PART TWO-GIANT WOODPECKERS
Trip Start ??? 06, 2001
10Trip End ??? 07, 2001
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Where I stayed
This was,however,clearly a fight between two armies.Despite all the bad publicity about ethnic cleansing in the Balkans,civilians were not being targeted in this vicinity,at least.In fact,somewhat comically,locals on foot,in cars and even an occasional bus,passed in front of these tank positions,often mid-battle,with the bullets whistling over their heads.These included old Albanian men in skull caps,returning from town with bags of groceries,but never once was there any threat made to them,or by them,as we watched.Perhaps the government were happy to have them as intermittent human shields,deterring the UCK from firing into town so often,for fear of hitting their own side's people.This was the only road out of town to the north,and no one had thought to close it for safety's sake.
Every time shots were fired,everyone would turn their cameras to the hills in an attempt to record the punishment inflicted.Usually a period of very loud firing resulted in thirty seconds of nothing,followed by a small puff of smoke from high on the hills,identifying the location where rebels were supposed to be.
Most of this action soon became routine for all concerned,but was enlivened from time to time,by police vehicles arriving in a hail of screeching tyres for tactical discussions with the tank crews.The journalists also made it more fun for themselves by making a mad dash to some part-built houses behind the tanks,for an alternative angle,braving some open ground in between.Nobody really believed the rebels would shoot at us,but didn't want to be the first to take chances,all the same.
After a few hours of purveying this scene,I wandered off to explore the rest of town.Just to the east of the stadium firing positions,was a KFOR base,staffed by German soldiers,who showed no apparent interest in the war on their doorstep as they remained firmly in barracks,with no mandate to intervene.From time to time a convoy would leave for Kosovo,and on one occasion caused a traffic accident in the town a few blocks away,when a car collided with a military truck in the centre of the column,at a road junction.As NATO troops stood on the top of their tanks,while the situation was sorted,a backdrop of political graffiti about the Macedeonian conflict stared at them from a wall opposite.It's a good job that suicide bombers hadn't been heard of yet(except in Palestine),in this golden Age before 9/11.
Heading South from the gates of their base,I stumbled across a large sports field,from where,on the far side,an army platoon was firing mortars at the hills.Not only at the Kale,but further beyond to the rebel held villages at Selce,Shipkovica and Gajre.There was one very large mortar set up in the middle,and two smaller ones on either side-five in total.As I watched,all five were loaded and fired simultaneously,and then again and again repeatedly.The troops put their hands over their ears and turned away at each blast,which sounded very loud even from my position,perhaps a hundred yards away or more,at this stage.I moved around to the western end of this field,and took tea in a cafe at the corner,with a view of this battlefield Olympics.
Later I moved around for a closer view,on the southern side of the field.I was now only thirty yards from the guns,standing by a low wall on which somebody had daubed "Macedonia" in faded yellow paint.A crowd of local people huddled by the wall of the sports hall behind the mortar emplacements,presumed to be friends and family of the soldiers,and had a grandstand view from fifteen yards.
"Give me your camera?".I swung around to look at a fully uniformed policeman,complete with tin helmet and machine gun.He was one of several guarding the perimeter of the field at this point,and growled at me again from a few yards away.I mumbled back,something deliberately unintelligible,and walked slowly away.Whether this guy had seen me taking any shots,I do not know,but I wasn't going to lose my equipment so easily,and ambled away to avoid further confrontation.I had,in any case,seen enough of this particular theatre's stage show,and felt it was time to find accomodation.Fortunately,he did not follow,or holler after me.
I was still carrying the Yugoslav army holdall,which had accompanied me all day around the front line.I headed for the Hotel Macedonia on the corner of the main square.This was clearly the base for the press in this town,and armoured Land Rovers belonging to some of them lined the road outside.Unfortunately,my query at reception met with disappointment,as the hotel was full.Not surprising at $25 per night,with so many pros in town,I mused.
I wandered back out into the late afternoon sunshine,and explored further.In the backstreets between the city centre and the stadium,I was lucky enough to meet a local Turkish man who would allow me to stay in his parent's house.He was only young-perhaps in his early twenties-and didn't appear to share my enthusiasm for the conflict raging in his town.To him,this was an inconvenience and a nerve wracking worry for his family's property and livelihood.I suppose I might feel the same about war in my country,but here it was my travel adventure and I suppressed my visible interest in what was happening,so as not to put him out.His family had left for Skopje when war began,and he was minding the building,but was leaving himself to visit them the next day.So,I could stay for one night only,but hopefully the Hotel would have a spare room the next day.A small amount of food was provided,and after a late night foray into his garden to try and spot any gunfire,I retired for a comfortable sleep.
