Copyright © Tomislav Kezharovski
/ TABLE OF CONTENTS
/ PART 1 — C-14
/ PART 2 — C-1
/ PART 3 — C-14
/ PART 4 — A-4
History is made of defeats and victories. Now I know that I’ve lost, but soon I will come out victorious. I know it. For secrets can never remain hidden. One way or another, even after many years, they will see the light of day.
It is hard to grasp – all the madness that chanced upon Macedonia. It is even harder to explain. I too cannot process all the information surrounding the events spiraling out of control, with the intensity of a Hollywood fast-paced thriller. It is impossible to explain – to rationalize – the behavior of the Government’s officials, while presupposing that they are rational, responsible people, family-oriented folk. There are no red lines left; they hold onto their own truth, twistingly enforcing their own brand of justice. They see everything and everyone ‘at their disposal’; they see everything and everyone as being disposable. It is frightening to witness the ease with which they destroy lives and cast long shadows over families; the frightening ease accompanying their comments over the loss of a single life.
This is not a place where one can speak freely or express a difference of opinion. They do not permit you to think critically; you are not allowed to think for yourself. There are no shades of gray in their world; you are either black or white. Those who can think for themselves and reach their own conclusions are ruthlessly outed – their names blackened, their livelihoods lynched, since their thoughts and opinions run against the ruling Party’s lines. Common people live in a state of frantic paranoia, feeling hopeless, as if a stock character with an inevitable end.
The most commonly heard saying: I am so deep in debt I do not know how I’ll make it. So people’s behavior patterns run parallel to the old adage – it can be worse! Our equilibrist act has been going on for years. Politics permeates all life. It is the talk of pubs, kafanas, cafes, taxi-cabs, supermarkets, shops around the corner, even first dates. The list of crimes perpetrated by the Government is helmed by a total separation of ‘us’ and ‘them’, namely ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors’. This social stratification is supported and sanctioned by the Government. It has been institutionalized by the Government’s propaganda machine and all its public discourse. It has been systematically implemented to serve all their primitive urges – blatant hatred of all that is better and smarter and kinder, so that they can reign and profit. No one trusts the other.
The self-proclaimed God’s Children eliminate all those who think differently, all those who do not support their causes, all those who have not succumbed to their will, all those who will not accept their solutions as a given.
Families are at the brink of blood feuds, since there are those who are card-holding Party members and there are those who are not. The latter are marginalized, since they did not buy into the ruthlessness of the Party’s machinery.
Sadly, the semi-literate despots with colonized minds have managed to drive a wedge among the student population. On the one hand, there are the families of those who managed not to sell their souls to the Devil; on the other hand, there are the kids who have been forced into silence and submission since their parents (one or both) are existentially dependant on the Government’s handouts.
The annexed media, run by one distribution center with a single ‘Truth’, orchestrate this hoax. It is clear as day who gets offered prime time coverage and a positive treatment, while who gets sidelined and whose name is blackened – ‘the Enemies’. All propaganda rules and stratagems traditionally employed by totalitarian regimes are put to great use, just to marginalize all who think otherwise.
My life’s trajectory was certainly uneven and rough around the edges, but it was far from a dead-end. I survived many challenges, but always had a goal, a purpose – I fought for human values, I knew what I wished to accomplish. I founded the magazine Reporter 92. It was to act as a warning sign to all who were thinking of manipulating the system; it was to be a credible news source, whose articles were not to be retracted or whose information was not to be mistrusted by the public. It was to be a publication where I would criticize all that was not right, where mistakes would be pointed out and no one would be spared. I wanted to create something of value, of substance. I believed I could; I believed that I would succeed. I was cocky, yes, for most of all I wanted to bring a ‘good product’ into the world. I was persistent. But, what came to pass came to pass. Not even in my wildest dreams could I imagine the attacks over my body and work. I’ve had to face the cruel truth, the fact that I can never again live a normal life in Macedonia. Yet I have a right to be free. I wish to live in a country that upholds true values, that honors someone’s success, that has a systematic rule of law which is not at the hands of few.
May 28th, 2013. My daughter Stefanija, at the time a seventh grader, was to take her state-mandated end-of-the-year exams, so we had decided to get up earlier than usually and go over the material. She, however, beat the alarm which we had set for 6 am sharp. I am not sure exactly when. Possibly around 5 or 5:30 am. It was already daylight. I heard her opening the door to her room and then the door to the bathroom. On her way back, she stopped by our room, where my wife Marina and I were sleeping, knocked on the door and cried out: “Dad, there is someone in our yard!” I jumped out of bed, nudged her towards her room and went outside to see what was happening. “Open up. It’s the police. Police. Police. Open the door!” A man’s voice yelled from the outside. I had hardly managed to turn the key fully, or make myself decent, when 10 to 15 armed-to-the-teeth police officers busted into the house. “Are you insane? What are you doing in our home? What do you want? You’ve got this all wrong. Leave us be!” – I kept yelling, more out of surprise than offense.
Up until then I believed scenes like these existed only in the movies. The policemen wore hoods and helmets, bulletproof vests, and were heavily armed, with rifles and guns. They even carried a bomb or two around their waist. They aimed their weapons at me, ordering me to surrender. There I was, in my underpants, hands up, standing in our living room. We did not know what was going on and no one was saying anything. Foolishly, Marina and I were trying to get any information out.
“Who is in here? What do you have in this room?” – the one in charge asked.
“My daughter is in there. She’s a child, please be careful.” – I responded. They did not believe me. One from the so-called Unit for Emergency Responses knocked the door down, gun aimed, pushing himself inside. Stefanija screamed and could not move. Her muscles froze. Marina ran to her and started telling her not to be afraid, that there was nothing to fear, that it will all pass. She kept spraying her with water and massaging her gently. Yet, my girl looked at me, crying. I have never felt worse. Hopelessly, much like Christ on the cross I watched her tears roll down her cheeks.
I kept fighting off my own tears. Petrified, I tried to hide my fear by feigning presence. I was sadly unsuccessful. Hands in the air, I cursed the name of Gordana Jankulovska [then Minister of the Interior] and all of her kin. Tearfully, I ranted “Damn fucking fascist pigs…” Hatred took over me. As if my entire body swelled with tears, oozing from every little pore.
“Would anyone care to explain what is going on?” – Marina kept asking the “masked” ones, while trying to comfort Stefanija.
“Look, Tomislav is going to come with us, we need to take him in front of a judge, where he will say what he needs to say” – spoke the tall man standing next to the entrance. He was not wearing a uniform. He said that he was a detective (inspector). He came into our home accompanied by a woman he mentioned was his colleague. They both took down a deposition stating that they would be confiscating my cell phone. They wrote down: one Sony Ericsson, black with a yellow rim, the card’s number, etc.
“Come on, get dressed!” – the one in charge of the police officers ordered. Then he signaled two of his men to accompany me into the bedroom, to monitor my progress, all the time with their automatic rifles aimed and ready. I put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt I had recently bought and went into the bathroom. There, with their guns still aimed, the police officers took notice as I peed. I washed myself, straightened my hair, took my ID card, and handcuffed was ordered to leave.
At the entrance, I turned over to Marina and Stefanija, hugged them senselessly and said – “I love you the most in the world. Forgive me, for I’ve embarrassed myself and have embarrassed us in front of the neighbors.” Stefanija said nothing, she just kept looking at me, holding my hand, while Marina mustered up all of her strength and told me – “Go out with your head held up high, do not worry about anything. Everyone here knows what you are made of, what you do. We do not owe anyone any explanation. Be sure that those behind this will be the ones bearing the shame. I’m gonna get ready and your brother and I will join you at the Court.”
Six men were carrying me out, two in the front, two next to me, and two “watching my back”. The others, as their “protocol” stated, went to the back of the house, securing it, so that no one would attack from there, eventually plotting my release. The order to stand down was given. The yard was emptied out by at least ten of the men. The ones who had blocked the streets leading to our home had left as well. Even the one I had spotted on the roof of our little house, as I chanced one more glance at my wife and daughter, was given the order to step down.
Fear and shame and humiliation had fortified themselves inside my heart; I felt them dance around my temples, hands, stomach. I was shaking with indescribable rage and sorrow. The shameless, merciless, dirty campaign against me had started. I kept asking myself why there was this need to bring me down, how come they were running away from the truth, as I was being shoved into a police vehicle.
There were three jeeps parked in the street. I was taken to the one in the middle. The sirens and rotating lights were turned on and the three-vehicle convoy went on its way. The road to the courts was clear. We did not stop anywhere, not a single traffic light stop.
Down in the parking lot, behind the court’s building, our convoy had parked, and hereon they took me to the main courtroom. I knew the room for I had been in it countless times, reporting on bigger trials. They un-cuffed me and sat me in the audience section. One officer stood to my left, one stood to my right, and one guarded the door.
I tried suppressing my feelings and guiding my thoughts elsewhere. All in vain, for I could not stop thinking about Marina and Stefanija. It was bigger than me. Around 6:40 am, an officer wearing the same camouflage clothing as the others entered through the main entrance, however, this one had some brass on his lapels. My guess – a big shot in the Unit. “Well, what did you do, huh?” his voice echoed throughout the room. “Did they get him on camera? Well? Did they get him on camera, I ask?” – he yelled as loudly as he could. For a moment he got silent, and then an order followed: “Take him outside! Right now!”
I was handcuffed again and we exited the same way we had entered. I was shoved back into the jeep and we waited. They lighted a cigarette, then another one, then another. In the meantime, we learnt that the cameraman for the Ministry of the Interior had overslept and was running late. It was past 7am when their radio announced: “The man is here, you can lead him in!”
“Come on, let’s do a retake,” jokingly said one of my guards. You, he instructed his colleague, straighten your hair and lower your brow, and you, he instructed me, look sad and woeful. You know, he said, for the cameras. We are going to be recorded. We walked the same path, from the jeep to the courtroom.
Around 7:30 am a man with a police escort came by. He was seated two rows in front of me. We were told not to speak to each other. And why would I speak to him, I thought, for I did not know him. He was in his seventies. Then, one by one, six more men came. We were eight in total. One I recognized, for we lived in the same part of town. We were neighbors. Three I knew, in passing. The first was a judge, the second a prosecutor, the third a former judge. And that was it. The other two, the seventh and the eight from the “group” I had never met before. I did not know anything about them. I did not know who they were, what they were, where they came from.
About an hour, an hour and a half had passed, when entered a familiar face, the Prosecutor from the Department for Organized Crime. She stated her credentials and told us that our case was assigned to her. I knew her. On April 8th, that same year, 2013, at her request, we had met in her office. Accidentally or not, this was only days after I had published a few details about the car accident that took my colleague Nikola Mladenov’s life, in the daily Nova Makedonija. She had called me and invited me for a meeting. The conversation was far from cordial. “I’ll break you, you’ll see,” she had told me then. She had openly threatened me with jail-time if I did not reveal my source, namely who was feeding me documents and where those meetings were taking place. It was interesting how the questions were general and not pertaining to the case ORESHE that we were now being charged with.
“I know all about you. Top to bottom. I can read you like a book. You are a gambler, they see you around betting establishments. And you are a drunkard too. They say you frequent kafanas. On top of that, you are a cheat. You spend your money on other women. Hey, be smart. Do as I tell you or you are going in for seven years. Maybe more, who knows. They told me you are a tough nut to crack, but I know how to handle your kind. You are going to sing. Yes, you are going to sing.” – she would screech. I kept listening to what she was saying and could not believe what came out of her mouth. I could hardly keep still at the accusations thrown against me. I have never not paid my debts. I smiled and spoke.
“First of all, I am neither a gambler nor a drunkard, nor do I throw my money as you keep saying at mistresses. Whoever is feeding you information about me are obviously not right in the head. I do not place bets, do not even know how to fill out a ticket; you can take me at my word or not, that is up to you, but I use betting sites as meeting places, to take documents from sources. I drink rakija1 one cup or two, for New Year’s. If that makes me a drunk in your eyes, then I admit I am one. As far as my paycheck is concerned, my wife is the one making the withdrawals. She has the card. So, the one you’ve assigned to tail me is lying and doing a bad job at it; I’d replace him.” I took my bag, rose from my seat and headed for the door.
“And one more thing before I leave. I’ve been playing the harmonica since infancy, but was never good at singing. Cannot catch the high notes”, I said and left.
The Prosecutor was screaming with rage.
“And if tomorrow, by noon, you do not bring me all that you know, written down, I will destroy you. I swear to you, I will destroy your family. Do you hear me?”
That morning, when she appeared in front of us, she had the same ugly ironic smile. My wounds after the meeting were still fresh and my scars not yet healed. She looked at me brazenly, not trying to hide her contempt. I was consumed by an unknown feeling, as if my insides were being crushed, bit by bit. I reached deep down, tapping into my self-control’s reserves’ reserves, feeding on that mysterious inner drug that comes to our rescue when pain is the hardest and will power the weakest. Try to remain calm, I kept telling myself. I tried to listen to my inner voice and not succumb to the void. My face saw grief, determination, anger – all present, one after the other. My heart pounded, my brow sweated.
“You are working on keeping your promise, right? To put me in jail, to destroy me? You think you can break me?” – I kept asking her from my seat.
“Kezharovski, do be civil”, she scolded me and left.
She was followed by another familiar face. It was the police inspector, I think his name is Darko, the one who tried to get me to “frame” Valentin Zafirov2 and land him in jail, all this by acting as my friend in the Police Precinct Prolet in Skopje. I yelled at him too. He did not last in the courtroom a long time. He too left.
Two men from the special Unit sat up front, aimlessly gazing around the courtroom. They were left to watch over us. I carried a USB stick on me, one I had accidently brought from home. The day before I had saved some interesting information on it, and had forgotten it in my pocket. Now I had to get rid off of it, at any cost. But how? If I left it on the floor of the courtroom, someone was bound to find it. So that would be a waste. I asked to be excused to the restroom. Two officers tailed me, one in front and one in the back. They did not allow me to close the door. I had failed. I thought I must try again. There is no other way round it. After an hour or two had passed, much like a kid, I raised my hand, asking to be allowed to use the restroom. Not that I had to “go”, but I had to go. This time, two other ones joined me to the court’s restroom. They allowed me to semi-shut the door for some privacy. I lowered my jeans and kneeled. I came to the decision not to miss the slightest of chances I had with these people and to go all the way. Consciously and without a shred of doubt or concern for the possible dire outcome, I took out the USB from my pocket and flushed it down the toilet. I was relieved. It had contained countless bits of information. Who had done what, how, where, when and why. They could not trace the sources. Yet, this way was safer.
Late in the afternoon, around 5 pm I was called into the judge’s office. I did not have a lawyer and had asked the Court to appoint me one. I was not aware that my wife had already been in touch with Zvonko Davidovikj. And there he was. They did not allow him to represent me, for he was going to be called in as a potential witness. After a while, Dushko Jovanovikj came. He held in his hands my wife’s power of attorney. He too was turned down. A conflict of interest, they said. He had a formal partnership with Davidovikj. Finally, a young man by the name of Josip Grgas came, an attorney from Skopje. As if he had been hanging by the door, he dashed right in after Jovanovikj had left the courtroom.
The battle for my representation went on for about twenty-five minutes, while the judge asked me questions for about five. Each of her movements read clearly, namely that she would not recant her previously made decision to lock me up. And so it happened…
District Court Skopje 1 First Instance Judge, Tatjana Mihajlova, acting upon the Request for conducting an enquiry, with the motion to set the preventive measure of being placed under arrest, by the State Attorney’s Office in charge of pursuing organized crime and corruption, Skopje KO. No. 54/13, against the accused Tomislav Kezharovski, on the count of unlawfully sharing information about witnesses, collaborators, and victims that act in the capacity of witnesses and their close ones, and in accordance with Act 42 Section 1 of the Law for Witness Protection orders the following:
The accused Tomislav Kezharovski is placed in custody, for the duration of 30 days, starting with May 28, 2013, at 6:00am and lasting till June 27, 2013, at 6:00am, in accordance with Act 199, Section 1, Paragraph 1 and 2 from the Law for Criminal Proceedings.
The decree for the pending investigation can be contested within 3 days’ time. A plea motion would not prevent the decree’s execution.
I saw something that I had not encountered prior in any law textbook or would for that matter encounter again. I was placed under custody for being often unavailable to even my friends, for often changing jobs and phone numbers.
I then realized that I had entered a dimension contorted by fear and malice; in fact, I had chanced upon a labyrinth that would prove difficult to find my way round. I realized that I was in hell. I was not worried about myself, but could not forgive what I had done to my wife and daughter. I had not managed to shield them from anguish, just because I became preoccupied with work and failed to consider the ramifications; just because I love my work and have maintained this one principle – that a journalist should be the one trying to uncover what others try to cover up, with eyes and ears wide open. The oldest one in the group, I later found out was a retired judge, for many years the Supreme Justice of the Supreme Court, left; the rest of us were placed in a van and taken to prison.
The large black gate was monitored by a guard whose facial expression oozed boredom and indifference. We passed through it, reaching the entrance, where, once we passed the metal detector, we were brought to the office of the senior officer in charge.
He was of short stature, with thick reddish cheeks, broad shoulders, stern look, a bit of a grump-ish appeal. He appeared off-putting, even heartless. Ironically, he wished us a warm welcome, followed by a short speech, letting us know that we were here now, that we should listen carefully and answer his questions.
We had to dispose of all our property – watches and any jewelry. They confiscated our belts and shoelaces. I wanted to hold onto my wedding ring, but was not allowed. I could not quite grasp that we would be stripped of all; for the time being, our possessions would be placed in a safe.
When it came my turn, in short, I was told the “Prison’s Mantra”, namely what I could and could not do, what I was allowed to do, what I should never do; I was then taken to my cell. “Come on, take him to C-14!” – he commanded, with the kind of tone that was used to issuing orders.
The one in charge of taking me to my cell was first taken over by a smile – more grim than cheerful, sort of insulting and mocking, so that in the end he yelped the one phrase guards had made entirely they own – “Move it!”. At that moment I grasped the naked truth and decided on a key principle for my first contact with prison – I erased my insofar life.
“Stop!” – the guard ordered. “Go in.” Judging by what had remained, the room used to be a restroom. There are no words to describe what I saw there. Pure filth. I stood numb. I felt as if my spirit was being ransacked by the permeating grayness of the entire soulless and senseless world. I was hungry, flimsy and edgy, but had to get a hold of myself. An order came: “Come on, get undressed.” And I acquiesced. I did not have that much to take off. I took off my shirt and lowered my jeans. “All!” – he raised his voice. I had to take off my underwear. “That’s it. That’s it.” – he muttered. I felt like Prometheus. I do not know why he ordered me to kneel down three times. What could I do but follow his orders. He commanded, I executed.
When I finished “the stretching exercise”, I put my clothes back on and was ready for new things. “Take some blankets from here, and a mattress from the other room, and let’s go.” From the hundreds of lice-plagued blankets I was to choose two. Most were from the previous century. Perhaps from the 1970s. Gray and with JNA, the former Yugoslav National Army, lettering in the middle. I suppose that said it all.
I held my jeans with one hand, for they were way too big and I was afraid to lose them on the way, while with the other I dragged the mattress and blankets on the floor. We walked through a corridor and reached “C”. “C” was a one-story structure intended for common enlightenment; it was a long hallway with 19 cells on the left-hand side. An attractive tourist destination, which apart from the mandatory new Skopje monuments, picky foreigners had to visit. It would complete the image of the metropolis’s values and attributes.
This residential quarter was rather old, built with uncut stones and rough structural materials. The building seems to have a certain historically-cultural significance. Perhaps it was erected at the same time as the St. Spas Church3 or the Mustafa Pasha Mosque4. That is what I thought when looking from the outside. And I was proven right.
The first cell on the left was numbered 29, then 28, 27, and so on. We reached number 14 and stopped. The guard unfastened the padlock, unbolted the catch and opened the door.
“We brought you a new guy, help him settle in”, he told the men inside. “And you, get inside!” – he commanded, as if he could not wait to throw me in.
And as the door was shutting behind me, I became fully aware of where I now was and what was now happening to me. All of a sudden, I was overtaken by a premonition that I would never leave this place, that the door behind me was shut for good.
1 Local schnapps.
2 A former judge.
3 The Church of the Holy Savior, dating back to the 17th century, located in the Old Bazaar of Skopje.
4 Ottoman-era mosque, also located in the Old Bazaar.
/ PART 1
Penetrating stench, decay and mold, sneaked into my nose and throat. The cell acted as a kind of mistily filthy pigeon coop. Everywhere a mess. A table full of plastic bottles and dirty paper cups. Cigarettes overflowing ashtrays. The trash bin had bread crumbs and a leftover packet of ketchup still dripping, egg shells, onion remains and one half-eaten, half-gnawed big apple. Two hotdogs lay inside a Styrofoam plate. Flies buzzed over the food remains. I was driven mad by the aromatic smell of urine. The dripping of the water facet in the toilet was one more universal attribute of contemporary sound aesthetics. As if I am in a Palestinian refugee camp. The cell was a combination of a dumping ground and a fortification. Robinson Crusoe would not last here long. I close my eyes hoping that the cell would look differently once I opened my eyes, but it does not happen. I was filled with a shocking dread by what I saw. There was no moment worse than this. My tongue stiffened; I had no desire to speak to anyone.
I was afraid to be thrown among people who could not stand each other and would seek out any and all opportunity to fight among themselves. Luckily, I encountered the opposite. All people are capable of kindness, even those easily dismissed and judged. I met the three that were “inside”. Two hailed from Skopje, though not quite from the city, one was from Shtip5 – Mirko, Fejzi, and Kosta. Mirko did not move from the bed. He was lying and telling Fejzi and Kosta what to do, how to help me out. The sprains on the bed were loose, and the mattress – if it can be called a mattress – fell through the cracks. “That’s it, cannot do better,” said the man from Shtip. There was not a lot of chit-chat going on. We exchanged basic personal information – who we were, what we were, where we came from.
The ceiling was adorned by a vintage chandelier, which had seen better days, for now there was only a bulb left, wrapped in cobwebs and a thick layer of dust on top. Through the holes, in several places, the structural beams gaped. The walls had lost most of the plastering. It was all I could notice in the half-hour permitted before the lights were cut, from the outside. The moonlight spotted a piece of the shattered wall. “Now rest”, spoke the young man from the top bunk, as if there was anything else for us to do but sleep. Truthfully, I was tired. For a little while, I gazed at the silvery moonlight coming through the ceiling window. I did not manage to count past three. I was out.
I opened my eyes the moment the sun shone through the top of the window. It was probably somewhere between 6 and 7am. I suppose so. Who knows. A sunny May morning. A lone tear found its way around the contours of my face. I tried to grasp where I was and what had happened. The air was dusty. An invisible tape stench was everywhere. The cobwebs held the walls together, as grass grew under the beds and mold clusters hung from the ceiling. Spiders, roaches, bugs – they were the house pets. They came in all shapes and sizes, and colors. In a day’s worth, a man could collect quite an impressive spread. I cringed in front of the messiness and dirt, which was good, for it allowed me to get used to the horror of it all.
The space was designed in the best possible way, both conceptually and virtually, so that it could accommodate a larger number of people in a small space. The interior design dated back to the days of Alexander the Great. The cell was a four by two, including the toilet. It could fit one person, one and a half, but not four people. There was nowhere to sit, nowhere to lie down.
In the middle of the room there was half a school bench. Mostly due to spacing, for it could not fit a whole bench. The color had started peeling off, so I started dabbling with it, stripping off paint from the wood below. Someone using the same method had managed to carve two pairs of initials, rounding them off with a heart, and adding a date. I realized that prison does not see a lot of writing on paper as much as it does on tables and walls. Seems sturdier and more confidential. I closed my eyes. Would I ever get used to this.
The window was about seventeen by fourteen centimeters and high above the horizon. The dust obfuscated the view so that the sky looked brown instead of blue. The rusty iron catch, iron frame, size 12, was placed on the outside so that it could never be fully opened, not even ajar. Just enough so that no one croaks, that is how widely open the windows were in block “C”. It was punishment within punishment. There were no other living souls in sight. All around me were vast landscapes, tall skies and the chirping of open-air birds.
I put on my clothes, as I was getting used to my new surroundings. I tried to keep the noise down to a minimum so as not to wake up my roommates. Breaking my knuckles, I sat at the edge of my bed. I could not focus. My thoughts buzzed around my memory-less head, as if exploring too much space to grow and expand, clash and sizzle, before turning back and disappearing in every conceivable direction. I felt as if I were on an adventure cruise I could not control, sailing through rough waters. I was confused, lost, and unhappy. The entire restlessness of this world had found me. I was desperate, shocked, frightened, furious, and sad. I felt all jumbled up. That day I was, as the saying usually goes, lost. As if I had been cursed in a previous life and was now serving my sentence. I felt like a man with no real history, now shattered into a hundreds of places, tossed like coins at a wedding.
One by one they awoke. First Fejzi, then Kosta, and finally Mirko.
“Let’s have coffee,” Fejzi suggested not fully up.
“Tell me where I can find the coffee, and I’ll put the kettle on,” I replied.
“No, no, man, that’s out of the question. First of all, you are new and we should be welcoming you; secondly, you are the oldest among us, and thirdly and most importantly, you have no idea where the coffee-maker is”, said Kosta, leaping from the top bed. I scanned the room twice and could not locate anything even remotely resembling a coffee maker. They must by toying with me, I thought.
Kosta looked so young. His eyes full of wonder, awaiting all that was possibly to come. He was of medium height, with high cheekbones, and short spiky hair. Not an ounce of fat on his bones. His body was all muscle. He brought a kind of luminance to the grayness of this place we shared, a sort of “light substitute” for the one we were deprived of. He placed some cologne inside a pâté aluminum can, then set it on fire, while tittering a Nescafe can on top of it, one tied with a piece of string to the bed. “Stay in bed, rest. Read. Do not think. What happened, happened. Anyway, before we take our coffee, have something to eat. Do not be embarrassed. You need to keep up your strength. Right there, in that box under the bed, you can find it all. Open it and take all you want. Have no expectations for the food they serve here” – the young man from Shtip told me.
“All that is inside is now yours too,” added Fejzi. He sounded indifferent, even aloof. His eyes kept roaming around the room, surmising all. He is from Saraj6. He looked amorphous. Short and portly, with a beer belly, a large square head and curly hair, a dark beard with moustache that covered his lips, fingers chunky as Toscano cigars. At times he resembled a stocky clumsy boy, at times he looked middle aged. But never his actual age, which was 38.
Ah, what else to say about him. He understood things I held no interest for. And I was interested in things he will never understand. His soul was burdened by a grave sin, but he was looking for penance. So he prayed to his God twice a day. We would show him where east was, and on the mat they had sent him from home, in the morning and at night, he would talk to Allah. He was now focused on prayer due to a sinful life and a godless past. He thought that he could be rid off of sin and find his place with God. As a desperate man clings to a sliver of hope, my innate optimism – my companion during the most desperate of circumstances – got me thinking: these inmates look ok, they seem to be in good spirits, even cracking jokes. Who knows, I too may be in such a state soon.
From time to time, I would rise to stretch. To regain the blood flow in my extremities. The others would do the same. We would get up, one at a time, since the space would permit only room for one.
Mirko sat opposite me. He was from Kuchevishte7, age 32. Lanky extremities, basketball height, light skin and auburn hair. He would look at me with friendly curiosity, puny grayish blue eyes, and sandy-colored eyebrows.
“We have a phone. It usually works after 10 pm We each call home, ask how things are, and hang up. We do not turn it on when the guard from Drachevo and his buddies are on duty. You will meet him. We’ll point him out. Weak and tall kid with raven eyes. When you see him for the first time, you are disgusted, but once you get to know him, you’ll see his heart is in the right place. He is a stickler for the rules, though. He can smell a phone a mile away. He approaches the windows slowly and swiftly, which very few can pick up on, and checks who is using a phone. Twice a month, every other week, we get visitation rights. One day is set aside for the inmates of the Skopje court, another for those from Kumanovo8. And twice a day, there is roll call, early in the morning and after dinner, at 6am and around 8pm.” I ask – “They were just here, would they be coming again?” “Sure, after 7am,” Mirko answers.
