June 30, 2008

The Road to Kosovo, Part II

My friend and traveling companion Sean LaFreniere and I awoke at first light on the shores of Montenegro. We originally planned to catch a bus or a taxi up the mountains into Kosovo, but we still had a few hours before it was time to drop off the rental car. So we took a brief detour into nearby Albania, the country that, at least until recently, had the reputation for being the most politically, economically, and criminally dysfunctional in all of Europe.

Robert Young Pelton's Web site Come Back Alive still warns would-be travelers about the region where Sean and I were headed:

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 30, 2008 2:50 AM
Great article Michael. Thank you.
Incidentally, do you ever permit your images to be used? I so love that "No Honking" sign. I would dearly love to be able to use it on a post I have planned about the menace of Horn related noise pollution.
Posted by: Limbic at June 30, 2008 5:26 am
I would refer to the military equipment as "NATO vehicles." NATO doesn't have forces of its own, it has forces under it's control. This may sound like splitting hairs, but it matters. NATO, while doing a lot of good in Kosovo, is composed from the forces of many nations, the reputations of each being variable.
Of course, if you like getting NWO conspiracy theorists commenting on your blog, you can leave it as it stands, but...
Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at June 30, 2008 9:03 am
Well, I was thoroughly disappointed that Michael didn't mention the black helicopters nor all the compass and square symbols spray painted on the walls.
Posted by: Pat Patterson at June 30, 2008 11:47 am
Yes, you can use the photo with attribution.
Ok, I made your hair-splitting edit.
Pat Patterson,
Too bad for you!
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 30, 2008 11:49 am
I took the liberty of mapping out your actual trip (the northern path) and your intended trip (the southern path) on Yahoo! Maps. I hope I got it right; the satellite view seems to indicate that you'd skip North Mitrovica and head straight to South, even arriving from Serbia. Perhaps you can play with the map to show us your actual route if I got something wrong. (In any event, don't use Google for the Balkans. If it gives you a path at all, it'll give you one like this.)
Posted by: calbear at June 30, 2008 12:51 pm
There is still a strong strain of chivalric code in the military, and the term "owned" has commercial connotations. We are not merchants, and eschew mercantile terms. It's one of those little things that lets us look down our noses at the people making much more money than we are.
Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at June 30, 2008 12:55 pm
I'm so glad you finally got to Albania, even if it was only to Shkodra!
I believe you said in an earlier post that you thought Kosova was the most pro-American country in Europe. Since I haven't been there, I can't comment, but even if that were true, Albania isn't far behind.
I spent four months, off and on, in Albania in 2004-05, while my wife was a Peace Corps volunteer in Elbasan, and I taught a short course in Democracy and Citizenship at the university in Elbasan.
Albanians would never, and I mean never, act as the Come Back Alive guy said. They are most solicitous of visitors.
When I visited Albania, I always wore Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, western shirts, and often a Stetson. At 6'2", I'm at least a head taller than the average Albanian man, and I was obviously an American. I never once in my travels felt afraid for my security anywhere in Albania.
One evening in Elbasan my wife and I were walking home from her work. A man came out of his home to retrieve his son who was playing in the street. He took one look at me, dressed as described above, smiled, gave me thumbs up, and said, "George Bush, Number One!"
Albanians are great admirers of the much maligned W. In honor of his visit to Albania in September 2007 the government issued a postage stamp with W's picture, and another commemorative stamp showing the Statue of Liberty with the US and Albanian flags in the background.
Albanians' support of the US is not limited to our saving Albanian skins in Kosovo. They also support us in our venture in Iraq. As one woman in the tiny village of Voskopoje told my wife and me: "Our country knows terrorism. We lived under a terrorist {Hoxha} for 45 years! If only America had liberated us like it liberated the people of Iraq!! We prayed for something like that to happen to us."
And, from my brief observations, Macedonians are pretty enthusiastic about the US, too. I think that if you stay away from the elites just about any place in the former communist Europe, with the possible exception of Serbia, you'll find pretty consistent pro-Americanism, or at least not much anti-!
Thanks for your fine reporting. We're going back to Albania next June (2009), and we can't wait to get back to Montenegro, either!
