Where two countries kiss

KAZAN 90 The Danube narrows

Steep cliffs encroaching

The stream gathers speed

The Iron Gates loom ahead

 

The Iron Gates is a narrow defile or gorge through which the River Danube flows. One side of this attractively impressive canyon is formed by Romania and the other by Serbia. At one point, the two countries come so close to each other that they seem as though they are kissing. Where they come closest, there is a hydroelectric dam that was built during the Communist era.

My picture was taken from the Serbian shore in 1990, when Serbia was still part of Yugoslavia.

Fools Crusade: war in the Balkans

REVIEW OF “FOOLS CRUSADE” 

by

DIANA JOHNSTONE

 

When the Berlin Wall was destroyed in 1989 and the USSR ceased to be a world power opposing the West and the USA, Yugoslavia, which had been considered a bulwark between the West and the Soviet Empire, ceased to be of importance to the West (by which I mean the USA and its NATO allies). Furthermore, the ending of the Soviet Empire removed the chief obstacle to the expansion of the USA’s global imperial ambitions.

 

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This excellent book by Diane Johnstone describes how the West was both misled by irredentist nationalistic groups in the former Yugoslavia, and how it allowed itself to deliberately misinterpret facts which did not suit its own aims. The aim of the West was to demonise Serbia for a multitude of reasons, some of which were self-serving. Western military and financial aid was given to anti-Serbian factions for ‘humanitarian’ reasons, to counter the atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the Serbs against, for example, the Catholic Croats, the Bosnian Moslems and the Kosovar Albanians. In each of these examples, there were undoubtedly atrocities perpetrated by both sides: Serbs killing Albanians or Bosnians AND vice-versa. However, much of the Western media only chose to recognise killings carried out by the Serbs, or those that might have been carried out by them but were never proven.

 

Sad to relate, but the Serbs have long had a poor reputation regarding what would now be called ‘genocide’.  In 1912 the renowned future colleague of VI Lenin, Leon Trotsky, who was then reporting as a journalist for Kievskaya Mysl, a paper published in Kiev, wrote (excerpts chosen by me):

During the war, I had an opportunity – whether it was a good one or a bad one is hard to say – to visit Skopje (Üsküb) a few days after the Battle of Kumanovo. In view of the nervousness caused in Belgrade by my request for a laissez-passer and the artificial obstacles put in my way at the War Ministry, I began to suspect that those in charge of military events did not have a clear conscience and that things were probably happening down there that were hardly in keeping with the official truths released in government communiqués…

…The atrocities began as soon as we crossed the old Serbian border. We were approaching Kumanovo at about five PM…

…Whole Albanian villages had been transformed into columns of flames – in the distance, nearby, and even right along the railway line. This was my first, real, authentic view of war, of the merciless mutual slaughter of human beings. Homes were burning. People’s possessions handed down to them by their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers were going up in smoke. The bonfires repeated themselves monotonously all the way to Skopje…

…Four soldiers held their bayonets in readiness and in their midst stood two young Albanians with their white felt caps on their heads. A drunken sergeant – a komitadji – was holding a kama (a Macedonian dagger) in one hand and a bottle of cognac in the other. The sergeant ordered: ‘On your knees!’ (The petrified Albanians fell to their knees. ‘To your feet!’ They stood up. This was repeated several times. Then the sergeant, threatening and cursing, put the dagger to the necks and chests of his victims and forced them to drink some cognac, and then… he kissed them. Drunk with power, cognac and blood, he was having fun, playing with them as a cat would with mice. The same gestures and the same psychology behind them. The other three soldiers, who were not drunk, stood by and took care that the Albanians did not escape or try to resist, so that the sergeant could enjoy his moment of rapture. ‘They’re Albanians,’ said one of the soldiers to me dispassionately. ‘Hell soon put them out of their misery.’ ” [from: http://www.albanianhistory.net/1912_Trotsky/index.html,%5D

And so it went on back in 1912. In those days, the Serbs were not the only people involved in atrocities such as Trotsky described; the Turks, Bulgarians, and Macedonians, and others were far from innocent.

Before, international ‘humanitarian’ assistance in the form of NATO troops could be provided to the so-called oppressed minorities in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, it was necessary to encourage the break-up of the federation into smaller nation states such as Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia. This way, conflicts that should have correctly have been considered as civil wars within Yugoslavia suddenly became international disputes in which it was deemed suitable to provide international military aid.