We sipped from the coffee, once or twice, when the door opened: “Come on, hurry up. Walk time!” – the guard announced. We exited, the four of us, one at a time. In accordance with the rules, we were entitled to a walk. I looked closely at the ground. The concrete pavement was covered with moss, resembling a kind of carpet, with a few pieces of grass sticking out from the cracks and looking towards the sunlight. We walked the track, then took a left turn towards the grass, and moved thus so in a circular motion. Slaves to a routine. Surrounding us were the towers and their guards watching over life’s rational values.
SHUTKA9 was a household name. The very mentioning of it would conjure up an uncertain yet terrifying image. The prison has no set roads, no set rules, no clichés. All ethnic lines have been stripped bare. Mutual doubt, dissatisfaction, envy, jealousy, malice, aggression, hatred – are the normative here. Each new step was a new challenge. Here, bad and good entwined, misfortune and fortune came together, dark and light united. Man was caught in the whirlwind of all values placed under a microscope. Here, neither human livelihood nor human dignity were given heed. People’s envy and despair, as a result of the futility of the situation, were manipulated in the most perverse way. At first, one felt utter loneliness, which then turned into mental despair, where all things seemed foreign and malign. You were not afraid but rather terrified. You did not recognize those like you. All senses were stripped off meaning.
This was the unluckiest place in the world. Here, tears took turns with silence and chuckles. Man was being humiliated without any chance to redeem himself. Values crept up, no real argumentation in sight, no clear criteria. Almost a tragic comedy. Prison was a one-way escalator to the bottom of the pit. The strongest, most determined, most cunning, swift, hard-working, feisty, healthy, stern were the only ones who kept going; those who knew how to swallow injustice and those who kept their mouths shut either because they were wise or simply obedient.
“Sometimes we are the ones who go out first, sometimes before lunch; other times we are last. All according to protocol. You know, we are the special ones. We do not go out with another group, as the others do, due to Fejzi’s safety. He fears revenge. He asked that there are no Albanians with him in the cell, just Macedonians”, Kosta told me as we took our laps around the yard.
From the other building, on the top floor, all our movements were being monitored by about twenty other inmates. They were in a far better position than us. They could hang onto the windows, if nothings else, to talk to each other through. That meant a lot here, trust me.
They’d taken an interest in me. Who I was, where I was from, why I was here. They could not believe that I was a journalist and that I was in Shutka over a published piece. In a hour the word on the new guy from “C-14” had spread quickly. The first greetings came for the old-timers in here and shouts to hang in and not give up.
“Our advice is to withhold any offers for help or assistance. Many will look for an opportunity to rat you out to the bitch. Everyone will ask their questions, so be real careful. You are a good man, we can tell this a mile away, so we wish no harm to come to you,” Kosta and Mirko kept telling me as we took our walk.
“Anyway, let’s put it to rest, for the Friend will make his appearance soon,” my roommates told me.
And lo and behold, a penetrating cry from behind the concrete walls. There were wild men in this prison, but this one seemed the wildest. You did not need professional training to call his diagnosis. There was something truly wrong with this man. He was 100% out of it. I found out that his name was Djani and that he came from the Kumanovo region. He ran a criminal group. Up till then I’d believed that it takes wisdom and smarts to run such a group. This young man had zero smarts, even less than the one who issued the charges against him and drew up the paperwork for the accusations. Djani was an odd fish. Even more endemic than the Ohrid Lake trout 10.
The space for “mental disorders” in the prison hospital chart was by far the most abused one, and this one seemed to be left with no empty slots for all his disorders. “I ate tengerines and kewi. Hey, kewi. K-E-W-I. Do you hear!? Ke-wi. What, you do not what kewi is? Kewi, man, those are potatoes with hair…and do you know what tengerines are? Hah? Well, those are baby oranges,” bragged Djani to someone in the cell next to his, about what his roommate Sashko had given him to eat that morning. His voice echoed through the prison. You could hear him all the way to the market place in Shuto Orizari11. That is how astute the “leader” of a criminal group from the Kumanovo region that had smuggled immigrants was, or perhaps that is how smart whoever arrested him was.
There were all sorts of folk in Shutka. All kinds. Many inmates that reflected the dire political reality of present-day Macedonia. Painters in the making, failed lawyers, rural novelists, actors and physicians, economists – with degrees and in name, restaurateurs, nouveau riche politicians. Specialists, immigrants, priests, thieves, bishops, and artists. There were also aristocrats, noblemen, bankers, businessmen and philosophers, architects, engineers, attorneys, cops and prosecutors. Even a journalist. All of the art elites. This “exhibition area” housed 350 tenants of an emotionally barren landscape, characters from all historical periods, ages 18 to 83, removed from friends and life’s essential values and qualities. The age limit for candidacy, I saw then, was set without the participation of the candidate himself. The young did not dominate the numbers. Or perhaps they needed us, older ones, to establish a “balance”. Humiliation, torture and the rotten prison regime – those were our common allies. Most of the inmates suffered, as was to be understood, from an inferiority complex. And here they were treated as no one and nothing. It is understandable that prison cannot break a man’s awareness of his self-worth as seen through his spirituality, but there are not that many people who hold such a clear image of their own value. Thinking about his spiritual values, the average inmate felt entirely devalued. Only a handful of prominent inmates could compensate for their feelings of inadequacy. They did not feel less worthy; rather, they felt as promoted snobs. Some even nursed the illusion of their own grandeur.
Our walk went by fast. The twenty minutes were up and we had to return to our cell.
“Listen, you need to call home, let them know that you are ok. So that their mind is put to rest,” Mirko told me passing me the Nokia.
I was afraid that something would happen for I knew that this was the most precious item in sight, and one that cost money. The value of said object, not longer than ten centimeters and less than five wide, and about half a centimeter thick, no matter its brand name, was rather invaluable.
“Dial man. I know how it is. Just do not say “Hello”. Speak as if you are talking to any one of us in here. And to tell you the truth, they cannot confiscate as many phones as we can smuggle in.”
The phone was black, almost brand new, unused. It had a cover. I open it, typed my brother’s number and pressed Dial. There were a few moments of silence, and then the ringing was interrupted by his voice. Hello, he said. He sounded sleepy, though it was past 10am. Who is it, he asked. I exhaled. “I am”, I responded. There was a brief silence, followed by his voice, a bit different this time. “Hey, how are you? What are you doing? Marina and I are in Nova Makedonija. She is at a meeting with the editors.” And that was it. I heard the outside catch open and the guard whirling in. All I managed to do is stash the “Nokia” under the table, but not nearly fast enough.
If he had no ears, the saying in here went, his mouth would be kissing the back of his head. He pulled out the phone from where I’d tossed it. He did not write down whose phone it was in the lodger for confiscated goods. We kept saying, each one of us, “It’s mine”. We supported each other. He could not make heads or tails with us. He lost it and left.
“I am sorry,” I told Mirko. He looked at me. “Come on, please, no worries. It’s all good. You should not be sorry. It is not your fault. Relax. It did not cost a thing; had no 3G” – he tried to cheer me up, even get me to smile.
I crashed on my bed crushed with grief. I tried to think of pleasant things, but could not think of any. One thought would override another. I even felt my own shadow passing me by. I had the need to sleep through this whole ordeal and thus escape my reality. Several Diazepam helped me “go through” half the day. I did not hear when they were serving lunch. I woke up after 5 pm. I could tell the time by the Radio “Kanal 77” news having finished. When I rose, lunch was waiting for me on the table. I moved the slice of bread around the plate, dipping it in the sauce, taking it to my mouth, and then bringing it back down to the plate. I did not feel like eating. I was not good at lunch-ing. Without saying a word, I got up and climbed back into bed. Up there I had found my peace. I would focus on a single point on the wall and stare at it uninterruptedly. My thoughts would hide somewhere safe. I was not present. Did not realize when it got dark. I watched the silver moon that would edge through the high-ceiling window. I could not sleep. I rested on the pillow in this dark cell and thought about things.
I had a difficult time with my loss of freedom, with the fact that I’d started looking at my life as the definite past, as if I were already dead and gone. My walking dead sensation had doubled for other reasons too. Time shows you the endlessness of your imprisonment, while space voices the rough confines of the prison. Everything and everyone standing on the outside of the prison walls and the barbed wire seemed out of reach, somehow surreal. Events, particularly those involving people outside the prison, read like specters. It seemed to me that my world now resembled that of the deceased’s view from that world onto ours. I felt on the outside of normalcy.
“Come on down. Take it. Call home. They must be worried. Call your wife” – said Mirko and handed me a phone. Where he found this one, I do not know, but it too was brand new.
“I cannot. I mustn’t. I am such a jinx, I’ll get this one burned too”, I say.
“No worries. They cannot confiscate as many as we can smuggle in.” Mirko was a good guy, generous. Such a rarity in this day and age.
I took the phone and started dialing. It was such a great feeling to talk to Marina, to hear her voice. I felt at ease, I felt at peace. As if I had come back home. So many memories pouring in as I listened to her. As fishes in a shallow stream.
Right after that conversation I promised myself to withstand it all, no matter what, not to burn out or let myself go. My faith in life and the fact that I had to publish the truth were great.
Shutka is the largest earthly sanctuary for the three main religions. The prison saw the outside and inside lives of the inmates intersecting, times running parallel to each other, what was real and what was not. All fugitives and social outcasts from conventional society stopped by. A battle between light and dark, good and evil, was ongoing. It was the kind of film where images appeared as the immanent movements between what was made visible and what remained hidden, inside man. It was the kind of place where modernism, capitalism, socialism, pluralism, experimentalism, populism, egoism, and dilettantism merged. Men’s fates turned into circus acts. Each man was his own story, uniquely singular. No one man and no one destiny could be compared to any other man or any other destiny. Here, our dignities were leveled out. What had been lost was the perception of the value of a human life. You were faced with a gap between matter and comfort. Life’s fast-paced rhythm and a tsunami of information. The instinct to survive kicked in. Prison symbolized its loss and that of a wasted life. It was riddled with stark contrasts. Class division was apparent. It was ruled by an alien system, of sorts. Many had not seen canned goods or preserved meats, or meat for that matter, chocolate, fruits or anything else. The spoiled and self-centered, however, bought everything in sight.
This was a special world. One ran by immense noise that prevented you from hearing one voice of reason. The smart and the dumb were given voice. It held new and strange pay-tolls. Here – it was clear: money bought you freedom. The more you had, the freer you were. Money was always in fashion.
My roommates helped me adjust to life on “the inside”. Fighting the windmills was our common struggle. Our fates had entwined; we broke the same bread. We ate from the same plate. Through the virtues of knights, we saw the possibilities to escape the banal, even for a bit. We were an excellent team. We got so close that all differences stemming from education, profession, and age got erased. We spent time as old friends do; one of us seemed to come across as the leader – Mirko, mostly because of his practical side which oftentimes proved spot on.
That morning I got up before the others. I heard the desperate squeals of the prison dogs. They sounded like an out of tune choir. It did not last long, though, perhaps a minute or so. Then, the voice from the nearest mosque sounded off. Later I found out that it was always like that. Indeed, legend says that dogs could see giants, bad spirits, running before the announcement of prayer from the mosque. The day started as usual. Roll-call, breakfast, walk, lunch.
All of a sudden, in the next-door cell, a racket started, voices yelling. I was amazed. Why are they yelling so loudly, I asked the men with me.
“Here, in number 13 it can get pretty loud. It depends on who gets fed up first. Now, the meeting of the lawyers has stated, and when they try to make a point, they knock on the table. They know all sorts of things. Law, economics, but mostly politics. They cannot get enough of politics. All day long. They argue about the country’s name, about its relationship with Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, about its NATO candidacy. All talk at the same time, no one listens to anyone else, and rarely does one believe that what they propose would actually happen” – Mirko explains.
I tried to understand some of their screams, but the voices remained muffled. You could hear the high tones all the way to the guards’ post. It did not seem as if they were telling each other secrets in confidence.
But that day I saw one more new thing. It happened in the afternoon. The cell door opened and in came a guard holding a detector device. He was followed by four more guards.
“Search. Everyone out!” cried out the one leading the charge.
All of a sudden I felt the glassy looks of the guards as needles poking through. I looked at my roommates all confused, not knowing what to expect.
“Now you’ll see what they’ve come for,” Kosta said. “Pay them no attention. They will create a mess, but otherwise nothing to fear,” he added.
No matter how frequently they entered our cell, there was always a ceremonial aspect to their visits. We stared back at them, with resentment and disgust, before they intruded on our half-darkness; soon followed by clownish smiles, ear to ear.
“Come on, up and out. Faster!”
Mirko was the first one out. He oozed confidence. With his arms up in the air, Fejzi followed. I exited third, Kosta last.
Four guards entered the cell, one guarded the hallway. They all looked the same, infantile small-minded folk who oscillated somewhere between generosity and maliciousness. They were creatures at the mercy of an absolutist regime, carried by interests and passions they could not see past their own limitations.
During each search, Mirko would act as our representative. He was the most present of the lot. He knew from experience what sort of consequences could lead for the one overseeing the search.
“I could swear that they have a phone,” mumbled one of the guards as he took his white-gloved hands around the room. They went through everything. T-shirts, sweats, trousers – all found their way on the floor. They even checked our food. Opened the canned goods.
“Why aren’t you searching us in the middle of the hallway and in front of cameras?” I asked. In the beginning I did not know how to live with my blight. Those days saw me vulnerable and short-tempered. I often lost my nerves and bickered at the guards. Much like a madman who cannot control his wits. He pretended not to hear me. He massaged his neck. Cruelly and inceptively, he looked at me.
“Do not play smart, you hear! Listen and do as told.”
His was a mean look. It even had a bark. The veins on his neck popped, his voice trembled. His devious mind put itself to work.
I did not care to talk back. I stood to the side and humbly executed his orders. I took off my shirt, then my shorts. I only had my underwear left.
“Am I speaking Japanese or Macedonian? Did you hear what I just said? All!” – he cried out. “To the bone. And let me not tell you twice.”
I took them off, what else could I have done. If a guard did not like an inmate, they always found the most sadistic among them, and sent him over, to handle the inmate.
“That’s right. Like that. Now, spread your arms.”
I stood there for a while as a man crucified; a new order followed.
“Come, come now. Kneel three times and then stand up.” His face bathed in sadistic pleasure.
I complied; there was nothing else for me to do but comply. I can still picture his grinning face. I will picture it for years on end. He was not just one more ugly creature, repulsive and utterly monstrous. He was one of those men who championed their own egotism, relished their lives as gophers, and their rottenness to the core.
“So, how’s it going? Not easy, right. Not at all. There goes something to remember me by” – I heard him say.
It was not worth talking to him, not even to curse. He was only a blur of a man. His outlook – pagan – well-accompanied his laughter, while his keys made him sound like the Hunchback of the Notre Dame. I think if he sold them in bulk, as used iron, he could have gotten a 7-day vacation to Greece. He was a prison rat who loved being a rat. What a slimy creature man is, how easily he can turn into a rat, so that it no longer matters what his name is, what he does or did for a living; what remains is his hideous snout trying to dig a hole and wrestle his way through, all the way to the “boss”. Each time he’d spot a “big shot”, he would battle his eyelashes and jump around like a prized puppy. He relished letting us know that we were vile, miserable, rotten, lost cases. He despised us, hated and hated us, the poor and the well-off, hated us both when we complied and resisted. He loved that feeling – being angry with everyone and at everything. He belonged to the “death squadrons”, working directly under the Madam Warden. He used to be someone, now he was none of consequence. He no longer bore himself authoritatively towards the other employees. Now, he was a meager little egotist looking only after his own self. He was a man with no shred of dignity, one who used his position of power to nurse his own deficiencies. What was worse, he now wished to become someone of worth, again. Each time we took our walk and he was on duty, I feared his malice, which could come to hurt me at any one moment. It seemed that my fear was justified, since the rat would not spare any means to court the authorities. “It’s his assignment to report what we say to the Management. Avoid him. He does not wish you well,” a colleague of his advised me a few days after.
I tried with all my might to keep myself together. I did not wish him to notice that I was appalled and desperate. I went about it as if it was nothing, not a thing. Yet I was thrown at the center of attention, without knowing the reason or cause for it. This is how the weak of spirit and the feign of heart go about their day. I lived through something terrible today. A crucifixion would have been better. It would not have hurt as much.
Disturbed by these events, utterly humiliated and disgraced, I had a difficult time with all of my new impressions. While the world around me kept going, tirelessly on, I knew I had to think about my own well-being, so that I retain some sense of normalcy, if at all possible. Each word, each smell, each new reflection in the mirror turned into symbols, unforgettable signs. My heart leaped with nostalgia, for my family, for my friends and colleagues, for familiar shapes; I felt a desperate need to go home. Those moments of injustice left me doubly motivated to persevere. Stefi and Marina were my inspiration.
The day would turn into night, the night into a safe-haven. I wished to remain dignified in my suffering, to rise above my apparent fate, to win over evil and to overcome my own predicament.
They did not manage to find the phones. They did not discover the secrets that were in front of them. They could not – how could they – for they were short-sighted and could not use their underdeveloped senses. There were hidden openings in the walls and the floor, the road leading to these havens was like a journey to a harbor engulfed in dangerous underwater reefs. We made a bunker in the attic, crowded with electrical wires penetrating the darkness as spider webs.
No one can imagine the relief felt in a situation like this; when they missed things, we felt as boxers hearing the gong announce the end of a round, thus managing to save himself from a knockout.
“Do not talk back too much. I believe you, I believe things are the way you say they are, but please keep it to yourself and go about your business. If you stand up to them for all sorts of things, they will break you,” Kosta advised me.
It seemed that this cheerful dark-haired boy, who looked like he’d stepped out of an advertisement for the Maldives, and whose character was systematic, precise, reliable and trustworthy, read my mind. He provided my spiritual retreat. As a breath of fresh air, the sails on my mud-stuck-in-the-river-Vardar ship, going nowhere. Every time I “would fall”, he would be there to lend me his hand and get me back up.
Perhaps man needs to cut off all communication with himself, his inner voice, and listen and follow the guards’ instructions. However, once we forsake our inner voice and reason, we surrender all our ethical principles and mores. The one key rule: man measures himself in accordance to the situation he has found himself in. It may be wiser to remain passive and alive, even if it defies all sense.
I would stick to what the best solution for the given moment was so as to wrestle with my agitated mind. I would no longer think about anything connected to this prison. Anything at all. The question remained: how long could I last?
I felt confined by this petrifaction. I was weighed down by the characters of the police inspectors, of the madam state prosecutor, of the judge. I saw their portraits everywhere. Soulless bottom-climbers – they are the worst kind of people, the most damaging and the most harmful. They support all governments, for they are the government, instilling fear, mercilessly and senselessly, cold as ice, sharp as a blade, fateful hounds, betraying each individual in this world. As long as there were people like that, there would be no lasting happiness, for they would destroy any real human value. The three became my visual reflection, of all I read in the papers and heard on the radio.
Books were my only solace. I saw in them a humble bravery. They kept me alive. I would straighten up a bit, turn to the right, lean over my hand, and read. I had to. It was the only way to catch some decent light. The chance to survive, keep it together, is usually afforded to those who are psychologically focused towards a future they would like to achieve, a meaning they would need to acquire or a person that would be waiting for them, lovingly.
At night, I’d dive into the depths of life’s secrets. I lived the loneliness nighttime provided. At night, as a rule, I would get overcome by a quiet desperation. I searched for an explanation for this nightmare. I had a feeling that nothing could compare. All was done, what is – is, and no matter how unusual it was, it could not be any different than it was. Here, thoughts mapped out their time and space. Here, thoughts kept their silence. The subconscious and the dream provided the mis-en-scene for the viewing. Here, dreams were mirages. In dreams, the mind was a slave to all that man saw or thought he saw and all that he feared or puzzled over. Here, the creative mind felt inspired by the thickness of reasons that opened up the starry space to ideas and thoughts.
After my initial shock, I entered a kind of emotional stupor. I stared at the void. My thoughts about my home, my wife and daughter, and the despair of my circumstances, almost got the better of me. I felt drained. Riddled by anger, I forced myself towards one resolute: to live through.
Marko Cepenkov12 said: “Words are like cherries. No matter how many or where you put them, they will still hang on.” I “hung” them where I slept. Inside this cell, above my bed, on the wall adjacent, I pinned the following note: “I am strong, I will live through.” Not a day would pass without me seeing it. My day would start with it. I would first read over it a dozen times, then go about my day.
Friday was a special day. A day for the Madam Warden and for beans. Indeed, we got beans on Sunday too, but only got a visit with the Warden on Fridays. That day I met with her for the first time. She was joined by a Skopje Court Judge. She would stop by the door and enquire how we were. Well-built, well-kept – I suppose, indeed, a large-chested woman. The description of a woman’s chest – whether the bosom was “una manus” or “duae manus” (Latin for one, that is two palms) – is a useful means to ascertain when in fact the relics came to be. One could tell by looking at her that she lived comfortably through her nouveau riche days.
They called her all kinds of names, including “bitch” and “ruthless hag”. Her laws for the prison employees were not to be trifled with. All precaution was taken. She demonstrated her power through a dense corrupt scheme, consisting of high-ranking civil servants, the kind that would rob you off the dirt beneath your fingers. She would turn her employees into her peons.
“I heard what things were like here, but I could never imagine this. Where is the cell you opened up for the press to photograph, when we accompanied the Minister of Justice on his press visit? Or perhaps that one is for a price? Ha? Things have not changed here for years. The conditions are abysmal, even worse than that. Is there a nastier cell than ours?
“You’ve crossed all lines of decency. Here, cockiness is punished,” she told me, her voice full of resentment. She looked at us as if we were trash. She had no critical understanding about life’s true values; blind as a bat, her sight dimmed by her political retina.
“Will you put me in jail?” – I asked her.
Irritated, she slammed the door and they left. The idea for kindness and justice did not forsake me. At times, my blood would boil so that it would seem that the steam I let out reached the guard’s post.
Those days I would usually spend in front of the radio, listening to news bulletins, up to the point of leaning all information by heart. I did not eat; would not take a single bite. I was overcome by a kind of consuming repellency for even the tiniest bite of food, followed by delirious spells.
Life on “the inside” does not give you a moment of peace, from dawn till dusk. What you have time for are only your memories. We are not free, none of us, for we keep going back to the same things – will they find the phone, will they extend my time in custody, how many years’ will I get. This psychosis, whether we want to or not, consumes us; it dictates our thoughts and actions and fulfills our days.
Those used to a rich life of the intellect seemed to suffer the most; however, with less damage inflicted on their inner selves. They would withdraw from the horrors of their surroundings into the richness and freedom of their inner lives. That would explain the paradox of how some with a more tender constitution would withstand incarceration far easier than the more robust looking inmates.
Tuesday: in the afternoon. Time usually allotted for social games. We mostly played tabla13, rummy, even checkers, Ludo and Monopoly. They something happened worth remembering. The door opened and a guard appeared.
“Now, guess what is happening. What can happen between 4 and 5pm. A search of course,” said Mirko.
It became our routine. They would do searches of our cell every other day, always by one particular group of guards, the servants of the servants, who were probably lucky to get a government job through a brother-in-law or another relative. I learnt to keep my cool during the abuse accompanying the searches. Silence does not always mean a poverty of words. Sometimes it can signify a wealth of experience.
Not unlike a witch, he used his finger to point at me and order me out. “Get yourself together. You are wanted by the management.” I slicked my hair, went up and down over my T-shirt, and was ready to go. We walked through the hallway, past the barbershop when we stopped. The guard knocked on the door and waited to be called in. Slowly he opened the door, said his hellos to the parties inside and tugged my hand. Literally, he pushed me in. “Good day,” I said and stopped. I waited for the woman and the guard, or whatever he was, to ask me questions, so that I could see what they wanted with me. They feigned familiarity, though their eyes read mistrust.
The one in uniform – a disinterested selfish bureaucrat – seemed to be in charge of all the security employees in the prison; he sat in the comfortable chair, to the right of the woman. He had his own notes in front of him. He was the one who spoke first. Facing her, he said: “We established who his connections were.” Right after, he asked me: “You know Aleksandar, right? Aleksandar Naumovski, yes?
“The name Aleksandar Naumovski does not mean anything to me. I do not understand what you are asking. I do not understand what you are implying.”
“Alright, alright, it no longer matters much,” spoke the woman while looking at her colleague, then she turned to face me.
“No offense. Nothing personal. But right here is where I first heard about you.”
Bathing in clear rightful anger, I chimed: “That may be so, or it may not be quite so.”
“How are you? Are you well? We put you with good people. This morning I was told you’d asked for paper, you wanted to write things down.”
“Yes, I made an official request. I asked the guards several times but they did not register me one bit. So I wrote a request. I’d like to put some things on paper. But there seem to be no sheets of paper around here. It’s ok, I’ll wait for my first visit. I’ll tell my wife then to bring over a few notebooks. Yes, my roommates are good people. It was kind of you to arrange it that way.”
“We are a respectable house,” the woman tried to crack a joke and brought over the office next door around 500 sheets of photocopying paper.
“I do not need that many. In my request, I asked for five or six, not more. What can I owe your generosity to?”
“Hear me out. Ease your pain. Take this paper and remember who you met this past month and a half, where you met them, and what you talked about. Write everything down. And then you will leave this place. I guarantee you. Stay awake for three days, try to remember everything. It is all up to you now. The sooner you are done with it, the sooner you are going to go home.”
He was offering me a pretend chance to get me on the “right track”. He did not miss a chance to throw insults at Tamara Chaushidis, the president of the independent Trade Union of Macedonian Journalists and Media Workers. I could not tell why he kept doing that. What he had against her, that I could not figure out. He was pained by the fact that different international organizations kept calling, asking for my release, describing the State as undemocratic, totalitarian and uncivilized.
Child-like tears streaming down my cheeks – the result of the agitation I felt for the unfair position we were placed in at that moment, hands literally tied – I responded that I did not do business that way, namely that I followed the right path, or in other words, I allowed my fate to guide me.
“How generous of you, but this is not my cup of tea. I am who I am, what can I do. You certainly do not know my family tree. You can do all sorts of things to me, I know, but no way am I revealing my sources. Even if you skin me alive.”
“That is a wrong decision to make. I think you are making a wrong call,” said the Madam Warden.
I kindly said my goodbyes and asked to be returned to my cell. After the meeting, I felt humiliated, afraid and profoundly angered. I told my roommates what had transpired, word for word. I did not hide any one detail. What I was told and what I had answered.
“The man you saw is only a three-star exhibit. He is in charge of the servants’ servants. The bitch is the true master here. She calls the shots. This prison is her side business” – Mirko explained.
Indeed, her assigned role was geared towards personal wealth accumulation, feeding her inner hedonism, creating her personal oasis amidst the sad surrounding desert. Her personal interest and selfish unscrupulousness were the norm. “So, as Chekhov says about water. It always goes straight and never turns back to see who drinks it. It overcomes all of its obstacles – penetrating through or wisely circumventing. No one rock can stand in its way. Do not let yourself become a marionette, a puppet, a coward. For that is not you. So, chin up. “
“I will be like water, I do not know or cannot do any differently. I pledge my word in front of you.”
Immediately, I thought of Petar. I knew him from way back. I remembered the conversation we had a few days before I was arrested, in a café in the City Mall Skopjanka.
“All that you’ve published so far about the car accident that got Nikola Mladenov killed is true. And all that you want to publish – I can assume you’ve got more things coming, I guarantee you would also be true; I know you’ve got something up your sleeve. I know you well. But you have to stop. For your own good. It is dangerous.” I heard him out, not interrupting.
“Do something. Take some time off and leave. Or stay at home. Do not take too many walks. I am not saying this for the sake of saying it.”
