Suzi and I were in Kosovo on 9/11, 2001. I wrote these letters in the aftermath of 9/11. I am putting them in the “Winds of Change” category because the events of 9/11, and the response, affected a change in all of our lives.
September 12, 2001
Yesterday afternoon, as we were wrapping up our class, Emine’s cell phone beeped. She’s our translator. It was a text message “Terrorist attacks on World Trade Center and Pentagon.” I wrapped up the class as a sad faced hotel porter with a handlebar moustache guided me to a chair in front of a large screen TV in the hotel bar, his hand softly on my shoulder, just in time to see a tower of the World Trade Center collapse, live on TV. Television had created a world community
That evening the usual corso, or promenade, along Mother Therese Boulevard was very thin as Kosovars watched the events on TV. Then an extraordinary thing happened. Kosovars, without prompting, carrying candles and flowers began walking to the top of Dragadon Hill to where the US Office, what passes for an Embassy here, sits. The US Office was under increased security lockdown, with US troops forming a perimeter around the facility. When people in homes saw their neighbors walking up the streets they joined them. By 2 AM a local TV station had a crew on the hill and Kosovars, seeing the candles and flowers on TV, joined in large numbers. Student Radio started playing classical music. People placed candles around the perimeter and laid flowers in front of the soldiers.
Wednesday morning we were approached by people recognizing us as Americans. “Please accept our thoughts and sorrow.” “America stood by Kosova, now we will stand by you,” “Kosovars understand terror, and we want you to know that we are with you.”
There was a vigil scheduled on Mother Therese Boulevard for three PM. I announced to the class that we would dismiss class early because “Being reporters you will want to cover this.”
A reporter replied. “Not only because I am a reporter, but because I am a man who wants to express my feelings for America.”
The vigil was a most moving experience. We joined the crowd walking up Mother Therese Boulevard and folded into a group of students heading toward the National Theater. We passed the monument to a fallen KLA fighter who held an American flag in his bronze hand. The crowd grew to thousands, quiet and respectful. The street was full. We passed a group of nurses dressed in white carrying red flowers. In front of the National Theater hundreds of people carried American flags. Someone had printed posters with the American Flag that said “Amerike, e ndajme dhembjen me ty!” (America, we are with you!) signed “The people of Kosovo.” On the stairs of the theater the American and Albanian flags flew together over a banner saying “Stop Terrorist In the World.” (sic) There are so many mental snapshots; a boy holding a candle in one hand and a pole with a large American flag the other; an Imam in a turban holding a “We are with you” poster standing with a woman holding a small American flag; an Imam and Nun standing together on the top steps of the theater.
About half an hour into the vigil a group of young men started chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A.” Others in the crowd hushed the men. An older man started a speech denouncing terrorists and bringing the wrath of Allah on them. Again the crowd quieted him. This was a vigil, not a demonstration. At about 3:45 the crowd quietly disbursed. Some of the buildings along Mother Therese Boulevard had rows of candles in front and up the steps into apartments.
The mood was somewhat broken when we walked into the Grand Hotel. A bombastic version of “God Bless America” was on the PA system. While I appreciate the sentiment, I’ve never really liked that song, perhaps because I’ve never really liked Kate Smith. But the kindness, the love, the support shown to us these last two days is something I will never forget
Each morning my email box has messages of condolence, support or solidarity from some colleague or friend; they’ve come from Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovakia, Turkey, Britain, and Germany. The Grand hotel has set up a table in the lobby with a book on it and a large American flag standing next to it. For four days a small but a constant line of people stands waiting to sign the book of condolence. The book will be given to the US Office (Embassy). The perimeter of the US Office is now guarded by a UN unit rather than American troops. A tank, painted white, stands in front of the entrance and the UN troops with the blue beret are from Jordan.
Friday at noon Kosova joined the rest of Europe in three minutes of silence. Kosovars do not often wear watches and, like their Albanian cousins, are not known for punctuality. But, without signal, people walking on the streets just stopped, usually with hands clasped before them, and stood silently, then, about three minutes later, again, without signal people just started walking again.
We are now in Prizren. To get here from Prishtina we had to drive through country that saw some of the heaviest fighting and worst destruction of the Kosovo war. We passed within two kilometers of Racak, the town where a major massacre took place. It was this action by Serbs that caused the West to notice. While far fewer people died in the Racak massacre than in the World Trade Center bombing the percent of the population effected was much higher. Parts of the road are still lined with signs with the skull symbol that tells us mines have not been cleared. Every few hundred yards is a monument to a fallen soldier or murdered civilians.