The break up of Yugoslavia was aided and abetted by the West, for example by Germany. Germany during WW2 championed the formation of an independent Croatia and an enlarged Albania that included large parts of Kosovo. In the 1980s and 1990s, Germany, no longer led by the Nazis but instead by social minded liberals including the Green Party, encouraged the re-formation of what had been achieved in the early 1940s. The (mainly Roman Catholic) Croats and Slovenians were considered by the Germans and others in the West as being ‘civilised’ Europeans, whereas the (mainly Orthodox) Serbs were considered as uncivilised barbarians. Even worse, the Serbs, thanks to their poor public relations compared to those of the Bosnians, Croats, and Albanians, became considered as the new ‘Nazis’ of Europe – purveyors of ‘genocide’ and a new ‘holocaust’. Undoubtedly, the Serbs were responsible for some inexcusable murderous activities in Kosovo during the late 1990s

Johnstone goes to great pains to demonstrate that not only has the word ‘humanitarian’ become corrupted in its usage, but also the far more emotive words ‘genocide’ and ‘holocaust’. In the famous and horrible Serbian ‘massacre’ at Srebrenica, not only were the Bosnian women and children spared by the Serbs, but also wounded men. This does not happen in true genocide. Furthermore, in the case of this particular unfortunate incident, it seems, she wrote, that the Serbian massacre of the Bosnians might well have been engineered by the leader of the Bosnian Moslems in order to gain further ‘humanitarian’ (i.e military and financial) aid from the West.

What was in it for the West? Why was the bombing of Serbia so important or even necessary? Had Yugoslavia been allowed to continue as an independent multi-cultural country as it had been prior to the downfall of the USSR, it might not have been amenable to the expansionist, power hungry designs of the West, for which you should read ‘USA’. One of these designs was the construction of an oil pipe-line from the Black Sea to the Albanian port of Vlora on the Adriatic coast. This would allow oil from the Caspian to avoid travelling along the already congested Bosphorus, and also to use the larger tankers which the port of Vlora would easily accommodate. It is therefore not surprising the the USA have built Camp Bondsteel near to Uroševac in Kosovo, conveniently located to guard the proposed pipe-line.

Even if only 5% of what Johnstone claims in her meticulously annotated text is true, then what she writes should send shivers down the spine of anyone who values the true, old-fashioned meanings of words such as ‘freedom’, ‘independence’, ‘humanitarian’, and that favourite American word ‘liberty’ as well as ‘genocide’ and ‘holocaust’. Johnstone successfully demonstrates how the citizens of the West were duped into believing a simplistic version of events in the Balkan peninsular, and were then bamboozled into thinking that aiding forces hostile to the West (eg Croatian fascists and Islamic mujahidin in Bosnia) and bombing Serbia would somehow resolve the problem. Instead of resulting in a humanitarian victory, the West wittingly and unwittingly magnified the suffering of the ordinary person, Serb and otherwise, in the former Yugoslav territories.

This is a book that is a must-read if you are interested in Balkan matters and/or the growing malevolent influence of the USA on world affairs. The author writes well, and apart from achieving her main aims, gives a remarkably lucid view of the complex history of the country that was once known as ‘Yugoslavia’.

Adam Yamey is the author of SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ, a nostalgic look at life in Yugoslavia before its break-up began in 1991. His book is available (paperback and Kindle) on Amazon and bookdepository.com, and also directly from the publisher by clicking HERE

Taxi in Tirana

In May 2016, my wife and I landed in Albania at Tirana’s airport. There was a line of taxis whose drivers were all eager to drive us into the city centre and to accept either local currency or Euros. At other times during our trip, getting a taxi was never a problem. However, thirty-two years earlier, when Albania was a strictly controlled Stalinist dictatorship (at least as as repressive as North Korea is today) , getting to hire a taxi was impossible as this excerpt from my book “Albania on my Mind”  will demonstrate.

