When people have asked why I have come to Macedonia this time around, and what is my project in this country, I have tended to be vague. I started coming here in October of 2003 after I became fascinated by this country’s uncanny ability to avoid going to all-out war, time and time again, when it faced countless threats to its stability and indeed its neighbors did collapse into civil war. I wrote about the Ohrid Agreement – its implementation and its many imperfections. I met Xhabir and the rest of the CIVIL team as they seemed set on wallpapering Macedonian cities and towns with anti-gun signs and slogans in support of a weapons amnesty that I found so inspiring to read about, and which of course turned out to be as imperfect as everything else happening on the ground. I kept coming back to Macedonia, writing my undergraduate thesis, and then a graphic novel. Much later, in graduate school, I again delved into the history of Macedonian nationalism, the rise of VMRO in the post-Ohrid context, and its implication for the field of minority rights. For a long time, my pact with myself was that I wouldn’t let a year pass without coming to Skopje. For five years, I held true.
It has been almost a decade now since I have been here, though I will say that I don’t think a day has passed when I haven’t thought about this place and my friends here. It was a friend dying, finally, that prompted me to shove everything aside and get on a plane. Shuki wasn’t a very close friend, but he was one of the group, and someone I always thought of seeing again on my “next trip.” He was a wonderful, gentle artist who told the best Yugoslav jokes and made me laugh so much. (I can hear him telling the joke about the Bosnian sent on a space mission with two pigs now. Maybe you know it.) His dying made me think, “Oh god, what if someone else dies and I don’t see them? What if I die and never see Macedonia again?” It is all very morbid.
Now that I’m here, my heart breaks every day that I’ll have to say goodbye again, but it breaks even more for what this country has been through in the past decade, a story that is written in so many lives interrupted and derailed, so many people filled with fear, and in the brutal treatment that the very landscape of Skopje has been forced to undergo.
I walk through Skopje now unable to find my way, not because the old landmarks aren’t there, but because they have been buried behind statues and buildings erected in a misguided and completely disrespectful attempt by the VMRO regime to cram a bizarre and irritating version of Macedonian nationality and history down the country’s throat. I spent my graduate school years (and many years before and since then) writing about that regime, reading human rights reports and news reports, and even joining CIVIL from abroad as it worked tirelessly for the cause of human freedom in Macedonia, which inevitably meant fighting this regime (though its fight does not end there). Still, nothing could prepare me for what I would see when I set foot in Skopje, not even the multiple warnings that I would find it a “completely different city.”
I have had trouble putting it to words, what I have found. In the first days, I was simply stunned. Perhaps the best way to put it is that the city has been strangled. The old beauty is still there. The old socialist structures that I fell in love with, which some may have joked were too bold, or too large for modern use, are all still there. The landmarks that every Skopjen knows – the Kale, the Stone Bridge – are still there. They have just been blocked, and dwarfed, by buildings and monuments that look like they belong in Las Vegas or Disneyland. Near the Centar, it seems that almost no building has escaped some frilly embellishment. Where I used to sit by the river in a café gazing out at so much sky, and mountain, and the Macedonian Opera House jutting up from the earth, daring to spear as the coldest iceberg (or at least that it what I thought), now I can’t bear to sit there at all. I can hardly see the Opera House at all.
Now, I think that when people ask me why I came to Skopje, I will be more honest. It has always been my tendency, like a typical American, to have a “can-do” attitude, to want to focus on the possibilities of the future and all of the changes that will surely come if we organize ourselves properly and lobby the new regime with utmost effectiveness. There will be time for such exuberance… But for now, I will just say that I came here to mourn and to cry. I came to truly feel the great losses of this time. There is a lesson in there, about what is most precious, what is most vulnerable, and what is worth fighting for.