As we drive, Faik, a man in his 50’s, tells us, through his son, about what happened to him. He and his wife were taken out of their cars and beaten. His younger brother was killed, his nephew still has a bullet in his knee, but worst, his 92-year-old mother died of exposure in the mountains after they had to flee their home. He said, married 75 years, 11 children, and none of us could do anything. She died over two days.
He is not telling us this to evoke sympathy, but to give sympathy, because he is also talking about the Trade Center bombing. His story, and the way these villages have risen again is a sign of hope for all of us. At the fork where the road to Racak turns off someone has placed two crossed American flags with a tourist poster of New York, showing the Brooklyn Bridge and the two towers of the Trade Center. Flowers surround the monument.
Slovakia is dealing with the attacks on the World Trade Center differently than the way Kosovo did. While there is the wall of flowers and candles at the US Embassy, the conceptual artists have taken over much of the response. In the main square a big poster reads, “We are all in the same boat.” Near it are several huge boats made of stiff folded paper and tables with construction paper. The poster invites everyone to take a piece of construction paper, fold it into a paper boat, write a message on it and put it into one of the big boats. Thus the big boats are filled with smaller, brightly colored paper boats with messages like “I Love You,” or “With deepest sorrow.” The artists want to fly the paper boats to New York and float them down the Hudson. It’s a charming idea, and the tables are full of kids, and not a few adults, folding boats.
The second piece of conceptual art is in the Medieval City Hall Arcade. Booklets made up of crinkled paper, the type that you used to type on and then could erase, hang from strings from the arches of the arcade. The paper has veins of blue running through it. The booklets hang in bunches, one booklet above another, with a pencil dangling below, held by a string. The display is called “Letters to heaven.” The sign invites folks to write letters to those killed or missing in the US or to their families. The display is striking; the booklets almost look like clouds of white with blue sky breaking through hanging in the arches. The booklets will be displayed at the World Bank in Washington.
The tragedy and the potential US reaction to it are still what people here in Europe talk about. That includes making jokes. Every time, in my memory, when there’s been a disaster black humor follows quickly, almost as a catharsis. When the Challenger went down, when the car bomb hit the Marine base in Lebanon, whenever, there has been black humor. In the age of email it usually comes quickly. It was 16 days before I got my first email humor about the WTC and Pentagon attacks. It wasn’t black, “Punish the Taliban. Send their women to college.”
There IS black humor circulating in Europe. I debated sharing it with you because I don’t want to needlessly cause hurt. But on reflection I will pass these on because they reflect thought here.
The first bit in Kosovo was a composite photo of a 767 flying into the glass “skyscraper” that houses KEK, the Kosovo Electric Kompany. The second was a notice “Bin Laden Airlines flies you directly to your office.” Finally, and I suppose you need to know a little about Albanians to fully appreciate this. “The first lesson of the World Trade Center? NEVER get to work on time.”
But the disasters have also engendered serious conversation. It affected Eugene from Kosovo greatly because “I wanted to believe that there was one place on this planet where people were safe and happy.” The terrorists have taken that from him.
I’m looking at my own sense of loss. Suzi and I have lived in the “Former Evil Empire” on and off for 8 years. We are used to tapped phones, recorded conversations, stuff gone through, and controls with ID cards. We have developed defense mechanisms. But we always knew that there was a place we could go where we believed our Email was relatively secure and where the government could not tap our phones without a judge’s order, where we could say what we wanted without looking over our shoulders. Now Presidential spokesman, Ari Fleischer, says that all Americans “have to watch what they say and watch what they do.”
I’ve been careful of what I’ve written in these letters because I know my email is likely read by officials in Serbia, Slovakia, Croatia, Montenegro and Kosovo. But there was always freedom at home, where I did not have to “Watch what I say.”
We must all speak freely now. We have to be more open and honest with ourselves and must expose ourselves to opinions in this world that we find offensive if we are to get through this. We have to be informed and weigh every possibility. We must not live in fear of terrorists or of our own government. I’ve met many people in the region who refused to live in fear, who chose to live in truth. Some paid a fearful price. To honor them we must continue to speak openly. Ben Franklin said, “Those would surrender liberty for security deserve neither.”