Thursday, 13 September 2001

Sympathy for the Devil

On the morning of 12 September 2001, I got on a plane to Skopje, Macedonia, and while I was there, I wrote this for TIME magazine.

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Early on the morning of 11 September, I thought that my next day's travel to Skopje, Macedonia was somewhat risky. After all, there had been a smoldering civil war there for months and the current ceasefire was shaky at best. But, of course, 11 September is the day the entire world became a war zone, so flying to this tiny battlefield in the Balkans seems no different than staying in London as far as personal security is concerned.

I rather wonder why I'm going, to be honest. I mean, who cares about Macedonia now? I say that not because I am insensitive to the very real suffering of victims and their families in Macedonia and not because the scale of the killing in the U.S. eclipses many times over everything that has happened in Macedonia during the past years. I grew up in New Jersey and looked at the twin towers every day of my life for nearly two decades and say this because the world will never be the same again. With civilians considered military targets, it's only a matter of time before free societies become more militarized.

Skopje is bustling with people rushing to and from work and markets and homes. Apart from the occasional olive-drab KFOR or NATO vehicle, there's nothing here to suggest there's a war on a few miles up the road. A candlelight vigil at the U.S. embassy reminds us that the world's focus is completely elsewhere at the moment.

A couple hundred people wait in the queue to sign the condolence book in front of the metal detector within the embassy guardhouse. The embassy — behind the 3.5-m-high steel wall covered in spikes, barbed wire and security cameras — is dark. The flag is at half mast. Candles line the cement barrier in front of the embassy, the wax dripping in thin, black lines down the barriers to the street. The candles are numerous, and here and there a flame has jumped to a bunch of flowers, quickly burning them to ash. "This started as an Albanian gig," a colleague here tells me, "but then some people showed up from the pro-Macedonian and generally nationalistic rally earlier in the city center."

The potential for conflict at the scene was certainly there: many ethnic Albanians unrealistically see NATO and the U.S. in particular as their savior; many ethnic Macedonians equally unrealistically see NATO and the U.S. as the pro-Albanian devil. But when a rally leader starts shouting "God bless America," much of the potential for hostility dissipates.

A lone woman holding a Bible above her head later starts shouting "Hallelujah, Jesus Christ, America finally got what was coming to it! Macedonia for the Macedonians!" A few people cheer in agreement, but others go up to her to argue and calm her down. She soon goes quiet. There were certainly mixed feelings among the ethnic Macedonians. When I ask one boy why he is here, he tells me, "We are with the Americans, because they have terrorists, and we have terrorists here in Macedonia. We are together today." Somewhat simplistic perhaps, as what's happening here is more of a traditional, if guerrilla, war: each side at least knows who and where the enemy is.

At an OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) meeting on the media, one journalist in attendance reveals a common sentiment here: "Now, they have terrorists, too. But maybe others are calling them 'rebels' or 'freedom fighters' just like some call our terrorists here." There follows a discussion of the media's use of the word "rebel" as opposed to the word "terrorist" both here for the past few months and in the U.S. now. Freimut Duve, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, says that the word "rebel" is a very antiquated word. "But there's a problem with the word 'terrorist,' too," he says, "because every state now calls its enemies 'terrorists.'"

I visit Saso Ordanoski, the Editor-in-Chief of the Macedonian magazine Forum. Like everyone in this country and around the world, he is glued to CNN. His take on recent events is well-considered: "Sure, you'll find people here who will say, 'This will teach the Americans they have too many deals with the devil and that they can be touched just like everyone else.' But I think the general attitude here is just shock.

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