Posted by: Mike In Oregon at June 30, 2008 1:03 pm
One detail to put the 700,000 bunker figure into proper context: Albania's population under Hoxha's regime was around 3 million. Also, the actual number of aggregate bunkers is closer to 800,000.
So you do the math: Accross the entire country, there was supposed to be nearly 1 bunker per nuclear family-unit of man, woman, and child! How is that for bat-shit crazy?
Michael: "Hoxha, who ranks among the most thoroughly oppressive tyrants in history, made Tito's dictatorship look libertarian."
Sadly, that's not even a hyperbole. I recently had a chance to watch the highly acclaimed German film "The Lives of Others", about the intriguing reach of the Stasi into the lives of East German citizens. I highly recommend the movie, though it happened to make me laugh through and through. It is undoubtedly supposed to pull Westerners' heartstrings by offering a dramatized recreation of what applied communism was like to live under.
With Hoxha's legacy on my family's shoulders though, this fairly realistic film made the East-German dystopia look like a paradise, and the protagonists' drama seemed like a lighthearted fairytale by comparison.
I am currently working to create English subtitles for a most jarring, beautiful, and devastating Albanian film about what Communism was really like around here. It will leave 'The Lives of Others' in the dust!
As for Albanians' attitude toward the US and Americans... When I was a sophomore in high school in Tirana, about 16 years old, some American teenagers came to our class. I believe they were missionaries' children who were visiting, because a) I thought they were dressed pretty lame b) one of the girls was indignant when my gangsta' wannabe classmate told her that Eminem was his hero: "I like his music, but I don't like his language." So these were most likely Mid-Western kids.
It was one of the most embarrassing days of my teenage life. All of my classmates were acting as if intelligent alien life forms from outer space had come down on Earth to make contact with them. I was one of the better English speakers in my class but I was the only person not to approach the Americans. All I could think of was how stupid and sheltered they must have thought we Albanians were, for treating them like rock-stars.
When I came to the US as a teenager, I was a bit apprehensive and confrontational, because I somehow thought that every American would assume that as an Albanian, I would be all over him/her with drooling babbling adoration. I am a bit proud like that. Lucky for me, in Nebraska, where I was to become an exchange student, no one knew the first thing about Albania, let alone that we had a pathological tendency to kiss American ass----or at least that's how I saw things back then.
Outside of Nebraska, the only thing Albania turned out to be known as, was a Muslim country. Ignorance can be bliss in more than one way.
This was my first clash with this notion, hitherto alien to me, of Albania being Muslim. Growing up in Tirana, among Mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, none of which were frequented with any zeal beyond that of lip service to tradition, I never thought anything of Albania's religion at all.
For all the misinformation floating around now, I am extremely grateful for the thoroughly secular and scientific education I have received in the public schools of this 'Muslim' country.
Posted by: medaura at June 30, 2008 1:12 pm
The Lives of Others is a GREAT movie, indeed. I can see why you thought it made East Germany look like a paradise compared to communist Albania, though.
Please please please let me know when this Albanian movie about Hoxha's time is released and watchable in English. I definitely want to see it.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 30, 2008 1:21 pm
Michael and others,
Kosovo has been discovered as a tourist area. Friday's Wall St. Journal (6/27) in the weekend section has an article about the author's sojourn in Kosovo. It would be interesting to compare your experiences.
Magnificent mountain scenery--are the mountains primarily limestone?
Posted by: nvreader at June 30, 2008 1:48 pm
This movie is called "The Death of the Horse" and it is probably the best film I have ever seen. Not just the best Albanian film (and Albania has an interesting and rich cinematographic repertoire) but the best movie ever made, somehow! I know that's saying a lot. I admit to having seen the film about ten times within a year, and have not been able to finish yet without breaking down in tears.
It is currently available on Google Video, but without subtitles and in poor video quality. I have downloaded the film and creating my own subtitles. When finished, I will re-release it into the web.
I don't think there are any copyright issues because Albania had no intellectual property law in place in the early 90s, when the film was made. My parents are also trying to track down the director in Tirana, so I could perhaps get a higher quality video to work with. I will email you for sure when my preliminary subtitles are done.
Just wondering, anyone here who hadn't seen the video below? I'm surprised I didn't hear President Winston cited for supposedly vetoing Albania's partitioning in Versaille. Albanians usually go on and on about that.