“OK, I’ll do as you suggest. But you yourself know how many have threatened me so far, to break my arms and legs, and here I am, alive and well. There were a few dramatic situations, but nothing serious,” I tell my friend, certain of the overblown aspects of the stories about my safety. I went silent for a moment.
“When I hear what you say and when I see that you are taking all of this lightly, I feel better; you are not panicking, you are not afraid. Still…” – Petar trailed off.
“Thank you,” I said and stood up. Petar stood up after me. Our vehicles were next to each other.
Before I entered my Lada, I asked him: “You are sure about this?” He said: “100 percent. Please be careful!” We had decided to speak again soon.
This was not the first time I’d received a warning. Just this time around, the warning about imminent danger coming my way came from several different places, always identical in tone.
Petar had never lied to me nor ever given me any “extra” information. Each piece he’d given me was factual, so I listened. I could not reveal one bit of this to anyone. I had given him my word. I cannot “sell” my guy, no matter the circumstances. When they’d turn off the lights at night, a typical collective sigh would ring out – “There goes another day!”
Impatiently, I awaited for Wednesdays. Minutes and hours would pass by slower than usual. And finally, the front gate would open and a figure with a military crew-cut appeared against the sunlight. “Tomislav!” His voice was commanding, cruel and clear, I suppose rehearsed according to some standards. His hair was indeed short, practical looking, and his blue eyes gave him a kind of angelic, honest appeal. “Tomislav, yes, I am Tomislav. Tomislav Kezharovski,” I replied.
“Kezharovski, you have a visitor!” Those were the words I’d waited for. I leaped through the hallway, not thinking straight. I felt my eyes burning from the tears I’d collected for hours, while I tried to keep myself from crying again. I had a bunch of questions. All questions I had not dared ask fearing that their answers would knock me dead. But she saw right through me.
“Do not worry, we’ve got money. I know that’s what you are thinking about.”
“I am alright, all is fine, the food, the accommodation, and the treatment by the employees,” was a text I had prepared that I was to recite in my relaxed manner, as if nothing serious was happening. I did not want to burden her with the events in here, for I know that she worried and I could tell that she had not slept even when told that everything was ok. When I saw her behind the class, I stopped and snapped…All I had planned to tell her, the lies I had planned on voicing, went away. I looked at her for a long time, saying nothing. I touched with my finger the openings through which she spoke, tears unstoppably rolling down cheeks.
“How are you? How’s Stefi?” I cried and repeated these two questions one after the other.
“It’s OK. Calm down. We are fine and we are proud of you. You colleagues are with you, supporting you. They know you’ve done nothing wrong. Everyone knows why you are really in here, they all send their regards. And Stefi, Stefi is one of a kind. All of her friends are on her side.”
I asked her not to send me anything, so Stefanija can have things.
“What matters now is for you to be strong. Nothing else matters. Do not lose your nerve, silly man. Do not let them break you. How’s the food? Do you eat the food in here?”
“It’s good. It’s rich with calories. I eat everything.” This one did not pass. She read right through me. She knew it was no good, but I spared her the details. I could not have her worry about me. That evening, after the visit, I cried for hours. It seems to me that I cried about all the wrong in my life. I kept wondering if my pursuit for justice was worth all the sacrifices.
“When you feel like crying, gather up your strength and smile! When you feel as if all around you things are falling apart, do not lower your head, but look up. When you see that you are being walked all over, dust off, and lift yourself from the ground. Life never cut anyone any favors, neither will it for you. Sooner or later it tempts you. Tears and sorrow to be conquered by smiles. You know, Johnny Depp wrote: People cry not because they are weak, but because they are strong. And one more thing: Victories do not make luck possible…trophies collect dust…applause dies real quick…happiness comes with those people who came into our lives and had the strength to remain there. You have your wife and daughter. You have to stick it out for them,” stood Miki next to my bed, offering advice.
I called home, I called Marina. I asked that she pass the phone to Stefanija. Until then I had not heard her voice. I mustered up my strength. We spoke for a few minutes. Immediately after, I dialed two more numbers.
I called Marjan, a colleague from Nova Makedonija.
“How are you?” Silence. Time stretched endlessly. At first, I thought he would not say anything, that he had forgotten who I was or that he did not wish to speak to me. I closed my eyes. “Brother!” he screamed. The conversation afterwards was marked by long pauses and desperately fast-paced sentences. I told him to pass my regards to everyone else at the paper.
I had a brief chat with the editor-in-chief. “I suppose I’ve brought you shame” … “Not at all. Do not worry about that. You cannot allow for this to impact you, if what matters to you is to persist in what you’ve set out to do. The truth is a hard mistress, that you need to be aware of,” he told me.
Perhaps they can be embarrassed by me, but they cannot be embarrassed by what I did. It was my moral and professional obligation to see this case through. You cannot drag a man’s name in public, put his face on the cover, simply because you feel like it. I loved my profession. I was interested in the truth and nothing else. That was my biggest fault. In the words of Dragan Boganovski14 : I loved Macedonia more than I was allowed to.
Those days I penned a letter to my colleagues, to all the Macedonian journalists. I wished to give my own reading of the events. Mirko helped me “deliver” it. We gave it to a guard, who took it with him outside of the prison, gave it to another guy – a physical copy, who then passed it to one of the editors of Nova Makedonija. Sadly, my letter was not published. Here’s what it said:
Allow me to express my sincere gratitude, while in here – the darkest, dampest, and messiest part of the Skopje penal system, for all that you’ve done and all that you are undertaking on my behalf. It is of such exceptional value to me, I assure you. It keeps me going.
I’ve always known what it takes to live a civilized, educated, and moral life, and I’ve done all that was in my power to rise to its challenges and see those expectations through.
Each good deed and just thought leave a mark. Yet, personal morals are a gift, much like intelligence. They cannot be bought.
I’ve lost one battle but will not sadly grieve its defeat. I am not giving up. I relish the victory ahead.
Media needs to be free in its analytical criticism of any institutional underpinnings. Media are the foundation to a democratic society. Media, free and independent, are one of the best security measures a country can have against its government’s excessive control. For governments are the people’s servants and not the other way around.
Unfortunately, today Macedonia is a state whence parents wish for their kids to immigrate from, moving to other, more peaceful prospects, countries that would ensure them a better livelihood. Martin Luther King had a dream about overcoming the racial divides of his country; he wished for the American people to be compassionate and equal in the eyes of the law. My dream is for our kids to live right here, in this country, where they would not be prosecuted for a difference of opinion or publicly expressed ideas, but rather on the basis of the merit and strength of their character. I wish for our kids to think for themselves and have the freedom to do it.
Finally, I’d like to send the following message to the spin-doctors out there, namely those who used the ORESHE case and the events tied to my incarceration as compensation for the other side to their soul. I mean those who saw in me a man that stood in their way and one they had to bring down at any cost. I mean those who’ve been blinded by hatred and greed so they keep striking down anyone that speaks against their wrongdoings:
“Divine justice is out there, cannot be escaped. And yes, I am a justice advocate. It awaits, patiently, and sooner or later, it will present itself. No one has escaped it thus far. True, injustice is sometimes difficult to beat, but I assure you it has not made me surrender my pursuit of it, or even worse, bought my silence. Injustice has a rather short half-life. So, while this heart keeps beating in my chest, I will remain a justice advocate.”
A journalist should not strain himself by looking at the hazy distance; rather, he or she should wrestle with what is in front of them, what they clearly see unfolding right then and there…
KPU Skopje [The Skopje Penal System], June 2013.
After several weeks of incarceration, other people’s images of suffering faded away. The apathy and inner indifference had desensitized me towards everyday “punishments”. This insensitivity was the necessary armor I hid behind. In such conditions, physical pain was not the biggest burden, but rather the internal suffering that injustice and senselessness had brought upon me.
The food served was another story. For breakfast, the four of us would get four pieces of salami to split among us. Or, in the plastic container designated for meals, we’d get some jam, and a lump of Kristal15, or a cut for each of some unidentified meat produce, neither sausage nor wurst. Sometimes we’d get two boiled eggs each. For lunch, the containers would be filled with “a kind of brown water”, with bits of potatoes, peas, string beans or whatnot – one would never what exactly. If you were to even mutter a semblance of an objection, you’d be blacklisted and no food would come your way the following day. The servings ensured by the penal system would also guarantee some two to three days’ old bread. Even if you were to beg, ceaselessly, nothing would change; even if you were to stand on your head, so to speak, you would not get anything else or different or better from what the cook had decided on for the day. Beans were the most precious delicacy. When beans were served, on Fridays and Sundays, you’d know exactly what you were getting. On other days, your spoon fed your mouth unknown things.
For dinner, our organisms would get purified. Always the same: soup. In fact, though the name the liquid was given equaled the term soup, what we would receive was lukewarm yellow water. Luck permitting, some days we’d get a bit of pasta in it; most days, it would be pure liquid. Seeing noodles in one’s container would be nothing short of winning the USA’s Green Card Lottery.
Not too long after my arrival, as a kind of reward for good behavior, and as the result of my friendship with the head cook (but mostly my status as “the journalist”), I was presented with something very few have the opportunity to receive: a real spoon. Metal-made. For comparison purposes, here even a cardboard box was considered a privilege. Inside one we kept our clothes, for the cells did not contain any closets.
Cell 14 held our conversations, numerous sessions spanning over bits of gossip and hearsay. It alleviated the hardships. Any form of artistic output seemed grotesque, as a kind of spectre contrast to the senseless background of jail time. We’d kept our sense of humor. It was our weapon of choice when helping the soul’s self-preservation. With it, better than anything else, we could maintain a necessary distance between ourselves and our circumstances, even for a short while. We laughed and joked around despite our predicament. We maintained our sense of humor at all cost. With it, we looked at and elaborated on all universal questions, be it religion-, society- or politics-related. Looking at everything through a humorous lens, we created an art out of living. I now observed all things in my midst as good fodder for a story. Every day I’d take notes of what was going on.
Man can be stripped off of literally every little things but one: the basic human freedom to choose his behavior in whatever circumstances, i.e., to set and accept his path. And he is faced with such a choice constantly. Each day and each hour the prisoner is presented with the opportunity to reach a decision that could threaten his true personality and make him a puppet thrown at the mercy of his surroundings, thus surrendering his freedom of choice to become a real prisoner. The spiritual reactions of my new neighbors were obviously more than just an immediate reaction to certain corporeal, spiritual or social circumstances, even if all those circumstances – lousy diet, not enough sleep and various spiritual qualms – to a degree, suggest that the prisoner has to embrace the contours of the typical prisoner’s psyche. But what prison makes of man, however, is the result of the prisoner’s inner decisions. Every man, even in said circumstances, can, spiritually, decide who he’ll be: a typical prisoner or a man who maintains his dignity despite being locked up.
Dostoevsky once said: “There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” I kept thinking about this notion the moment I met these martyr characters, whose behavior in the prison and the suffering that accompanied it verified for me the fact that no ounce of freedom, my freedom, should be lost. They were worthy of their sufferings. They proved that true patience came from a spiritual fulfillment. Man’s spiritual freedom cannot be taken away from him, for it allows him the opportunity to give his life meaning, until that final breath.
Since work is not the only kind of living that gives man his purpose (though it provides him with opportunities to creatively approach his values), nor is a hedonist existence (which does present man with the fulfilment of meaningful artistic experiences), he can in fact hold onto a life whence there are no opportunities for creative or hedonist achievements, but rather one where he is offered the chance to embrace the most worthy of behaviors, namely to take a moral stance vis-a-vis the finite confines of his livelihood.
The way man accepts his inevitable fate and all the sufferings it brings along offers him a unique opportunity, even in the direst of circumstances, to give his life a deeper meaning.
Some forsake their humanity and embrace their primal natures. Some, however, are brave and dignified and selfless in the fierce fight for self-preservation, thus holding onto their inner freedom and embodying those values that suffering makes possible. I remember this one film about a man who fought bravely and dignifiedly whilst facing imminent death. At the time, it seemed as if he had been presented with divine providence; now, I see that destiny has presented me with one such opportunity. The hospital wing was a story in its own right. The handful of doctors – 2 assigned to 350 inmates – and the cubicles allocated to serve as the examination rooms were reason enough for the insufficient and inadequate medical treatment of the sick. If you were lucky enough to be examined prior to 3 pm, then you would be given treatment; anytime afterwards, may God be on your side. Teeth clenched and pain withstood, you would then be looking at the heavens, asking it for some respite. If it got serious, an ambulance would be called in. The guards, most of them electricians welders or mechanics by training, “knew best” if you were battling appendicitis or if it was only muscular pain, whether it involved the stomach or the liver. Or maybe it was the pancreas. They were the ones making the estimates; they were the ones who decided if the pain was grave or fleeting. After 5 pm, they were the ones administering pills, for headaches or stomachaches. No wonder the saying: a priest or an imam are more likely to arrive first by an inmate’s bedside than a doctor. The medication was never administered by a physician or a medic. Even the morning therapy, much like the afternoon rounds, was at the disposal of the guards. Whoever was on duty had a list with them, and according to what it stated, they left white, green or blue pills on the communal table. The guard couldn’t name the medication or what purpose it served; he could only tell the pills apart by color. I did not receive a lot of pills, only the essential ones. In the mornings and evenings, I would regularly get some Diazepam, and from time to time I would get something for my stomach or for a headache. Here, Diazepam is the drug of choice. I would only take it if manufactured by Alkaloid, a Macedonian pharmaceutical company, and in its original packaging. The ones manufactured by Jaka, a former Macedonian pharmaceutical company; now owned by a Serbian conglomerate, we’d put aside, just in case a neighbor would be going through a rough patch. The messiness of the makeshift hospital would often lead to comical situations. However, what happened to Fejzi surpassed any semblance of normalcy. He would constantly battle some health issue. Each time anyone would mention any one illness or predicament, Fejzi attested to having it or having gone through it. He would complain about his high blood pressure, high sugar, infections, anemia, arrhythmia, inflammations. On top of everything came the hemorrhoids. He’d dance around like a ballerina and release tiny little high-pitched screams, “If you only knew how much they hurt!” They made him squat endlessly long in front of the toilet. For hours on end. A few times we thought that he was about to collapse; luckily, it never came down to that. He was certainly in pain, but so were we, standing right next to the tiny window and puffing the air away with a newspaper, as if trying to get a fire going. One week he penned a letter, asking for a medical check-up. Eventually he was granted one. But where and how was another story. We had just gone out for our regular half-hour walk when a guard appeared at the gate of the “promenade” calling our roommate in for a doctor’s consultation. We thought we’d been saved. He thought so too. Hardly any time had passed, and there he was making his way back, visibly agitated. He snickered and sneered and cussed at the doctors. We had no idea what had happened. It was impossible to get any word out of him. Afterwards, in the cell, he shared some details. A real drama had unfolded in the hallway.
“Take off your jeans!”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Take them off, come on. Have no fear. Come on, strip off!”
“Ok doctor.” He started to undress and pulled his jeans down, all the way to his knees.
“That’s right! Now, take off your briefs, too!”
“Come one, take them off. Have no fear. You are ashamed of me?”
“That’s right. Now, turn around and bend a little. Lean on this table.”
He leaned on the table, closed his eyes, and said to have embraced the great uncertainty unfolding right then and there, behind his back. He lost his cool, he said, and pulled up his underwear and pants. He did not let the doctor inspect his insides. I bit my lips to withhold laughter whilst he rolled in his bed with pain. Kosta fell of his bed. He started laughing, rolling around the floor. Mirko covered himself up with his blanket, though it was 40 degrees Celsius, and could not stop laughing for a hour or two.
“Inside”, two interests reigned. Firstly, there was politics, which is quite understandable; secondly, there is religion, which is perhaps significant. The news were mostly contradictory. They would change on the hour, adding to the pains of the war raging inside the inmate’s soul. Many hopes about the swift change in government were supported by optimistic rumors, only to be dismissed quickly. Many had lost all hope, while the dullest and most boring inmates were the incorrigible optimists. The interest in religion was the most sincere one among the inmates. The depth and commitment of their faith would often surprise and even unnerve the newcomers. Most impressive were the improvised prayers and services practiced in each corner of the cells.
Life in custody threw me many trivial surprises. In here, I realized that textbooks lie. For example, somewhere they had written that a person cannot go on living if they did not get an X amount of hours sleep. Wrong! I used to believe that there were things I could not bear: I could not fall asleep if “so and so”; I could not live “without so and so”. Here, the light sleeper, who would awake at any little tremor from the adjacent room, can lie next to a loud snorer, several centimeters away from earshot, and still be sound asleep. Let’s remember Dostoevsky again. He defined man as a kind of creature that could get used to anything. This is so true, but do not ask me how it is done. We were lying down in our cell, all in a foul mood. There were such days when our blood sugar would fall under its normal count and we did not feel like doing anything. Anything at all. We could barely exchange a word. And then the lights went out. Yes, that happens too. The prison sees a lot of power shortages. So, our mood went from the worst to unimaginably worse than worst. However, our “room leader” was a resourceful man. He knew that we could use some encouragement now more than ever before. And so he started with the most banal-sounding words of comfort, saying that our circumstances were certainly not the worst imaginable, telling each one of us what we had in fact lost, irretrievably.
“He who is still breathing has every reason to hope. One’s health, family happiness, work success, even one’s property and social status – all those can be replaced,”said Mirko.
He did not stop there. His words echoed in the dark.
“You guys, our bones are still intact! And all that we have yet to endure will only come at a plus once we are out.” He even quoted Niche: “What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.” This last bit I took to heart.
When man’s destiny is paved with suffering, he must look to it as a kind of task, an irreversible chore to complete. Those who could not unearth greater meaning or purpose for their lives in here had a difficult time locating a willingness to keep going, to persist. Those who could no longer believe in a future for themselves would wither away in here. They would be finished. Lost. By losing one’s faith in a future, the inmates would lose their spiritual support and thus surrender to a corporeal and psychological decay. They would rot away rather quickly.
In SHUTKA, a day would last longer than your average week. It was particularly difficult during weekends or national holidays. We’d beg the guard to open up the door to the cell, curse every one of us and then close it again. It was that kind of dull. June came along. The cell door opened and the guard on duty called my name. He informed me that I would be taken to court. Quickly, as if in a soldier’s barracks, I got ready and exited the cell. The eight of us from the “Likvidacija” case were gathered in a room right next to the guards’ post. I couldn’t quite figure out why we were called all of a sudden. The response I got: we were going to watch “the tapes” from the Special Investigative Measures crew. We were handcuffed and one by one boarded two vans. I asked my “colleagues” to allow me to sit up front, meaning in the loading area and not next to the driver. The ride itself was some trip. I glued my nose to the side window and stared through it. God only knows what I must have looked like to those outside. What mattered was that I was most comfortable. As if I had never before seen a car or a bus. I took pleasure in seeing any one thing. How much this little glimpse at the world meant to me. And how wouldn’t it, when 24-hours a day, pardon 23-hours and 30 minutes, we were locked up and could see nothing at all. The great courtroom located on the ground floor was set for the first, unofficial part of the “show”. In attendance: the judge, a woman stenographer and a man in charge of the technical equipment. And yes, Madam. Prosecutor. However, she left due to personal time-sensitive reasons. When the lawyers came in and when it was ascertained that all parties were present and that the necessary preconditions existed for the proceedings to take place, the twelve videoclips, in the duration of a minute and a half, up to two, were played. They were to confirm the fact that we were a criminal group and that we had undertaken the actions for which we were being charged. We watched the first clip. I was under the impression that the material came from the Silent Film era. No tone, it was recorded from a 50m distance. The accused Valentin Zafirov stopped his car on the main street in Aerodrom [a Skopje burrough], crossed over, and came back in a short while. He boarded his vehicle and left. That was it. There was no footage showing where he went or who he saw. There was also no explanation as to what the recording was set to prove. There was no one present to give one such explanation. She had already left the proceedings.
They played the second clip. Same story. From almost a mile away, the recording showed Borche Nikolovski. This time, the location was the Skopje downtown area. For about 2 minutes, it showed him sitting in a car. I could not figure out what exactly was the crime there. The others were also confused. However, none of this mattered. The next recording showed Zvonko Davidovikj, the attorney. He was caught “in the act”. The clip showed how he had bought a bouquet of red roses from the Flower Market, got into his jeep, and left.
What followed were the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh recording.
One of them was taken at the Skopje Alexander the Great Airport. It showed three foreigners. They were followed en route to the Holiday Inn hotel, as well as the following morning, on their way back. Till this day, no one knows who the men were, where they came from or what their connection to us might be.
There was a video clip from the summer terrace of the Hotel Romantik, next to Lake Veles. The recording was made from a great distance, about 15 kilometers, most likely from the Katlanovo16 side. Or else how to account for the fact that not only could we not hear what they were saying but we could not tell who exactly they were.
“This is what we have to show you for now,” said the judge, rising from her seat and getting ready to leave. She did not even dignify the lawyers with an explanation as to what the recorded material represented or what was actually being shown with it.
“Who committed the crime? When was the crime committed?” asked one of the attorneys. The others just looked at one another, shrugging their shoulders.
I was not on any of the recordings. And yet I was said to belong to “an organized criminal group”. I was beside myself. As a man stipped off all I had, with all of my values torn to shreds, I still felt that life was worth living. I tried to keep my anger at bay, but to no avail. Something in me snapped. My reaction was instinctual, coming from somewhere gutternal. I was almost yelling, the anger spilling out of me, beyond any control:
“It is shameful what you are doing. You are selling your dignity cheaply. The case ‘Likvidacija’ but the real one will commence when I get out of prison. Then, I swear to you, all of you, one by one, will explain why you are doing this. You’ve imprisoned my body, but my soul is free to fight this evil”, I addressed the First Instance Court judge as blood spattered from my hands, due to my struggle with the handcuffs.
Who knows what else I’d have said if one of the group did not put his hand over my mouth and drag me out of the courtroom. I had to say it, for it gave me solace and allowed me a peace of mind; I had to say it, for they needed to know what was in store for them, so that they could not feign surprise.
I have no doubt whatsoever that behind all of the court’s statements and my arrest and detainment hides one particular organization. It does not only employ corrupt guards, dim-witted supervisors, and first instance court judges, who in the best case scenario had already been bought, but also high-ranking judges and a host of necessary servants, bailiffs, police officers, and other auxiliary staff.
The Chief Prosecutor, Marko Zvrlevski, was the first one to speak out. In an interview for the weekend edition of the daily newspaper Vest he had pronounced my sentence. He said that I could get a 4-5 year sentence. What a visionary, what a forecaster, what insight. Several months later his prognosis was verified.
That statement by Zvrlevski was a turning point. It provided me with the incentive to gather my strength and persevere. There is no plural truth, my truth or their truth; there are only facts.
I stared through the window. I felt confused. I felt desperate. I was in a foul mood. That entire day was one terrifying confusion. Two to three shocking revelations kept my mood unbearably low. On top of it all, there was the decision to extend my time in custody. The Council of the Department for Organized Crime and Corruption with the Skopje District Court 1 had confirmed the motion by the first instance court judge asking for additional thirty days. They were required to conduct additional investigation towards my activities. I kept reading and could not believe what I was reading. I was a flight risk, as my finances had suggested. Wondrous. I had a family, a wife and a daughter, it was stated in the document, but this was no guarantee towards my remaining in country. It did not mention where to I would flee, what town or country. We were taken outside. I was in a foul mood. I kept lagging behind Mirko, Fejzi, and Kosta. I walked behind them. I did not wish for my negativity to become catchy. There were moments, much like this one, when I needed my distance. To be left to my own devices. From time to time, I relished my solitude. And then my thoughts and longings would trail off towards home, where I’d imagine my loved ones, though I could only see parts of the strangely-shaped clouds. I was pulled away from those daydreams only by the steps of the inmates, going round and round, or a call for help from the other field. “Do not overthink it; all of this will come to pass. Let me tell you what I found out today. And it’s about you. One of the guards told me. He’s to be trusted. Anyhow, he said that they are watching your every move. Waiting for you to make a mistake. We have to be vigilant. If they find a phone, you have to keep your mouth shut. You cannot say anything, especially that it’s yours. We cannot give them the chance to convict you for keeping contact with parties on the outside, for that is what they covet the most,” Mirko told me.
Mirko was sincere, honest, and loyal. Even when angry, his anger was somewhat different than the one the others projected. “I do not see what the problem is,” he would say after a really difficult cell search or phone seizure. He was one of those that in the end would allow to be “played” by everyone. He was fascinated by illusionists and hypnotists. He was full of some kind of mythic intuition. He would try to convince us that with the power of his mind he could slide through the barbed fences, as if it were nobody’s business, that he could fly through the air or sit on nails. For awhile we thought of recommending that he consult a crystal ball, so as to foretell the prisoners’ fate.
He never took things for granted. He was partial to a kind of academic neutrality, one based on facts that could be used to undermine, quite easily, the different claims lacking solid evidence.
His mind and heart were wide open. He would say: we got two arms; the left one so that we can help ourselves, the right one so that we can help others. I appreciated his aesthetic position of being above any quarrels or arguments. Indeed, he was quite tolerant.
His eyelids would constantly close and he could only unglue them after splashing his face with cold water several times over. How he’d reach the facet with his eyes closed no one could tell. Sci-fi. He spoke English, German, Bulgarian, and Russian. With us, he spoke standard Macedonian; when his neighbors would call him on the phone, he spoke in his local dialect. The speech patterns of Kuchevchani were perhaps the strangest ones I’ve heard in our midst. Quite playful, with some similarities to the Kumanovo dialect, just somehow simpler.
This young man had a fantastic memory. He was excellent at memorizing phone numbers and literary plots. I often thought that he had a computer for a head, for his power of retention was unprecedented. I’d never met anyone with his mad skills. He’d demonstrate his powers without any stage fright or apprehension. He’d recite, straight up, the thirteen numbers, one at a time, that we’d given him the day before. I was also in awe of his powers of observation. A true information technology legend. The alpha and omega of all matters tied to computers and computer technology. That was the reason he was in here, for he knew way too much about computers.
Often he’d speak to us about his glory days on the European stage, his accomplishments, and the “accolades” they were crowned with. Because of commotion that was created with the arrival of several groups of detainees, the demand for phones increased. The price would go as high as 300 euros. There were even customers for two phones. “The bill” had to be settled in advance. I was new to all of this and quite green when it came to the ins and outs of the business. I learnt that the phones entered the prison through the hospital wing and two guards. There was also another scheme – to have the phone thrown over the fence, which to be honest I found not only strange but rather incomprehensible. Yet, this was the most cost-efficient way to do it.
“We need to act fact. We can make around 400 euros, which would guarantee a rich feast for the next month,” concluded Kosta from Shtip.
Mirko worked out the deal in an hour’s time. He hired a crew from Drachevo17 to “throw” three phones, each about 1,500 denars, around 25 euros, a piece. I heard the deal being made but could not quite fathom its execution. How would they manage to throw the phones 70 meters over the prison fence, and right into our yard? How would it possible to pull it off without the guards noticing it? And not to mention…how would the ones doing the throwing know that we, and not someone else, is right there at the arranged drop-site? When Ferdi from the G-block called, I began to put the piece together. However, I still had to wait till the morning to actually see for myself. Could still not make heads or tails out of the whole arrangement.
Kosta and Mirko ran the show. I was only a supporting cast member.
“It is better that Fejzi observes rather than directly participates. Do not get me wrong guys, but he cannot function well in a highly structured situation, like the one today. He’s got two left feet. So, it is better that he sit this one out and we take care of things.” OK, Kosta and I said in agreement, and we spread out across the yard. We told Fejzi to be on the lookout. Ferdi was given a sign. He had a good vantage point from the top floor. He called the Drachevo boys and told them that we were in position. Carefully, step by step we walked the contours of the yard. All I could hear was some quiet hissing. I could not believe my own eyes. If someone had told me about these kinds of shenanigans, I would have called them crazy. The phones literally dropped from the sky. The operation went really well. The Drachevo crew was highly successful, and so were we. They got three out of three in; we brought three out of three to our cell. I thought that I would have a moral problem with how we handled Fejzi, but nothing happened. He too was tasked with a mission. His: to watch the field for the drop-sites. He was so impressed by the task given that even after a month had passed he would still pause by the little mirror, straighten himself all over, and mutter “What a hero”.
