A Psychologist in Albania

KUKES, Albania–So, I keep this journal. I work every day in hot, dusty camps of refugees and come back to think and it’s too much. No privacy, no down time. The privacy I crave; the down time would be overwhelming. I didn’t want to live like a machine so I came here, to the end of the earth. A “passionate place,” the photographer called it. Name your passion.

Today I sat in a tent with women mourning the death of a teen-ager. Beautiful kid. Drowned swimming in a now-treacherous lake. His body was in our midst, handled and held, and they keened. The men outside and me inside thinking how to comfort, what not to do to make it fit our quiet, controlled idea of grief. Since the beginning, listening to people tell their stories, I’ve written in my journal, “I’d be screaming.” Today they were screaming and something about it felt more coherent than all I’ve tried to say.

Thoughts intrude about how uncovered I seem compared with these women. I should have shaved my legs better. It’s so hot. The pregnant woman passes out. When will they come to sign the death certificate? And all the time trying to observe, stay detached, and learn. How much of this can I record in my tired brain? I’m so safe. My sons are strong swimmers.

Afterward, I’m invited for tea and konjak (cognac) in another tent. Men who were prisoners a week ago invite me to visit when “we” all go back to Kosovo. They think enough to give me more than a street address in case the street doesn’t exist anymore.

This is also a beautiful place: mountains, still a bit of snow, and the lake. Poppies, but not for picking; I always pass them in the middle of the day and I worry about land mines. Imagine the headline. They’d milk it for all it was worth. I don’t think there are land mines here, but you can’t be too careful. Therefore, no hiking if you do take a day off. You’d start thinking too much anyway. This shouldn’t have happened. This is not a learning experience. It’s just wrong.

Back from this long day. E-mail from home. Not private, but so sweet to think about how it must be there. Don’t think about it. Instead, find a car, a driver, and go out for some quiet talk with friends and take advantage of the beautiful night to remember what it’s like just to fool around. It would be nice to drive. Most women here don’t. The roads are ridiculous: potholes, cows, humvees. All coming right at you. Ismet drives through it like a classic hypertensive, while I can’t ride shotgun anymore. I joke that we can’t be serious until we get a flag on our car. If we were really important we’d have a 4x4 and a flag. In Connecticut it’s just a 4x4. I can hardly imagine Connecticut, so soft and familiar. Oysters and cold white wine in Stonington. Don’t think about it.

Photograph by Roger Job/MSF.