The road from Kukes to Bajram Curri climbs steeply above Lake Fierza and then snakes northwest through empty hills covered in dark, thorny scrub. The land is nearly devoid of human settlement—the most destitute and neglected corner of the poorest nation in Europe.
We were traveling in two vehicles. In front, in a rented Jeep Cherokee with Bulldozer at the wheel, were the KLA financier, two American magazine reporters, and a cameraman for Geraldo Rivera's cable-television talk show. Ron and I were riding just behind their vehicle in another Jeep driven by Jonathan Landay, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor.
After a four-hour drive, we descended from the mountains into Bajram Curri, crossing the turquoise river on an old Ottoman bridge and passing a modern mosque and crumbling stone-walled compounds. The town was unnervingly quiet as we pulled into the driveway of the mustard-colored, concrete-slab Ermat Hotel, Bajram Curri's finest.
The hotel manager was asleep behind his desk, grizzled head resting on a dusty ledger book. As we stood there, a dozen Kosovar refugees straggled in, men with exhausted, slack faces, their clothing peppered with burrs and stained with mud. They had just crossed the mountains from their hometown of Djakovica, they said, threading their way past the dug-in Yugoslav Army, skirting minefields and artillery positions and burning villages.
In the hotel restaurant a handful of Albanian soldiers sipped raki, a clear liquor distilled from grapes. They were served by a young waiter with a .45 pistol stuck in his belt. Across the room sat a trio of Danish NATO Rangers in camouflage fatigues. They had piercing blue eyes and cropped blond hair, and they scowled at us as we walked into the room.
"Have you been in Bajram Curri long?" Jonathan asked them.
A Danish lieutenant with cadaverous features grunted a response.
"What are you guys doing?"
"Humanitarian aid," the lieutenant said, and then he turned back to his moussaka and German beer.
Word had apparently gotten out the moment our two Jeeps pulled into the hotel driveway: new foreigners in town. It filtered through the police headquarters across the street and then spread by walkie-talkie to the bars and pool halls where the mafiosi congregated. Within minutes a parade of souped-up white Mercedes sedans, Jeeps, Mitsubishi Pajeros, and Nissan Patrols began to cruise past the hotel. Some of the drivers were members of the local police force who were rumored to be in league with the bandits. One of the Jeeps still bore the insignia of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the human-rights monitors for the Balkans. OSCE workers had surrendered four vehicles in Bajram Curri at gunpoint two weeks earlier.
Sporadic gunfire rang out from the nearby hills. At Bajram Curri's hospital, just down the road from the Ermat Hotel, the latest casualties from the KLA's ongoing assault against the Serbs were recuperating. Just as we were going in to interview the wounded guerrillas, a car engine revved outside and we turned around in time to see our Jeep speeding past the hospital with a stranger at the wheel. Moments later, a white ambulance tore by in hot pursuit with Bulldozer in the passenger seat.
Back in our sanctuary at the Ermat a half hour later, Geraldo Rivera's cameraman paced his third-floor balcony. He was frantic. The Jeep Cherokee had been rented in Tirana under his name, and now, for all he knew, it was heading to Montenegro, along with a new laptop and a $3,000 satellite telephone in the backseat.
Several Danish Rangers were relaxing on the adjacent balcony, cleaning their guns and taking in the scene.
"When did you arrive in town?" one of them asked.
"Two hours ago," the cameraman replied.
"Two hours?" said one of the Danes. "The new record."
Djordan, our local interpreter, was optimistic that we'd get the car back.The thieves had made a mistake by stealing from Bulldozer, a KLA guerrilla, he assured us. Fatmir Haklaj, Bajram Curri's 30-year-old chief of police, would see to it that these freelance thieves were tracked down and punished.
"Somebody's going to die today," Geraldo's cameraman said, watching from the balcony. He sounded pleased at the prospect. Down below, Fatmir Haklaj's boys were driving up and down the streets, racing past the ruined city museum, fanning out across Bajram Curri and into the surrounding countryside. At the KLA's insistence, Haklaj had sent word to his minions to capture the car thieves, and his mafia-militia was chasing the hijackers and sealing off every escape route.
A few minutes later, the word spread through the hotel: "They've got the car."
As soon as we got downstairs, the Jeep pulled into the parking lot, followed by a six-car escort. A half-dozen young men leapt triumphantly from the vehicles and strutted around the Cherokee. They carried Kalashnikov assault rifles and wore olive-drab gun belts across their chests. A few minutes later a white Mercedes pulled up, and the driver's door and one of the backseat doors swung open simultaneously, revealing an interior decorated with purple shag carpeting. Out stepped the driver, a burly young man with a ducktail, Elvis Presley sideburns, wraparound sunglasses, and three fat gold rings; and from the back, Fatmir Haklaj, the police chief himself, slim and rakish-looking, with curly, sandy-blond hair and a thick beard. He was decked out in crisp camouflage fatigues and a green bomber jacket and had an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. The chief gave a brief speech in Albanian to the assembled journalists and hangers-on.