Out there I am a journalist. In here, I am all but a journalist. I do what I have to and what I should not. I’ve learnt all sorts of new tricks.
They can tell you all sorts of things about prison and the people employed in its system. But nothing beats hands-on experience. A part of the workforce refused any contact with the inmates. Even if sent to do a search, they would do it superficially, just so that their turn would pass. Once even they stayed behind and we got to play cards for half an hour. You may be wondering why they would leave us be. Simply, they were all on “the take”, so to speak. Cigarettes, sweets, appetizers, something before meals, something after meals. They were quite picky, I might add. For example, they’d declare that they only ate “Argeta” pate; others would feign that they got stomach aches and acid reflux from the same brand. It was not their fault; the system is broken. One guard would, for example, transform all of his “seized goods” into “home products”. We found such information invaluable. We’d heard that he would trade the “seized goods” in the neighboring local markets for their produce. They called him Wyatt Earp. This moniker, whether he cared for it or not, suited him rather well. The holster he carried his gun in was always low-balanced, near the knees, so most of the time, due to his height, the gun would bang on the floor. At a first glance, you’d think his head would bang against a city lamppost, whereas in reality he’d make 500-600 denars a day extra, around 10 euros.
Days would go by, followed by weeks. Four more weeks had passed. It was now the end of July 2013. I had received the second extension for my detainment. At this time, they had granted the prosecutor’s motion based on her claim that the investigation was in its infancy and that I was still considered a flight risk. I felt as if grain by grain, each bit of hope had left me, was going away, leaving me alone. Such moments of injustice awoke in me a horrifying malaise, followed by a frightening kind of madness. My brow would sweat incessantly. I looked depressed. I was rowing towards the abyss. It happened that from time to time, particularly when I’d receive the papers verifying the extension of my prison detainment, I’d have psychotic and spiritual meltdowns. But as a rule, I had Mirko and Kosta by my side. Truth be told, I had Fejzi too.
I was waiting to be charged with a crime; I was waiting for a trial; there was no charge, there was no trial. And the extension announcements came regularly, like clockwork. How long can this go on, I kept asking myself. People would be kept in detainment for months on end. The investigation period tied to their case would log on for months, stating that the prosecution was working hard on collecting evidence. Old wives’ tales. I had to do something. So, I made the decision to go on a hunger strike. To go all the way, disregarding the consequences. Me or them. My goal was to use my hunger strike as a battle for morality, namely, a way to get institutions to become better, more humane. I wanted to inspire people towards a kind of action, grassroots activism so to speak, as an attempt to have an active say towards all of our present circumstances. I thought long and hard about my decision, mulling over each aspect, asking myself if any good, real good, can come of it. I realized that I had no other options left and that this decision was better than no decision.
In other situations, my soul would say one thing, my mind another. My wishes and my everyday would often clash. This time round, my soul and mind spoke in unison, inviting me to say on course with my plan.
It was a Sunday. On Sundays, apart from the traditional thirty minute walk, there are no other activities. I sat on my bed and drafted a letter with which I would be informing the authorities that I would not be intaking any of the prison food from the following day. I wrote, erased, rewrote, added, edited, and wrote some more. Once the letter was polished and addressed to Madam Warden, I placed it in a box – a former cigarette carton – taped to the door, where the shift supervisor or his deputy would get it and then send to the stated address “Skopje Prison Warden”. I informed my roommates of my plan. I told them of my goal: to affect change, not just for myself, but for all in here. I told them that I was willing to sacrifice myself for the benefit of all that are here, no matter where they come from or who they are. They gave me their support.
During the regular check-up, the next day, the guard took the letter. He did not say anything, except the customary “hello” and “goodbye”. Several hours later, the same guard asked me to state my case better. He gave me a piece of paper and a pen, and said: “You need to specify who is it you are complaining against, who is not doing a good job, the Management of the Prison or some other institution. Briefly, in several short sentences.”
“Alright,” I say. He stood by the door as I wrote things down. He took the paper and left.
Around noon we were taken on our customary walk. Usually, the four of us would walk around in circles and crack jokes at Fejzi’s expense. This time things played out differently. No one could foresee how differently. A guard appeared at the yard’s gate and called for me.
“Come with me,” he said.
Two days before I had complained of some stomach pains, so the first thing I could think of was that I was going to be taken to see a doctor. I turned to my roommates and told them to put the coffee pot on and make me a cup, and I left. That was the last time I saw Mirko, Kosta and Fejzi.
“No, we are not going to the doctor’s. Go to your cell.”
As I reached the door, I stopped, stone cold. My legs would not go further. I felt a strong onset of fear, though I gave my best to resist it. I tried to remain calm. At the same time, I was consumed by a repellant sense of panic, despair and self-pity. As if my entire life were at a standstill, now that I was floating midair. Chills came down my spine. I could not rationalize why I felt the way I did. No matter how much I would deny it, and I did not want to, I was terrified. I did not fear for my own life, but rather for my wife and daughter. One thought was able to get passed all of the fogginess surrounding my confusion. I will leave them alone in the world, was the first thought I had. Five guards were seated on the beds. Two up front, two on the left bunk, while the chief was seated by himself, to my right. The one who brought me in remained standing behind me. I kept looking at the floor, for a bucket of water, or the window, for a noose. I thought that I would live out the same end as Vlado Taneski [a journalist who is said to have committed suicide whilst imprisoned] or that I would end up a trophy pig, slaughtered and hung out to dry in his cell.
“If I am to die, I’d like to let you know that I am being greatly humiliated by all of you,” I cried and spoke. No, I am not afraid, I managed to get that in over my sobbing. Some may say that I cried like a little kid; that I slobbered all over myself. I can tell you that I cried out of pain. Not so much due to the immediate fear of the circumstances, but mostly out of helplessness. There were five of them and one of me.
The one in charge was a lean-looking man, who left the impression of someone kind. He was mostly the reserved type, never speaking more than it was necessary. They said that he carried out his job with a sense of honor and dedication, as if he lived for his work. In order to put an end to the ordeal, he was the first one to speak.
“Do not worry, we are here to relocate you to another cell, a much better place.”
“Can I at least say goodbye to people? Please,” I begged and my tears kept pouring out.
“No, for the orders do not allow it. Collect your things and let’s go.”
5 A town in Eastern Macedonia.
6 A rural suburb of Skopje.
7 A village near Skopje.
8 A town to the north of Skopje, near the border with Serbia.
9 The name of the Skopje-based detention center and county prison. Also, the abbreviated name and location of a Skopje municipality known for its Roma population (SHUTO ORIZARI).
10 One of the oldest (endemic) species in Lake Ohrid.
11 The municipality, one of ten comprising the city of Skopje, where the Shutka prison is located.
12 19th century Macedonian writer and collector of folklore.
13 A version of backgammon.
14 Macedonian civil rights’ defender (1922 –1998).
15 A popular margarine brand.
16 A village to the south of Skopje, near Veles. Known for its thermal spa center.
17 A Skopje borough.
/ PART 2
“When a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete”, said Vaclav Havel, a dissident, and later the president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.
This credo can be used to diagnose the condition of present-day Macedonia, where a journalist is placed in ‘preventive’ detainment over a published article. Truth be told, Macedonia has never really supported a free media climate, but with what is currently happening, namely the trajectory of how things are unfolding at present, I wouldn’t be surprised even if they started to mass-arrest us in the streets.
Today, the Macedonian political scene can be characterized by two attributes: unbearable superficiality and unbearable irresponsibility. The former has led to a leadership comprised of dilettantes, while the latter has enabled those same dilettantes to get their hands on unlimited power, which as expected, they’ve abused endlessly. Hence, we’ve lived through a criminal privatization, a spending spree of over a billion euros, the construction of all sorts of buildings and nicknacks, everything but what is needed, absurd campaigns, an active destruction of the judicial, healthcare, and education systems, the foreclosing (euthanization) of free-thinking media, the “preventive” incarceration of a journalist prior to set trial dates… All this as someone’s whim…
I did not take anything with me from Cell 14, apart from my personal belongings packed in two cardboard boxes. I left behind the mattress and the pillow and the blankets, for I was told I would find a mattress and a pillow and blankets in the new cell. I stepped out of the C block, and the moment we turned left, towards the hallway that led to the duty guard’s post, I was told to stop. The door was different. It was not made out of metal. Rather, it was an ordinary door, white, with bars on the outside. Above the doorframe it read A-1. They unlocked the bars first, then the door.
“Come on, get in!” said the guard standing next to me, the one in charge of the group that supervised my relocation, as he announced my arrival to the parties present: “You’ve got a new roommate.”
Fear had not yet left my side, at present manifesting itself as indigestion at the pit of my stomach. New surroundings, new people. Starting all over. Again.
The oldest one welcomed me and introduced the others.
“I am Papa Dule, this is Milisav, but we call him Dzingo, this here is Goran, and that is Bojan.”
“My name is Tomislav. Till now I was in C-14,” I said and stopped. I thought to myself that this was enough of an introduction.
I was impressed by the impressive decor. The large pavilion had a pleasing ambience, with marble floors containing motifs from an ancient bathing house and clean walls with almost panoramic windows. The center of the room contained a dining table with four chairs. There were also two plastic chairs to the side. What luxuries. A room with a view. Impressive. As if I had been relocated in a king’s palace. There was room enough to play a bit of indoor soccer. I felt as if on a pilgrimage to Mecca. I allowed myself to get comfortable. What beauty, what comfort. I was amazed by all things. Even the toilet, now sequestered to another room. This cell felt like a liberated enclave.
However, the effect was spoilt by a shrieking female voice coming from the room next door.
“Bojan, Bojan! Booooojan! Hey Bojan!!!”, repeated the woman, several times on end.
“That is Zumreta, she comes from the Mavrovo region18. She is next door. She is with Biljana, Irena, and Marija. We’ll tell you all about our female neighbors once you settle in.”
While Papa Dule was getting me caught up with the cell’s conditions, Bojan climbed on top of his bed, next to the windows and scolded Zumerta not to yell after him, for he was busy at present, what with the “new guy” (me) having arrived. There were two available spots, one next to the door, and one opposite, under the windowsill. I chose the latter. I needed air, and some light. I yearned for all those things I could not even imagine having again while confined to Cell C14, and here I was granted access to both.
I had not managed to settle in when the door opened all of a sudden.
“Kezharovski, get up. We are going to see the doctor!” commanded the guard. It was, I believe, my third or fourth meeting with the prison’s medical personnel. I was told to relax, I was instructed that all would be well, I was informed to call down. I did not listen. I could not call down, nor did I want to.
They checked my blood pressure and performed an EKG test. What they seemed to care the most about was my weight. At first I could not quite figure out why they were so concerned with my weight, but in a short while it all became apparent.
“That is all for today. Tomorrow, you are going to come again. They’ll bring you in around lunchtime, so that we can see what the condition is like with your weight,” the doctor told me before I was escorted out of the room. So, they had believed my words, or perhaps they were testing me, to see if it was a bluf. For example, if I would be going on a hunger strike while my roommates were secretly feeding me.
When I returned to the new cell, my roommates had already helped settle my things. They had put everything in its place. My bed was ready, while my clothes and the cardboard boxes they were packed in were placed underneath the bed.
“So you are the journalist? Well, you did not identify yourself. Why keep quiet about who you are? When you came in the room, so worn out in the face and with grey bags under your eyes, we honestly thought that they had brought a junkie and that we were going to have a problem on our hands. Luckily, a few minutes ago, when they were distributing the daily therapy, they told us who you were,” said Bojan, the young man from the top bunk.
I had lost the will to speak of my ordeals. Not because I did not believe that they would genuinely understand what had been happening to me, but rather due to the sheer fact that I did not care to speak about them. I used to be known for my fast mouth and ability to talk about all sorts of things, trivial and not so trivial. Yet at present I felt as if I’d run out of words, spent them all so to speak, so I remained seated on my bed, attempted a cordial smile, which they returned with an equally cordial smile while my soul was breaking into a million little pieces. I wore the face of a martyr who had found his inner peace and understood his position.
Bojan was an interesting young man, from Veles. Laconic in his demeanor, he would only share what he felt necessary, nothing more.
“Come up here, rest your eyes on the view.”
Indeed, his bed and its position offered quite the view. Almost unbelievably beautiful. There were trees, pine I think, with their barks straight up. A bit further down, there were linden trees, creating comfortable shades and coolness. This view was almost out of my new world, the last thing I expected to find.
My day passed in a heartbeat. I got to know a bit more about my roommates, who came from where, what they did for a living, why they were in here. I spoke briefly with the people in the adjacent cell, and the ones in “isolation”, on the top floor, and even had the time to read a few pages out of a Milan Kundera book. I did not notice when it got dark outside.
“They seemed to have forgotten about us. It’s past 10 pm and the light is still on. What do you think is going on?” I asked my roommates.
“The light is switched on and off from the inside. There’s the switch, to the left of the door,” explained Bojan. “We do not mind. Go ahead, read your book.”
This was one substantial feature we could only dream about in the “C” block.
“No, I am tired. I’ll go to bed. It was quite a day.” I told them.
“Wait a second, there is plenty of time to sleep … Did you call home today?”
“No, I’ll call tomorrow.”
“It is the worst thing to change cells in this prison. They must have tried calling you on the phone down there, in C-14. It is important to give them a call. I am telling you for your own good, so that you do not spend time wondering about how they are.”
I started pressing down the buttons. 0-7-8 … The phone did not ring too long, once or twice.
“What took you so long? Ljubisha, the neighbor, called me a little while ago. He told me that you’ve been moved to another cell. Who have they placed you with? Is everything alright?”
“It’s fine, do not worry. All is OK. The cell is much bigger and far cleaner.”
“By the way, will you listen to what I have to say?” she asked.
“Please, please, do not start!” I retorted.
She begged me, she pleaded, she tried to get me to abandon my hunger strike, but I was resolute and would not back down. “There is no chance in hell I would go back on this decision,” I kept telling Marina. “Even if I come out of here alive. What the Court and the State Prosecution Office are doing is impermissible. People are locked up for months on end with no explanation. I will fight this fight for them as well as for myself. Let’s talk about everything else but this. Alright? Your attempts to sway me are in vain.”
I heard steps outside. The guards were out on their rounds.
“I have to go now. I’ll call tomorrow!” I spat out and clicked the red button. I tried falling asleep, to no avail. I kept tossing and turning. I stood up, came next to the window. For the first time since my incarceration, the sky seemed pretty. It looked like a carpet sewn with a thousand stars, one moon corner on the right-hand side. I looked towards it. For a moment, a light flickered. I wondered how my family was doing. What were they doing? Were they being taken care of? These were my constant concerns.
The first morning in the new cell: I slept through the roll-call. That had never happened before. They got me up when the guard called the time for our regular outside walk.
Here, the area designated for our walks was also different, cleaner for one. There was not a lot of grass around, but the yard resembled a Roman ruin. Here and there, one could find holes. Some seemed permanently excavated, others still awaited more treasure-troving.
Accompanied by a small plastic bottle, half-filled with water, I took my laps. I did not lag behind my roommates. I kept their pace. As if I were not on a hunger strike. No one observing me from above could tell that I had not eaten anything. I was satisfied knowing that my cellmates knew I had not eaten anything; I cared less what others might think.
Our ‘time in the sun’ ended. Bojan, Goran, Papa Dule, and Milisav, or as he was lovingly called Dzingo, were escorted back to our cell, while I was taken for a regular ‘check-up’.
The first thing they had me do was weigh myself. The doctor looked me in the eyes, checked the scale, pursed his lips, and turned his head around. He wrote down my weight on a piece of paper and then informed me that he would repeat the weighing. He was not certain of the scale’s accuracy. So, he asked me to weigh myself on the digital scale. Here, the same thing. 64 kg and 500 grams. 2.5 kilos less than yesterday.
“Incredible,” he murmured under his breath.
My blood pressure was a bit higher, whereas my heartbeat was within the normal values.
“Listen, you are playing with your health. This is no good. You gotta to eat. Otherwise, so that you know…”
“What should I know? What are you going to do?” I enquired.
He did not answer my questions. All he did was write things down in my medical chart.
“We are done. Take him away!” he informed the guards, with the following side remark: “Tomorrow, bring him in again, at the same time.”
When I had returned, the table was set for lunch. There was a tablecloth and five set places; Papa Dule had prepared a tomato salad.
“Come, all is ready. We’ve been waiting for you.”
“I will not be eating. Please understand. No matter what the outcome may bring, I am sticking to my word. I will not go back on my word.”
“This is no good, us eating while you watch from the sidelines. I’ve lost my appetite!”
“Papa Dule, have not worries. There is no need for you to feel embarrassed or inadequate.”
I saw that they had brought a copy of my daily newspaper. The folk at Nova Makedonija sent me a copy every day, but I would receive it from time to time only. Rarely like this, so early in the day. Mostly, it would arrive with a few days’ belatedness. Particularly if the edition had ‘a sensitive text’ about my ordeal. Those who were in charge of the day shift were good people and my intuition about them was not off. Despite the situation with the hunger strike, they had carried out their duty.
I read the article: “Yesterday, the journalist Tomislav Kezharovski, who has been placed in detainment for the past two months, went on a hunger strike. Appalled by the flagrant violation of basic human rights in the Shutka Prison, as well as the silence of the first instance court judge, who has yet to rule on the proposed motion to have Kezharovski released from custody, Kezharovski has decided to undergo such an act while waiting for more than a month on the judge’s decision about his plea to await trial for the ‘Likvidacija’ case at home…”
I felt shivers down my spine. I kept hearing loud water roaring inside my head. I felt things pulsating, everyone around. I kept pressing down my temples, thinking it would disappear. For a moment, my eyesight got blurry.
I kept reading. “Kezharovski is joined on his hunger strike by his wife, who announced her decision yesterday via the social networking sites, stating her commitment of solidarity with her husband. I stand with Tomche; I too am going on a hunger strike. I cannot bear to see him die in there, wrote Marina Kezharovska on her Facebook profile.”
A person’s family is the most precious thing. They love you even when you stumble and fall.
“I love you…” I muttered.
“Will they hear my whispers?” I thought to myself.
The text contained a statement by the Madam Warden.
“The detainee had notified the court via a letter that he would be refusing prison meals, while at the same time notifying the prison that he would also be refusing the food his family brings in. Kezharovski’s health is monitored by the prison physician on a daily basis, with his weight being monitored, so as to ascertain whether or not his general health is deteriorating. If his health state worsens, the doctor is obligated by law to notify the court, and with that for the detainee to be relocated to a hospital. The kind of treatment he would receive there depends entirely on the doctors.” I also noticed a reaction from the Initiative Board for the Release of Kezharovski. A joint statement by the Journalists’ Union (SSNM), the Association of Journalists (ZNM), and the Macedonian Media Institute (MIM), released to the public, stated that the Board was deeply concerned about the hunger strike notification and that they demanded my immediate release.
“We remind the public that the conditions set by the court have been fulfilled, since the witness examination in the case our colleague has been charged with has been finalized, and a property bond has also been placed to secure his release on bail. Kezharovski’s hunger strike, in his fragile physical and psychological state, must be perceived as alarming by the authorities, who have refused all requests made by the domestic and international media communities during the past two months. If the opposite occurs, then the responsibility for the journalist’s condition lies with the judicial and executive branches of government and all state institutions that have chosen to ignore this precedent in the history of Macedonian journalism,” read the joint statement of the Initiative Board.
I closed the paper and stood by the window. I looked through it, in fact through the bars that divided up the daylight into tiny little squares. I looked into the distance, somewhere over the horizon, pensive in thought. There I’d find my peace. Serenity is a beautiful thing. It opens you up, clears the mind, but most of all, it frees you from obsessing about other people. However, this did not mean an absence of sorrow and yearning.
The Moon had taken the Sun’s place. I observed the stars. They carried a differently hued silence than the one of my inner life. I felt as if I belonged to the starry skies. At night, I listened for their far away whispers as if the most resplendent of tones. There was an eruption of emotions and an avalanche of memories brewing inside, entwined with mistakes and ignorance. I felt disappointed for not being able to predict them, for not knowing their causes. Luck passed me by, I now strongly felt I belonged to someone else, foreign and unattainable.
Before falling asleep, I’d wish Marina and Stefanija good night, deep down in my thoughts. Knowing that there were two beautiful beings giving my existence its meaning made me stay persistent and committed to my cause. Without them, my life would be an emptiness amid the splendor of the universe.
I slowly opened up my eyes. Waking up had a weight in and of itself, a journey somewhere between light and dark. I felt as if coming from afar. I felt cold, alone, abandoned. My body felt uncomfortably heavy.
I had dreamt of a victory over evil. Confined to my world, deeply thrusted into the labyrinth of my thoughts, I tried to remain grounded and patiently await the moment this madness would come to an end. The dream made me reconsider, intuitively ask that I embrace hope over sorrow. I have to be persistent, I thought. I have to overcome all of life’s temptations and reach my goal. I must overcome. I must come out victorious. I have the right to be happy, I kept telling myself.
Life opened up a new positive perspective, advocating for optimism and hope against pessimism and despair.
With the morning came a new examination. Two additional kilos less. So far I had lost 6.5 kilograms. I kept losing my weight with unprecedented speed.
When I returned to my cell, my four roommates were lined by the door. They were ready for their walk.
“Do not get too comfortable. They are about to call our number.”
“Let me just get my bottle of water and we can go.”
The sun was blisteringly high. I do not know what the exact temperature was, but I could only guess that it was higher than usual. The blue sky above would now dictate my life’s rhythm. We did our laps. We walked the outside rim of the yard, passing by the high concrete walls that separated us from the other inmates, all the way through the cement path round the prison’s main building. I even ran a bit, to say in shape. To gather my strength. Nothing left the impression I had been starving myself. So, we walked around for about half and hour. And then we were back.
I spent my third day in a row glued to the windows. I kept looking into the distance. I had to get my soul aired out, so to speak, to have it freed from the confined reality of my present circumstances. And they seemed to pass me by, as if they had forgotten about me. My thoughts were doing somersaults. With roller-coaster speed, past scenes kept changing their place in front of my eyes, as if attached to moving mirrors. I kept seeing live images of past moments.
The A-1 cell thrilled me with its abundance of light and the collapse of pessimism accompanying it, interrupted from time to time by Goran-the cop whose bed was opposite mine, right next to the door. He remained an enigma. I saw myself trusting him and not trusting him. The man was protected as if an endangered species. I grew weary of his self-aggrandizement. His “me, me, me” statements. I listened with a grotesque grin. It felt as if the entire world was out to deceive me and not just him. He pictured himself a saint. At times, he resemble one. Other times, his honesty was tiresome so we paid it (and him) no attention. He kept bragging about being a police officer with clout, the reason why he was set-up. He kept shifting the blame to his boss. Apparently, his boss despised him for he was the superior of the two, the reason why, he said, he was now in “here”. He was the first one to share the reason for his incarceration.
Milisav was stationed between Goran and myself. He was sixty-seven years old. His origins were from Kratovo19, hence the nickname Dzingo20. He was unkempt looking, short in stature, bald, with a darker complexion and squinty eyes, partnered by bushy eyebrows. He decked a worn-out undershirt and pants from a by-gone era. He’d go to bed in them and then wear them throughout the day. Underneath his shirt, his belly’s contours resembled a sack of flour. He’d had a hard life. The lines on his face were sign enough. He told us that he used to drink a lot, that he was a card-holding alcoholic. He would down a bottle of rakija a day. His bohemian lifestyle had marked most of his existence, getting him to spend more time in kafanas than at home. “Let bygones be bygones,” he said. This was his third offence, on account of the same kind of violation, family violence. He told us that he had been married twice, that this was his second marriage. He had a daughter with his first wife, and a son with his second. Now, in his old age he felt alone and helpless, forgotten and rejected.
With Dzingo, I talked about everyday things. About the weather, the harvesting season, village life. When he would begin recounting a story, he got sort of mystically possessed, some would say even in love with the act of personal storytelling. There were not that many topics we could talk about. His intellectual curiosity wasn’t active.
Truth be told, when he was younger, Dzingo had trained as a builder, and in his words, perfected the skill to the point of surpassing his master. There was no one that equalled his skill in Kratovo and the Kratovo region. He had built a two-story house in the Skopje municipality of Drachevo, side by side with his brother’s place.
His was the example of how our impoverished circumstances would ignite our long-forgotten drive to survive and persevere. Since his arrest, he had received nothing from his family or anyone else. So, we looked after him. He was a quiet soul, the poor guy. His police file contained a lot of inconsistencies, perhaps even on purpose; it was hard to tell. I do not think whoever was in charge acted premeditatively.
“A-1” was really something else. Fun-filled grief. A mixture of paganism and Christianity, of Bacchanalia and penance. The portable radio – at times with Dule, other times with Bojan, quaintly placed on his bed – seemed governmentally issued. It worked non-stop, like a 7-11 drugstore. Three times a day we’d get the news. Otherwise, music, music, music. “Kanal 77”or “Zona Radio”21. Those were the only FM stations it would play.
Beneath the windows, however, it was trash central: plastic bottles, old torn newspapers in all colors and sizes, different packaging, nuts and walnut shells, apricot seeds. It was commonplace for some edgy guy, up there in the “isolation”wing, to throw garbage bags down the side of the building, in broad daylight. It spoke volumes about our mindset, mental hygiene, this utterly self-destructive habit we’ve been at for a while now. Left and right to our window, piles of trash, though the largest heap was right there under our window. I could not figure out why that was the case.
I quickly learnt that in “here”, trash had a whole other purpose to its being trash. At first, I found the explanation odd, but truth be told, it does hold water.
“I tell the cleaners not to take away all the trash. Just look what sorts of riches we have down there. When a guard walks by and steps on it, we’ll hear him, for our friend the trash will sound it off, and our phones will be safe.”
I looked to the heavens. The skies were paved with thousands of stars. Why do some people remain blind to the light and live trapped by ignorance? Why aren’t they open to change? Why do they keep hurting everyone in their midst? I kept thinking out loud, without feeling any shame about actually talking to myself. Wrapped in my thoughts, I did not notice Papa Dule next to me. He said that he too did not care for sleep. I realized that his intention was to help me feel comfortable in my own skin.
“For everything there is a season. A time to get born, a time to fall in love, a time to exult, a time to suffer. Your time is now and it is fierce. All that is happening, now, will pass. Must pass.” – he tells me.
Papa Dule was an honorable, kind, and modest old man with so much history. He came from Kumanovo. He had heart problems and chronic respiratory infections. But he was quite the aficionado, of all sorts, really. His stare was full of feistiness, standing up to his numerical years. He was accused of misusing his work privileges, at a time when he was actually retired. Odd, right? But we live in a place where the wonderous has been rendered possible. Real. So, there was that. Papa Dule was a romantic soul, vital for his age. He did not ask to change beds; though assigned a top bunk, he did not complain about having to go up and down a dozen of times a day. He tried to get me mind off of bad thoughts, giving me hope that I too had a future. We’d often speak about the different celebrated centuries in our people’s history.
His aversion to religion resembled Lucretius’s. His feelings for it were not the result of a commonplace mental health ailment, but rather a great moral ilk. Namely, he viewed religion as morality’s greatest foe. First of all, he felt that it helped create perverted values, since religious creed, sentiments, and ceremonies were not there to benefit mankind; secondly, he saw religious adherence to said traditions a replacement filler for real, true goodness. But most of all, he blamed organized religion for the radical twisting of moral standards, namely reducing morality to the will of one being, who flatters with all sorts of bashful words of praise, while at the same time, when truth calls for it, resorts to unparalleled hatred.
“You’ve got to realize that you live in Macedonia and that you have to take better care of yourself and your family. I do believe you’d like a normal life, right?” he chided me while pensively looking into the distance.