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A ‘busy’ street in Tirana in 1984

“After we had eaten lunch at the hotel, a group of us went into the square outside it. We saw a long line of taxis, which were waiting vacantly by a booking booth. We wondered how often these were hired and by whom; there was not a soul in sight taking the slightest interest in them. One of us walked up to the booth and asked the man sitting inside whether we could hire a taxi to take us up to Mount Dajti, some way outside Tirana. Just when it seemed that we had succeeded in hiring a cab, another person inside the booth lifted a telephone receiver, listened for a moment, and then whispered something to the man with whom we had just negotiated. He beckoned to us, and pointed at the hotel. Somehow, he made it clear to us that we needed to book the taxi not from him, but from the hotel reception desk.

TAXI 1

Tirana 1984. Typically empty main square (Skanderbeg Square)

We trouped back into the hotel’s lobby and made a beeline for the reception desk. Two suited men, sitting on a sofa nearby, looked at us over the tops of their newspapers. As we reached the desk, I noticed that the doors of one of the hotel’s two lifts were opening. Our Albanian guide Eduart hurried through them and towards the receptionist, who was beginning to attend to us. 
“What do you need?” Eduart asked us, out of breath.
“We want to hire a taxi.”
“Why?”
“We want to visit Mount Dajti?”
“Why should you do that?”
“We need some fresh country air. We’ve been in the city for too long.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Eduart protested. “You have already spent many days in the countryside.”
“But, that’s what we want, and we believe that the views from Mount Dajti are magnificent.”
“You cannot go.”
“Why ever not?” we asked.
“There is a lot of traffic. The roads are crowded.” We looked at Eduart disbelievingly. Traffic congestion was certainly not a problem in Albania in 1984.

“You know that there’s a big national cycle race on at the moment.”
“That was over long ago,” one of us objected. “We saw the posters announcing it along the roads.”
“You can visit Mother Albania, but no further.”
We had already visited the Mother Albania monument, which was located in the outskirts of the town. However, as we were determined to not to give in to our obstreperous guide, we agreed to his compromise.
“Alright,” we said.
Then, Eduart said menacingly:
“You may take the taxi to Mother Albania, but remember that if anything happens to you, we cannot take any responsibility for your safety. You will not be protected by your group visa.” “We’ll risk it,” one of us said.
I did not like the threatening sound of Eduart’s voice, but followed the rest of our small group back to the taxi rank. When we arrived there no more that ten minutes after we had left it, we found that all of the taxis had disappeared, and also there was an extremely long line of people waiting in a queue outside the booth. Accepting defeat, we made our way on foot to …”

TAXI 3

Traffic in Tirana, 2016

DISCOVER  WHAT IT WAS LIKE VISITING COMMUNIST ALBANIA IN 1984 IN “ALBANIA ON MY MIND” by ADAM YAMEY

It is available from Amazon, Bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and on Kindle

 

Meeting the Colonel

My parents were against supporting dictatorial regimes. For example, during the 1960s and ‘70s, they would only buy pickled gherkins that had been made in Western Europe, in places like West Germany or Holland. They would not have bought Hungarian or Polish, or even Bulgarian gherkins because by doing so they believed that some of the money they spent might well end up being used build weapons that could be used against the ‘free’ West. They were against visiting countries behind the “Iron Curtain” or General Franco’s Spain.

PATT 1

My father had several Greek colleagues. At a dinner held by one of them, they met a Greek millionaire, one of Greece’s wealthiest men. My mother noticed that he was fiddling with worry beads and did not know what they were. She asked him, and he threw the beads across the table to her. They were coral beads on a gold chain. She looked at them, and then began to hand them back, when he said:

“Keep them.”

“Don’t be silly, I can’t keep these,” my mother replied, realising their worth.

“No, please let me give them to you.”

My mother and the millionaire struck up an amicable relationship, and near the end of the evening, he said:

“You must bring your family to Greece as my guests.”

My mother thought he was joking, but after that occasion my parents kept getting invitations from him.

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The symbol of the Junta is circled in this picture taken in rural Greece during the late 1960s

This dinner party happened soon after the 21st of April 1967, when a group of colonels, the Junta, took control of the Government of Greece replacing a democracy with a dictatorship. How could they possibly accept their new friend’s kind invitation to a country with a dictatorship? Much as they would have liked to accept, going to Greece was even worse than buying gherkins from a Communist country.

