(Skopje, Macedonia. January 2004)
Katlanovo sat in the snow deep in the mountains. The buildings of the summer camp dormitories were pale blue and spread into a stand of cyprus and pine. The air was hazy and orange and completely still.
In front of the gate, a Macedonian police officer sat in a cramped hut playing cards with a group of Aškali children. His Lada 2107 sat just outside. He had steak-like jowls and thin lips. “Majupi,” he said and thrust his chins toward the buildings. The children berated him and he grinned. I handed over my passport as he requested and walked through the gates.
The paths through the snow were knee-deep and narrow, as if everyone walked in single-file all the time. Four Aškali men stood next to an empty UNHCR shack smoking and looking their shoes. A group of children played soccer in a snowy field. Their laughter and shouts echoed off the dormitory walls. Their foggy breathe hung in the air like confusion.
Through the curtains a family crowded in the dim light of a single bulb. They were languid, like smoked bees. Plastic hair clips held back the lace curtains, the television mumbled and posters of Enrique Iglesias and Brittany Spears lined the wall. The floor was covered with a giant rug. Neatly arrayed pillows traced the walls. The air was warm and scented with cabbage and paprika.
I gave them some coffee in a steel can and a bag of Dove hand soap.
The grandfather had been stressed about his son, the oldest of seven, but he was trying to let it go. He had not heard from the young man since they had crossed the border from Kosovo. The grandmother was stressed also – about everything. Money, food, heat, a roof… these were things forever in doubt. She was very dark and with sharp features. She was so beautiful I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her.
She made me a cup of tea on a butane stove.
One of the daughters had a husband in jail. Her son was five months old. He couldn’t hold his head up by himself and was clearly blind. She was detached and sat on a pillow staring at the wall. The grandfather was attentive to the boy, despite his worry. “chit..chi..chi…chi…chi…chit,” he sang and tickled the boy’s neck. The boy cooed and smiled and the grandfather did it again.
The hallway was lined with laundry and the toilet was a hole outside.
In the next room sat a man, his wife and four girls. The little one’s name translated as “How Beautiful is Freedom”. She was born in a plastic tent at the border in a baking summer heat. The room was very similar to that of the first family but for a coffee table and two stools. They’d lived as refugees in Jokkmokk, Sweden for eighteen months in the 90s. That time they were fleeing with the Kosovars from the Serbs. This time they were fleeing from the Kosovars. Sweden didn’t want them back even though they both spoke the language solidly.
The wife was anxious. The man was angry.
“I had a successful business!” He shouted in Swedish. “They burned it. Twice! “Now I send my children to Skopje every day for education. Education. Education. That is everything! He shouted. His wife bit her nails. But they don’t want Majupi children to succeed. They don’t want us! My girl makes a perfect paper and she gets fewer points than a perfect paper made by Macedonian girls. Why? Majupi. Can you live on 200 euros a month when your rent is 100?”
“What was your business?” I asked.
“Book-binding. What is yours?”
“I’m here to take pictures.” “You’re not taking any pictures.”
“You tell me. Why do Kosovars get refugee status in three months and for us nothing in five years? Because Macedonia prostitutes itself for EU money and KFOR troops sell Kosovar girls for prostitutes! Majupi. Majupi. Thats all we are.”
In the evening it snowed again. They restaurants in Skopje were loud and full. I ate fish in a restaurant on the west-side across the Treska River.