“Isn’t it a journalist’s imperative to locate information that are in the public’s best interest and then get them published? Aren’t journalists synonymous with social justice, true values, the fierce pursuit of the truth? Is it possible that most people are just not that interested in thinking things through before reaching a conclusion that isn’t provisional?” I ask him.
“The strength of argumentation isn’t enough to convince those removed from reality, for they hold onto their convoluted stories so tightly that nothing or no one can get them to see past all the smokescreens and wake up. There are those who will hate you, talk behind your back, smear your name all over the papers. You have to stay strong, rise above it, and not succumb to their will. Nothing else should matter apart from the fact that you acted responsibly and professionally. And then all else will fall in its place. Your colleagues, and the “other”ones, the ones I am talking about, they all will realize that they’ve been wrong about you, you’ll see. Remember, life is one prolonged state of suffering, and surviving is about uncovering the meaning of that suffering. The fight is lost only when you give up.”
“This last bit I’ll certainly remember,” I tell him.
“They will win only when I decide to forfeit,” was the sentence I went to bed with, and the one I thought of when getting up in the morning.
I had my fourth check-up at the prison’s hospital. I had lost 1 kilo from the day before.
“Well, this is getting rather serious. So, you have not eaten anything from Monday onwards?”asked the doctor.
“Nothing, except drinking water from time to time.”
“And how long do you plan to keep this up? Are you aware of the consequences?” he asked while writing things down in my chart, without lifting his head or looking at me.
“I do not know and do not care. I am doing this for everyone else in here and not just myself.”
He stopped writing, placed his pen down, and rested his head on his hand. Briefly, he commanded, “Take him away!”
This day was also getting under its usual self. While my roommates ate, I either stood by the window or read a paper or a book. I used the time we were assigned for walks as my chance to “recharge my batteries”. I stared at the sun, taking it all in. Nothing seemed unusual till the afternoon. When, around 4 pm, the door opened and a guard appeared.
“Kezharovski, get ready. You have a visitor!”
“A visitor? Today, on a Thursday? There are no visits allowed today. Where are you taking me?” I asked.
“Come on, do not ask me anything. I do not know. You understand, right? I have no clue. I was told to take you to the visitation room and that was it.”
“Alright. Give me a minute.” I put on a different shirt and followed. I knew the way. We passed by the on duty guard’s post, then the metal detector, through the front gate, past the courtyard, so as to reach the assigned visitation area. I was accompanied by two guards at all times. And then I saw Marina. I was dumbfounded. What was this? Where did this come from? How was this possible? All sorts of thoughts passed through my head. Perhaps something has happened? Someone was hurt? Who? My mind was reeling.
I sat down, she was seated opposite me. I was in one room, she in the adjacent one, separated by a thick layer of plexiglass. We used the speaking holes to touch, for a minute or two, by the tips of our index fingers. I looked into her eyes, feeling happy, shy, scared, confused, all the once.
My chest ached. I could barely speak: “Is everyone at home alright? Are you alright?”
“We are fine, all is fine. Do not worry. The court granted me the permission for this visit. Your colleagues insisted that I come and see you. They held a protest today in front of the Palace of Justice on your behalf. There were lots of people.” Marina spoke.
“I have no information. I did not listen to the news. How are they?”
“Listen to me carefully. I am here to tell you something rather important. Your colleagues asked me to let you know that they love you very much. That they miss you incredibly. That they need you. They need you, we need you at home. So, please end your strike. I beg of you. For my sake. For Stefi’s sake. If you love me, you will end it. We cannot bear to lose you. Everything will work itself out, you’ll see!”
Her precious words nursed my soul.
“I am so proud of the way you’ve managed to carry yourself in this difficult situation.”
Sometimes, tears are essential. Only they can water the silence of grief. No one likes to cry, and yet…
“Please do not do this to me,” I kept repeating. “You know that I’ll do anything for you and Stefi. You know that, right?”
“If that is so, you must start eating tomorrow. Now, I have to go, for they are waiting for me. I will tell them that you are ending your hunger strike.”
I was left with no choice, though none of it was really my choice. I was caught in an impasse. “OK”, I muttered and shrugged my shoulders. There was nothing else left to do. I got up and we said our goodbyes, aided by the tips of our fingers. “Look after Stefi. Look after yourself. Give everyone my best wishes,” I said and left.
I believe that the people in my cell were also relieved when I informed them that I would be ending my hunger strike the following day.
Behind the fence I cannot see a thing, except for a large and mysterious darkness, with a full moon hanging low at its center. My life, I thought, is built on top of quicksand. Each day, it gets moved further and further down. I felt that my inner self was falling apart, coming to a shattering end. In the far distance, in its thick, almost impenetrable inner side, I could spot some distant lights, out of focus, unclear. They flickered and then exuded some kind of sparkes. It looked like a new state of being, one that I had never before seen. Out there, to their right, was Lisiche, our neighborhood and our home. I wished I were a bird soaring high, so that I could fly over my street. The love I had for Marina and Stefanija was my guiding light in the space I was granted movement through.
It was Friday, July 23rd. That morning I got up before everyone else. Dzingo snored like a sinus-riddled bear, while Bojan and Goran were not that loud. I stood by the window listening to the birds slowly rise. I blinked due to the light coming through the bars. I looked at the trees bend as if made of wire. Somewhere on the horizon, a plane soared through. It left its mark on the dark sky.
The others were getting up, due to the morning roll-call. They read all of our names, marked down our presence, and left. Then came breakfast. We took it. Not that we’d eat it, for it was not much of a breakfast. That day the menu said two eggs each. We needed fresh bread. It was one of our hiding places for the phones.
As a rule, Fridays were about movement. The day was dedicated to Madam Warden. It was the day when she made her rounds, accompanied by a judge from the Skopje or Kumanovo courts. That was the main reason why they did not let us sleep longer. We had to be up and about by 7 am.
Around 10 am, the entourage of the prison’s First Lady reached our cell too. There were more than the customary number of devotees. The group was even joined by the Deputy Warden. The door was opened by the on duty guard, immediately stepping to the side.
“First, we’ll deal with Kezharovski, and then we’ll see what else needs our attention,” I recognized her squally voice. “Come over here, you need to sign this,” she added.
“Why am I being summoned?” I enquired.
“Come on now, do not play dumb. No need for a performance, see all is now taken care of.”
“Sign here and here,” the guard holding the big ledger instructed.
“This is for you,” she said as she handed me the papers containing my accusation and the summons for my first trial date.
The document containing the names of eight people – Ile Tanev, Sabedin Hofman, Valentin Zafirov, Ivica Efremov, Borche Nikolovski, Sashko Lazarov, Jane Pavlovski and myself – was signed by the State Prosecutor Lile Stefanova, detailing our crimes on twenty-one pages. I started reading it immediately.
I read: “The accused Tomislav Kezharovski is charged with one criminal act – unlawful sharing of information and data on witnesses, justice collaborators, victims acting in the capacity of witnesses, and their close kin, as provisioned by Act 42 Section 1 of the Law for Witness Protection …”
Further down, an explanation was provided: “From the testimony of the witness Kiril Sokolov, and by examining the magazine Reporter 92, it has been affirmed that Tomislav Kezharovski had unlawfully named the true identity of the person under the pseudonym “Breza”, a protected witness in the Case KI No. 288/08, thus violating the Criminal Acts Law. After being provided with a copy of the transcript from the protected witness’s hearing, even though in accordance with Act 270-b Section 5 from the Criminal Acts Law, he was obligated to treat the witness’s personal data as classified information …”
That was the only reference made to my name. Even this was obsolete. But let them have it their way. I left the papers containing the accusation on my bed. Try now believing in something good, pure, untainted, ideal. They will immediately violate your faith. They will desecrate all that you hold dear, strip you off the last shred of love, since they fear their own incompetence. They push you to the bottom, into the rot, as if you pose a threat. All of this wastefulness, and for what, nothing. It is useless trying to change things for the better. They despise law and order. They relish and thrive chaos. So that no one can tell right from wrong.
“Can I see what they’ve cooked up for you in the accusation?
“Sure, go ahead. It’s right there on the bed.”
Bojan was thrillingly blinking his eyes while reading the reports from the First Instance judge and the accusation, then he exhaled and looked at me smilingly. A sign of curiosity or perhaps I was imagining things.
“ … which could pose a threat to his life, health, freedom and physical integrity” he wrapped up, rising from his chair as if not believing what he was reading.
“And the witness, though a protected one, was not being protected by anyone.”
“Imagine that” I say.
Bojan came from Veles. He was wiry and painstakingly mistrustful. Non-stop wrapped in his thoughts. Nothing could slip past him. He would not miss any tiny thing. Did not speak much, or open himself up to the rest. I had the privilege to hear about some of the activities he was involved in before getting here. He said that he would tell me his life’s story. I like grand narratives, though they carry a sizable risk in every sense of the world. They are in fact life-threatening. And something told me his was no different. I believe I can write a novel about all the men in here, one that could help us all – inside and outside – come to certain realizations. We’ll see.
Interestingly enough he did not look like a man Interpol had chased for years, one they referred to as the “Conductor”. He did not seem that “musical”.
I have relatives from Veles, who’ve been native to the region for several generations back, so Bojan started calling me “Cousin”.
“By the way Cousin, for the hunger strike move, hats down. That was one ballsy call. If not, your papers would have arrived after the New Year’s. You’d have been confined to these cells for a year, a year and a half. See, there is a way to speed up their process. Bravo!”
“I knew how they operated, how slow they were, how little work they did, but this was something else…I’ve seen people who’ve been in here, rotting slowly away, for months and years at a time, waiting for the inquiry to be completed, for the charges to be drawn, for the trial dates to be set. It is truly appalling!”
“Yes, Cousin, that is true, but who is there to do the fixing?”
“Nothing lasts forever. Justice has its way. They too will feel pain. It will happen. There are so many candidates for justice’s sweeping stride. All of them, together with the profiteers of the people’s financial misery, heads bowed, will meet their fate, sooner or later. Their true fate. Soon. The ones ordering for the trees to be cut down so that space can be made for more ungodly buildings and parking spaces, the regime’s “artists”, the so-called restoration architects and builders, all those executions with silver gloves – they will be free to create their “Association of Prosecutors”, “Court Council”, even “Chamber of Commerce”.
The conversation was interrupted by a female voice coming from A-2, the cell next to ours.
“They are calling for you,” I say.
“Yes. That is Irena. Let me see what she wants.”
Our female neighbours – Biljana, Irena, Marija, and Zumreta. Skopje-born Biljana and Marija were here because of fraud: Biljana’s was over real estate, while the “Officer” Marija’s due to false employment. I was familiar with their cases. Before I was arrested, the papers followed their cases meticulously. Zumerta was from Mavrovo and charged with larceny, while Irena’s case was tied to an investigation for second degree murder. She was born in Delchevo22, and had lived in Kichevo23. Her case was exceptionally difficult, heart-breaking. She said that she had been breastfeeding her daughter, only a few weeks old, and that she had fallen asleep, thus suffocating the baby with her breast. She was on her own. No one came to visit her. She had a sick father, her mother had passed a while back, and her sister was too busy to come and see her. Her husband, she said she had given up on a long time ago. So, no one send her anything. I admired her courage to keep going.
The fifth roommate was Vesna. She arrived in early August. She was the Executive Manager of a state-owned company. A major theft was reported, so they rounded up everyone. From desk clerks to department heads to managers. To spice things up, so to speak. She was not very sociable. She did not often come to the window to seek the company of others.
Time passed. Days melted away. Out of reach, one after the other. And my time in custody was not getting reduced. Night and day took each other’s places. Black and white. Tears and laughter. Things added up, like charms on a necklace. My sorrow and yearning for Marina and Stefanija had ashen my expression. I loved them unconditionally, sincerely.
That morning nothing seemed out of the ordinary. They brought us breakfast, we carried out the trash bin, and the time for roll-call rolled in. First came the Deputy Chief of the day shift, followed by the guard in charge of our wing who happened to be holding a copy of Nova Makedonija. Like I said, nothing unusual. They read Papa Dule’s name, he said “Present”, then called Goran, who also said “Present”, then Milisav, then Bojan, then me, all in the order of our arrival to the cell. When the morning proceedings were over, the guard standing a few feet away, threw the paper in my direction and said, with great unwillingness, “This is for you!”
Two things were unclear. Firstly, the one who handed me the paper, had never before addressed me in this way, and secondly, this was the first time I had received the paper intact, namely, in its original packaging, rolled up and with a plastic wrap in the middle.
My eyes were heavy, lacking sleep. The night before Bojan and I stayed up late playing dominos. It was almost 4 am before we turned in. So, I left the paper on the table and went back to bed to get some sleep. I tried to position myself in such a way so as to elude the sunlight.
“Tomche, there is something in here for you!” I heard Dule say.
When I got up, I saw him holding a piece of paper. I took it. I tried ironing it out with my hands, as it was folded several times over, and started reading it. The first thing I noticed was Stefi’s handwriting.
“Daddy!” I read and cried. My heart started beating faster than ever before. I felt warmth in my chest, followed by a sound. I tried holding it in, to no avail. Something between a sign and a scream. I started weeping, my entire body shaking so profusely I could not breathe. I’d shuttered into a million pieces.
“You are my hero. You are our hero, so that you know. Do not let them do what they have planned to do. We will all be together again, now stronger than ever. And hey, be sure they will be ashamed by what they’ve done to us …”
I read and wept. As if a first-grader, I divided the words into syllables. I do not know why, but I felt my world being torn down. My grief exploded like a granade inside my chest.
“Daddy, give time its time. You’ll see, it will all work out …
Love you, Stefi
P.S. See you soon!”
And, that “soon” referred to the first day of the trial. August 9th.
I placed the letter down, not knowing how or who by Stefanija managed to have it delivered. Curled up in a fetal position, I squeezed the pillow round my head, with both arms, whimpering as a small child, allowing for small wimpy inhales followed by long and loud tear-soaked exhales. Over and over again. My chest burnt, my heart exploded. All you could hear was the water running in the toilet stall and my crying. My head would burst with anguishing pain. I felt as if someone was knocking all over my skull. My grief worked itself into my sleep and dreams. I walked quietly and carefully through my life’s new challenges.
I spent the night before my trial date awake. I could not sleep, at all. I kept going back to flickers of memories and feelings that had remained inside me. I pounded the wall, sending accords through the soft night air. The nightly radio program was the only relaxation for my mind. I stood anchored by the window, watching the sun come out. I felt the dry and dusty air current. Once my eyes got used to the light and my gaze was sharpened, I was immensely surprised by what was in front of me that I got stunned. I saw a huge owl. In the ancient world, owls were seen as symbols of protection, and as such were thought of possessing the ability to sense danger from afar. The Roman army used it as part of their insignia. An image of an own can be found on ancient Greek coins.
What would an owl bring me? Luck?! Who could tell. We’ll see, I guess. Seconds felt like minutes, minutes like endless hours, while hours resembled days and months. The beginning of my trial was set for 10 am. At 8 am, I was ready to leave. I remember vividly that it was eight. The news on the radio had just started. I kept waiting. The door opened, I rose instantly. A mistake. It wasn’t time yet. Not for me at least. They had started doling out the daily medical therapy. For awhile after that, I kept waiting to hear someone turn the key on the outside. And then it came – key in keyhole, pop, the door handle opening. Yes, that was it.
“Kezharovski, are you ready?”
“Yes, I am ready.”
I straightened my hair, looked myself over, and stepped out. My heart was beating like a Swiss Doxa. In the room next to the on duty guard’s office, I saw Ile Tanev and Sashko Lazarov. I had arrived third, after the two of them. After me, they had brought in Ivica Efremov, then Jane Pavlovski, Sabedin Hofman, and in the end, Valentin Zafirov. That amounted to seven. Borche Nikolovski was brought to the court by a police escort from his home. We walked in a line, with a guard each by our side. There were sitting assignments, who was to go in which vehicle. And then, we were off.
When we got near the Court, my insides tightened. I had the feeling as if some cold liquid was sliding down my head, neck and body, all the way to my feet. My answers would determine my own fate, but also that of others.
At the back parking lot, behind the Court’s main building, the convoy with the three vehicles stopped. Around twenty cameramen and as many as that photojournalists were recording our arrival. No wonder, for I was the only journalist in Europe to be on trial for a text written five years prior, while being charged as part of a group for a crime that does not exist in the Criminal Law.
The door of the van opened. The first one out was Valentin Zafirov, I followed. He stopped to greet his son, while I tried to locate my family. All of a sudden, about five meters away, I saw Stefanija. At that point, I had not seen her for 72 days. The last time I saw her was May 28th, the day I was arrested. She looked grown up. A real grown-up girl. Her hair was tied in a ponytail. She wore a gray shirt with some sort of an orange colored application and white capri pants.
“Daaady!” she yelled and ran in my direction. I will never forget this scene, as long as I live, and even after that.
I wanted to hug her, say a proper hello, but the guard did not allow me. He pushed her aside, grabbed me by the hand, and led me in the Court’s direction. I turned around, seeing her one more time. There were several people around her, trying to comfort her. This, I was sure, was a part of their game. Not to allow me any kind of contact with Stefanija. I knew I would see Marina, she would be there for the trial, but Stefanija would not be let in. As a minor, she wasn’t given access. Those were the rules.
“Damn you!!! Is this right? Damn you!!!” I walked towards the courtroom, yelling my guts out.
“It’s not up to me, so that you know” – the guard was trying to justify his actions. I was silent. I suppose he read my silence and its purpose, loud and clear. I could hear the others taking to him, imploring him. Even some of his colleagues.
The first judge was Dijana Gruevska Ilievska, a contrast to aristocratic elegance; she commenced the proceedings at 10 am. She asked for silence and opened the hearing. Without any ceremonial introductions, she put papers in front of her and started reading out loud. She announced the members of the Council.
“The second judge is Gjoko Ristov, and the jurors are: Marina Nasteska, Violeta Gjorgjievska, and Ljubica Hristovska.”
Then she turned to the court stenographer, stating:
“Present in the court are the State Prosecutor Lile Stefanova and the accused Ile Tanev, Sabedin Hofman, Valentin Zafirov, Tomislav Kezharovski, Ivica Efremov, Boris Nikolovski, Sashko Lazarov, and Jane Pavlovski, and their attorneys …”
For a moment, the judge turned and ordered the member of the court security to let our relatives in the courtroom first, and then the journalists who possessed updated licences for following the trial. The photojournalists and cameramen were allowed in for only five minutes.
I turned around. The courtroom was packed. I spotted Marina. She sat in the second row.
I saw Ljubisha from Utrinski vesnik^24^, Daniela from Dnevnik^25^, Ogi from Vecher^26^, Goran from Sloboden pechat^27^, Maja and Elena from “Kanal 5”28, Kristina from Nova Makedonija, the younger Kristina from “Sitel”29, Anita from MTV30, Dejan from “Telma”31, Mihajlo from “24 Vesti”32. There were also colleagues from the Albanian media, from Lajm and Koha. I knew them in passing. There were a lot of reporters.
Journalism had infected my bloodstream. It is my poison. I missed writing. I missed my colleagues.
The trial was followed by members of several foreign embassies based in Skopje, the OSCE Mission, the office of the European Union, the Macedonian Journalists’ Association, and the Trade Union.
The first one to speak in his defense was Ile Tanev. While he spoke, the rest of us were led outside the courtroom. After him, they called in Sabedin Hofman, then Valentin Zafirov. I was called fourth. I stood by the podium and started speaking:
“I am sticking to my defense, as given in the investigative enquiry stage, in front of a First Instance judge, on May 28th, 2013. I am sticking by what I said then, in the five minutes I had spent with the judge.
I said it then and I am saying it now, the articles I’ve been charged over are nothing more than publically spoken words. I acted in accordance with my professional duty and made the information about the false witness available to the public.
Never had I thought, including the case in question, of doing anything to harm another person, out of malice or spite. I’ve always approached my work, in all of my articles including these two, with the maxim of sticking to the case at hand and nothing more. The charges that I published the name of the witness Zlatko Arsovski, who was then called into questioning under the pseudonym Breza, with the intention of boosting up circulation sales, and with that, allegedly, getting Arsovski’s life threatened by some to have his testimony changed about the accused in the murder in the village of Oreshe, are unfounded. I had only articulated, clearly, the opinion that members of the Ministry of the Interior are conducting a malicious and ill-intended prosecution against me.
The criminal charges and the accusation, Your Honors, propagate nothing more than all different kinds of legal perversions. It all comes down to an openly offensive story that has ruined my family’s peace and serenity, concocted by people with dark minds. Such an esoteric accusation – that I had put someone’s life in jeopardy – no one with a sound mind can either comprehend or accept. One does not need to be a lawyer to put their common sense to work and see the absurdity of the accusation against me.
The case “Likvidacija” probably speaks the most about the State Prosecution Office and the Police as the key institutions of our time. I’ve experienced the capriciousness of the legal system. I was only doing my job as a journalist. And now I am being treated as a criminal. As if I am public enemy number one. Someone is purposefully trying to criminalize my personhood. The entire scenario is so transparent, and from what I’ve been given access to read in the daily publications, did not sit well with the public. The culprits and their hired hands should know that lies are bad, while the truth is kind and merciful, and so much better than aggression. My sensationalist arrest had managed to invade the small remaining free media space in our country, and with that, the space dedicated to the pursuit of the truth. In a spiritual sense, I am being honest and frank and true to the words of the scriptures and our maker, with the same resolute that Muslims have when following the words of the Koran. Thus, I swear that I have not organized a conspiracy, have not put someone’s life, health, freedom, physical integrity or property in danger. The mistake was made a long time before I published the articles. In terms of the phone number, I’d like to point out that it is not my mistake it was referenced in the transcript; secondly, I suspect the error was the witness’s own, so I recommend that the SIM cards of each are investigated. As far as my memory serves me, in the first text published on November 20th, 2008, the phone number was kept hidden. In the second one, published on December 4th, I also believe that I had kept it hidden; I say that I believe this to be true, since Your Honors, it’s been more than five years. The way some are trying to frame me seems most inappropriate.
Your Honorable Court, I will characterize the detainment punishment as a sentence in its own right. The arguments listed in the decree are fictionalized, not at all characteristic of my personality. My time in custody has become a correctional punishment instead of a preventive measure that now sends certain signals to anyone questioning the way our state institutions operate. The findings that I’ve been unavailable to even my friends, that I had often changed phone numbers and places of employment, which in turn justified the fear that I might run away or hide from the authorities, do not hold water and are quite fanciful. How else can I interpret the explanation when even the police inspectors and the Prosecutor would call me on the phone to schedule a meeting. And the meetings that took place in the Police Station Kisela Voda and the State Attorney Office – far from pleasant – that I hope to speak candidly about during this trial, played a dual role, cunning yet simple, as I was offered an olive branch, while being struck by lightning. As a reminder: in our country, the legislative branch of government recommends that a detainment order be reduced to the shortest time possible.
The statements that had recently arrived from the Court, and were published in the newspapers, about how everyone is the same in the eyes of the Law and that Kezharovski is no different than the rest, and how some of the Members of the Macedonian Parliament did not want to or try to interfere with the Court’s decisions or proceedings no matter who was involved, are so far removed from the truth and our reality, existing only as a smoke screen. Do these “moralists” know about the case involving a civil servant who only after spending four days in custody was allowed to return home due to an earache, not to mention that this case involves a murder charge and a conflict of interests between an attorney and a member of the Criminal Council in charge of the detainment. Hence, there are moments when I ask myself if I should have grabbed a knife or a gun instead of a pen so as to smite down those standing in my way or shoot down those giving me a bad look. Or perhaps I should have decimated the national budget, as was the case with Pasko Kuzman, the Director of the Cultural Heritage Protection Office. For I believe these actions would be so much more lucrative than unearthing any police wrongdoings. If you’d permit me, I’ll like to mention something interesting. The organized action to arrest those suspected of the illegal sales of livestock, which took place a month ago, has been labeled “Milka”. The one involving the arrest of pay-toll employees was called “Snake Eye”. There were also “Kaldrma”33, “Phalanx”, even “Metastasis”, “Ariel”, and “Monstrum”34. All those names hold symbolic value, but for the life of me I cannot understand what in fact has led to our case being named “Likvidacija”. Were there any people murdered? Was there a plan to annihilate lives?
I am not a notorious crime lord, but rather a journalist whose principal duty is to inform the public and seek out the truth. Nothing more. Whoever you ask, anyone from my colleagues – present and past – will let you know that I am fully devoted to my profession. The “Oreshe” case was meant to disclose all of the rottenness of the state institutions. I had not threatened anyone; I do not blackmail people; I do not employ violence as a form of communication. My intent was – I’ve clearly failed – to clear the trash littered by decades of criminal activities at the hands of the police and the judiciary system.
Aiming a gun at my daughter and family, something we will spend more than a lifetime working through, is a message pointed at anyone who wishes to express their critical thinking skills when evaluating social events and occurrences that deal with crime, corruption, and a vast misuse of power.
Many journalists will not dare report on facts unfolding in front of them, whilst the critics would need private security to feel safe.
Therefore, I deem the criminal charges and accusation over a text published more than five years ago unacceptable and unnecessary, namely a certain demonstration of hypocrisy and excessive force.
I am deeply convinced that this trial will ascertain the entire truth about who, how, to what extent, and most importantly, why, intentionally or not, erred, namely that someone will actually think things through, and see this charge for what it is.
I am certain that today I am the master of my own fate, that I’ve been tasked with proving my innocence, something not entirely out of my reach, and that pain and sorrow are also not outside the limits of my own strength to persevere.
As long as I believe in my own ideals and have my boundless will to win, then victory will not remain out of my reach. I am determined to see this thing through so that I can prove that truth is on my side.
The trial went into the late afternoon. We were taken back to Shutka at around 7 pm. The horizon was full of big sprawling clouds. All covered by grayness. Hot and humid. At times interrupted by short-lived breezes. I went to bed. I needed some peace. I left my questions and their answers for some other time, when my soul would feel lighter, when it would feel whole again. My perception of the world was becoming askew. Amid all of its goodness lay such powerful evil.
After the first day of the trial, things ran a different course. It all played out differently. Something else entirely.
The following day, the man who pushed Stefanija and did not allow us to greet one another had not shown up for work. Unexpectedly, he had taken sick leave.
“Cunt. Dooshebag. Louse of a man. Scum, mother fuking scum,” mounted his colleague in response to my inquiry about his whereabouts. Did not wish to mention his name.
He was taking behind my back as he was taking us out to the yard. He did this so as to avoid the cameras through the hallway we passed on our way to.
“I saw on TV what he did to you. It’s all for show, sucking up to the Warden.” Many were loyal to her out of personal interest and not personal conviction. Interest relies on something Plato referred to as the lowest (appetitive) level of the soul, or as we say popularly, a petty soul.
“He’s a big boy, he should know what he should and should not do.”
“He’s a big boy for sure, if age is just a number, but his brains are tiny. Anyway, do not quit now. You must survive this. As a man. You opened our eyes man, for many of us in here, so that you know.”
“They’ll beat me when I decide to lose. Only then. I am strong to carry on”.
“So now, get to walking,” smiled the guard, a full-toothed smile, and locked the door behind me. We are locked up when in our cell, but we are also locked away when out in the yard.
The world of the living contains enough miracles and mysteries that affect our emotions and intelligence in so many inexplicable ways, which would be enough to justify the meaning of life as a state of enchantment.
I cannot see what free men see, but I can hear the leaves rustling even with the slightest of breezes; I can hear the bugs buzzing and talking to each other. Yes, I saw what I would otherwise not be able to see.
So, we walked our usual route around the path. Dule, Milisav, and Goran, in the front, Bojan and myself, in the back.
“Listen Cousin. This cop wants to buy a phone. He says he’s willing to pay as much as it takes. So, he’s not bargaining for a price. He needs one, yes? It was apparently lumber season, he has a storage space. Had to contact his people. We’ll find him one, right?” Bojan tells me.