Posted by: medaura at June 30, 2008 1:50 pm
Earlier today my Web site was ported to a new server. If you left a comment during the transition phase, the comment would have been written to the old server instead of to the new one. So if you left a comment and it disappeared, that's the reason. I haven't deleted anything.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 30, 2008 5:59 pm
Fascinating Balkans travel tale; especially the Albanian portion. Haven't read anything about that place since P.J. O'Rourke's "Eat The Rich" wherein he summarized Albania's rather chaotic state in 1997 as the "only country ever destroyed by a chain letter." (He was referring to the collapse of the pyramid schemes that swept through eastern europe in the 90's and how Albania felt the worst of it.)
Keep up the great work.
Posted by: MisterH at June 30, 2008 6:26 pm
Actually, you and Patrick don't need to replace your passports. You can likely each get a SECOND active US Passport. See here [usembassy.gov] They're pretty rare, but might make your life a little easier.
Posted by: ShaneIam at June 30, 2008 7:22 pm
I do have a second valid passport, actually, but it has expired. I'll need to renew it. I got it for travel to Israel, but yes, it would work in Serbia, too.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 30, 2008 9:23 pm
I am glad the trip to Albania went relatively well. It all depends on who you meet, but now it's very very safe and guests are traditionally respected. The area you went is probably mostly Muslim, but the beauty is not knowing who is what ;)
Shkodra is as old as history; it was the Illyrian capital, until Queen Teuta picked on the Romans, by killing their envoys who asked them to stop pirating Roman ships. Not a smart move and they should have known. Since then it has gone back and forth in the 1900's Montenegro, backed by Russia, wasn't happy with the Albanian areas they had gotten, they wanted Shkodra too. A massive Albanian rebellion saved what is today Albania.
Now, Shkodra is a victim of politics of patronage: you voted for my opponent so no government funds, or less of them. Most Albanians are trending toward cities but the best houses are in the villages. In the late 1990's it was a mess, as many people came down from the mountains and let's just say that there was a cultural barrier and plenty of guns around ;)
Now, in rural Albania will see beautiful 2-3 story villas built by immigrants and I suspect they live in the cities in Europe and they like the villages better. Close to a million Albanians are immigrants so you get the picture. In the cities people own the OLD apartments, and are stuck there, even IF they had the money to build news ones? (who owns the land, or what if 5-95% of the building occupants don't want to rebuild?)
Some background. In 1997, Albania was a disaster. Having merged from Stalinism, many immigrated and pretty all their savings were put in pyramid schemes. Many went in debt as well to "invest." The pyramids lasted longer because they actually invested in businesses but eventually had to collapse. With them so did the army and police.
Imagine what would happen if US Army and police had been in place for only 5-6 years and all the banks collapse with no insurance. Every penny you have is gone and the state is not really a state. Add a 1 million guns in about 3 million people and there you have it. Enver Hoxha had loaded up on mountains of munitions, now it's costing Albania a fortune to destroy it as NATO wants new weapons. So yes, it was "State of Nature" and only guns and Albanian mentality (I'll shoot back and eventually someone WILL get my revenge) kept order.
In the 1900's as the place was the center of Balkan Wars etc it was chaotic too, but the traditions were much stronger. It was either the most dangerous place on earth or the safest one--provided you knew respected the local laws of hospitality. Coming with bodyguards was a big no-no for example, as your safety was guaranteed by the person whose house you entered or asked for help (and his clan and eventually the region.) Now you find some idiots who embarras an entire nation, but then others make up.
Noel Malcolm: "The traveller, brought `within the bond' by the sacred duties of hospitality, could more easily experience the best of the Albanian character. As one Austrian who visited Kosovo in the bloodiest period of its final revolt against Ottoman rule declared: `If you observe the customs of the land, you can travel more safely in Albania than in any other country in the world.' "
One the worst insults (still) is "Tu mbyllte dera," or "May your door close," as in may no one deem you worthy of being a friend or coming for a visit, for weddings, deaths etc. etc. I hope it stays that way, as it is compatible with "modernism".
Regarding Isa Boletini; a TRUE hero for Albanians, Some pictures and the very definition of a "man" and a patriot.
