MAGIC ROUNDABOUT-A JOURNEY TO REBEL MACEDONIA.
Trip Start ??? 06, 2001
10Trip End ??? 07, 2001
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My primary aim of this trip was to visit the rebel side of this war,and on my first morning I spied a face that I recognised from the Tetovo spring offensive 3 months earlier.His name was Hans,a Dutch photographer.He was,as always,draped in expensive photographic equipment,including 2 cameras with long lenses,and a safari hat.It transpired that he had arrived in Macedonia only the day before,and was intending to reach the rebel enclave in the Black Mountain area to the North of Skopje later that day.He was in the company of Marko,a Dutch mercenary.
Hans had already arranged for Marko to escort him to the dark side of this conflict,and it was soon agreed that I could accompany them.The other two set off to the rendezvous point at a city centre pavement cafe,while I made my way to the indoor shopping centre to use the cashpoint machine.When I rejoined them the first thing they said was "Did you hear the mortar?" I had heard nothing because I was indoors,but they described to me the sound of an explosion that had carried from the eastern outskirts .Following recent territorial gains the rebels were now at the gates of the city,and within mortar distance of the international airport.British Airways had cancelled all flights to this Balkan capital.Peace talks were on-going in the lakeside tourist resort of Ohrid in the Southwest,but the conflict had escalated and feelings were running high as many villagers fled from KLA incursions,and Albanian civilians complained of Government reprisals.A new paramilitary group called The Tigers,apeing the Arkan Tigers from Serbia,was now recruiting,as the local Slavs sought to defend their interests.
This was the fourth Albanian uprising of recent years.In 1997,the homeland itself rose up in a madcap revolution in protest at the collapse of pyramid schemes,many linked with the countries first elected Government,who were basically communist relics,and corrupt.I had witnessed for myself this country on the brink in 1995.In the new found freedom,private enterprise was in it's early experimental phase.Some people began a new public transport service,running often clapped out minivans around the nation's potholed roads.Other's made illegal bucks smuggling petroleum into Yugoslavia across the northern border in a lucrative sanctions busting exercise.I saw them returning to Tirana to deposit pouchfuls of their ill gotten gains in hard currency into the nation's only banks.More serious mafiosi crime was beginning,including drug and people smuggling.And for many,unemployment was the norm,with large groups of redundant men often trying to persuade unwary travellers into taxis,hoping for a small commission for themselves from perhaps an inflated fare.
No wonder then that the country erupted in rage and fury when their often illegal earnings were misappropriated by those higher up in the corrupt pecking order.Out of control crowds ran the police out of many towns and villages across the nation,especially in the South.Army bases were raided and weapons seized.In Vlore,artillery guns were set up on the approach road to the city,to prevent the authorities re-taking the town.The crisis only subsided when a NATO mission called AFOR was sent in to restore order,and begin a reconstruction campaign.An amnesty was presented for weapons to be handed in,but many of the guns were instead re-directed to the north and smuggled into neighbouring Yugoslavia's Albanian dominated province of Kosovo.
The KLA had until now been a small and almost unheard of resistance group,but by 1998 they had openly declared war on the Serbian regime,and turned a region that had seen peaceful protest and a parallel society,into a conflict zone,as the hardliners such as Hashim Thaci,who saw no hope in peaceful protests changing the situation,became more powerful than pacifist leaders like Ibrahim Rugova,and actively recruited popular support.NATO's KFOR mission sided with the Albanian majority,and bombing followed by invasion set up an autonomous Kosovan state with majority rule,under UN auspices.
As part of this deal,Serbian armed forces were even denied access to a buffer zone on the perimeter of Kosovo and Serbia,for fear of a counter attack on their part.This,however,was capitalised on by the Albanians,who began another guerilla insurgency by forces called UCPMB,who raided across the border to attack unarmed Serb police units in the majority Albanian villages in South Serbia of Presevo,Medveda,andBujanovac,hence the rebel army's name.