“I’ll ask tonight and we’ll let him know. I think it is around 250 Euros a piece, but let’s just wait and see. We can get one from a contact. One hundred percent solid.” “If we can get him a phone, he’ll let us have this one. He empties the battery all the time. We keep charging it non-stop. Luckily, it is new so it can take it. I just don’t know till when. Papa Dule and Milisav do not need to use the phone that much, as you know. So practically this one we have will remain ours.”
“Alright,” I say.
When you add and subtract all that there is, you are left with one giant nothing.
I was so tired. I had not fully recovered. I started falling behind my roommates. The assigned forty minutes went by quickly. Unnoticably. And I could hardly wait to hit the sack.
That evening I started my search for a phone. I rang Mirko up. He said he had nothing “in storage”. He had sold the last one. “Ask Stevo, perhaps he has something spare.”
“Yes, I have one in shipshape form. With a new battery. It has wifi. 250 Euros. That is the final price.”
“Alright. I will give you an answer tomorrow through the hole. Just so that you know, it’s an emergency”, I said and pushed the red button to cut the line of conversation.
What followed was a correspondence between Stevo and myself. I gave him a cigarette carton, he gave me chocolate. Messages were like Biblical code, fragments from an ancient map, unrelated words written out with grammatical irregularity, as if graffiti. They were full of signs, commas, and encircled letters. When you’d take a look at the text, it resembled something a monk would write if bored. Something possibly concocted by dimwits if given access to a typing machine. With two exchanges, we settled on a deal.
The money would be paid to Stevo’s cousin’s bank account, and the phone would be delivered over the wall.
The cop did not wish to be involved with the delivery, so asked the Bojan and I take care of it all.
“I suppose you know that there are rules here, and one of them says that once the “piece” passes over the wall, the job is considered done. What if something goes wrong? We’ll get burnt for 250 Euros.”
“I’ll pay for it, and you take it. I do not want the phone to be accidentally caught in my possession.”
“Alright. But please, stick to the plan, so that there are no complaints later.”
“Yes, I promise. No worries.”
That night we sat with Bojan on top of his bunk, improvising the variations of some famous folk refrains, playing tablanet^35^, and devising a plan.
“We cannot make a mistake. Any kind of a mistake would cost us dearly. OK, let’s leave this for later. It’s late. Good night.”
He threw his cigarette through the window and went to sleep. In about two minutes, he was sound asleep. In about three – already snoring.
In the morning, the money was paid into the bank account and we were give a go. When we got out for our walk, we all took our positions. We were waiting for the signal so that the phone would make its way over the wall. The guard watchpost was manned by a rookie. The boy kept moving his head left and right, not stopping for a minute, as if recovering from a hit. For a moment, he resembled a child hypnotized by a new toy. We did not know how to handle him, so we cancelled the drop. I sent word out to the Kumanovo guy on the top floor who was in charge of coordinating the drop that he should abort his post. We had decided to postpone it for another day.
The following day things ran differently. Another guard, another tune. This one was a “winning combination”.
We did laps, afraid to draw any attention to our plan. At the given signal, the game was afoot. It was decided that a group in our yard, doing their daily walk, would create a distraction – two or three inmates pushing each other around – while someone at the adjacent yard would start yelling at the guard, asking for nail-clippers. That was all that it took for the phone placed in a cigarette box to land in our section of the yard. One more problem remained: we had to figure out a way to smuggle it into our cell. From time to time, the guards would decide to use a metal detector and have us undergo a search before we could return to our cells. Not often, but it was known to happen. “What if it happens now,” I thought at the time. No, no, no, it cannot be. We had to prevail. And we did.
I tried to keep my cool. I held “the cigarette box” in my hand, while wearing a T-shirt with the same brand printed up front, doing laps. That day they had decided not to do an additional search. They were not suspecting anything, so no reason for the additional work.
Hours went by. Days changed places.
I was glued to the window. It was my favorite hangout. It was here that we liked to kill our boredom. Sometimes we leaned on it, betting each other if it would rain. Just because. We could never tell if the clouds coming from the direction of the Skopje Downtown area carried any rain. I’d win some, I’d lose some.
The moon was no longer a perfect sphere; there were stars spread throughout the heavens. I could spot from my window post the Morning Star. I would observe the glorious summer dusk and rejoiced in its miraculous splendor. I’d catch a glimpse of myself studying the linden and poplar trees in the yard near the fence. The call of the unknown tendered my soul. I was searching for Marina and Stefanija, I was searching for my relatives and friends, I was searching for my colleagues … They are all out there, but for now I could only spot them as shadows in the dark. They would appear and then disappear. They were out of my reach, as specters. I felt emptied and alone.
“Panta rei” I thought to myself. Things come and go. Only history remains, the living testimony to a time.
I did not notice when Papa Dule got next to me.
“Why so reflective?”
“I don’t know. Just so. All sorts of thoughts pass through my head. What will I tell people afterwards? That I had served time?”
Papa Dule carried with him divine wisdom.
“The eyes are the window to the soul. A man’s eyes mirror his inner world – his struggles, sorrow, happiness or worries. So never fear other men’s glances, never fear looking other men in the eye. You are the architect of your destiny, for the intention to make people happy, give them peace and serenity, takes its toll. Man’s true value is not measured in kilos or grams. But rather, through his sincere efforts to reach the truth. Possessing the truth does not expand man’s powers or perfection, but rather his search for the truth. Possession makes man passive, indolent, and proud.”
“I find comfort in the realization that I did a good job, that what I do is right and that my readers trust me. Perhaps I’m lucky to have been imprisoned thusly, for I’ve found an unprecedented serenity in here. My soul is resting. It is being purged of sin and foul thoughts.”
“Boy, you need to understand their goal: public lynching. This is the kind of system that protects the obedient, the violent, the hooligans, the suck-ups, the Janissaries36. The greatest virtue would be never to let yourself fall, but rise up when being pushed down. And one more thing. Do not wipe your tears away; wipe out the ones causing the tears. For no regime is stronger than a resolute man speaking the truth.”
“It is painful when the other person threatens your life while having a tête-à-tête, telling you that you will rot in prison, that your family will break apart. I was truly annoyed by the accusations that I was on the take. I kept listening to the threats not being able to do anything about them. I swear to you that I’ve never been vindictive, or tried to smear anyone’s good name. Liking someone is one thing; revealing to the public about their corruptive ways is a whole other thing. I’ve been put the ringer, always maintaining my dignity. And now, my life is ruined since I did not have a big shot might politician in my pocket to back up my cause.”
“Heroes belong in mythology!” concluded Papa Dule, louder than he’d anticipated. “This is the real world, and you keep talking about heroes.”
“But my work does not consist of myths or heroes, rather of the law and of justice. This case and the one I am really on trial for – involving my research into the car accident that claimed the life of my colleague Nikola Mladenov, are far from ordinary. Who is there to hear me out that I do my work because I love my work. I’ve often thought how some of my colleagues miss out on the relevant aspects of my case and focus on their own petty interests.”
“Remember, we all set our life’s trajectory. Now, go to bed.” Strong summer rain founds its way into the room through the bars on the window. I love August thundering storms. One more incentive to get to bed.
In the morning, the sun was trying to break through the clouds.
Milisav was feeling antsy – perhaps it was the heat – and would not sit still. He’d groan, sounds unfamiliar to man.
“Should we call a doctor?” we asked.
He nodded while looking disoriented in the void.
We knocked on the door. This is how you signalize that something is not right. The closer the cell is to the guard’s post, the higher the chances that someone would come on time.
“What’s wrong? Why are you signaling? What do you need” a voice on the outside spoke.
“Call a doctor, a man is ill.”
“We’ll let him know, he’ll come by.”
The situation grew graver. We knocked again.
“Come on people, don’t you hear us. He’ll come, I tell you.”
In a short while, the prison doctor appeared.
“You know doctor, I am not feeling OK…I am not…” spoke our Dzingo, as if asking for something he was not allowed to ask for. His eyes swelled with sincere tears.
The doctor gave him a brief lookover.
“It’s nothing serious. You are fine. I’ll send over some pills”, were the doctor’s contempt-filled words.
Bojan observed from the sidelines, moving around in his seat.
“What are you doing, this man might die!”
“His blood pressure is a bit high, nothing else.”
The doctor never sent the drugs he promised nor did he come round for a check-up. So, we nursed him the best way we knew how. There was nothing else to do. We had to be proactive.
In the midst of all the hoopla surrounding Milisav, we were also given one more roommate.
His name was Mile, from Skopje. His expression resembled someone lost in thought. He spoke quietly, timidly, with a tired voice. With bags under his eyes, a ruffled hair, and a spent body frame, he resembled a starving monk. He looked as if he’d come from a time long gone. He never spoke out.
We did not learn a lot about Mile, just that he worked as a justice of the peace once and that he was in here on murder charges. He got drunk with a friend and they got into a fight. They both ended up in the hospital. However, Mile recovered while his friend sadly passed away. And there wasn’t time for him to share his story, for I left three days later.
August 26th, in the afternoon. The door swung open and three guards walked in.
“Dule, get your things!”
“Why? What is going on?
“You are being relocated to another cell.
Pape Dule left. I never saw him again.
“Kezharovski and Bojan, pack up!”
“We are leaving too?” I asked.
“Yes” replied shortly one of the guards.
We said our goodbyes with Goran, Milisav, and Mile. We exited, each carrying his own load. They took Goran in one direction, and me in the other. He turned left, I right. I never saw him again.
I started with Havel, so let me finish with him too:
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
18 A mountainous region in western Macedonia; a popular ski resort.
19 A mining township located in eastern Macedonia.
20 Ljubislav Ivanov-Dzingo, a businessman and politician from the Kratovo region.
21 Local radio stations, privately owned.
22 A township in eastern Macedonia.
23 A town in western Macedonia, on route to Lake Ohrid.
24 Macedonian daily publication, in terms of publication numbers, one of the three largest, together with “Dnevnik”and “Vest”.
25 Macedonian daily publication, its editors rather supportive of Macedonia’s current government.
26 Macedonian daily publication, its editors rather supportive of Macedonia’s current government.
27 Macedonian daily publication, its editors critical of Macedonia’s current government.
28 Macedonian TV station, its owners supportive of Macedonia’s current government.
29 Macedonian TV station, its owners (Ljubisav Ivanovski-Dzingo) supportive of Macedonia’s current government.
30 Macedonian National Television.
31 Macedonian TV station, its owners critical of Macedonia’s current government.
32 Macedonian TV station, its owners critical of Macedonia’s current government.
33 Cobblestone Road.
35 A popular fishing-style card game played throughout the Balkans.
36 Historically, members of the Ottoman Turkish Sultan’s guard, in the period between the 14th and the 19th centuries. Originally, the Janissary squadrons were made up of kidnapped young Christian boys, famous for their internal cohesion and devotion to the Sultan, due to the order’s strict order and discipline. Figuratively, most of the Balkan languages now use the term to refer to a fiercely devoted supporter or follower of a troublesome cause.
/ PART 3
I continued my nomadic existence in the C block, returning once again to its familiar terrain, this time being allocated to cell nineteen. The guard opened the heavy, creaky, impenetrable door, and I made my entry. I was immediately greeted by a familiar sense of the prison ideal: a half-dark room, with the same dimensions as my first C block allocation. A four by two “sprawl”, including the toilet. Or, a toilet seat and facet, suspended and overlooking the toilet, where we rinsed our dishes after meals. The water it provided had a light gray, sometimes yellowish, tint.
Substandard conditions. Much like number fourteen. Nothing better, nothing worse. I noticed the worn out piece of old carpeting, at the entrance, quaintly accompanying the ever peeling plaster. The white surfaces on the ceiling, the dark blue coloring of the side walls, all lent to the epileptic-like lining of the provided shelves. The floor consisted of rotting wooden boards, which if closely inspected did offer a glimpse of their former life as parquet. The gathered dust on the window fully blocked out the sun.
Yet, the cell was somewhat decorated. On the wall to the right of the door, right above the radiator, there were lined-up cut-outs from fashion magazines, displaying different fashion details, often found on the not-so-covered body parts of famous actresses. Someone had attempted a divide along aesthetic lines: one side contained images of girls adoring red capes, red corsets, and long stockings, while the other side projected images of girls with ravishing hairstyles and revealing cleavage, almost Renaissance looking. To a degree. Both choices relied on risque photographs that accentuated the eroticism of the female form. These prison-styled frescoes celebrated several former pageant winners.
On the other hand, the wall to the left of the door was covered with text messages. Love messages, patriotic cheers, everyday greetings. The undersigned came from all over: Skopje, Kumanovo, Veles, Shtip, Delchevo, some even from Kratovo. One professed his love for Mirjana, another one claimed Kalina as his sweetheart, then there was someone rooting for Snezhana; then there were someone with a heart big enough for two, Atidje and Fatime. There were also the messages testifying to one’s Macedonian-ness, Albanian-ness, Serbian-ness.
The wall contained a microcosm of human destinies. Two details caught my eye. The toilet/shower handle was made of twenty or so odd left-over plastic packaging from antacid tablets, now strung together. Indeed, this effervescent tablet-made shower was a small work of art. And as far as the shower curtain was concerned, I found out that the tenant prior had asked for it, paid the fee, and received it. Nothing out of the ordinary. C-19 introduced me to new specters, with their distinct values, norms, and desires. We said our hellos, exchanging the acceptables greetings while maintaining eye-contact. A civil exchange among new acquaintances.
I knew one in passing. I had the chance to see him, two or three times, as we were assigned the same visitation hour. His name was Tome, originally from Valandovo.37 He had taken the central bed, right underneath the window. The other two – Vlado and Rasim – I had not met before; the former came from Negotino38 (I’d only heard of him prior), while the latter came from Bardovici.39
For about an hour, an hour and a half, there was dead silence. I kept looking back and forth between all present parties.
“How long have you been in? Did your inquiry period finish?” asked Vlado.
“Yes, awhile back. Our trial started too. We are waiting for the second court day, in about ten days”, I reply.
“Splendid! So there is nothing that they can pin on us, if they look for a phone.”
I said nothing.
“Listen, we’ve got a phone. We keep it on the low before 10 pm, right before they turn off the lights. Then, each has five minutes to call home.”
There was nothing to say. Nothing to object to. Even if he said that the limit was two minutes, I’d have been fine. It was not my phone and those were not my rules. I learnt how to be grateful for small mercies. I’d been given a chance to call home. That was something.
It became clear that Vlado was in charge of the room. He was not the oldest one among us, but he certainly had the longest seniority when it came to time spent behind bars. It’d been almost a year since his arrest. I can still remember it vividly; I was at work – Nova Makedonija – when we were summoned by the Ministry of the Interior over the case, i.e., a criminal group revealed. We were first called in for a press conference with the then Minister, Gordana Jankulovska, so that a day or two afterwards, the then Director of the Bureau of Public Security, Ljupcho Todorovski, invited us for a private, informal meeting, where he shared details about the arrest and the charges against “the crime syndicate”. Reminding us that the information was “off the record”, and making sure that we understood what that actually meant – we could publish it as long as we kept his name out of it, stating “an anonymous police source” instead. So, the evening of the informal meeting national TV stations, quickly followed by the printed press, shared the same “exclusive” story received from “unofficial sources”.
Vlado was a sentimental creature, suffering from the strongest case of Don Juan-ism. He would conceal his worries well, acting peacefully and cheerfully, and quite confidently. There was pride there. An exceptionally gifted diplomat, he weighed his options carefully. I could not understand how someone could be that cool and collected in said circumstances.
Rasim was twenty-five years old. Well-built, never formally schooled, illiterate (both in terms of his Cyrillic and Latin alphabet skillset), but spoke German and French, rather fluently. He’d spent four years in Germany and three in France. He was apprehended at the end of March 2013, on his way back from Paris by our authorities at the Tabanovce40 border-crossing, and subsequently brought to Shutka. He had stand trial in absentia and sentenced to three years, for what he himself called “manual labor”, namely petty theft involving cables and scrap iron.
I quickly adjusted to the new “crew” and started fitting in. It did not take me a long time to figure out the parameters of life on the “inside”. On Sundays and during holidays, we slept in, something we saw as our constitutionally guaranteed right. During the week, we also did not make that much of an effort to “rise and shine”. What came, came. This was a place without Schumann, Brahms, or Debussy, let alone Beethoven or Liszt; instead, we heart the Energy Band, Aneta-Molika.
We lived in a zone long forsaken by God, amidst lines never to be crossed. Each left to his own degree of detachment or madness, we resembled a group of traveling acrobats. Underneath the personal trials and tribulations, we maintained civility and exercised meaningful communication. This prison was about the rule of the wild horde. The winner took it all, glory and personal possessions. Luckily, our group was civilized. We did not abide by the rule of the jungle. Indeed, our exchanges did not revolve around calculus or spirituality. We spoke of everyday things; what mattered the most was that we understood each other. We had a kind of solid and unanimous majority.
“Rasim, get up. It’s time. Take out the phone.”
We unearthed it at 10 pm, and put it back at 7 am, after roll-call and the start of the new day shift. Those were the rules. It remained hidden, somewhere up there, next to the outside windowsill. It was a monumentally difficult task – keeping it safely and successfully hidden, out of sight, never knowing what a search may bring. “The bunker” spot was hard to access, hence the ritualization of the retrieval game.
Rasim climbed Tome’s bed, standing upright as much as gravity and cell architecture would allow for, leaning next to the wall. Then, Vlado would jump on his shoulders and attempt reaching for the “secret place”. He came next to me, phone in hand, saying:
“You go first, we follow.”
“I can wait, it’s no trouble. I can call them tomorrow, if needs be.”
“Go ahead, ring them now. You’ve switched cells, they must be worried. I know how it is!”
So, I called. I told Marina about the transfer, making sure she knew I was with good folk, once again. I asked about Stefanija, how she was doing. That was it. I did not wish to overstep my assigned time. I never overstepped my boundaries. I respected what was discussed and decided upon. I looked through the window. The sun was setting and the air signaled a September chill. One more day behind me. One more day lost. I grew and withered as the day progressed. My sorrow was silently creeping in. Sleep was an adventure, each night something new presenting itself.
That morning we were the first ones out, bright and early. We left our cell, departing for another aimless journey around the yard, sequestered to the part assigned. Zombie-like, we trod on, expressionless and driven. Automated, faceless beings, we resembled some prehistoric relics. Something new, at least for me: we were now eight. The four of us, accompanied by the four dwellers of C-15. One of them came from Struga41, two from Kumanovo, and the fourth from a village in Albania, near the border with Debar42. When you were the first ones out, it seemed the worst possible outcome. Particularly during summertime, when a day resembled a week.
“Wow, now you are in here!” cried out the deputy guard in charge of the shift, when seeing me on the top bunk before the evening roll-call.
“It is what it is”, I responded.
“They did move you around quite a bit, but you are a tough sort. You’ll hang in there. These are good guys, I’m sure you’ll get along. And with Vlado around, there is never a dull moment.”
That last part was true. Vlado was a charismatic fellow, pulsating with some kind of a crazy rhythm. He found the meaning of life all around him – while shaving or walking up straight or talking or singing, he’d remember fondly his loved ones, he’d crack jokes, he’d sungaze, he’d trust himself, or place his trust in others or in God. He loved tricks and games, loved participating in them, loved coming up with newer ways of laughing and playing. He was adventurous at heart, brilliant at plotting and scheming. Tome, a kind and somewhat gullible young man, was oftentimes Vlado’s patzy.
I fell asleep reading an old and damaged edition of Fokus^43^ magazine, fifth time in a row. I woke up in complete darkness. Could not figure out how long I’d slept. My gut feeling kept telling me that it was 2 or 3 am. Any case, it was an ungodly hour, one suited for nocturnal animals, like cats or owls or frogs or any creature that fought the night whilst shrieking out. All of a sudden, the moon was gone, running to the clouds’ embrace. I watched the three of them sleeping and quietly snoring. I could not go back to sleep, so I waited for dawn.
I felt conflicted. The first couple of days in a new cell were always challenging. Each relocation brought with it a period of adjustment, what with meeting new people, learning about new habits, gaining trust. Very few words got passed around; everyone kept to themselves, observing, listening, learning.
The morning sun made its entry in the darkened cell; the sound of rain interspersed by the voices of pigeons. Luckily, the time it took me to adjust was rather brief. I did adapt easily. I do not mind small talk with just about anyone. Ramis, for instance, shared with me how he made his escape from Germany, about his time there, his journey into France, and his life in Paris. He talked about spending time on the Azurian Coast. Since he could not make a living there, he decided to try striking it again in the City of Lights.
“Can I see your papers?”
Something was off. I couldn’t quite pin it down, but I had a sense that something was not quite right. He took them out in the open. There were quite a few. Indeed, the boy was a sacrificial lamb. I could gather as much by reading the first few lines of the charges against him. There was also a document containing his photo-ID. It referred to his detainment sentencing. He was issued his last extension in June; it was now September.
“Do you have any other papers?” I asked thinking that perhaps his other documents were stashed nearby.
“No, I don’t. This is all I’ve got so far.”
“Are you sure?”
He was being kept here for two straight months, illegally. What a justice system. He was in fact kidnapped by the system. It does not matter what a person does, whether they are a politician or a carpenter or a welder, what matters is how they are being treated; if justice is being equitably served. I was saddened by the system’s treatment of Rasim’s invisibility and perceived insignificance. “Then you need to keep knocking on this door! You need to tell them that you need to be released. You need to go home.”
I was visibly agitated, angered beyond measure. I commiserated with all of the Shutka detainees. Mine was a struggle for shared equity in treatment. I was angry by the way the system empowered those holding the keys by encouraging them to diminish the intellect of others. Foul and wretched leeches, hypocrites and suck-ups. Pathetic imbeciles who got the job through personal Party44 connections, treating us as the lower life-forms, while bit by bit, they parceled everything out, always for a cheap buck. Some were easily won over. You could in fact bribe them with cheap shit; some “had a thing” for Milka hazelnuts bar. What is the price for honor and integrity? Is there a price for one’s reputation? These people probably could not answer either of the two questions.
“Guaaaarrrrrrrrrrrd! Mr. Guaaaarrrddd!!!”
A few minutes later the guard on duty appeared.
“What is it Ramis, why are you screaming?”
“Kezho said that I can go home!
“Yes, yes, Kezho said I can go.”
He looked at me, puzzled by the whole exchange.
“You are holding this man illegally here.”
“Mind your own business. Do not get fresh.”
“I am just stating the facts.”
“Facts or no facts, I’m telling you to mind your own business. Sit tight or write or read something. Whatever it is you do. Stay clear from matters like this.”
“But this is insane”, he did not let me finish my thought.
The door slamming shut interrupted my comment. I too was tormented by the way things were handled in here, but I was determined to change it. At least try. And I did, I changed things… Rasim was released from our cell, and instead of being sent home, they relocated him to another cell, several doors down.
I commiserated with people who were unaware of their basic rights. I was sad to see people being subjugated on a daily basis without being aware of it. I cursed myself for believing in an honorable fight. I cursed my inner Don Quixote. No one here played fair; no one here believed in honor and justice. Here, in this prison, everyone seemed equally wrong and equally just. Here, there were no staged emotions. When we cried or laughed, we cried or laughed, full-heartedly.
You could take everything in, including all kinds of things that once gave you the chills. You became tolerant of all kinds of music. You never argued with others about classical music or rock or pop or punk or folk … The fight in you was no longer there. You stopped competing with yourself and surrendered to matters that had overpowered you. You had one wish only: to become invisible, to transform into the least significant living creature, unseen by all. But there was always someone that could throw you off your balance. Get you mad.
It was a Friday. A judge from the Skopje District Court came, accompanied by the Madam Warden. A usual visit, particularly if someone wished to lodge a complaint or ask a question. The little delegation reached our door. They kept their distance, standing on the outside whilst we remained locked inside.
“I did not snitch so you bring me back to the C-block? That is how things are done?”
“Do not complain. Those colleagues of yours keep complaining about this and that…”
“Listen. Never again badmouth my colleagues.”
My voice echoed, louder than decorum suggested when speaking to the prison’s management. I could barely contain my anger. A primal instinct told me that I had to keep my anger at bay, even though tears took hold of my senses. “Kezho, mind your manners. Please”, the guard warned me, cautioning me gently, realizing the kind of pain the bitch Warden had cunningly managed to inflict on my soul. Indeed, the rational part of my being managed to take over. This too would pass. The door shut and our conversation ended. An hour later my blood pressure and sugar levels were back to normal.
For about two to three days, Tome, Vlatko, and I had the cell all to ourselves. But that too came to an end. We were assigned a new guy, Jonuz, a twenty-nine-year-old man from Skopje, from Chair45. He was brought in from Idrizovo,46 serving out his sentence over a drug conviction; but he had appealed the verdict and was now once again placed in detainment. He had a cast on his right leg, due to a soccer-related injury. A blessing in disguise: he used the cast to hide his two SIM cards.
He was a choleric sort, part stubborn, part insane. His stubbornness would manifest itself in such a way that any kind of discussion would seem futile. The hair stub accentuated his features and helped hide his boyish look. One seemingly peaceful game of cards led to a heated discussion between him and Tome. They baited each other, not unlike wild hogs. Vlatko and I prevented the argument from escalating into something far more serious. We physically placed our bodies between the two of them and thus ended things.
They were, however, estranged. The explanations that they tolerated each other, that they understood the other one’s point of view, did not hold water. They grumbled and growled, in silence. They were night and day, fantasy and reality, Ahriman and Ormuzd. Each seemingly left to his own devices. But time in here is a complicated little beast, with its own rules, so it would be a shame to see friendship die so abruptly, so stupidly. So, Jonuz was the bigger man, for the time being, as he apologized and shook his roommate’s hand. He did the right thing, something characteristic of good men. Henceforth, our time in C-19 was pleasant. No one yelled at anyone again.
The drummer from Shutka, whose house bordered with the prison’s fence, was trying out his instruments. He’d spent hours on end hitting the stretched out pig’s skin, so as to check the quality of his artistry. But what remained unclear was his timing: did he have to do it on a Sunday? From 7 am onwards? We woke up and moved around, a bit. No one could go back to sleep with all that mastery drumming in the background. It felt as if he were with us in the cell, such was the high quality and sound projection of his work. So, we got to do some “spring cleaning”. It was not an easy task, maintaining a spotless cell. Staying clean. Being thorough. First, we had to get rid of the cockroaches. Vlado had an ingenious idea.
“We’ll give it a go, it’s us or them. There is no other way round it!”
We moved the boxes with the clothes and food to the side, then sprinkled the floor with some cologne water and lit it up on fire. Jonuz was quite roach-phobic, hence during the “operation” he manned the door, ready to pound it as loudly as possible, asking the guards for help, provided that things went south, so to speak. Luckily, all ended well. We got them. Post-intervention, our cell smelled like a perfume store. Vermin-free, all four corners.
The afternoon air was stuffy, making breathing a challenge. The sun had hid itself and all of a sudden it seemed as if it were nighttime. Then, a thunderstorm. One, then another. Ripping through the skies. Each one pierced its way into my heart. I knew that storms were Marina and Stefanija’s greatest fear. I could not stop thinking about them. The light in our cell flickered, mostly due to power oscillations. I kept thinking about how they must be feeling at home. I watched the clouds rolling in and out. Torrential rain followed in quickly. The wind howled, while the raindrops trickled down the windowsill.
“Kezharovski!” I heard an operatic voice address me from the back, resting his friendly palm on my shoulder, while we were taking our scheduled walk.
“How are you?” he asked, eyes wide open, and a smile radiating with familiarity and a touch of nostalgia.
He was strongly built, with thick, carefully tended, hair, evidently groomed in an expensive hair-salon. His features were refined, as if of aristocratic parentage. I’d seen this man somewhere before, but for the life of me could not remember when.
“Don’t you know me?”
“Truthfully, I do not. Could you please remind me?”
“My name is Milan …”
“That’s right! You are Zoki’s friend.”
“They brought me in yesterday. I’ve been charged with money extortion. They say I embezzled money from the owner of the company I worked at as a manager. I’ve done nothing wrong, for there was no need for it … Fifteen of us got arrested. Some are charged with espionage, some with extortion, some for abusing their professional duty.”