The invitation kept being repeated. After about two years, I came up with a suggestion. I said to my parents that if we were to become guests of the millionaire, we would contribute little or nothing to the economy of the Greek Junta. Miraculously, my parents saw my point and decided to accept the invitation.

 

On arrival in Greece, we found it very difficult to spend any of our own money. We were looked after by one of the millionaire’s former employees. If he saw us so much as looking at something, he would try to buy it for us. We learned to look at things discretely!

We saw little of our host, a busy man. One evening, we were invited to a party at his large estate on the edge of Athens. It was a lovely place with numerous outhouses including an open-air eating area with its own large kitchen building. Our host met and introduced us to various guests. After a while he introduced us to a gentleman, saying:

“Please meet Colonel Pattakos.”

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Colonel Stylianos Pattakos. [Source; Wikipedia]

My parents were polite, but doubtless horrified after shaking hands with Pattakos. Stylianos Pattakos (1912-2016), a Greek military officer, was one of the principal leaders of the Greek military dictatorship. Pattakos is best known outside Greece for his decision to strip the singer Melina Mercouri of her Greek citizenship. She is reported to have said of Pattakos, who was the Minister of the Interior:

“I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Mr Pattakos was born a fascist and he will die a fascist.”

Unloved by most Greeks, Pattakos is said to have told a reporter that when, he returned to his native Crete, a few months after seizing power, his mother had demanded to know who had put him up to “this evil” (see: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2016/10/09/stylianos-pattakos-last-survivor-of-the-1967-greek-military-junt/).

I feel sure that if they had been able to do so, they would have washed their hands thoroughly after contact with Pattakos.

A nest in Macedonia

In about 1977, I travelled to Greece overland with my PhD supervisor (‘Prof) and his wife (‘Wink’). Every year they towed a caravan across Europe to their favourite camping spot near Platamon on the coast of northern Greece. They were averse to camping overnight in campsites. They preferred to camp ‘wild’ at spots of their own choosing. Their journey involved three nights in the former Yugoslavia, a country where camping outside official campsites was against the law. However, over the years they had found several places in Yugoslavia where they could camp ‘wild’. Prof and Wink were always anxious when they travelled through that country, constantly worrying that their illegal camping activities would get them into trouble. Let’s join them on the last few hours before leaving southern Yugoslavia (in what is now Macedonia) and an official campsite, where circumstances forced us to stay one night. Here are two extracts from a book, which I have not yet published.

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Picnic north of Ohrid in Macedonia, 1977. The author is standing

“After lunch, we drove onwards towards the town of Ohrid that lies on the eastern shore of the lake bearing the same name. As the sun began to set, we faced a problem. Prof and Wink had never travelled to Ohrid before and knew of no places where we could camp ‘wild’. Driving along, we could see nowhere suitable to do so. Cautiously, I recommended the town’s campsite. I had stayed there a few years earlier with my friend Hugh. It was a lovely spot next to the lake shore. Reluctantly, Prof agreed that this would have to be where we should spend the night. At the entrance of the camping grounds, we had to surrender our passports in order that the camp could register our presence to the police. Prof was reluctant to let go of his passport, but when the officials assured him that they did not need it for long, he gave in.

While supper was being prepared, I took a stroll around the campsite. An elderly employee of the campsite approached me and greeted me like an old friend. When I shook his outstretched hand, I remembered who he was. I had met him the first time I camped in Ohrid for a week in the late 1960s. On that visit, I used to walk from the campsite to the town in order to do sightseeing or to catch buses from it to other places in the area.  At the end of each day, I used to walk back to the campsite, where Hugh had sunbathed all day. On one of these return journeys, this man, who greeted me so many years later, had seen me on the road and had invited me into his home to meet his family. I was touched that he recognised me…”

OHRID 1 1973

Ohrid in 1973

“… we continued our journey towards Greece on the following morning. We left Ohrid and drove across the mountains east of Lake Ohrid to Resen, where we did not stop. Had we not been in so much of a hurry to leave Yugoslavia – Wink and Prof always felt more than a little uneasy being there – I would loved to have visited the nearby Lake Prespa, which, like Lake Ohrid, shares its waters between Yugoslavia (now Macedonia or FYROM or Northern Macedonia) and Albania. Unlike the bigger Ohrid, Prespa also shares its water with Greece. In fact, the frontiers of the three Balkan countries meet in the middle of the lake. We crossed another mountain pass after leaving Resen, and then descended into the plain in which the town of Bitola stands.

