skopje, Steve offered to buy them drinks should they ever come to the
city. "We will drink to the fact that you are still alive," they laughed,
and we chuckled along at the macabre humor. When the captain finally
arrived, his easygoing manner as he filled out his report helped us to
We had been sitting with the soldiers for almost three hours when two
policemen showed up to escort us to our car and then to the police station
in Struga. They said the inspector wanted to speak with us about why we
had crossed the border. Many of the same Albanian children were waiting
for us when we arrived back, in police custody this time. Their confused faces mirrored for
us the strangeness of the situation. All we could do was meekly wave
goodbye as we drove off to meet the inspector.
The station, a drab concrete building, was cold this late in the
day. We were told to sit on a bench in a long hallway that had all the
trappings of a bad espionage film. We half-jokingly recited the various
forms of torture used in movies to extract confessions and anticipated
which ones we might face. When we inquired, after a couple of hours,
about why it was taking so long, a policeman told us that the inspector had
to be summoned from his home. "Oh great," we thought, "he's going to be in
a really good mood." After what seemed an interminable wait, we were
ushered upstairs and into his office.
He sat staring down into the blackness of his Turkish coffee. My heart
sank when the first thing he said was "golem problem," which I knew enough
to mean "big problem." Things got worse when we told him that neither of
us had our passports. Everything seemed to be going against us, including
the fact that Steve's middle name, Spiro, was given to him in honor of his
grandfather, who came to America from the Korce region of Albania. "So you
have connections to Albania then," said the inspector on learning this
fact. It also didn't help that I had yet to memorize my address and could
only be as specific as "near the old train station on Dame Gruev street."
After 30 minutes of uncomfortable questioning, he told us to wait downstairs. We were already anticipating the possibility of spending the
night in the Struga jail when he came down and told us we could go but to
be more careful next time. This was unnecessary advice.
The next day, back in the office in Skopje, we learned from Mentor, an
ethnic Albanian from the Kosovo region of Yugoslavia, that Serbian troops
had attacked Kosovar villages the day before, while we were being held in
the border station. And now, when I read the daily reports of the
escalating war in Kosovo and the plight of the innocent people, Serbian and
Albanian, who huddle frightened in their homes as the war rages around
them, I have more empathy. As an American, I carry with
me an innate sense of safety and security. To have that stripped away,
even for a few moments, is to see how many others, particularly in the
Balkans, have to live every day.