"The Beeb and APTV got robbed just before we did," Ron said. "Lost their car, their satphones, their TV cameras, their dish—$200,000 worth of equipment. Their bodyguard sat there watching. Then he pointed his AK at the Beeb correspondent's head and demanded his money for saving his life."
"Any chance they'll recover the gear?" I asked.
"The Bajram Curri police are negotiating for them," Ron said. "The asking price is $18,000."
Suddenly Wade jumped up and walked to the window. "Here's something you don't have to worry about doing in Albania," he yelled, dumping the contents of a large bag of trash—orange peels, soda cans, empty film canisters—out the window and into the bushes six stories below. "Whole fucking country is one big garbage dump."
The ambush robberies in Bajram Curri only briefly stemmed the journalists' rush to the border. The KLA's battle against the Serbs in the mountains along the Albania-Kosovo border was a sideshow of the larger war, but it loomed huge in the imaginations of the press corps. The KLA made great copy, but the guerrillas didn't seem to know how to capitalize on the press's sympathy. Secretive to the point of paranoia, most of the guerrillas refused even to talk to reporters. At the same time, everyone was desperately trying to cultivate KLA connections, huddling in the corner of the Gjalica Hotel restaurant and negotiating with people with names like Agim, Yasher, and Dino. Of course, I was as eager as anyone else to find a way to hook up with the insurgents and get into Kosovo.
One day Marie Colvin, an American reporter for the Sunday Times of London, returned from Bajram Curri after accomplishing what every other hack in town dreamed of doing: She had crossed into Kosovo with the KLA. In the evening I found her sitting on the terrace of the Bar Amerika, tapping at her laptop in the fading light, the glow of the screen lighting up her face.
"I just spent three days inside," she confirmed, puffing on a cigarette. Like nearly everyone else in Kukes she was a chain smoker. "It was like World War I up there—guys huddled in trenches, heading out over the top, and coming back shot to pieces.
"Here's what you wanna do," she continued. "You get yourself a car with BC license plates, OK?"
"BC?" I asked.
"Bajram Curri," she said impatiently. "Cars with Kukes plates, Tirana plates—forget about it. They mark you as an outsider the second you pull into town. But they won't touch a car with BC plates. It means the driver comes from the area. Stealing his car will provoke a blood feud."
Marie's advice set off two days of futile searching for a car with BC plates. Then I got a lucky break. An old journalist friend of mine showed up in town with a Kosovar-American moneyman she had recruited in New York. They were heading up to the front lines north of Bajram Curri and agreed to let me and Ron, the Newsweek photographer, tag along. We wouldn't have BC plates, but we would have a bodyguard and driver named Bulldozer.
Bulldozer was a tall, thickly muscled guy with short, brown, curly hair. He spoke almost no English, had a sweet manner, and was an accomplished killer. In recent months he had served as the commander of a KLA unit in Vranoc, near the town of Pec in western Kosovo. Before joining the fighting, Bulldozer had delivered arms to the guerrillas all over the region using a cement truck with a hidden container in the back.
We met Bulldozer at a corner table in the bar at the Gjalica, and I mentioned the previous carjackings and thefts.
"Don't worry," he declared, stubbing out a Dunhill. "They're not going to fuck with the KLA."