We parked near a large mosque in Bitola, and then began wandering around an open market. Prof stopped by a stall selling green grapes. There were flies crawling all over them. He took out a notebook and pencil, and then pointed at a fly on one of the grapes. He was hoping to learn the local word for that particular kind of fly; he was always trying to improve his vocabulary in the languages that he encountered en-route. He even carried a miniature tape recorder in which he recorded people pronouncing words in, usually, Modern Greek. He used to listen to these recordings and try to repeat them in order to improve his pronunciation. The seller of the grapes, seeing Robert’s interest in his wares, was hoping to make a sale but could not understand what the foreigner was asking. Both parties were left unsatisfied.

OHRID 2 BITOLA 77 Train from Medzhitlija

The road from Bitola to Medzhitilija on the Yugoslav side of the Greek border in 1977

After leaving Bitola we drove southwards across a flat cultivated plain until we reached the Yugoslav customs post at Medzhitilija. We waited in a queue of vehicles until we drove under the wooden canopy over the roadway adjacent to the border officers’ cabin. Before handing our documents to the official waiting alongside the car, Prof looked up into the eaves of the steeply pitched roof and began pointing at something. The customs officer looked up and then at Prof, who was frantically leafing through a small well-worn Serbo-Croatian pocket dictionary.

“I wonder what the Yugos call a house-martin’s nest,” Prof kept muttering.

The officer looked him, puzzled rather than impatient.

“For heaven’s sake, let’s get on,” Wink shouted at her husband from her perch behind us. 

She, even more than Prof, was keen to leave the communist country where, on previous trips, they had had minor though worrying brushes with authority.

Minutes later, we were driving south along a Greek road …”

Uncle Joe

STALIN

 

Standing by Stalin,

albeit in bronze:

odd memories evoked

 

This statue of Stalin, now in Tirana, was cast during Albania’s Communist era (1944-91). Albania was the only country to continue revering Stalin after his death.

Bollywood in Albania

Films from India made in Bombay, the so-called Bollywood productions, are popular all over the world. When we visited post-Communist Albania in 2016, 31 years after the death of its long-time dictator Enver Hoxha, we encountered Albanian Bollywood fans in several places. The following three excerpts from my book “Rediscovering Albania” describe some incidences when we met local lovers of Bollywood.

In the northern town of Pukë:

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“Our shopping expedition continued in a tiny stationery/gift shop, where I bought a notebook. The sales lady wanted to know where we came from. When she learnt that Lopa came from India, she pointed at a small television set hidden under her counter. We saw that she was watching a Bollywood movie with Albanian subtitles. Every afternoon on Albanian television, there is an episode of a Bollywood TV soap opera. Those ‘in the know’ never ring ladies between certain hours in the afternoon so as not to disturb their enjoyment of this addictive show. The inter-continental cultural traffic is not one-way: in 2013, the Albanian actress Denisa Gokovi starred in a film (Phir Mulaquat Ho Na Ho) directed by the Indian Bobby Sheik.”

In the southern city of Korçë:

ALBOLLY 2

“Weary and hot, we tried to retrace our steps back into the centre. Quite by chance, we began walking along a road that led straight to the Mirahorit mosque, which was closed when we arrived. However, some men were gathering outside it, and soon the imam arrived to unlock it for afternoon namaaz (prayers). They were all friendly and welcoming. While we were waiting, we were joined by a German lady, who was keen to see this mosque that dates back to 1496. Restored by a Turkish organisation in 2014, it was worth waiting to enter it. The interior was decorated with attractive frescoes depicting various mosques and Muslim pilgrimage places including the Kaaba.  One of the men who was waiting with us to enter the mosque asked Lopa where she was from. When she said India, he exclaimed “Rye Kapur”, that being his pronunciation of Raj Kapoor, a well-known Bollywood film star. As we had already discovered in Pukë, Bollywood is popular in Albania.”

In the large seaport of Vlorë:

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“This small building of great historic importance was dwarfed by huge cranes and ocean-going freighters in the nearby port area. Its windows had slatted wooden shutters, and there was a balcony projecting over its main entrance. It was from this balcony that Ismail Qemal read the declaration of Albania’s independence in 1912. Vlorë, which was invaded by the Italians in 1914, was the country’s first capital. In 1920, Tirana assumed this role.