Eventually some Serb forces were allowed back into this buffer zone and quelled the situation,but as this was still going on,Albanian dominated border regions of Macedonia began an uprising in protest at their unfair treatment since independence from Yugoslavia.They wanted equal rights,a fair education system and their own language to be enshrined in a new constitution.From small beginnings in the border village of Tanusevci,just across from Kosovo,in January 2001,the conflict escalated to include all the northern and western Macvedonian border regions.In March 2001,rebels of the UCK force appeared on the hills over Tetovo.This group's name had the same initals as in Kosovo,but actually referred to the Ushtria Clirimtare E Kombatare(not E Kosoves),translated as the Albanian National Army in the western press.After 2 weeks of rebels sending occasional mortar or sniper fire into the town,the more heavily armed Government forces in the town drove them back with an uphill offensive,following days of a softening up exercise where they bombarded rebel positions with heavy machine gun,tank and mortar fire.
I was present for most of this conflict,and my more detailed account can be found under Giant Woodpeckers and Twitchers' TET Offensive,on this website.
Back in Skopje,2001,and we were soon joined at our table by some aid workers known to Marko. Despite having pointed out 2 men sitting opposite as government agents,Marko merrily discussed our upcoming adventure into rebel territory with these acquaintances.He began to make calls on his mobile phone to commanders who were in the enclave.We moved on to an Albanian district,where another call was made,and then sat at another cafe until the rebels turned up in two vehicles,both unmarked ordinary cars,to drive us to the interface village of Ljuboten,from where we would join a mule train after dark to Matejce.
They came,naturally enough,in plain clothes,and as we rode in front with only our driver,the rebels rode behind in their vehicle.We travelled like this out of the capital,passing the hotel headquarters where we had obtained our NATO KFOR press passes two years before,and out into the countryside.All the while,we kept in radio contact with the support vehicle,who themselves were in touch with people on the road ahead.In this way we avoided government road blocks,who most probably would have stopped us in our tracks.They had recently decreed under a state of emergency that no journalists were allowed to visit the rebel side any more.They did not like the bad publicity that this was giving them.Although our first port of call was still strictly speaking within government held areas,even travelling this far would have aroused suspicion and a likelihood of being halted in our tracks.
Suddenly our driver began jabbering that the accompanying vehicle had turned back.He quickly stopped the car,got out on the roadside,and,leaving his door wide open,ran as fast as his legs would carry him across the fields to our left,disappearing over the horizon.We stood around bemused,but nonchalant,and decided to sit by the roadside and await developments.Marko started to tell us about the three journalists he had escorted the week before.On that occasion they had gone via Romanovce,on the opposite side of the rebel held Black Mountains from us,to the east near to the city of Kumanovo.Afterwards,on the way back to Skopje,they had been stopped at a roadblock,and had all their cameras smashed and photographs seized.
Filled with this cheery thought,Hans demonstrated his camera's long lens to me,to show me how far away you could see through it.At this point we spotted 2 helicopters,flying from right to left across our field of view.Initially we thought they were NATO choppers flying to Kosovo as part of KFOR.However,as they got closer,it became clear that they were the Ukrainian gunships,on loan,complete with pilots,to the Macedonian government,which had already been used extensively against the Albanian rebels.They disappeared behind a hill,after which we heard the sound of them firing missiles.They then flew back into Skopje,low over the city and on to the airport,on the far side.What came to mind was "We counted them out,and we counted them all back in again".. that famous quotation from the Falklands conflict.How many were there? Two! OK,not that dramatic,but we had witnesssed a helicopter gunship mission,from a fine setting,perched halfway up a hillside,with a view over the whole of Skopje in the middle distance to our right.
We may be a bit slow on the uptake,I don't know,but only later did we consider whether the attack was meant for us,if our cars hadn't been forewarned and stopped in time.This possibility was increased the following day when we were informed that the missiles had hit their own side..Friendly Fire...perhaps we had had a lucky escape.