“I am not familiar with the case. I’ve got other worries.”
Truth be told, I was not lying, for I did not know anything about the charges brought against them. I just read that the group consisted of a “who’s who” kind of a crowd: Ministry of Interior employees, men from the Intelligence Agency, retired police inspectors, company managers, even someone from the cabinet of the Speaker of the Macedonian Parliament.
Until that point, we’d been called in for three trial dates in the “Likvidacija” case. Due to a professional leave of absence, the judge had scheduled our next trial date for the end of September. We were in for a long series of processes. I had to ready myself. Contrary to character, I was not interested in who had been accused of what.
I felt like a wind-up toy. Each day I awoke moments before the imam’s call from the nearby mosque. In some ungodly hour, I listened to the dogs’ howls. They created a louder racket than a pack of wolves.
Often Tome seemed lost in thought. He worried about his son; he became a grandfather, to a baby girl born to his eldest daughter. He worried about the raspberry harvest. He had his worries, I had mine. We often sought “comfort” in a game of cards: mostly rummy, and from time to time bridge or tablanet. His worries were not conducive to smart choices. Poor fellow, unwittingly so, he would often disclose the location of our phone. So, we kept an eye on him, as much as we could. Sometimes, he could not help himself, and we were too slow in our response.
“Vlatko and Kezho!
“Come one, get up! You’ve got a package!”
“How about you Tome, did you ask for a package?”
“I did, yes … two days ago … It should arrive soon,” he gleamed with happiness.
He could have at least kept quiet. If only.
Soon, he realized his mistake and muttered, “There I go again, I blew it!”
Poor Tome. He held his head, tight, fearing it might unscrew and hit the floor. He growled, producing a sound somewhere between a sink unplugging and mouth rinsing. His face grimaced, as he tried to gasp for air.
“Oh brother, what a mess I’ve made,” he cried out, swinging his head back and forth.
Tome was, how should I put it? Just as he was. He did not think things through. His fast mouth always got the better of him. The speed of one’s tongue should be slower than the speed of one’s thought, not the other way round. It was a blessing that he did not run his mouth before the group led by the Deputy Chief Guard, the one from Gostivar.47 Had he, we’d been in deep trouble. Those who he rattled the information to were, well, harmless. Their hands were “tied”. They got their breakfast from us. And they were choosy, taking their sweet time with our produce.
“We can always buy that one’s silence. But man, do be careful. Think before you speak!” Vlado warned him, in a friendly manner.
It was quite a show when the four of us got to playing makao.48 We’d get lost in the game for hours on end. Our rattling voices could be heard all the way to the marketplace in Shuto Orizari. On a few occasions the guards would bust in the door, thinking that something was going on in the cell. More than once, we were reprimanded through the keyhole. It wasn’t so much about winning, but rather we hoped to avoid losing. The loser had it the hardest.
Jonuz pretended to be an expert in electricity. He wanted to charge the phone directly from a neon light. He was sure of it. And one night, he left us sans sleep. We feared that he may in fact try out his theory and get himself electrocuted. We’d carry our guilt to the grave. So, in part as a joke, and with some endearment, we got to call him Nikola Tesla, or Nikolche for short. And it stuck, this “Nikolche” business.
I was under the impression that this prison was an island or an enclave in some phantasmagorical, topsy-turvy, kingdom, where the Madam Warden acted as supreme ruler. My feelings, a database of fragility. All sorts of information was made available in here. “Verifiable sources” brought in information about politicians, businessmen, journalists, scientists, professors, artists, models, and starlets. Who peddled what or what weaknesses they had. Which singer had an affair, what sort of gifts she received, what hotel she was taken to, whose illegitimate baby was she pregnant with. And it just went on: who smoked what brand of cigars, who was an art collector, even who was a closeted homosexual, or who enjoyed a trois menage or rough sex with animals. Vlado tells me: “At a hotel downtown, two TV hostesses and a singer “operate”.
“Yeah right. Sure. Not exactly a hotel, but more like a motel. Yes, a motel.”
“100%. True and verified.”
“I don’t get it. Why there exactly?”
“Well, from what I can tell, there are no cameras there so the probability of getting caught on tape, inflagranti, is minimal. They check in, while their “friend” checks into another room that he never really goes to.”
“Interesting, I never thought of this possibility.
“And how about Mavrovo49?”
“Please do not tell me a thing. I do not want to know a thing. They’ll say tomorrow that I was the one spilling the beans.”
I was intensely curious, as if I wanted to know more details yet not confessing it openly.
“Mavrovo is for the weekend edition…”
“Well, they are grown-ups. They probably know what they are doing. Some in fact get to find out why they do what they do, others are left forever oblivious.”
“In Skopje, the fee is 200 euros, while in Mavrovo 500.”
And just when things got interesting and the exchange gathered some speed, an uninvited guest would appear at the door. In the most dramatic of moments. He’d check if we were all here and he’d leave. The man who was on duty that night, no love was spared between us; he did not care for himself, we did not care that he did not care. And the conversation took a turn. I never found out the details I so wished to know. The following week brought two scheduled days in court. No matter how much I wished to get myself ready for them, Jonuz would not give me peace. He would not give any of us a peace of mind. He kept diverting all of the attention to himself, monopolizing our time with plans about phone smuggling schemes. He told us how his father paid the sum – 50 euros – into a specified bank account. He told us that his father granted him all sorts of wishes. Truth be told, it was a win-win kind of a situation. Cell phones got through by being sneaked into boxes of wafers. Interestingly enough, not every brand. Specifically, just one kind. The packaging wrap would be skillfully removed on one side, allowing for the wafers to be taken out one by one. Then the phone would be placed in the middle, between two wafers, allowing for the rest of wafers to be placed back, one at a time, and for the packaging to be sealed with an iron. Yes, I almost forgot: the metal detector would not be able to register the phone due to the aluminum foil packaging of the wafers already announcing its own presence. I saw for myself the reality of the old Macedonian adage: “A cure is worth next to nothing, but you need to find it first.”
The packages containing phones were purposefully bulky and plentiful. And they were not sent at any one time, during anyone’s shift. The days when the “Gostivar” guard was on duty, he and his posse, were largely avoided. They were a dangerous group. They would scan each little thing sent, as if skilled birds of prey, even the addressee.
So, a single phone made it through, out of five that were sent. The one that came with the second shipment. And its arrival was pure luck. The guard checking the packages had a sweet-tooth, so out of the five packages with wafers he opened just the “loaded” ones. What bad luck. And what was even more statistically uncanny, was the fact that he and Jonuz were neighbors, in Chair. “Nikolche” could burst with anger, at any moment.
When he returned to the cell, his smile was crooked. He rolled his eyes, exhaling loudly. His facial expression read – Do not ask me anything. You could tell that all his hopes went out the window. He stood there like a big lump of nothing. He laid down the bags, exhaled some more, and took to his bed.
“Motherfucker, he caught it.”
I tried to keep my head cool, muffling my initial gag.
But he was determined to succeed. He was not a quitter, someone to surrender easily. He told us, repeatedly, that he was iron-willed.
“I have to manage sneaking some in. I have to stay focused!”
His idea was for us to gradually, and inconspicuously, acquire a few cell phones, then “stash” them in the ceiling, so as to avoid feeling apprehensive during searches. He managed to make his plan a reality. It went well. We started feeling, well, comfortable in our skins.
October 15th, a Friday, the last day of the trial. We said our concluding remarks, in the courtroom of the Appellate Court. The eight of us – myself, justice Ile Tanev, former prosecutor Ivica Efremov, lawyers Valentin Zafirov and Sashko Lazarov, retired justice Boris Nikolovski, and Jane Pavlovski, and Sabedin Hofman, accompanied by our attorneys.
It had to take place there. All the other courtrooms were not big enough to accommodate everyone interested in following our case. There I saw my cousin Maja. For the first time that up close, at an arm’s length; I could touch her, say my hellos, even give her a hug. She never missed a trial day. Up until then, however, I could only spot her from the window of the prison van we were hauled in. She shook my hand; a single tear rolled down my cheek, acid hot, and then another one, and then some more. I wiped them off, fearing that I could not stop myself from crying if allowing myself to cry in the open. I felt a lump in my throat; I tried swallowing. She told me not to worry, that she was here and that she would always be looking after my family.
The following Saturday and Sunday were torturously long. Sunday slowly transitioned into Monday. The start of a new week, entirely different than any other one before. That night, sometime after midnight, I spoke with Marina on the phone. Her voice was uncommonly slow. It rambled. She’d start a sentence, then stop after only getting in a few words. Her narrative spiraled, as if circling around something foul, something better left unsaid. Something that certainly did not belong in our casual conversation.
I was restless myself, edgy. The following morning, at 10 cowardam, we awaited our verdict. As if I were stuck in a tunnel, waiting to spot the light at the end. A dark premonition took over me. I watched through the window, spawning all sorts of suppositions, some convincing, some far-fetched, some provocative, some well-argumented.
The moon powered through the window, offering a grayish tint. I closed my eyes for a moment and new memories flooded over. Each new one came with a pang, fluttering for a moment before offering its place to the next one in line. I wished to remember everything, but could not. I tried giving my memories direction, but they kept on dancing their way into oblivion, as feathers overtaken by strong wind currents. The only thing remaining was to step aside and observe the memories as they took their place and speedily left my side.
The reading of the verdict was a highly charged production. The courtroom was packed. We rose. Judge Dijana Gruevska began reading. She sentenced Ile Tanev to two and a half years, Sabedin Hofman to a year and a half, Valentin Zafirov to five and a half.
Then it was my turn.
“the fourth one, Tomislav Kezharovski, accused of a criminal act in accordance with Act … is found guilty and sentenced to four years and six months in prison.”
Her words cut deep. I felt the room spinning. Stars flickered in front of my eyes. I felt the world around me shrink, beyond any recognizable size. I felt my entire world collapse in tiny little pieces. I heard myself say out loud “Four and a half years!” What followed was a puff speech by the Prosecutor, meant for some enthusiastically inclined crowd. Stating that the sentence was lenient and asking for a harsher verdict. She looked so relaxed, so content, even mastering a smile. She began laughing a bit. She felt pleased for having satisfied the expectations of those on whose orders she conducted her business. A wave of rage took over me. I could feel hatred growing strong inside of me. I felt I should leap in her direction, grab her neck, and start screaming. But I knew this would not accomplish anything productive. Yes, I was angry. I was angry with her. You wench, I thought to myself, one day, one fine day, you will have to confess all that you know, about who is behind all of this and how it was all arranged. It is something I will have to research thoroughly, once we sit down and have our inevitable chat. Then she would have to tell me all that she knew about those that ruined my life. Those that got me all shriveled up. She held the keys to a truth I needed to discover sooner or later. I needed to know. I had to know. Without the truth, my life was no life at all. She would reveal it all, from A to Z, of that I was certain.
I was hoping that the judges, all five of them, would examine the case with fairness and justice in mind. I was hoping that the court would be the place where a system of intact values was upheld, rather than a stage suited for Byzantine game-playing and political intrigue and flirtation. I had only seen such affairs on film or read about them in cheap paperback. I did not believe it was someone’s reality. I had realized that this was part of a greater spectacle; I did not find out who was put in charge of direction, but my search for them continues. I will never surrender my quest for their identity, name, address, all relevant details.
They did not allow us to say our goodbyes. I turned around. Marina was standing next to the fence separating the audience from the rest of the courtroom.
“Look after yourself. Please take care of Stefi!
That was all I managed to get in. I could not muster anything else. They took us outside, put us in vans, and returned us to prison.
When I returned to the cell, I shared the verdict with my roommates. A silence followed; one moment read like an eternity. Tome looked at me with his mouth half-open, managing a muffled “hmmm”. Then he threw the paper to the side and rose from his bed.
“Come man, do not sweat it!
Jonuz gave me a hug, while Vlatko took my hand as a sign of support.
Their kind words did not numb my pain. I could not wrap my mind around the fact that I would be spending four and a half years in prison for doing my job: pursuing justice.
“You get disappointed too fast, man. Your case will be revoked by the Appellate or Supreme Court. You just have to remain strong. You have to persevere. All will be right again, you’ll see!” said Tome.
I cursed and swore at all of the judges and jurors and the prosecutor. To the nth degree. They will burn as Joan of Arc for all the evils they have inflicted upon me and my family. I yelled so loudly for I wished to be heard by all the guards, even the ones in the watchtowers. All of my ideals and hopes for a brighter tomorrow were gone. I felt a bitterness take over, could not take a bite. But they were here, my roommates: Vlatko, Jonuz, and Tome.
“Let’s sit down all together, round the table, as usual.”
I did not want to act as a contrarian.
We ate in monastic silence. From time to time, someone would comment about the quality of the food, but that was mostly it. There were no topical discussions.
Somewhere deep in my chemically-induced slumber, I heard an unknown sound, a click I could not identify the origins of. The same sound could be heard several times over. From the diffused light of the desklamp, due to a bulb from a lighter amped by two to three batteries, I could spot Vlado next to my bed. He tapped the metal frame of the bed.
“Come, you’ve got a call from home.”
“I can’t take it. I will ring them tomorrow night.
“Oh no, you get up and give them a call. Marina called three times so far.”
“I love you,” she said, whispering as never before when telling me these words.
“All will be fine, you’ll see!” Her voice was quiet and determined. I asked for their forgiveness now that they were going to go on living without me, as I observed my palms and all of the lines they contained of unrealized tenderness. I told her I loved her, I felt silent and ended the conversation. For a few moments I held the Nokia next to my forehead, then passing it to Jonuz. I tried to think. I tried to comprehend what all of this meant for me, for my family, for my cousins, friends, colleagues … but I dared not to. My thoughts were overpowered by a certain darkness. I spent the rest of the night in bed, sleepless and restless. My thoughts echoed the voice of the judge. This was it, I thought, I am done. I am finished. I am out. It’s all gone to hell. I roamed through my memories, thinking of many things, particularly the absurdity of my own existence. Despair had already taken over. I was not a coward, have never been one, but tears started welling and shed themselves. I was mostly preoccupied with thoughts of Marina and Stefanija. Their faces danced before my eyes, one at a time. I closed my eyes. I was suddenly taken over by a memory, moving in fiercely and abruptly, right from the abyss of my past, almost flooring me. I was overcome by bright images flashing in front of me. I kept seeing their faces.
The cell was engulfed by darkness and silence. Marina’s words hovered over me, ebbing and flowing in their intensity. I could not string them together. I did not know what they meant. They were just there, strumming along in my head, echoing as a mantra.
My heart was beating faster. I felt a fiery pressure building in my chest, swallowing my dreams, ideals, wishes, one at a time. I burnt and cried. The tears could not tame the fire; instead, they added to its intensity. Instead of rejoicing future successes, I had myself that my life was not worth living. I wished to erase it all from my consciousness; I wished to hermetically seal my past. I wished for all my love to quiet down amidst all of the anger that had taken hold of my soul, poisoning it from within. I even relinquished my soul, wedging it deep down in the labyrinth of my subconscious, leaving it to oscillate between life and death. I surrendered myself to senselessness, without having the strength to oppose it. Instead of walking with my head held high, I wallowed in my own void. I wanted to free myself from all the bitterness and the fear and the shame I felt when confronted with my own thoughts.
Perhaps, finally, it would be best if I learnt how to live with my own problem. I had to bury deep down all the truths I had learnt insofar, painstakingly hiding them much like the ones that are currently out of my own reach. I’d run from my own past. The memory of Marina and Stefanija would occasionally rise to the surface. I would then face a day filled by sorrow and sadness, remembering what was missing from my life, but it too would pass. Soon afterwards, I’d fall asleep and quietly forget it all. How easy would that be, I thought to myself, much easier than this. But I could not go through with it.
The next morning I combed through the copy of Nova Makedonija that the new shift had brought over, and would look at the skies from time to time. I read about my verdict. I read line by line and analyzed it all. I came to a realization. Not that I had not known it so far, but now I was definitely certain: we live in a state where bullying and illiterate strong-arming have been elevated to the status of a legitimate profession, while professionalism has been denied the prospect of human dignity. And my case was not a random accident: it was the blueprint for any future attempts at upholding justice and unearthing the truth, so that all knew not to go down such a path; these humanistic virtues were now the sole property of the disciples of Orwell’s Newspeak. Anyone else that dared think for themselves would experience certain censorship, days in court, detainment.
Though the bitterness was strong in my chest, casting a long shadow over my anxiety, Tome, Vlatko, and Jonuz kept me strong.
“It takes time for things to settle down, get sorted out, and new positive energy to come to the surface. New vibrations for your spirituality. It takes willpower to get going, for you are now at the start again, thrusted into a new set of circumstances, so you need to give them direction, transform them into your own personal experience and place in the universe. Think positive thoughts for a positive world. Time will pass and things will sort themselves out.”
Vlatko spoke, while I sneaked glances at my past.
“If you keep it up, getting so agitated, you’ll end up seeing a shrink.”
That last observation got me rattled. I kept envisioning some terrifying places, worse than here, full of crazy men screaming their hearts out in dingy corridors. I could not see myself being committed to one such place. This gave me the necessary strength and courage in my fight for freedom. I had to live through and survive this grave injustice. I did not plan to lose the battle. It was all I thought about.
I walked around the cell more confused than ever before. Two steps to the left, followed by two steps to the right. That was all the space allowed for. My thoughts rambled. I thought about all sorts of things, including outstanding utility bills. I was emotionally exhausted, my mind filled with images of Marina and Stefanija; I took to my bed. I had no intention of falling asleep but would welcome it.
The guard on duty interrupted our afternoon rest for a moment.
“Kezharovski, come, get ready, and step out!” he commanded.
“What is it now?”
“Do not know.”
Once on our way, the guard in charge whispered: “You’ve got a visitor.”
“Yes, unscheduled. Your wife is here.”
After the mandatory search and metal detector test, the two guards took me to the visitation area. They and I stood on one side of the room, she on the other. I did not know what to say, where to start from or what to say at all.
“Is it a sin that I search for the truth, asking for justice from those in charge of the courts? Is it a sin that I wish to share with my people things of substance and value? Tell me, is it a sin?”
“Do not worry yourself. There is no need to panic. Stefi and I are with you. You know that right? Your colleagues are with you. Those that matter. The other ones are not your colleagues. There are many people out there who support you. Everyone has seen what they are trying to do to you. The whole world is seeing their shame. This too will pass, their time will end.”
I listened, trying to muster up all of my strength not to cry. When she finished, there was a pause, a few moments of silence, and then.
“If I know that Stefi and you are doing well, I can handle anything. I can carry any weight. How many times have I told you so far that no one can harm me as much as I can withstand.”
“Don’t you worry about us. We are doing fine, we are fine, and we shall be fine.
The very thought that we have so many supporters makes us proud and strong.” For a moment, I turned to the guards. They knew why; they knew what I wanted to ask them.
“No worries, there is time. Feel free to talk to each other.”
“I wanted to tell you I saw Naser and Zhoro. They said that they wanted to petition the President50 to get you pardoned.”
“And what did you tell them?”
“Nothing, what one says in such circumstances … that we do not need mercy or clemency from any representative of this Government, least of all the President. Even if it is a matter of forty years, we’ll persevere.”
“My thoughts exactly. You know, we do not get second chances in life. It just keeps on going forward. If time could be rewound, then we’d end up in the same place. It would always be this same life, and I would not change it for the world.”
“I left some food, and one more thing …”
I did not want any of this. I kept looking for excused. Not that I minded the food, rather I feared that they did not have the financial means to obtain it. But she saw right through me.
“I told you once, let me not repeat it. We have enough, for ourselves and for you.” I rose from my chair and took my index finger through the holes so as to meet hers on the other side of the screen. I looked her straight in the eye. We understood each other. And then, we went our separate ways.
On my way out, I stopped and turned to grab another look at her. She too turned round. She looked at me, blowing me an air kiss with her palm. I wanted to hit pause on this frame, to rewind the image, to go back to each segment individually. I wished to erase all that was happening in the last few days.
Drenched in sweat, my aching heart beating faster, I sat on my bed and tried to think things through. I laid on my back, stretching my arms and legs; I took a deep breath. Time virtually stopped, while minutes and hours ran their course. I was miles away in thought. I kept seeing protruding concentric circles, waves of color that came out of nowhere, now dancing and swaying in front of my eyes, giving life to the most unusual of shapes. At that moment, I had fully grasped the naked truth and thus marked the climax of the first phase of my psychological reaction to prison: I annulled my life prior. I puncture a hole through my heart. I puncture it purposefully, as if using an old-fashioned bottle-opener. Slowly, spirally, circle by circle, I make my entry. I was tired from the case, I was tired from the pressure, I was tired from all of the anger, the facts that I have been used as a pawn by powerful forces I should have already pinpointed; I was tired of talking to walls. I was spent in my powerlessness to have the strength to do something more than glance over the reports in the newspapers about the verdict and pray that I remained calm and collected. I needed time to gather my thoughts, heal my wounds, clear my head. In order to help myself, I would use any spare moment, free from activity, to climb into bed and dive into my new world. My expectations and hopes went out of the window, gone for good. My life was a fractured into pieces. I grew silent. I’d spend my nights seated on my bed, looking pensively through the half-open window at the moon light. Focused on the starry skies, my mind resembled a movie screen, images flickering and changing together with the light from the bulb. The change of the images allowed me a moment away from myself, from my fears and doubts. I snuck into my dreams with a sense of exhaustion and desperate resolve never to allow myself to get broken again.
Life is ironic: it presents you with grief so that you can truly understand happiness. It gives you noise so that you can relish silence. It gives you a void so that you can feel complete. I was lying on my bed, looking straight at the ceiling; afterwards, I browsed the papers. I read that there had been an altercation between the police and the journalist at the protest held in front of the Museum of VMRO51. My colleagues were protesting the verdict and my being prevented from defending myself while being let out of detainment.
“You will get out of here, you’ll see,” Vlatko tried comforting me.
I found the last conversation somewhat uplifting. I had fallen asleep and in a half-daze, I began considering some things. I went through them as sequences in a film I knew well; I froze certain frames, rewound others, all so that I could test my own memory. It was a Saturday, the 26th of October. The evening was rather pleasant, a bit chilly, but our spirits ran high. Smuggled-in alcoholic choices were not that plentiful. Basically, we only had homemade rakija from Negotino.52 None of us had seen any alcohol for several months. Jonuz snuggled up to the half-litre bottle as if it were a teddy bear. Vlado was able to sneak it it, a day or two prior. We’d received from home an assortment of dry meats, some cheese, both white and cheddar, salads, even a cake. It was in honor of Stefanija’s birthday. She’d just turned fourteen. Before lights were out, we even sung a little bit. The celebration of the date that means the world to me was successfully encircled. We slept through Sunday.
On the following Monday, around noon, our cell was visited by a man and a woman, employed by the Office of the Public Defender. She was in her forties, with blond hair and held some sort of device in her hand. He was an older gentleman, darker in complexion, with spectacles, of medium height, holding a pen and a pad. The size and conditions of our cell left them speechless. They kept looking at the walls intently, silent as trout.
“Width, 2 meters! Length, 4 meters! The humidity index…well…too high!”
I suppose that the humidity in our cell was less than that of any swimming pool.
“These are the conditions we reside in. Open up the other cells and you will see how it is there. It is even worse than in here.” I spoke to the Public Defender’s advisor. I had seen him before. He paid me a visit in June asking about the prison’s conditions.
“In the past I was the Director of the Office for Imposing Sanctions. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s all gone to hell. Something must be done.”
He wrote some things down in his ledger, said his goodbyes to the four of us, and then he and his colleague left. Three hours later they brought in a young boy. From Skopje, from Gjorche Petrov.53 He was around twenty-five years old, with a strange haircut. Closely cut on the side, almost shaven, with only hair on top. He was accused of committing all sorts of crimes with a gun and a knife. However, he would not attack men, mostly older women. He would shove them on the ground, and then rob them off of their money, jewelry, and rings.
Now we were five. But not for long. The door opened again, and once again they called my name.
“Kezharovski! Gather your things. You are being relocated.”
I let out a strange cry that could not be explained by any word. I sighed and sat on Tome’s bed. I felt as if something was crawling down my spine, harvesting on my strength.
“Come, come. No time to sit down. No time to wait.”
“No! I am not leaving here. Where they go, I go.”
“Please…It does not work that way. You are being assigned to another cell.
I could not hold it in. I let go. Tears followed. Vlado sat next to me. He gave me a hug.
“We are not leaving you either. We’ll always be with you!”
He signaled to Jonuz and Tome to get my things ready.
“Please forgive me if I did you any wrong.”
“What sort of nonsense is that? There is no need for that friend.”
“All done”, Tome informed us.
“Did you pack him something to eat? We do not know where they are sending him, or who with …” asked Vlado.
“Yes, he is covered.”
“Take care of yourselves!”
“Take care of yourself! Do not worry about a thing. We are with you.”
They did not leave us time to say a proper goodbye. This was all we were able to get through.
I exited the cell. Dragging my mattress on the floor, and on it, my two cardboard boxes, my pillow, and blanket, down corridor “C”, I embarked on a new journey. Once again into the unknown.
37 A southern village, now township, known for its agricultural products.
38 A township in the Tikvesh region (central Macedonia), famous for its wine.
39 A village in the vicinity of Skopje.
40 The border-crossing with neighboring Serbia (the Serbian side is called Preshevo).
41 A southwestern township, located on Lake Ohrid.
42 A western township, near the Albanian border.
43 Nikola Mladenov’s magazine.
44 Reference is made to the party in power, VMRO.
45 A Skopje municipality, predominantly Muslim.
46 Macedonia’s largest prison and correctional facility.
47 A township in northwest Macedonia.
48 A popular children’s card game.
49 Popular mountain resort in western Macedonia.
50 Gjorge Ivanov, President of Macedonia, currently serving his second term.
51 A part of the Skopje 2014 project, the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Sovereignty and Independence, located on the left bank of the River Vardar, near the Old Bazaar.
52 A township in the Tikvesh region, famous for its vineyards.
53 One of the largest Skopje Municipalities, with both Christian and Muslim populations.
/ PART 4
One more door with a rusted padlock and lockset. The sign on the door read A-4. It was to be my new destination, fourth in a row. My new fate. To its left was the female “isolation” cell, A-3, and the barber’s station. Acidic, humid air came over me once I stepped in. It smelt of rotten mold. It was a large cell, but not much else. Its state was rather dismal. I do not know what exactly I was hoping for, but this was below any ounce of human dignity. This remains an image I can never erase from my memory. Many of the tiles were no longer there; the ceiling’s paint was peeled long ago, while the flooring was covered by mold, so thick it reminded me of a coral reef. There was a school desk in the middle, one from the early part of the last century. The toilet was out in the open, much like in the C-block.
The humidity had carved landscapes on the wall. You could notice cracks in the walls that resembled the veins of an excited lover. There was a taped schedule of football matches, next to old clippings and newspaper headlines, and some blood spatter, thick as a red coat of paint applied in a single stroke, followed by a sequence of carved names and notches. One notch per day. As many days as he was confined to this cell, all now remembered by the whitewashing.
The walls were a dark gray. The writings, added then erased then altered then scratched over, resembled a reminder of what life in this cell was like before I was assigned to it. A faded imprint of what had come before. Layers on top of layers of someone’s personal history. As a collection of juxtaposed dark and funny tales, with an endless gallery of human and magical characters, from the anarchic to the contemporary. Different handwritings behind the ancient graffiti, in different languages. They read of unrequited love, of character flaws. I wondered what I would learn if I managed to get to their essence, somehow dive into the past, but I realized that it would be futile even if possible. I was convinced that I would uncover a history similar to what I was living through at present. Nothing that different from our present-day reality. And the floor, well, a treasure trove of “lost and found”. There were bits and pieces from all sorts of items. Roaches crawled up and down, as if in a horror film, while identified insects made their way across the room. I tried to keep my cool as the guard kept explaining how it was all a matter of “seasonal occurrences”. I tried to remember if I had seen the poor buggers anywhere else before. I do not think any biology textbook has them listed. The image of A-4 resembled a snapshot from hell. With everything added, C-14, A-1, and C-19 were my Golden Age.
