A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Help us get away with murder

police tape

For Bashkim, a 25-year-old Albanian-American dishwasher, the trouble all started after he started having an affair with his boss’s wife. When his boss heard the rumors, he immediately confronted his wife.

Luljeta claimed that Bashkim, who was nearly 20 years younger than her, had raped her in the diner, after hours, on several occasions. Her husband, Illir, called the Anchorage police, who investigated the claims and discovered that Luljeta had actually paid for motel rooms used for afternoon trysts with Bashkim. The police dropped the charges but Ilir was irate and unsure of whom to blame.

Several months later, Bashkim traveled to Kicevo, a small city in Macedonia, the country of his parents’ birth, for the first time, along with his father, Nick, and cousin, Tony. Arranged marriage is still common amongst Albanian-Americans and Nick wanted his son to meet a woman they wanted him to marry.

The trio met with the young woman and her family in a café in downtown Kicevo, a shabby, provincial city with a substantial ethnic-Albanian community, and wedding plans were sealed over coffee and cigarettes in the traditional Albanian custom. But as the group walked out of the café, a masked man dressed in a joggers outfit opened fire on them, with bullets hitting Nick and Bashkim in the head.

Tony was hit in the buttocks, but managed to disarm the gunman, who fled into a getaway vehicle. The victims were rushed to a local hospital, where Nick, 46, was pronounced dead on arrival. Bashkim was seriously wounded but made a full recovery, as did Tony. A few months later, Ilir was extradited from Alaska to Macedonia to stand trial for murder.

When Americans are locked up abroad, American Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) will visit them in prison and will typically attend their trial, if possible. But what many travelers and expatriates often fail to understand is that Americans are always subject to local laws and judicial proceedings – even if they are capricious and backward.

FSO’s can provide detained Americans with a list of local attorneys, help the American get in touch with people in the U.S., and try to ensure that the American isn’t being mistreated in the prison. They can also explain the local law and what the court proceedings are likely to entail but they can’t do much more than that, and this often creates friction.I once had to deal with a recently naturalized American citizen from Bulgaria who was arrested in Macedonia on an Interpol warrant for mail fraud, among other offences. He spoke no English and his ties to the U.S. were sketchy at best, but his son was on the phone every day harassing us about why we weren’t “doing more” to get his father out of prison.

“He’s an American citizen,” the son cried. “You are the American embassy! Do something. Get him out!”

The son kept telling me that his father’s imprisonment was a violation of the Geneva Convention and he encouraged me to study that document more closely to find ways to get his father released. I wanted to tell him that there were no special provisions for Bulgarian mafia thugs in the Geneva Convention and that I hoped his dad rotted in prison, but as a civil servant tasked with “helping people” I would simply mutter platitudes like, “Geneva Convention, OK, I’ll look into that.”

America may be the world’s lone superpower, but, no, we do not have the power to get oversea Americans out of prison, even if we believe that they’re innocent. (And in that case, there was overwhelming evidence against the Bulgarian-American and he was convicted.)

Shortly after I arrived in Macedonia for a two-year tour at the American embassy, my boss asked me to follow Illir’s trial in Kicevo, a two-hour drive south from the Macedonian capital, Skopje. Despite the fact that Illir owned two restaurants in Alaska, we found out that he was actually living in the U.S. illegally, on a long-expired tourist visa. So as representatives of the U.S. government, he wasn’t our problem. But since the victims were U.S. citizens, we wanted to follow the trial.

Two years before I arrived in the country, Illir was acquitted of the murder charge. But in Macedonia, the prosecution can appeal an acquittal, and a year later, in the appeal he was found guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison. As Bashkim exited the courtroom, a 65-year-old woman, who was later identified as Luljeta’s mother, lunged at him with a large kitchen knife but was knocked down by a bystander.

Illir appealed the conviction and I was in attendance for the court proceedings, along with a local employee from the embassy named Ljupka. It was my first time in a Macedonian courtroom and I couldn’t help but wonder why there was a huge pile of at least 100 old typewriters in the corner of the room.

“This is Macedonia,” Ljupka said. “Who knows?”

After getting shot on his first visit to Macedonia, and nearly getting stabbed by Luljeta’s mother on his most recent visit, Bashkim elected to stay in Alaska for Illir’s appeal, so Illir was the focal point of the proceedings. He had two defense strategies. The first was to highlight his illegal status in the U.S. He argued that he couldn’t have left the U.S. to come to Macedonia to kill Bashkim because then he wouldn’t have been able to re-enter the country to attend to his restaurants.

But after the prosecutors showed evidence that Illir had used his old Macedonian passport to cross into Macedonia by land from Albania less than 24 hours before the murder took place, he tried a different tact. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and began to read off a list of names.

