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A Reporter's Diary of Two Months on the Road Across a Ruined Landscape, Over the Accursed Mountains, and Down to a Place Where Nightmares Come True

By Joshua Hammer

I.
La Vikinga, the hydrofoil that plies the Adriatic Sea between the Italian port of Bari and the Albanian harbor town of Durres, left on schedule at five o'clock on a clear evening in early April. A first-class ticket had given me entrée to the "VIP Lounge," where two Albanian stewardesses served up Ritz crackers and warm Cokes, and high on the forward bulkhead a mounted television blared a video of McHale's Navy dubbed in Italian. The rest of the boat was packed: On the lower deck, amid a blue haze of diesel fumes and cigarette smoke, hundreds of La Vikinga, the hydrofoil that plies the Adriatic Sea between the Italian port of Bari and the Albanian harbor town of Durres, left on schedule at five o'clock on a clear evening in early April. A first-class ticket had given me entrée to the "VIP Lounge," where two Albanian stewardesses served up Ritz crackers and warm Cokes, and high on the forward bulkhead a mounted television blared a video of McHale's Navy dubbed in Italian. The rest of the boat was packed: On the lower deck, amid a blue haze of diesel fumes and cigarette smoke, hundreds of young Albanian men were playing cards and whispering to one another. They were a tough-looking crew with unshaven faces and callused hands, and they avoided eye contact with me as I strolled the deck at sunset.

Most of these men were clad in denim jackets, jeans, and either work boots or track shoes. Scattered among them were men in black berets and camouflage shirts whose shoulders bore a small red patch emblazoned with a black, double-headed eagle, the insignia of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Virtually all of the travelers were Kosovar émigrés who had been working in Western Europe as waiters, short-order cooks, soccer coaches, construction workers, teachers, and janitors. When the NATO bombings and the mass expulsions from Kosovo had begun ten days earlier, they had quit their jobs, said good-bye to their wives and girlfriends, and were now rushing to join the KLA.

I fell into conversation with a bearded, long-haired Kosovar eager to convey his ferocity. He called himself The Wolf, and a week earlier he had been scrubbing dishes in a restaurant in Munich. The Wolf told me he had already fought the Serbs once before, in Bosnia, and he said he couldn't wait to face them again. "The Serbs are fucking animals," he said. "Rapists. Killers of women and children." He took a long, vehement drag on a Dunhill, which appeared to be the official cigarette of the KLA, and glared at me. "Do you think I'm making this up? You think it was some Hollywood movie?"

The thick fog lifted just as we drew near the lights of the medieval fortress town of Durres. With a bump and a screech, La Vikinga nestled against the dock. I was back in the VIP Lounge when an Albanian customs official walked in and began collecting passports from the dozen journalists and miscellaneous foreigners who were traveling first-class. The customs man, who had a filthy shirt, a gloomy face bristling with dark stubble, and a cigarette dangling from his lips, began to demand visa fees. The Canadians paid $25; the Germans, $30. The French got off with a bargain $12. But when he saw my U.S. passport he brightened and flashed a smile. "America," he said. Then, again with feeling: "America!" He looked at me. "You pay $45."


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