My plan was to see more of the action the next day,Tuesday,and then return to Skopje for my washing in the late afternoon.This was still at the dry cleaners where I had left it on Sunday night. Again I spent the day walking around town to all the action points,and then headed for the train station.As I was photographing the hills from a distance,in the more modern,and mostly Slav districts in the east of Tetovo,I was suddenly approached by two Slav men.Speaking to me in limited English,they told me to give them my camera,and then,when I refused,they told me to get into their car.I once again refused,so they insisted next that I walk with them to a soldier who was positioned nearby,at the entrance to a tower block,and allow him to check my ID.He was somewhat apologetic for the suspicion of the other men,and rapidly accepted my credentials and waved me on my way.
Half an hour later,I was at Tetovo railway station,waiting for the last train out of town before curfew.My peace was disturbed by a group of perhaps 7 or 8 soldiers,who surrounded me and told me to go with them.I was ordered at gunpoint into the back of a van.This vehicle had no seats in the back,and I was made to squat in the corner,while some of the men crowded in and pointed their weapons at me as we made our way to the local police station.On arrival,I was taken upstairs and sat in an office to await my interrogator.At least I hadn't been put in a cell,and I knew I had done no wrong.
Had I photographed something I shouldn't?Or was it just my presence here in this war ravaged town,that had aroused their suspicions?
It was ironic that I had never been asked for ID in all the time I had spent at the front line,but now,as I spent time in areas further from the action,or tried to leave town,I was made to feel like I was an extra in "The Cars That Ate Paris",a film I had seen late night on Channel Five,where a man had driven into Paris,Texas and was allowed to co-exist in a mad cap environment,but every time he tried to leave town he was threatened by men with monkey wrenches in country lanes and had to turn back.
I was questioned at some length about my purpose in Tetovo.As this interview continued,I became aware of the sound of loud blasts nearby,which rattled the windows of the office.We were placed with a direct view of the rebel held hills,although distant across town,and as I looked,even from here,they became increasingly shrouded in smoke.Peering down into the courtyard of the police station,I could see policemen crouching low behind sandbags,flinching every time there was another blast,as the windows rattled some more.This didn't seem like the best time to be in this building,and I asked how much longer they wanted to keep me.
To my relief,I was eventually informed that I was free to go.They had suspected the men who accosted me earlier of being potential kidnappers,but now were satisfied it was OK.They hadn't been after me for anything at all,although all of their questions had made me feel like the accused.A car was called,and I was invited to be taken anywhere I wanted to go.I thought I would have some fun with this driver,after my ordeal:
"Front Line,please,Driver", I retorted.The Slav Macedonian,huddled behind the steering wheel, rolled his eyes in semi-disbelief as I suggested that he drop me off in No Man's Land,between the hotel and the stadium,in the middle of Tetovo's biggest firefight yet.I don't think he approved of his paymasters,but he did his duty,and got me where I wanted to be.With luck,I would catch the rest of the action from the stadium.As I walked along the eastern edge of the square,two policemen in tin helmets dashed across the street ahead of me,to seek shelter in the doorway of the post office.Only mad dogs and Englishman,and all that,they must have been thinking,as the gawped at me making my way nonchalantly down the street in shirt sleeves and unarmed.
The guns were really giving it some,and the sound of explosions to my left was doing a good impression of Concorde crashing into your front room.Orange flames burst out of the smoke on occasion,when a good hit had gone in. In a narrow sheltered street,I passed a film crew,interviewing local civilians during the battle.It was almost dark now,and the headlights of their armoured jeep provided the only illumination.I left them to it and continued to the stadium front line.....Ben Brown's crew and other mediamen were doing their best to film tracer fire in the fading light..I was in time for the last 45 minutes of a two hour onslaught.Nice of the police to let me out for the second half!
I was left contemplating the possibility that they had staged the whole thing so that I didn't miss this,the biggest attack so far,of the conflict.I would have been half way to Skopje by now.....Or maybe they just needed a human shield,sat in view of the rebels,to deter a counter attack on their station.Probably,though,it was as they'd said,and the smoke covering the landscape was the only Fog of War for today.
I returned to the Hotel Macedonia.Now,with curfew rapidly approaching,I had no choice but to stay there tonight,...room or no room.
I hung around the lobby,contemplating the hotel that you could check out any time you like,but you can never leave.Not after 7 pm,anyhow,when the streets were cleared,and patrols enforced the curfew.Several dozen journalists and tens of thousands of inhabitants who might as well have been on an ASBO.A police car pulled up at the entrance and ordered the last press people inside.Another night's "Porridge" awaited,so my break for freedom hadn't lasted long! "Welcome to the Hotel Macedonia...";that name fitted so well.