Before long another Albanian arrived to replace our driver.He and Marko sniggered over the less than brave actions of the disappeared one,and we continued our journey,after an afternoon of being chased around Macedonia by helicopter gunships.
There was just the small matter of one unavoidable checkpoint to negotiate on the edge of Ljuboten.The other car had now rejoined us,and it was decided that it would drive ahead.As it was having it's boot searched,we drove up behind,and were waved through,by Albanian conscripts of the Macedonian army!
Despite the ongoing conflict,war had never been officially declared,and society continued to integrate as much as possible.This led to questionable loyalties of some of the regular's staff.Fear meant that the Macedonians preferred to deploy Albanians near to this rebel territory,but it led to inevitable security compromises.So,as Marko would say,we got away with "the oldest trick in the book" by sending another car ahead to be searched to increase our chances of passing unnoticed.
Ljuboten was a mixed village,but with an Albanian majority.Everybody we met appeared to be in the resistance.It appeared to be the sort of place where you would expect Monique from Secret Army to pop up,at any minute.
We were driven to a safe house,where we sat in the garden as the hosts waited upon us.The man of the house came and told us his story of being imprisoned by the police the previous year,and of being beaten while in custody.He lifted his shirt,and showed us the scars on his back.Two revolvers were lovingly unwrapped from their hessian covers and shown off to us,and we were left in no doubt as to what they would like to do with them.
During our time here we were visited by more KLA people.who wanted to see our credentials.Somewhat comically,I was passed straight away by virtue of my KFOR pass from 1999.The fact that it had expired made no difference to the rebels.Marko,on the other hand,despite all that he had done for the KLA,had to argue longer to gain another repeat visit,and his story that he was investigating a possible gas attack on villagers by Macedonian troops,having gained forensic evidence in Holland since his last excursion to Matejce,was all that swung it for him in the end,even if proof of CS gas use was hardly tantamount to the chemical warfare that he was bigging it up to be.
We waited for dark,and discussed borrowing coats for me and Hans,to help us across the mountains through the cold night.Suitably provided for,and looking all the more like locals,we set off by car with yet another driver through the pitch blackness of village streets at around 9 pm,our headlights switched off so as not to arouse suspicion.Ljuboten was tacitly controlled by the government in the daytime,but after dark,the rebels came out to play.
A ten minute journey brought us to our rendezvous point,at the foothills of the Black mountains.A group of about a dozen UCK rebel Albanian soldiers were already there,kitted out in full green camouflage uniforms,with their UCeKombatare insignias distinctive on their shoulder flashes.A discussion was held about Hans's white trousers and whether they might be visible to the enemy1
It was decided to risk it,and I had reason to be glad of this faint illumination(as did Hans,who didn't fancy a naked midnight ramble).I spent much of the journey nose to tail with Hans's heels,as the only way to follow the column ahead,struggling as we were to keep up in such blind circumstances.I bagsed Dougal,from Magic Roundabout,early on in all of this,and chuckling to myself,I left the others to squabble over Florence and Zebedee.But I knew what I thought with Hans's girly white trousers,and M hopping mad,at times,over UCK indiscipline,and the difficulty of our journey.I kept this little joke to myself as a comforting thought as we trudged through the night,but burst out laughing when I saw them in bed together later that night.
A couple more UCK joined us,and then we set off,talking in hushed whispers,and breathing hard as we ascended a very high and steep slope without a proper footpath to follow.At about the halfway point up the first slope,we were joined by mules,packhorsed with supplies for the rebel army in the enclave,including food,weapons and ammunition.
Our way switched from scrub,to a path,to rough ground again,and the walking pace was fierce.It was also impossible to see your hand in front of your face for most of the journey,let alone hazards such as potholes,or brambles that came unexpectedly out of the night,and very often we stumbled or fell behind.I was not helped by a swollen ankle,caused by wearing worn out shoes for too long,and exacerbated by a climb of Mount Olympus in Greece 2 1/2 weeks before.How much easier that had been! This was beginning to have all the elements of a forced march,and we had every reason to be grateful for the outstretched helping hands of the rebel soldiers when they came back for us and dragged us up the slopes.I've always thought that I was fit,but they had great strength,and must have been feasting on carrots for months to be able to navigate so well,without using any light that would have alerted the government forces in the valley below to our presence,and possibly lead to an attack against us.They were truly the Magic Rabbits of this circular frolic,as we looped around the mountain,and finally summitted in the early hours of the next morning.
