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Back from Skopje

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I have just returned from Skopje,Macedonia where I spent a week with my former student and her family. The hospitality was, of course, wonderful. But looming over us was the impending NATO bombing of Serbia. I will post later about my "tourist" experiences in Skopje, but now I want to briefly share my feelings and experiences. I apologize that this isn't a "light" post, but travel can sometimes take a different direction.

I was working at a news agency the morning before the NATO bombing began. The rumors were legion. We heard Kofi Anan was flying to Belgrade. We heard that a British plane had taken off from Italy. We heard that the Skopje airport was still open. Or that it was closing. It was only the last rumor that was true. After work the women from the office took me out for a drink. That night NATO started bombing. PLEASE note that I am not taking a position here. I'm not sure anything anyone does or doesn't do will resolve the Kosovo situation. Every option hurts someone. And historical memory runs deep. I *am*, of course VERY concerned about the effect on Macedonia.

I watched the first night of the bombing in Skopje. There was CNN feed as well as Macedonian coverage. Almost everyone in Skopje has relatives in Belgrade. I will tell you this: watching tv coverage of bombing occuring less than 50 miles from you [The Kosovo border is about 7 miles from Skopje, Prishtina is 3-40 miles.] is a heck of a lot less abstract than watching the US bomb Iraq from the distance of the US. Surprisingly I don't think I was scared. I was sad and concerned. I *was* worried about how I was going to get back to Chicago. I was supposed to fly out to Zurich on the morning of the 25th. That evening the airport was closed. We considered several options: car to Sofia, bus to the Greek border, then my former student remembered the train that runs from Budapest to Thessaloniki. The question is would it run as it has to pass through Serbia to get to Skopje. We called at 3:30am and the answer was yes! I have NO idea how that train made it through Serbia that night. [I think it was the last to do so.]

I watched the first night of the bombing in Skopje. There was CNN feed as well as Macedonian coverage. Almost everyone in Skopje has relatives in Belgrade. I will tell you this: watching tv coverage of bombing occuring less than 50 miles from you [The Kosovo border is about 7 miles from Skopje, Prishtina is 3-40 miles.] is a heck of a lot less abstract than watching the US bomb Iraq from the distance of the US. Surprisingly I don't think I was scared. I was sad and concerned. I *was* worried about how I was going to get back to Chicago. I was supposed to fly out to Zurich on the morning of the 25th. That evening the airport was closed. We considered several options: car to Sofia, bus to the Greek border, then my former student remembered the train that runs from Budapest to Thessaloniki. The question is would it run as it has to pass through Serbia to get to Skopje. We called at 3:30am and the answer was yes! I have NO idea how that train made it through Serbia that night. [I think it was the last to do so.]

At 5am I was on a train to Greece. The rest of the day was long. The scenery in Southern Macedonia was spectacular. The only *event* was the Greek police taking about 8 of us off the train at Idomeni to check out passports. It took them a while to decide that a short middle-aged woman from Chicago was neither a drug runner or a terrorist [and they obviously didn't like my 3 Macedonian visas much], but in the end we got back on the train and proceeded to Thessaloniki. [which is a beautiful city... next time!]

At the Thessaloniki airport Crossair [Swissair's regional carrier] and Austrian Airlines took care of me *exquisitely*. Both went far beyond what was was required. They have my loyalty now. I had lunch with one of the OSCE verifiers who had been in Kosovo and got his perspective. [He was on the way home to Canada for a 10 day vacation and believed that he would be back in Kosovo after that. I am less convinced of that.] I arrived in Zurich via Vienna, got the last room at the Airport Hilton. Took a shower [needed, trust me...] and slept for the first time in a while before my flight home on the 26th.

I have talked on the phone and emailed my "family." The day and night of the 26th were dicey with the riots at the US embassy and the Alexander Palce Hotel, but the police have gotten organized and things are a lot more peaceful now. The US State Dept. issued a travel warning for Macedonia on the 26th.

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