He started at 17 fighting the Turks, and died in his 50's fighting Serbs and Montenegrins. He was there when Albania declared independence in Vlore (south) and then to stop the Serbs from "liberating" Kosovo. He actually died trying to threw the Montenegrins out of those Albanian cities you saw in what is now Montenegro. Almost his entire family was wiped out eventually, the Albanian governments certainly did their part too.
Here's how he died (as told by Milovan Djilas, the famous dissident who's father killed Isa):

"The battle with Iso's irregulars did not last long, despite the Albanians' wild heroism. The blow struck down both the leader and his most devoted followers. Iso's immediate entourage was wiped out to a man, and the rest scattered. Iso Boljetini himself was killed. But he had fought fiercely and long when he was left alone on the open road. Wounded, he rose to his knees and, though too weak to hold a rifle, he fired a pistol, at least to take a life in exchange for his own. Father hurried toward him, and the wild Albanian leaned his pistol on his left arm. He did not have time to fire, however. A soldier had him in his sights and--he fell. Father ran up, and Iso glanced at him with big bloody eyes, said something in his own language, which Father did not understand, and breathed his last. Father took his large Mauser, with its silver-mounted handle, and kept it as his most prized souvenir.
It was little wonder that we children mourned for Iso Boljetini. Father mourned him too, though he was proud that his group had felled him. It was a special kind of sorrow, rather than admiration, for a fearless hero of wild Albania who had fought to the end on a bare field and empty road, neither begging nor forgiving, upright and without protection. There was this admiration in our sorrow, too. If one has to die, it would be good to fall like Iso Boljetini. Let it be remembered, at least by those who have seen and heard it."

From nicholasnikic.blogspot.com/2006/07/land-without-justice.html (reviewing his book)
Posted by: nameless-fool at July 1, 2008 4:06 am
As usual excellent. Minor quibble as the photo of the burning vehicles are not tanks but rather APCs. In this case probably Russian or Czech made BMP-1s which were still in service after 20 years of production and another 20 years in service after production ceased. Many of the ex-soviet satellites had tons of these and often used and still use them for riot control or urban combat. Which, naturally, they are ill-suited for and usually end up as burnt out barricades in the streets. Even in this case I hope that the crew and the squad being carred inside made it out before the flames gutted the interior.
Posted by: Pat Patterson at July 2, 2008 5:24 am
Great pictures and commentary. If any of these places cause passport issues will they put their stamps on pieces of papers like most Israelis will do?
I have been in and out of Israel dozens of times and only had an Israeli refuse to stamp a piece of paper once. I had to "loose" that passport to go to Syria six months later.
Maybe in these other dodgy situations they'd do the same thing?
Posted by: Marc at July 2, 2008 6:31 am
nameless_fool's observations about North Albania are spot on. I was born and raised in Tirana, where the tendency is to not get much out of, or learn first-handedly about other areas of the country, unless one ventures there on vacation.
The south is much explored, but the north is a taboo even in Tirana. I myself got to explore more of Albania in my 2-week trip with my husband two years ago, than I had during my entire life up to that point.
I was 10-11 years old when the shit storm hit us hard in 1997. It still feels like a chaotic dream looking back. The stories coming out of North Albania were horrifying, and my generation has been scarred since. You had pissed, hungry, armed, cheated highlanders going nuts. It was worse than the Wild West: pirates and criminal gangs, literal highway robbery, or more like,.. dirt-road robbery.
The region had entirely cooled off and stabilized since by the year 2000 though.--or so indicated statistics, but I was still too scarred from my memories of 1997 to go see for myself.
Many highlanders still do live by the canon, an excellent introductory post on which can be found here: http://www.bookcase.com/~claudia/mt/archives/000637.html
As you can see from reading the above series on the canon of Lek Dukagjini, vendettas can be easy to start but very hard to quench. Once chaos starts, the traditional ways of dealing with it often escalate it further. The regional mentality/culture derivative of the canon and the overall chaos of the late 1990s, accounted for much of the savagery over there. The more benign aspects of the same highlander culture would benefit visitors today, given the traditional emphasis on hospitality and generosity toward guests.
Posted by: medaura at July 2, 2008 9:41 am
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