Looking down from our lofty mountain perch,during our circular walk,we initially had a view of the lights of Skopje,and then eventually of the airport and Kumanovo,and the roads that run at right angles between them.Traffic still passed between them,and I thought how easy it would be for the rebels to attack this road if they wanted to,and the illuminated dinky cars that travelled the highways.
I also remembered back to the previous few days spent in Macedonia,as we walked,mostly in silence.I had entered the country from Albania,crossing from Pogradec to Sveti Naum and along the shores of Lake Ohrid to Ohrid town.Unlike 1995,when I had travelled in the opposite direction,hitching part of it on a milk float,and walking the rest,I managed to catch the morning bus.A local Macedonian soldier got on partway,shuffling with embarrasment at having to carry a rifle in this rural retreat,probably for the first time in his career.We passed others looking similarly glum.
I stopped then at Bitola,and hired a taxi to drive me to the "burnt houses",put to the torch during a Macedonian "Kristallnacht" in two separate incidents in recent weeks.
On both occasions,Slav policeman from the town had been killed near to Tetovo,and their funerals in Bitola had been followed by mob violence.Equipped with lists of the addresses of Albanian citizens, the angry mourners and hangers-on had selectively avenged themselves upon these properties,and their inhabitants if any chose to resist.
The damage done was scattered around the town,with never more than two or three houses in one street having been attacked.This was less dramatic visually than cleansed areas I have seen in places like Bosnia,but proof all the same of systematic attack,and perhaps all the more cold blooded,at that.It also smacked of official cooperation,if not support.
I was in Skopje by nightfall,and the following day visited Kumanovo.The bus travelled east to the airport,and then north along the main road,and we all stared across at the mountains that we were skirting,wondering whether there really were rebels out there.Now I can safely say "There's rebels in them thar hills,alright!"
The rebels,who we were now visiting,were also in control of the reservoir to the north of the Black Mountains,and so the city of Kumanovo had had no water supply for the last week.People filled buckets from tankers in the street,while policemen drove around town in open backed jeeps,hiding their faces by wearing balaclavas,appearing intimidating to others,as well as proving their own fear at being recognised by rebels and being attacked themselves.
I drove out of town,again by taxi,which were much cheaper here than in Britain,to visit an aid convoy that had been sat by the roadside on the way to Lipkovo,for the last week,held up at a police checkpoint,as officials attempted to gain permission for it to supply the villagers,who were stuck in the rebel held enclave,for the first time in weeks.Several journalists waited in their cars with them,hoping to be allowed to accompany the convoy when agreement was reached.
At one point on the bus journey back to Skopje,we were overtaken by a convoy of Macedonian soldiers.The men sat in the covered back of the trucks,which tolled large artillery pieces behind them.
Back in the capital,I saw one man moving his wordly goods into the city on the back of a horse drawn cart.Many thousands of people were now refugees,but others remained in rebel territory,which had been subjected to heavy shelling recently and fears were growing for their welfare.Not that this bothered the Macedonian police and army.When I tried to visit Skopje's hilltop castle,for old time's sake,I found it closed to tourists,and occupied by Government forces,who were extremely suspicious of anyone who came close.Obviously they didn't want the rebels getting in the castle,or they would probably have never got them out!
Our walk was paused only to collect fresh water from a mountain stream,which the mules also took from.More rebels had gradually joined our column,rising from hilltop sangars,and there was a sense of excitement as we neared our destination.
