Dispatches From the War Zone

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I have always thought of Macedonia as a small bare room with a single steel-frame bed, a small fridge, and a sink, not particularly clean but fairly neat, lacking the excess objects that can create disorder. As a teenager in Moscow, I briefly dated a Macedonian college student who lived in that room. He had a lot of patience with my not knowing where Macedonia was–as was and continues to be the custom, we inquired about each other’s ethnic origins early on in the acquaintance–because, I suspect, no one else he met ever knew where Macedonia was. I realize now that I don’t remember his name, because for years, when I thought of him at all, I called him Alexander, for Alexander the Great, the only other Macedonian of whose existence I was then aware. Which is, I think, an underlying argument for Macedonia’s insistence, over Greek objections, on its name: It’s a mnemonic aid without which the world might forget about Macedonia altogether.

Macedonia, now that I have seen it, does not seem all that dissimilar from that lonely room. Skopje, the capital, was devastated by an earthquake in 1963. Like many rebuilt cities, it leaves a bland sense of something missing–color or, perhaps, just urban clutter. It is overwhelmed by relief workers who have taken to referring to themselves as “internationals.” And though their presence has undoubtedly been a boon to the hotel business and the taxi business, Macedonia, unlike Albania, does not rejoice. Rather than feeling like it has arrived on the map of the world, it feels trampled, and it seems coiled in fear of more trampling.

Macedonia emerged from the former Yugoslavia virtually unarmed and unharmed: It had stayed off the secession bandwagon long enough not to have a war waged against it, and then, when many of the Yugoslav army troops that were stationed here were pulled back to fight the other battles, the country quietly slipped away, hoping for once that no one would notice it. Then it tried to institute economic and legal reform while maintaining its very shaky ethnic balance. The largest ethnic minority–Albanians, who make up nearly a quarter of Macedonia’s population of 2 million–settled for a strange compromise, a combination of integration and segregation. Some Albanians were included in state structures, even becoming government ministers; at the same time, others constructed something like a toned-down version of the Kosovars’ parallel society.

The last Yugoslavian census dates back to 1991, and this is a problem, because, for one thing, all the newly independent countries base their vastly changed population figures on it, and, for another, “that means there are all these people called Yugoslavs,” says Professor Olga Murdzeva-Skarik, director of the Balkan Peace Studies Center on Cyril and Methodius University’s Faculty of Philosophy. Not that many–at less than 10 percent, it was the largest number of people who had ever called themselves Yugoslavs. Olga herself wrote she was Yugoslav, her husband wrote “no ethnicity,” and her son wrote “terrestrian.” The census worker was unhappy and insisted that they at least put down something sensible on the “religion” line. They said, “We practice no faith.” He said, “Put down your origins: We are all Christian at root.”

And do I know what is remarkable? Olga asks me. There were practically no mixed marriages, even in those blessed times of Yugoslavia. Sure, in Macedonia some Serbs married Macedonians, and Macedonians married Croats, all of them being Christian. But the Muslims–the Slavs and the Albanians, both–seemed to stay separate. “I guess underneath we all have religion,” says Olga.

I like Olga. She is about 55, and she has a motherly way about her, immediately asking me whether I have medication for my cold. Plus, she agreed to meet me, when most Macedonian intellectuals I have called first complained that so many of the journalists have left because, as one of them said, “this crisis situation has become ordinary for them,” but then told me they had met with too many journalists and could no longer be bothered. I expected Olga to be one of those thoroughly Westernized Eastern European intellectuals who manage to zigzag around the pitfalls of Balkan nationalist rhetoric and put the whole sad situation in their country in perspective. Olga has the credentials for that profile: She studied in Paris in 1968, she heads up this center that promotes tolerance and nonviolence. But I have two problems with Olga: She does not keep an ironic distance from nationalist rhetoric, which makes me uncomfortable, and too often she speaks in clichés, which makes my job difficult. In the last few weeks I have developed a working theory that potentially articulate people who speak in clichés do so because their beliefs are so straightforward and their reality so stark that they allow for no complexities.

“We want peace,” says Olga. “The first thing is, to escape being bombed. The second thing is, to escape being the bombers, not to become killers.” She is afraid Macedonians’ clearly dominant pro-Serb sentiment will provoke NATO. She is also afraid that the Macedonian government will allow NATO to use its territory for ground troops, and that then somehow Macedonian boys will become NATO soldiers. And if they don’t consent, they will be victimized by the internal pro-NATO force, the ethnic Albanians. The way she looks at it–the way many Macedonians as well as “internationals” look at it–it’s a few months before the Macedonian state faces a crisis that will threaten its very existence. Its neighbors would jump at the chance to take it over. There’s Greece, which doesn’t like Macedonia using the name Macedonia; there’s Bulgaria, which thinks that Macedonians are a subgroup of Bulgarians and their language a dialect of Bulgarian; there’s Albania, which wants to reunite with Kosovo and not have Macedonia wedged in-between; and then there’s Yugoslavia, which most Macedonians do not seem to fear, but which happens to be the last state to have laid claim to Macedonia. And then there is the very bad best-case scenario, in Olga’s view: “the federalization of Macedonia,” which would somehow split it into two states, Macedonian and Albanian.

I ask why, with her strong Macedonian identity, Olga put herself down as Yugoslav in the census. “The beautiful country of Yugoslavia was in danger,” she says. “Now Macedonia is in danger, so now I would say I am Macedonian.” A kind of rooting for the macro-underdog.

Olga insists on paying for my dinner. I object, but she insists, and she says she has three reasons: “First, because of your Jewish provenance [the conversation briefly touched on the Jews’ experience of displacement]; second, because you are from Russia [Slavic brotherhood–though, of course, being Jewish, I am not Slavic]; and, third, because you are connected with the States, so you are truly international.” Myself, I would prefer to be treated to dinner because I am good company, good-looking, or hungry, but the options Olga has listed seem to be the only categories available to me in the Balkans.

While she settles the bill, I try small talk and ask her about her children. Her daughter is in Germany studying piano–another example of the Macedonian youth brain drain. Her son? She does not know where he is. She reaches into her large black purse for a clear plastic folder with a color photo of a young man with short hair and a friendly face, and for a tissue. He was a student in Belgrade, and two years ago he disappeared. “We hope for the best, that he is alive,” she says, and dabs her eyes. “I know the price of life. And now people are dying for nothing. Do you understand? For nothing!”

I don’t know what could have happened to Olga’s son. Two years ago there was no war in Belgrade or, in fact, anywhere in the region, briefly, so even the chances that he faced forced mobilization are extremely slim. But there are so many stories of death and disappearance in places where there are too many guns and too little future that, while each is different, together they make a picture. Anyway, I think my cliché theory has been confirmed.