We were guided around the museum, and shown photos, documents, and furniture, connected with the historic events that occurred around 1912. Driton kindly translated our lady guide’s interesting commentary into English. Sadly, we were not permitted to stand on the historic balcony because it has become too fragile. As we moved from room to room, I noticed that our guide was becoming more and more interested in Lopa, touching her occasionally. At the end of the tour, she told us that she loves watching the Bollywood films and soap-operas broadcast on Albanian television. It was a pity, she said, that Lopa had not been dressed in a sari. Lopa’s arrival in the museum had meant a great deal to her. It was as if one of the characters in the films, which she enjoyed watching, had stepped out of her television and into her museum. She said that Lopa was the first female Indian visitor to the museum since she began working there eleven years earlier.”  

Prior to 1991, Albanians would not have been able to watch Bollywood or even Hollywood productions. Under the dictatorship created by Enver Hoxha, which lasted from 1944 until late1990, the Albanian population was almost completely isolated from external influences. A few people watched Italian TV at their peril. If discovered, they would have risked dire punishment. Today, everything has changed; Albania is wide open to foreign culture.

 

REDISC ALB cover

REDISCOVERING ALBANIA by Adam Yamey is available from:

Amazon, Bookdepository.com, lulu.com, Kindle,

and your local bookshop (will need to be ordered)

They made Kalashnikovs here…

This  extract from “REDISCOVERING ALBANIA” by Adam Yamey describes a part of Albania where much weaponry was manufactured during the Communist era (1944-91).

OSUMI 2

“We followed the River Osumi upstream [from Berat], passing an isolated working military camp with camouflaged concrete buildings. The road wound up the valley crossing numerous tributaries of the Osumi. Next to many of these small bridges there were construction sites, which were associated with the building of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline. This will carry gas from Kipoi (just east of the Greek city of Alexandropolis) to Seman (a few kilometres north of Vlorë on the Adriatic). From there, it will go under the sea and resurface at the southern Italian coast south east of Lecce. This gas-carrying modern ‘Via Egnatia’ (or maybe it should be called ‘Via Igniter’) will follow the valley of the Osumi, then curve around Berat, before heading westwards towards the sea. It is part of a huge project to transport gas from Azerbaijan to western Europe.

The town of Poliçan was a pleasant surprise. We were expecting to find a drab place because of its industrial heritage. Far from it: Poliçan was a cheerful, vibrant place. We parked at the top end of the sloping triangular piazza named after the large mountain (Tomorr: 2,416 metres), which dominates the area around Berat and Poliçan.  The piazza, is a right-angled triangle in plan. Its two shorter sides were lined with well-restored, freshly painted Communist-era buildings with shops and cafés.  We joined the crowds drinking under colourful umbrellas outside cafés on the Rruga Miqesia, which runs off the piazza towards the town’s cultural centre and Bashkia (both built in the Communist period). It was about 11 am on a working day. There seemed to be many people with sufficient time for sitting leisurely in cafés or just strolling up and down the street. A girl, who ran a mobile ‘phone shop (on her own), sat with friends at a table in a café near to the shop, and only left them if a customer entered her showroom. A long out of date poster on a building advertised a meeting in Tirana for adherents of the Bektashi sect.

Near the upper end of the triangular piazza, there was a new marble monument commemorating Riza Cerova (1896-1935). He was born just south of Poliçan, and became a leading protagonist in the ‘June Revolution’ of 1924, when supporters of Fan Noli forced Ahmed Zogu to flee from Albania. For a brief time, Noli became Albania’s Prime Minister. However, at the end of 1924, aided by the Yugoslavs and Greeks, Zogu made a counter-coup, and then assumed control the country. Soon after this, he had himself crowned ‘King Zog’. Following Noli’s defeat, Cerova joined the German Communist Party, and later returned to Albania where he led anti-Zogist fighters. He died during an encounter with Zog’s forces.