"Ssshhh,...policia",commanded one man as we rounded the summit.Hard to believe as it was,there were apparently police positions in the middle of the mountains,and the KLA hoped to creep by unnoticed.My sudden groan of pain from my sore ankle,when it had again twisted in an unseen pothole,had not pleased him.When Marko slipped over later in the walk,he kept impeccably silent,only to be surrounded in moments by his devotees,asking how he was and making enough fuss to wake the dead.
Our final approach saw us leave the steep,and often wooded escarpments behind,and come out onto a flat plateau,with panoramic views.Our mediaeval army of footmen and mules trudged on,illuminated for the first time by the moon,which we now only saw when we had nearly got there....to the Dark side of the moon ,that is.Just a little further,but back into the undergrowth,each man swinging a lighted cigarette butt in his hand as we finally put several hours of blind man's buff and pin the tail on the donkey behind us.Making the final approach through thick mud,-I almost balked at the several inches of slime we had to wade through,but Marko's barked order of "It's only mud-get in" galvanised me into action- we slipped,staggered and stumbled into Matejce monastery in the dead of night,to be greeted by the local monastery commander and his men.Seated on a big chair that could almost have been a throne,in the apse of the cathedral,his men around him on lower stools,the commander was clearly milking his new found status,playing a game of chess with one of his subordinates while being served with tea from a big pot.He was the first link in the chain of command down which we would now pass,and we couldn't do anything or go anywhere without his permission.
Beds were found for us in a monastery building that had been converted into a barracks.For some reason,Marko and Hans shared a double,while I was in the next room.Conditions were spartan,but acceptable.
Just before we turned in,Marko suddenly mentioned money for the first time.
He wanted "2000" for the trip from each of us.I nearly choked into my imaginary cup of cocoa,thinking he might mean U.S dollars.Fortunately,he was talking in Macedoniann Dinar.Not bad for about $80.
Breakfast was the soldier's favourite,a tin of corned beef roasted over an open fire,behind the barracks.Some like it hot,I suppose.For me it was a first.
Marko regaled us with tales of the Japanese journalist he had brought here a few days earlier.An early morning mortar salvo from the Government forces below had sent him running out of the barracks in a panic as they screeched low over the building.We chuckled about this for a while,yet somewhat disappointed to not have a similar experience.Damn the ceasefire!
Of course this was a Balkan ceasefire,so at least we still had machine gun,RPG and helicopter gunship possibilities.Only the mortars and tanks were silent for a few days.
A rumbling noise became audible in the background.Everybody paused to listen,wondering if it was an enemy chopper.All around us,as we ate,were KLA troops positioned in trenches,their makeshift anti aircraft weapons pointed at the skies,hoping to shoot down some of these helicopters.After a while,we decided the noise was only a tractor,and continued our breakfast.Apparently the Japanese guy had been able to visit the site of a downed chopper,with the dead pilots still within,but they had now been repatriated.
The young soldiers in the trenches insisted that they were all local Macedonians,and that they were fighting for their own villages.Nobody admittted to being from Albania or Kosovo,and I had no reason to disbelieve them.
Marko pointed out the Macedonian police positions in the valley below,as we waited to continue our journey.
After a lot of sitting around,we were eventually escorted down the mountain in a 2 vehicle convoy.The lead car had it's dark green livery sprayed with KLA slogans in white paint.Neither of the cars had any windows in,to facilitate a rapid escape if they were hit by enemy fire.The monastery commander got into the driver's seat of our car,and a large female in black KLA uniform sat alongside.A Kalashnikov rested between them on the handbrake.We rolled quite quickly downhill,the branches of the thick woodland around us occasionally snapping inside the open car."It reminds me of what I've heard about the jungle of Vietnam" mused Hans.
Only one section of the descent was potentially exposed to Govt view,and we rode untroubled into the ghost town of Matejce.The town was almost completely destroyed,and 2 wild horses running around unfettered appeared to be the only life.We were to return here,but for now passed straight through to the less damaged and more inhabited village of Lipkovo.Our fist port of call was to the Mayor's office.We sat at a long table and awaited his arrival.A huge Albanian flag filled the wall at the far end,and after a while a number of black uniformed KLA stood on the raised platform in front of it and began to use their mobile phones.They were making arrangements for the arrival of the aid convoy,the one that I had seen on the road outside Kumanovo 2 days earlier.Today it was expected to be granted permission to enter the rebel territory.