“What’s going on?” I asked Ljupka.

“He says that he’s spent the last year trying to bribe his way out prison,” she said. “And he’s naming all the people he gave bribes to and how much he paid.”

Some of the people he was naming were in the room but it didn’t matter. The conviction was upheld and Illir spent the next seven years in prison. I’m told that Bashkim, the former dishwasher, now owns his own restaurant in Fairbanks. His father is gone but not forgotten.

Twelve years have passed since the murder took place and I’m told that Illir, who never confessed to the crime, more or less has his old life back. He somehow found a way to get back into the U.S. and is keeping a low profile in Alaska, presumably keeping a close eye on his wife.

Note: the names of the individuals mentioned in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

Photo via Tony Webster on Flickr.

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Ciao macho man (or how to help Albanian breakdancers win a grammy)

I was standing on a stage in an auditorium in front of about 500 people frozen in terror at Nota Fest, which is like the Grammy awards for Macedonia’s ethnic-Albanian community. The organizers of the event had invited our Ambassador, Larry Butler, to present a lifetime achievement award and when he, and several other more important people at the embassy declined, the duty was punted down to me, a lowly first tour diplomat.

Attending b and c list events in host countries is a big part of life in the Foreign Service and the more junior you are, the more likely you’ll end up at Tajikistan’s national day (think warm, generic cola and greasy mutton) instead of Italy’s. (think prosciutto and fine wine). It was a command performance but I was assured that I wasn’t going to have to say anything in Albanian.

“All you have to do is get up on stage, smile, and hand someone an award,” said Lindita, a charming local employee from the embassy who probably could convince the Taliban’s Mullah Omar to muster “you go girl” enthusiasm for the Ellen DeGeneris Show.

I had only been in the country for a few weeks and was still feeling insecure about speaking Albanian one-on-one, let alone in front of an audience of hundreds of people, so not speaking was a key point in the negotiations.

After sitting through three hours of live performances, many of them shockingly bad, with nary an alcoholic beverage in sight, I was finally called up on the stage, ostensibly to present the lifetime achievement award. Immediately the jazzily dressed hostess handed me a microphone, sending a wave of panic straight up my spine. Please do not ask me a question, I thought.

Suddenly a torrent of Albanian words filled the air and my mind raced to understand what was being said. I froze as the sold-out crowd waited to hear my response. But what the hell was the question? I didn’t understand it, so I made some general remark about what a great evening it was, in Albanian. She repeated the question and on the second go-around I realized that she was asking me for an opinion on what had been the best performance of the night. Good grief.

The only two redeeming acts of the night were folk groups that I couldn’t conjure the names of for the life of me. In that instant of panic, the only song I could recall the name of was a ridiculous little ditty called Ciao Macho Man. The number featured a slutty-looking, bleach blond, Spice girl wannabe, nicknamed “Tuna,” bopping around the stage encircled by about 7 or 8 break dancing (yes break dancing) teenage boys wearing wife beaters and auto mechanic costumes. It was more or less akin to Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl video, only there was break dancing rather than singing into wrenches.The hostess and five hundred impatient Albanians demanded to know my opinion on the best song of the night, so I said, in Albanian, “Maybe it was Ciao Macho Man,” to a hearty round of applause. This seemed to satisfy the hostess and, thankfully, I was allowed to leave the stage.

I made a beeline for Lindita, who was accompanied by Rita, another one of our colleagues.

“I am so embarrassed,” she said, before I could speak.

“What the hell happened?” I asked.

“The person who was supposed to get the award didn’t show up, so she was ad libbing,” Lindita explained.

“Well, please don’t tell me that Ciao Macho Man is going to get the award on my account,” I said.

Moments later, the hostess reappeared on stage and announced that Ciao Macho Man had indeed won the award for best performance. The three of us fled into a taxi as snowflakes began to fall all over the macho men and women of Skopje. Rita got a phone call and then gave me some comforting news.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I just found out that Ciao Macho Man won because one of the Albanian political parties here fixed the contest, not because you said they should win.”

I felt momentarily relieved that Macedonia’s pervasive corruption, rather than my linguistic ineptitude had won the day for the macho men, but then my phone went off. It was Marija, one of the local employees I supervised at the embassy.

“Hey, macho man, I am so proud of you,” she said.

“Wow, word travels fast, how did you hear about it already?” I asked, totally confused.

“I didn’t hear about it, I just saw you on T.V.” she said.

Apparently I had just expressed a preference for Ciao Macho Man on live national television. I should have been ashamed but the beauty of living in a foreign country is that you can make a complete fool of yourself on television and feel safe in the knowledge that none of your friends and relatives will ever know about it. That is, unless you write about it, ten years later on a blog.

Read more from a Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via flickr user Tibchris.