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Poliçan was important during the Communist period. It was home to an enormous arms and ammunition factory, the KM Poliçan, which was opened in 1962. This produced its own versions (the ASH-72 and ASH-82 series) of the Kalashnikov gun as well as other munitions.  The factory lies amidst cultivated terraced fields on the slopes of a natural amphitheatre away from, and beneath, the southern edge of the town. Workers used to approach the factory from the town by a long staircase. We counted at least twenty-five industrial buildings in the complex, many of them with broken or missing windows. None of the numerous rusting ventilators on these edifices were emitting smoke, and there were no signs of life. The slopes surrounding the factory below were dotted with concrete and metal entrances to underground stores and tunnels. During the unrest of 1997, KM Poliçan was temporarily taken over by criminal gangs while the city was in ‘rebel’ hands. The factory is still used, but mainly to de-activate out-of-date Albanian weaponry. It was difficult to imagine that the peaceful scene, which we observed from a track overlooking it, had such an explosive history.

We travelled southwards through cultivated countryside and past occasional forests, always following the sinuous course of the Osumi. At the edge of Çorovodë, the administrative capital of the Skrapar District, we saw a tourist information poster beside a squat hemispherical Hoxha-era concrete bunker. It portrayed an Ottoman era bridge, which we hoped to see later. In the town’s main square, there was a socialist-realism style monument: a pillar topped by a carved group: one woman with three men. One of them was holding a belt of machine gun ammunition. The base of the monument had ‘1942’ carved in large numerals. On the 5th of September 1942, Skrapar became the first district in Albania to be liberated from the occupying fascist forces. There was a bronze statue of Rizo Cerova in a small park next to the square. Elegantly dressed in a jacket with waistcoat, he is shown holding a rifle in his left hand. His face looked left but his tie was depicted as if it were being swept by wind over his right shoulder.

We ate a satisfying lunch in a large restaurant next to the park, the Hotel Osumi. It backed onto a fast-flowing tributary of the Osumi. After eating, we entered a café a little way upstream to ask for directions to the Ottoman bridge that we had seen on the tourist poster. We were surprised to discover a ‘black’ man at a table, chatting with several Albanians. He spoke perfect English, which was not surprising because he was born in Tennessee (USA). He was teaching English in Çorovodë under the auspices of the Peace Corps.  With pencil and paper to hand, he was compiling his own map of the town. When we told his companions that we were trying to find the old bridge, they advised us that it was only accessible with a rugged four-wheel drive vehicle.

Driving further southwards, we reached the spectacular Canyon of the Osumi (Kanioni i Osumit, in Albanian). It is about twenty-six kilometres long, deep, and narrow. At places where the road came close to the edge of the canyon, we obtained good views. From above, it looked as if the cultivated rolling fields and pastureland had been cracked open. The crack’s walls were steep sided, with dramatic striations of whitish rock. Far beneath us at the bottom of this fissure, the River Osumi flowed around its many bends. Standing at the canyon’s precipitous edge, we could only hear birdsong and water rustling over the river’s stony bed far below us.

OSUMI 3

Retracing our steps to Berat, we passed an abandoned building with a fading circular coloured sign painted on it. It depicted a grey cow standing between a woman in a white dress, who was writing on a clipboard, and a man in a white coat such as doctors wear. In the background, a man in an overcoat holding a shepherd’s crook, was leading a flock of sheep towards the grey animal and its attendants. Around the edge of the picture, we read the words ‘Stacioni Zooteknise’, which literally translates as ‘zoo technical station’. The building with its peeling plaster and patches of exposed brickwork had once been an animal husbandry centre.”

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Adam Yamey’s book REDISCOVERING ALBANIA is available from Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and is on Kindle

Gifts of the grateful

In the 1980s, I visited my friends in the former Yugoslavia frequently. Also, I visited Albania and what is now independent Kosovo. During my trips, I picked up a large vocabulary of Serbo-Croat, including quite a selection of outrageous swear words. Grammar has always been beyond me in foreign languages, and often in my own. My interest in Albania and my brief visits to Albanian-speaking parts of the Balkans resulted in me acquiring some vocabulary in Albanian, but far less than in Serbo-Croat. Until the 1990s, I believed that my fragmentary knowledge of these languages would be useless outside the Balkans.