The mayor and local commander gave us permission to be in the town and found us somewhere to stay.A local family had a spare room,and we moved in immediately.They had a beautiful garden within their walled compound,with fruit bearing trees,and it was a pleasant oasis.
When I went out to explore,some local villagers insisted on showing me the damage done by Govt tankfire just two mornings before.Every house had converted it's basement to a bomb shelter,but it hadn't been enough to save the family of one house which had taken three casualties as they slept.About 5 or 6 houses showed similar damage,but overall this town was in good condition compared to the rest of the enclave.
Later in the afternoon,we were to drive out to meet the aid convoy,as they crossed the front line.We assembled in another 2 vehicle convoy,and this time drove extremely quickly,not even stopping at the KLA roadblocks,whose personnel rapidly jumped out of the road as we approached.This road was quite exposed to Govt fire,being right on the edge of the hillside,and the valley below.We observed large KLA gun emplacements at intervals along this road,but not much else as the scenery flashed by in a blur.
When we arrived at the village of Slupcane,there was a short while to wait.We discovered many dead cows lying around the village,and Marko pointed out a gas cannister in the river that he believed could have been responsible for this,after being dropped from a Govt helicopter.A villager took me for a ride on his motorbike up and down the village.
The convoy of several large trucks arrived at the KLA position.All the drivers ID cards were checked at gunpoint,before they were allowed to pass.As this was happening,an open pickup truck with a large mounted machine gun,filled with KLA fighters,including women,paraded up and down the road alongside,in a deliberate show of force.
ALL THE WAY TO RENO
If Marko(or Moussa) wants to go to Aracinovo,then to Aracinovo we must go.
Actually I was quite glad.After all,you don't go all the way to rebel held Macedonia and then skimp on the job,do you?
Moussa was keen to get back to Skopje quickly to get himself a nice little earner,by escorting Peter from Reuters to the place where we were now.He had heard that there was a "corridor" from "Rino" to the capital city,and no self-respecting action man was going to let half the Macedonian armed forces and a few mine fields stand in his way.
The Rambo vision didn't last long upon our arrival in Aracinovo.We were quickly escorted to the HQ of Commander Hoxha-the same man who had caused BA to cancel all flights,after threatening that the rebels would mortar the airport since their seizure of this village had put them within range.
After being served tea by "al Qaeda in Macedonia",the only "raghead" we saw on the trip and Mr Hoxha's second in comand,the latter showed that he clearly had more sense than M.
"No,No,No...that would be far too dangerous" was his rapid decision,"you should go back the way you came".
"I will take a gun and fight my way through" explained Moussa,but to no avail.
Cmmdr Hoxha had already made up his mind.Mention of a "corridor",and it's apparent precariousness,had brought me visions of a furrow,as in plough and furrow,and M trying to crawl along on his belly as hostile forces attacked from all sides,perhaps dragging me along in his wake as he guided me back to Skopje.
At least his reckless fantasy had got us the full tour,and we'd made it to the rebel village that was most out on a limb,but I was glad not to be being dragged back to Skopje through a ditch,especially not in a body bag!
"I think we'd better get you back to civilisation as soon as we can,Moussa ,old son.The sun seems to have gone to your head and scorched your brains.But at least let's take the safer route!
No $80(at least that's what we paid) can be worth excessive risk".
Dinner time in Aracinovo had been eagerly awaited.
This frontline rebel-held village was not a safe place to explore.
