GIANT WOODPECKERS-PART THREE
Trip Start ??? 06, 2001
10Trip End ??? 07, 2001
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During the previous night's "lock in",I had procured a single room,and was OK to keep it for 2 or 3 days,partly because John Phillips,The Times' chief reporter in Belgrade,who had been diverted temporarily to this assignment,had gone off to visit a rebel area to the west,which had been subjected to some of this bombardment,and I had been given his room.
I had ordered fish for evening meal in the dining room,but otherwise spent a relatively boring first night in the hotel,with most of the professionals seemingly too busy tapping away on their laptop keyboards,with deadlines to meet,to indulge in conversation,and most of the guys also sticking to their own team in a cliquey kind of way.Most were in pre-established groups of 4 or 5,travelling together in armoured jeeps,and didn't appear willing or able to allow outsiders to break into their domain.I settled for sideways glances at Ron Haviv,and a brief sentence or two with Jake,a war artist,and John Phillips himself.
In fact,John had been the first to talk to me when I first arrived at the hotel,on the Monday,asking me "who do you work for now?".Not quite sure how to take this,I mumbled back that I was freelance,and keen not to prejudice my position as an amateur in a relatively off limits town,I hoped that this would be sufficient explanation as to my credentials and right to co-exist.One of my concerns was that the Macedonian police would discover that I had no professional contract,and would make me leave town.Of course,since then they had proved quite the opposite,and made it harder to leave than stay.And now I was in John Phillips old room,so my position was getting more comfortable by the hour.
The only other journalist who showed any real interest in me was a Danish newspaper reporter,who decided that I would make a good story myself,and interviewed me over lunch one day.In the end I didn't like the sound of his angle on me,as he wanted to make a splash of the amateur adventurer side of things,not necessarily in a very complimentary way,for all I knew.When he said he needed a picture to be able to publish his article,I declined,not wanting to risk being denigrated all over Scandinavia,and seeing my chance to withdraw relatively gracefully.I wasn't offered any payment,other than a small salad that I ate as we were talking,and have been ridiculed in the press before,many years ago.I didn't want to go there again.
One bit of gossip I did pick up was that,while I was in Skopje,a large group of journalists,experienced as they are,had set off up the hill to try to interview the rebels,marching up the road adjacent to the Kale that leads out of the city centre,impassable during bombardments.It appears that they did reach rebel lines,but,uninvited and unexpected,they were lucky to only get shouted at and told to turn back.Worse still,upon their return to the city,they had been detained by the Macedonian police and questioned at the station about their unusual trek,before being released several hours later.It made my brush with the Law the day before look all the more trivial,albeit I was able to experience a police station under siege.I think most of them wished that they had left their washing in Skopje,and could have had a better day out.Definitely a bad day at the office!
Mind you I was still jealous of them,because I would have liked to meet the rebels,however briefly.This sowed the seeds of my adventure to come in the next summer(see "Magic Roundabout").When they saw me reading my book,entitled "Albania...history",in the dining room that night,they wished I had gone with them,and taken the book as a peace offering to the rebels!
The curfew officially ended at midnight on the Wednesday night,and many of the journalists stayed up all night to give immediate reports of any renewed fighting.I took advantage of my amateur status,and the freeedom of choice that goes with it,and went off to make use of that room.Predictably enough,no action had been forthcoming when I came down for breakfast next morning,and my theory that the Government wouldn't want to make their desire for warfare appear too hasty,by starting again so immediately after a ceasefire,didn't go down too well with the baggy eyed dishevelled looking cast who drooped before me in the lobby.
Most of them would be going to bed now,just in time to miss the renewal of hostilities,which began at roughly 9-30 am on the Thursday morning.
I had already set off to the old Albanian district to chat with the local folk who populated the most colourful part of town.My plan was to head to the stadium immediately the guns started,and I was deep in conversation with some of the local cafe society,when the boom and crash and thud and rattle of mortar and machine gun fire ignited again.I had spent the previous day pining after this sound,worried that I might never hear it again if the ceasefire turned into a peace deal so soon.Two days of action in my life,and I was already hooked on it.My appetite was unsatiated,and my ambition to see more and more was still raw.
I silently rejoiced at this confirmation of the continuation of the conflict,but continued to converse with these Albanians who were just getting to a juicy bit in the conversation.They had been telling me about two horses,a black one and a white one,that had been machine gunned by the Macedonian police as they galloped down the Kale hill road,and whose bodies still lay in the road a short distance away from where we spoke,days after the incident.
"Zulu Warrior horses",I thought to myself."That story will go down well with the football hooligans of the team I support back home",who have had a longstanding thing about black and white fighting together,since the early 1980's,when the two tone movement in Britain dominated youth culture.
The Albanians elaborated some more,describing their feelings towards their "brothers" in the hills,and their potential willingness to join the fight if this war continued.They explained the politics of the conflict,and the demand for Albanian rights,which hadn't been fairly incorporated into the Macedonian constitution upon independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.One of the journalists,the Daniel Demoustier lookalike,was also in the area,and appeared to be filming me with his TV camera, as I talked to them.I hoped he wasn't procuring pictures on behalf of that Dane,I thought,but he had seemed like a pleasant guy as we shared wall space near the stadium three days earlier.
Finally,one of the Albanians walked me off to see the ancient multi coloured mosque.This beautiful edifice had been the victim of unnecessary aggravated vandalism in recent days,he was telling me.He had witnessed a Macedonian tank rolling up to it and firing machine gun bullets into it,and the scars were there for all to see.Maybe UNESCO will kick up so much fuss,like with Dubrovnik ten years earlier,that the war will end.I somehow doubted that but went along to see what he was talking about.The people here were very accomodating,and willing to assist anyone who might report on their predicament.This was a refreshing attitude in comparison to the disrespect and often hostility to the media in Britain.
As we returned to his neighbourhood,a street trader shouted across to us that two people had been shot at the stadium.I hurriedly thanked him for his time and information,and then strode off to investigate.I should have been there when it happened,but by a twist of fate,I had been held up by some very pleasing hospitality,and a smaller story of my own.
By the time I arrived,the street had been cordoned off,a police car parked in the road and the journalists ushered back forty yards up the street.This isn't supposed to happen in war zones,I thought,fed on dramatic movies of historic conflicts,and carrying romantic notions of what war meant.Only in peacetime Britain would access to an incident be so resticted so soon.I gazed across at the glazed expression on the faces of Ron Haviv and the rest of the pack,unsure as to how many of them had actually been present at the shooting.Meanwhile,I followed three other guys into somebody's front garden,and edged along a wall and beneath a railing in an attempt to get the closest pictures I could of this depressing scene.In the distance was a light grey saloon,it's doors wide open,parked opposite the usual police tank position.An APC arrived and two men got out to clean up this site.The bodies of the unfortunate victims could just be made out,lying sprawled on the ground.One was spread over the gutter,just in front of the car.The older man was laid out on the pavement to the rear.For the first time all week,a large Macedonian flag,with it's vivid red and yellow segments,flew high on a flagpole attached to the police tank,as if raised in triumph.To the uninitiated,it appeared to be an unnecessary act of glorification of this dismal scene,although it may have had some greater military significance as the bodies were eventually recovered.I tried to go down a back street for a closer look ,but this had also been blocked and a curious crowd of TV cameramen and locals gathered in the cloudy greyness of this late spring morning.Within one hour of the end of a 36 hour ceasefire,there had been death in the streets of the city for the first time since I had arrived,and one could only feel sad for the victims.Exactly why this had come to be would reveal itself over the next couple of days. & amp; amp; nbsp;