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Prizren in Kosovo, pre-1990

During one trip to Belgrade, a friend arranged for me to be an observer in a clinic of a leading oral surgeon. I turned up at a large hospital and spent a couple of hours watching the surgeon reviewing a series of his patients. Although I was grateful to be allowed to watch the great man, I learned little that was relevant to practising dentistry. However, one aspect of this clinic interested me greatly. As each patient entered the consulting room, he or she presented the surgeon with a gift: a bottle, a large piece of cheese, a ham, etc.

The last patient to enter, a man in a somewhat shabby suit, entered and sat in the dental chair without having presented a gift. After his mouth had been examined, the surgeon took the patient and me out into a corridor. We walked through the hospital to a room with locked doors. My host unlocked it, we entered, and he locked the doors behind us. After a brief conversation, the patient handed the surgeon a small brown envelope, which he thrust into his jacket pocket. Then, after the doors were unlocked, the patient went one way, and we went another way. As we walked along the corridor, my host patted the pocket containing the envelope, and before bidding me farewell, said: “Pornographic photographs.”

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Poster of Marshal Tito in Sarajevo, Bosnia in the 1980s

My last visit to Yugoslavia was in May 1990.  Soon after that, wars broke out in the Balkans, and the former Yugoslavia disintegrated painfully to form smaller independent states. In the early to mid-1990s, there was terrible strife in Bosnia. Many people fled as refugees to places including the UK. In the late 1990s, Kosovo suffered badly from warfare between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians. Many of the latter fled to the UK.

I moved from one dental practice outside London to another in London, an inner-city practice, in 2001. A significant number of my patients there had come from the former Yugoslavia as refugees. I was the only person in the practice who could greet them in Serbo-Croat or Albanian. Maybe, I was only one of a few dentists in London at that time who had this ability.

To the Albanian speakers my vocabulary was restricted to words such as ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’, which brought smiles to their faces. Following a trip to Communist Albania in 1984, I recalled the Albanian words of political slogans such as “Long live Enver Hoxha”, “Enver’s party”, and “Long live the Peoples’ Party of Albania.” As many of my Albanian patients had come from Kosovo rather than Albania, these slogans meant little to most of them.

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Travnik, Bosnia, 1975

My limited Serbo-Croat was more extensive than my Albanian. I could entertain some of my Bosnian and Serbian patients with polite small-talk. Many of the ex-Yugoslav patients, like those I had seen long before in Belgrade, brought me gifts. Even those, with whom I felt I was not getting along with well, brought me, usually, bottles of home-made alcohol (e.g. rakia, slivovitz, and loza) that had been distilled by relatives who had stayed behind in the former Yugoslavia. These strong alcoholic drinks were delicious, smooth, and delicately flavoured. One fellow plied me with DVDs of the latest Hollywood and other films that he had ‘pirated’. One lovely lady from Bosnia presented me with a pair of earrings, which her uncle had made, to give to my wife. She wears these often, and she is very grateful.

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Many Middle-Eastern patients also felt that it was appropriate to bring me gifts. Thus, a lot of delicious baklava and other similar confections came my way. Delicious as these were, they were neither good for my teeth nor for my general health. A Hungarian family kept me supplied with large gifts of paprika powder, and there was a Romanian gentleman who brought me nice bottles of wine. Incidentally, the only words of Romanian I know are “thank you” and “railway timetable”. Once, we employed a Romanian dental nurse and I told her my Romanian party-piece “Mersul trenurilor.” She pondered for a moment and then replied “Ah, the programme of the trains.”

Once, my dental nurse, a friendly West Indian lady, and I were standing near a window facing the main road when a delivery van stopped nearby. A man was delivering trays of baklava to a nearby shop. I said to my nurse: “Why don’t you see if he’ll give us some to try?” She returned with a tray of baklava. Carelessly, because I was in a hurry to see my next patient, I put a large lump of baklava into my mouth, and then bit hard on it. As I was doing this, I heard a deafening bang in my head. The baklava was not too fresh. I had split a molar tooth into two parts, the smaller of which was loose in my gum.

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Baklava

Unlike this disastrous piece of confectionary, the gifts kindly given to me by my patients did no harm. Furthermore, what I believed to be a useless tiny vocabulary of Balkan languages proved to be quite useful.  

Finally, you might still be wondering whether anybody ever took me aside to present me with an envelope containing pornographic photographs. To satisfy your curiosity, I can tell you that nobody did.