We had arrived at 21-30 the previous evening,and I,at least,had spent all day confined in a house at the top end of town,where our trail had entered after a 2-3 hour stroll down from Matejce.After our meeting with Cmmdr Hoxha in that first hour,we had slept in a house on the northern edge of the village that night and then crossed the road to the logistics base the following morning.The other two had returned to the Cmmdr's to play with Eran's computer,with which he could broadcast to the outside world,even from this isolated location.....almost impregnable to man,but not to telecommunications.I had been left behind,as to travel in this dangerous village was on an "essential personnel only basis",and my presence,antiquated film camera et al,was not required by the commander as he gained an insight into the World of the Web.
I spent most of that afternoon quietly fuming about being left out,and my annoyance didn't dissipate on their return,when I learned that Eran had obtained good pictures of war casualties- some local farmers hit by RPG rockets-who had been brought into the Commander's base.
Moussa told me that a bullet had whistled over Eran's head just after they left our logistics base,underlineg that it would have been dangerous and unnecessary for me to risk going with them,but I was still disappointed.I asked after the casualties,and he told me that he had driven them down to the Macedonian checkpoint to get them to Skopje hospital.I'm not sure if he was being serious.Or maybe this was another breakout attempt by M,with Peter's cheque book in mind!
Anyway,..back to the meal rota.They do say that...
JOHNNY SERB NEVER MISSES HIS DINNER.
Maybe the Macedonian snipers are the same.It had been deemed too dangerous to go out all day,so we sat in listening to the occasional ping of bullets on the road outside.However at 17-30,the KLA suddenly invited us out to dinner! Official ceasefire,presumption,or bravado,...I never quite found out,but was glad of the chance to see some of the village,and to eat hot food for the first time for 60 hours.
We sneaked out of our logistics base the back way,feeling like Diana in Paris,and I don't think it was to avoid any waiting Paparazzi.The Hunter hunted,and all that.We climbed over the garden wall,and made our way through two other gardens,before then walking in single file behind our solo KLA armed escort,past the mosque,in a quite exposed neighbourhood.After going around a block of houses,we ended up in an open barn extension,with a roof,but no sides.
Only Moussa,Eran and I were to eat ,and a pot of meat was placed on a table already waiting for us.A "football team" of KLA soon arrived,however.They apparently were here to provide the cabaret for their honoured guests,and one of them fired his pistol at 2 cats sat on a wall opposite,as we ate,making an unexpectedly loud bang from several feet away,that sounded louder than the tanks in Tetovo in the Spring.Then another picked up his rifle,and,with another deafening bang,blasted away at the cats.They disappeared behind the wall,and we couldn't tell if they had been hit,or just run away.
It was at this point that Eran suddenly lost his appetite,or at least decided to make a rapid conversion to vegetarianism,and passed me his bowl of meat stew.I eagerly tucked in to the first meat we had eaten since breakfast 2 mornings before,when we heated a whole tin of corned beef over an open fire......I had never eaten meat that tasted quite like this before,but only thinking back later did I put two and two together and realise what was going through Eran's mind.Call me slow on the uptake,if you like,but only when we had returned to the civilisation of Skopje did it dawn on me that we might have been eating the local cats.Perhaps the two we saw being shot at were to be the next day's offering to the next unsuspecting journalist who was passed down the line! To Peter of Reuters,in fact.Should we warn him? On reflection,he was probably better left to his fate.But when the war is over,and the villagers return,if anybody finds their pet Tiddles missing,I might just be able to shed light on their loss.
Upon my return to England,it was nice to be serenaded in the charts by REM's latest hit "All the way to Reno".
It made me think of Aracinovo,and I still wonder if the band were in the loop?
I hope they never play Skopje,or it will be the shortest gig they ever do.
Reminscent,perhaps,of U2's rooftop concert in New York,until the plug was pulled to the legendary sentence "we're being closed down"..especially if they start with "All the way to Reno" as their opening number,you can just see the police breaking it up in moments,as the Albanians dance in the aisles is cut all too short.
Nobody ever could pronounce Aracinovo properly,and in true military fashion REM came up with the best abbreviation.Three years later I saw Michael Stipe on the Madrid metro system,and he gave me a sour look in passing.Draw your own conclusions from that.