A-4 had two prior tenants. One I could immediately recognize: Mile the Justice of the Peace. I had met him in July, in A-1. Here, once again, our paths crossed. He seemed the same as four months ago: the same pensive look on his face, as if he was constantly thinking the same kind of thoughts. The same martyred look, reminiscent of a bygone era. We said our hellos.
The second fellow was a bony older man, with large hairy earlobes and yellow teeth. His hair was whitening, his brow unusually wrinkled. Lifeless, he sat in silence. His head was sunk into a filthy pillow, his mouth wide open. The skin on his face resembled an oak’s bark, while his fingers were crooked with arthritis or the like. His face was rather expressionless, very difficult to read. He was tired, almost dead tired. He sat up in his bed, still focused on a spot on the floor. When I came closer to him, he shrunk himself even further, resting his cheeks in his hands. It only took a glance to understand his fears, particularly his think thighs, which shook uncontrollably.
“How are you doing?” I asked him, but he did not venture an answer.
I looked straight into his eyes. They too were lifeless and numb, as if they had seen way too much horror for a single lifetime. His voice was quieter than a whisper. He spoke, yet neither Mile nor I were able to decipher it. He gave me his right hand, swallowing hard. He looked terrified, his face all red and his eyes bulging.
“What are you in here for?”
When he spoke, his voice once again bore a whisper-like quality so that I could barely follow what it said.
“Nothing” he murmured, and started crying, resting his hands on his head.
“His name is Pavle,” Mile spoke in his stead. “I am not familiar with all of the details, but he has been in here since 2011. He was charged with a sexual assault of a child. He was beaten to death in his previous cell. Everyone took their turn, three times a day, so he is now afraid. ”
“He was beaten?”
I asked if he had committed the crime he was accused of, myself trembling.
“So, did he do it?”
“I am not sure ”
“When did you both come to number four?” I asked, roaming the space for any reading materials, but finding nothing apart from an empty and rusty tuna can.
“About an hour ago. So, what are we going to do with this mess? These bugs and this filth?” Mile asked me, tracing the names on the wall as if deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. Then he added: “I am afraid!”
“Roaches, lice, and suck-ups, they do not scare me. They repulse me.”
I folded the linen and made my bed. I took the one next to the door. I placed the boxes of clothes underneath it. The view through the window was quite mesmerizing, the only good thing in these new surroundings. I sat on the bed. I sat by holding my head between my palms; I watched and watched and watched, not quite knowing why. I was somehow unknowingly aware that my life had become as narrow as a hallway with hellishly sweltering walls. I felt suffocated by some arithmetical problem where each step of the solution presented a dozen new challenges; I felt entirely lost, as a man in alien lands, with no exit in sight. I felt as if floating over a big dark abyss.
Why was this happening to me, I heard myself asking. I was not certain. Why? I squeezed my head tighter and tighter. I felt a headache approaching. I just sat there, glued to the letters on the wall in front of me, resting my eyes on those letters, reading them, slowly, one at a time, while in my mind spelling out two words: Marina and Stefanija. It seemed as if I could handle anything, as long as I was able to see them, even from a great distance, even at night, while they slept. My eyes yearned for them. Photographs were not of use in this case. They were just a two dimensional search through memory lands. They could not appease my greatest desire of seeing my girls in person. In my thoughts I ran continuous conversations with them. Every day: morning, noon, night.
I reached a decision to turn a new leaf whilst interpreting my own existence. I armed myself with confidence, accepting the challenge to beat everyone in sight. I gave myself a new lease on life. I could not stop believing in miracles. Some people think that even miracles cannot help effectuate change. And then, an actual miracle takes place and we begin seeing things in a whole new light.
The windows had to remain semi-open or we would be consumed by all of the rot, rust, and mold. It was a foggy morning, murky, with clouds that ebbed and flowed in the distance. Rain was on the horizon. I could sense winter was coming. A monochromatic oneness that could not be penetrated. Pavle sat on his bed. His eyesight was stuck on his knees. He did not blink, he did not even move to inhale. Mile, on the other hand, was just waking up.
The morning shift was assigned to one of the deputies. He was an arrogant prick not interested in anyone else but himself. That was the impression he’d left behind. In fact, he made an extra effort not to be liked by people. When he saw me, he started rolling his eyes.
“Well, well, what do we have here…This is where you’ve ended up, ha?”
“They brought me in late last night.”
“Hmmm…Why? Was there a reason?”
“As much as the other relocations were a reasonable move, so was this one.”
“You’ll pull through…there is nothing else to it”, he said and left. He went next door. There was no time to let him know that amidst all the pain and daily humiliation, I no longer felt fear. Even if they threw me on a pyre, I would not budge. The only thought that went through my head was: One day I would certainly die, but not here and not like this. I was overcome by raw animalism. Now, I was sure that I would ride this wave out, no matter how long it took me to reach the shore.
Here, in A-4, I lived an endless struggle between my reason and my emotions. My dreams served as collateral for my defeats and the absurdity of my present circumstances. My mood was rampant, swinging back and forth like a gymnast working the high bar.
Before and after lunch I’d planted my feet in front of the windows. I’d keep nightly vigil well into the morning hours. I’d spent all of my free time there. I’d look into the distance and think. I saw all that stood in front of me, thinking how a group of morons were actively destroying my life. Four and a half years of prison for doing my job properly, justly, rightly.
I travelled from one crappy place to the next. Always with good intention, wishing to make the world better and spare it from all of the crap we are constantly faced with. I was on the road constantly: trains, buses, planes. I slept in hotel rooms but also shitholes, depending on what story I was chasing. I missed all the hype and drama. All I ever did seemed monumentally important. The stakes always ran high. Nothing matters now. It seems all trivial.
I was convinced that the work I did meant something, that it was the right kind of a job; and the feeling after accomplishing something right, something just, was priceless. This was how I publicly stood up to the “big shots” who hid behind their social functions, while robbing the country blind, all under the pretense of patriotism or nationally-meaningful work. I fought for each and every one of my stories, I worked even when not working, facing obstacles, problems, threats, curses, and now a prison sentence. What for, I kept asking myself. Is there a price?
I was certain that the “one who gave the order” was not one man; I was certain that this “scenario” involved several parties and a network that grew in size, working together to stray me off my path towards the truth. I tried to comfort myself. I tried telling myself that those in charge of justice in our country had an underdeveloped conscience. I felt a bitterness at heart. I needed something to take the sting away. Something sweet, something unbearably sweet. Something that would help numb this feeling. But there is no drink sweet enough for this task. I breathe in and out, looking at the sky all around me: translucently blue, with the accompanying chillness of air. “WALK! You get out in five minutes!” the guard’s voice could be heard from the outside. They took us through a hallway, then another one, before we reached the site. From this part of the yard, we could see Mount Vodno54. The view was certainly more inspirational. And the houses, the surrounding ones, that sprawled in a series, gave off a claustrophobic vibe. The assigned half an hour passed by unnoticedly.
Lunch followed. I gulped it up, and stood there, for a long time, looking pathetic in the quiet of the warm afternoon.
It was sometime between four and five in the afternoon. We awaited the concert of the “isolation ward” crowd, to our left. At first, quiet music could be heard. Then, somewhat louder music, followed by louder and louder tones, interspersed with moans, half human, half animalistic. As if a child had taken to the violin’s bow, pulling it with all of his force. This polyphonic spree of theirs got on my nerves, but there was nothing to be done except turn a deaf ear to the neighborhood’s vocal talents.
The door was opened by the guard on duty, and right behind him I saw a crowd of “surgeons”: five men with white gloves lined the hallway. It became immediately clear: they were here to search us. An order followed by one of them: “Come on, get in!” I was calm as never before. I knew we had nothing to hide. And what could we have? What could Mile or Pavle have?! They did not care about anything else except my bed and my boxes. There was nothing to hide in either one. Mile was the one who stayed behind, overlooking the search, while Pavle and I stepped outside. They also searched us, through and through. We had nothing to hide, for there was nothing to hide, so I approached the guard without fear. Although I was convinced that I did not carry with me any contraband thing, the caution I’d grown accustomed to during my seven-month stay here was already a part of my disposition. I put my hands in my pockets, to confirm once again that I had nothing on me. I was right. So, they took out all of my clothes from the cardboard boxes, going through them two-three times over. They left empty-handed. We were back to “normal”.
This cell was a repository of lost souls. I felt numb. I was slowly succumbing to my depression, though fiercely trying to stay afloat. Depression is a terrible secret residing deep down in all of us, waiting its turn. It ambushes us, when the masks come down. Depression is just another name for human alienation. Pavle was just being quiet, and a bit deaf in one ear. He never initiated a conversation or got round to be engaged in one. He was always, and seemingly forever, sad. I don’t remember if he ever smiled. He feared his own shadow. And rightfully so, because even the slightest miss, sometimes unprovoked, saw him slapped around, yelled at, and bullied. He was heavily traumatized, heard all sorts of things being said to his face, while he stood there, ashamed in his silence. He’d pass me and Mile with his gaze always to the floor. Each sudden movement on our part would bring him to tears. From time to time, he grew increasingly apathetic and withdrawn, only to be completely lost to the world.
Mile, on the other hand, was always self-medicating, taking to the Diazepam pills as Tic-tacs. He’d take his daily dosage, which included three pills, and then I’d give him two of my own. So he was always “baked”. He spent about twenty out of the twenty-four hours in day lying down.
During the night, I would wake up from time to time, talk to myself for a bit, and then fall back asleep. When awake, my thoughts were always with my loved ones. During those moments, my blood was torn up by pieces of glass. I could not figure out how I kept living through a sequence of the same kind of day. And it’d been three days since I last spoke to Marina and Stefanija. This had not happened since my incarceration. Who knows what they might be thinking right now. My body was in despair.
It would be winter soon, I thought. It was November; soon, December, New Year’s, and Orthodox Christmas would follow. I closed my eyes, trying to focus. On any one thing. I tried to think about the day before, last Christmas, my wedding day. Nothing. The images would drift away from my mind, immediately followed by other, stronger one. Much stronger, far more real. That image stayed with me for a few moments, flickering so radiantly and truthfully that I could almost reach it … then, I woke up. The image was gone, torn into a thousand pieces. Everything dissipated. And then, as a rule, I was overtaken by a strong resolve to persevere … Not all is lost: a powerful thought, bodiless, shapeless, stealthily left my mind. As a kind of cocoon that I had to shed behind, so that the mind could be free to achieve punctuality and impartialness.
It was a chilly and gloomy morning. The window had steamed. I was observing a raven skipping hiddenly, and somewhat agitatedly, towards a piece of bread, constantly turning its body left and right. Although it did not happen before that I awoke tired and frightened, with painfully frozen feet, I was convinced that this day would be no different than the ones prior. I stood by the window roaming the soot of my lonely world. The sky had turned into an indistinguishable dark grayness. From the cell next door, I heard a familiar voice. Yes, it was Biljana. I was certain. I recognized her voice. I’d spoken with her window through window, when I spent time in A-1.
“Biljanaaaaaaaaaaaa” I called out her name.
“Kezho, is that you?!”
“Yes, it’s me. They brought me here three days ago.”
“I too am a new arrival in this cell.”
“Listen, do you have a comb?”
Maybe someone would find my request funny, but there was no other way I’d learn if they had a phone. “Comb” was code for cell-phone in here.
“Yes, yes. We do. You have not combed?”
“My hair’s a mess. I have not combed it in several days. Forgot my comb in the C-block.”
“Where do you need it for?”
“For home,” I tell Biljana.
I started feeding her the numbers. It was no easy feet.
“Yesterday, I ate supper at seven, but also took a bite at eight. I had not eaten for two days. Six days I’d been taking pills.
And so, I proceeded to feed her my home number, and she wrote down the digits. When she was uncertain about something, I had to repeat the information.
“Six days you’d been on the pills?” she asked.
“Yes, six”, I replied.
Two hours later she tapped the wall. It was a sign for me to show up on the window. We had to rely on codes once again.
“A little while ago, the news on Kanal 77 ended. They said all was good.”
The days took their turn, one after the other, the same, endless, disconnected.
Million thoughts ran through me, piling one on top the other. I was tormented by nightmares, which got me up more than once during the night and left me sitting there in the dark, enwrapped by my thoughts. I would lean against the wall and analyze the time I’d left behind me. I chatted with myself, “in private” so to speak. An unmediated dialogue between me and my ego, over the soullessness of an alienated world.
There were moments when I laughed by myself; I suppose if anyone had seen me, they’d think that something was not right with me. In the moments of my greatest despair, I’d stand next to the window and focus on my gaze on the far distance. I tried, as mightily as I could, to find the root-cause for my anguish.
I’d always tried to move beyond the limits of investigative journalism. I knew that there were things forbidden, answers that could not be written down, lines that should not be crossed; I am no child, but work was my paramount. I had not even considered the possibility of having entered the “red zone”. With each article, I knew what my goal was: to let the Macedonian public know the truth. I could go without sleep for several nights in a row just to finish a piece I’d started. A strange kind of an adrenaline rush would take over me when I’d start exploring.
I had dedicated my work to uncovering the truth, to seeking justice. And it turned out that all of it was a dangerous task for one man. I was proud of myself for managing to uncover any malpractice, corruption or misuse of public goods and funds, one step ahead of the police’s investigation, though they were far better equipped for a thorough investigation. I did not have a “badge”, but I always managed to discover something of substance, a key piece of information. Instead of taking it to make my life easier, simpler, I had made things complicated beyond measure. My adventurous spirit had led me to put my family in jeopardy. I had forsaken my duties and responsibilities as a man and a husband, so that I could wander the streets and dingy alleyways, set to do my explorations and research. I had touched life’s true bloodlines. I had walked my path; perhaps it was the right one, perhaps it was the wrong one, but at least it was mine.
It was a Monday. I felt out of sorts, unlike myself. My head was buzzing like a dynamo.
My body felt heavy, the ground beneath my feet shaking. I could not make my eyes focus. I did not know if I had a fever or if reality had finally caught up with me. My skull burnt; I felt the tiny patter of ant-feet all over it. I felt I was losing my mind. It was all aflutter, shapeless.
“Mile, please, let them know I need a doctor.”
I was not bluffing. I had never misused this privilege, and was not about to now.
“Mile, please, call for a doctor.”
About five minutes had passed when the deputy in charge of the shift came to the door.
“What is it Kezho? What is going on?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“Come, get up slowly, and we are going to see the doctor upstairs.”
“I can’t, my feet cannot hold me.”
This man I had previously deemed the worst kind of a self-centered misanthrope took me by the hand and led me to the doctor’s. They took my blood pressure and did an EKG. The results they kept to themselves, the doctor writing them down in my chart.
“Don’t be upset by this. This is nothing unusual in these circumstances. I’ll prescribe something to keep you afloat.”
I went back to my cell and took to my bed. I closed my eyes, letting my grief take over me. I felt better once I surrendered to my helplessness. I felt no shame; I had no expectations any more. My emotions got the better of me.
That afternoon I had met the deputy once again. The man who took me to see the doctor. We met when I went in to collect the package my wife had sent. There were two of them in the small office space where we sat to meet up with our attorneys. They opened my package and checked everything inside. I collected my things, placed them in a plastic bag, and thanked him for what he did for me that morning.
“Sit down for a bit. How are you doing?”
“Honestly, not well. My life has been cut up into unrecognizable chunks.”
“Those roommates of yours, they are something else.”
“I do not know how to respond to that. Do not misunderstand me, I do not wish to offend anyone. It is who I am. Sensitive and emotional, that is how I am built.”
We were left alone, since the other guard was called on a task.
“I’ve not had the opportunity to say anything so far. And I’ve stood on the sidelines. You now…”
“I know and I respect that. A job is a job. I do not have anything to say against your actions, any one of them.”
I never thought he’d open up to me. He spoke fast as if trying to cram all before time was up.
“There is something you ought to know. I learnt of this but had no way to pass on the information. Your life was at risk; this is all rather serious. It’s good that you are in here. This is a place one leaves from.”
“It will pass, yes. What is done, is done. I am clean as a whistle. I stood up in defense of my profession, said what I had to say, but it felt as if it was all in vain. During Ottoman Turkish times, they would sentence people to over a 100 years, and people survived. Yes, someone else had warned me about my personal safety back in May, but I refused to take the information seriously. I was not fully aware of the danger, what mattered was the topic I was researching; I was cocky and proud, but had no fear. My need to help justice see the light of day was stronger than ever before. I managed on the strength of my argumentation, and not any hearsay. I prefer a fair fight. I expected a fair chance to defend myself but received no opportunity. The “below the belt” shots knocked me down well. I know that it will pass with time, and I am certain I will find my feet again.”
“He who hits maliciously and cunningly is not the stronger party, but rather than one who can hold on”, he paused and then continued: “Democracy does not mean much in our parts. Instead of being the great civilizational imperative, here, it acts as a front for the cruel faces of contemporary tyrants. Freedom of choice, pluralism, consensus, vote by referendum, these are all just terms most cannot even spell let alone know the true meaning of.”
“They will never be the same for me; my roots are planted deep into the tree of this country.”
“Many of this institution’s tenants do not care about morality or the ethics behind it. They are obsessed with a single thought: to save their hide. Or: to save all that can be saved, so they will make sure that someone else take their place in the sentencing act.” “That is true. You are right. But I could not do that.”
I stood up and exited. I did not want to draw the unwanted attention of anyone who could snitch my words to the Madam Warden.
The night was crystal clear, paved with strong moonlight. I was working on my hangover that day. My mind worked through thoughts, looking for freedom and respite. I was filled by a memory, thrusted back into the past. It was all aflutter; it all seemed under some sort of a haze.
“Kezhoooo!” Biljana cried out.
“No need to yell; I am right here.”
“How long have you been by the window?”
“All day long. There is nothing else to do. I am either here or reading a book. I do not have a new one to read, so I out getting some air. You?”
“I am waiting for my turn to comb my hair. The new girl is getting hers done at the moment.” (I am waiting to make a phone call. The new girl is on the phone at the moment.)
“Will you let me know what’s on the news?” (Will you call my house?)
A while later…
“Are you here?”
“Yes, I am. I am meditating.”
“The news just ended. They said it was all good.”
We chated some more. She passed on greetings from my roommates in C-19, said that they were asking where I was now placed, who I was now placed with, and if I needed anything. She also said that my roommates in number 14, Bojan as well, asked about my well-being too.
“I do not know anything about anyone. I’ve lost touch with people. I have no way to get any word out to them. If you can, send my hellos.”
“Deal. I am off to bed. Good night.”
The nights were already cold and we could not afford standing in front of an open window as much. I turned left to right. An already familiar view: Pavle and Mile were sound asleep. There was nothing left but to go to sleep myself, with my legs no longer holding me steady. I too crashed my bed.
That Tuesday brought a whole new host of excitement. In the period from 7 am till noon, several seasons took their turn. First, it started raining. Then it stopped, only to start and stop again. When it came our turn to go outside, the clouds parted and the sky grew in size. I’d made a few laps when all of a sudden I heard someone say behind my back.
“Kezharovskiiiiii! Come over here!”
It was the guard on duty, He sounded tense, his voice somewhat nervous, unlike what I’d heard that morning. He stood in the space between the door leading to corridor “B” and the entry to two yards. The total size of the space was about two meters. I murmured that I was coming.
“Come on, hurry up! Do not drag your feet!”
He had never treated me like that. I wondered what was going on. When I reached him, he yelled even louder than before: “Close the door, do not just stand there! I don’t have time to wait around for you!”I came by his side. Just me and him in that tiny space. He unbuttoned his shirt pocket, took out a cell phone, and placed it in my hand. “But,” I did not manage to finish my thought. He did not look like someone I should place my trust in.“No but, enjoy it.”
Overtaken by a sudden surge of self-confidence, I tucked the phone into my underpants and went for the door. The coast was clear. We had not yet had our search. When I came back to the cell, I took it out. It was a miniature piece, more like a remote control lock for a car, and it did have the BMW sign on it. It had a cover, with the dials underneath. The battery was empty, so I needed to locate a charger. I had a box of effervescent tablets, but no wiring. I’d figure something out. I had to. I informed Mile about “the gift”. He could not believe his eyes when he saw the size of the phone, not bigger than a box of matches. “We got a phone, what else will happen today, I wonder”, said the Justice of the Peace. He sat near the wall table by himself, listening to sentimental music on the radio, as old as Bach himself, with his eyes closed and his cigarette dangling from his mouth. His face all sunken in, contorted into a frightening and compassionate smile.
I had my lunch and took to the window. The sun was setting in the distance, hiding behind the clouds and covering the surroundings with its tender orange glow. Equally beautiful and terrifying, in the midst of it all, I somehow struggled with myself. I closed my eyes, only to be overrun by new memories. I thought of one thing, when several seconds later something else took hold of me. I was at once thrown into the present. I kept returning to the inevitable truth: I will be in here for a long time. I closed my eyes, thinking of what I’d read that day in a newspaper dated October 23rd. One image stood out, Marina saying: “I will defend him with my bare hands.”
My thoughts were interrupted by the scratch on the door. A guard, with a notepad in hand.“Come Pavle, come over here to sign! Here and here, that’s right. In this notebook and on this paper.” “That’s right. Now this is for you. Kezho will let you know what it says.” He did not inform him what the document was about, or where it came from. He just closed the door behind him and left.
Not that Pavle would have understood, but it would have been humane for the guard to spend at least five minutes explaining. I took the document into my hands and started reading it. It was a decree stating that he would be released from custody. After two and a half years spent in detainment, now the court had agreed to let him defend himself while out on bail. The decree would be placed in effect three day from the date of its receipt. I sat him down and started explaining. I told him: “This Friday you are going home. It says here that you are being released from prison.” A smile danced on his parched lips, tears shed from his eyes. He went up and down the cell, crying and talking to himself. He placed the document under his pillow and lied on top of it. He fell asleep nursing that piece of paper sent from the Kumanovo District Court.
Mile, on the other hand, was long asleep. He had taken his pills, and mine, and surrendered to their powers. Large drops of rain were hitting the window. The power of the rain would oscillate, torrential, followed by little tiny drops. Behind the bars, I’d watch the wind drag the heavy clouds across the sky. I’d hear the rain and think about growing old. I’d imagine myself growing older and older and older. I ended that thought before it became a rumination about death.
During dark times, men had found religion to be their most trusted guide, much like a blind man is the best guide for a pitch-black night, for he knows the roads and paths better than anyone else. I had not forsaken my religious beliefs, not now, not ever. I was spent. My eyes needed their rest. Fatigue got the better of me. I got up at an ungodly hour. The break of dawn. Prostrate, I watched the outdoors from my bedside. The sky was overstrewn with heavy clouds. They were moving north to south, cramped together as inmates. My eyes were looking to focus in the distance. Everything was jumbled up. My entire biorhythm was off. I did not know when I went to bed, when I got up; I did not know anything with certainty.
“Is it raining again?” asked Mile.
“Yes,” I answered mechanically.
“Autumn is inspirational,” Mile spoke, inhaling; at least this morning the air was less polluted, cleared overnight. “You are not sleeping?” he asked.
“No, I cannot.”
“Pavle is leaving on Friday.”
“Either we’ll get a new Pavle, or someone else from around here …”
“As long as we don’t get separated.”
“Mile, you know I have no saying power, right?”
“Yes, yes, I know. I am just saying.”
Breakfast arrived. The menu: a lump of margarine, some kind of marmalade, and bread.
The guards did their rounds.
I laid on my bed, while listening to Pavle and Mile discussing when to eat and where to eat. I heard them, but did not really hear them. I was faced with injustice and the question of how to deal with it. It burnt deep inside me, pushing me further and further down the abyss. Our orderly justice system had sentenced me to four and a half years imprisonment, simply for placing a cog in their wheels and preventing them from spinning a story. And the story, the one that I am in here for, no matter which way one turns it, does not hold water. I had to raise my voice to the unbearable superficiality and insufferable irresponsibility, and they had to deliver results.
I’d been labeled as a potential threat a long time ago; my number has been up for quite some time. But now, after my article detailing the pay-toll scheme near the scene of Nikola Mladenov’s fatality, I’ve been branded a “hostile” journalist, an enemy, and well-informed sources clued me in on the plan for my “annihilation”. I will continue to search for the truth, every which way. That is a promise I’ve made.
Executioners in silk gloves and judges in obsequious robes, I do believe that one day you will be ashamed of what you’ve done. All clues and leads cannot be destroyed to offer protection to the select few. If the victim is sacrificed publically, then the executioners, the real ones, have to show their faces, openly and publically. I cannot be left branded while they hide in the shadows. They too must face the truth. All those who tried to shame me, defoul my good name, turn me into the lowest kind of a criminal, brand me a smuggler, gambler, and cheap profiteer, who enjoys boozing and immoral choices, together with those making a profit at the expense of the people’s all-financial misery, will receive their justice, heads bowed low. Real justice, sooner than later. There is no amnesty for what they’ve done. That is a promise I’ve made. Knock on wood, my memory serves me well. I felt slight dizziness. Like never before I did not crave a walk. I did not wish to go outside, yet I had to. I could barely walk. All sorts of things passed through my head. I do not remember how I got back to the cell. This was by far the hardest day I’d experienced.
It was a Thursday, November 7th. As usual, breakfast was served, roll-call summoned, yard time passed. I felt better than the day before. Perhaps the new pills were doing their thing.
It was somewhere between five and six in the afternoon. I felt a quake. I jumped from bed and started banging on the wall, the one separating us from the female cell. I knocked on that wall like a madman. Biljana appeared at the window.
“Hey, what is it? What’s got into you?”
“Listen, please, do me a favor. They are scared. They get frightened.”
I knew how much Marina and Stefanija were afraid of earthquakes. I had to found out how they were doing.
“Yes, sure. No worries. I’ll let you know.”
I stood by the window and waited. I could not stand still. All of a sudden I heard a scream from A-3. Oh man, what now.
“Kezhooooo, Kezhooooo!” Biljana was screaming from the top of her voice. “You are going home, man, you are going home!”
“Please do not add salt to my wound, I am feeling lousy as it is.”
“Hey man, are you listening to me? You are going home! They just said so on the radio.”
The ones in the “isolation” cell, to our left, had also found out. They had a TV, part of their amenities. They saw a news bulletin on the screen: BREAKING NEWS: “The Court is releasing the journalist Kezharovski from custody and placing him under house arrest.” They started banging on the bars. Those above us too, also in “isolation”, banged the windowsills as a sign of support.
First, it all seemed like a daze. I was out of sorts. Then, slowly, the image crystallized and sharpened. And all of a sudden, it read clear and precise. I heard knocking on the door. It was the guard on duty.
“Kezho, you are leaving. Get ready. Five minutes, and you are out.”
I did not need a lot of time to gather my belongings. I climbed on top of the window to say my goodbyes. I wished them all a speedy march to freedom. I am out of her. I am out of this god-forsaken place.
The guard on duty returned the belongings confiscated at my entry. There were not that many. I took the two most important items and held them closely: my wedding ring and the prayer beads bracelet I had received at Bigorski Monastery55. I am leaving, never to return again.
History is made of defeats and victories. Now I know that I’ve lost, but soon I will come out victorious. I know it. For secrets can never remain hidden. One way or another, even after many years, they will see the light of day.
54 A mountain in the vicinity of Skopje.
55 Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery, a Macedonian Orthodox Monastery located in western Macedonia, dating back to the 11th century.
The Macedonian authorities use very heavy-handed methods to crush criticism and investigations into political corruption. Free expression is under increasing threat. More than half of Macedonia’s citizens are scared to openly express their opinions. Journalists are pushed into self-censorship fearing that telephones and emails are monitored. The case known as ‘Likvidacija’, Macedonian for ‘Annihilation’ gives a breathtaking example of power abuse as on May 2013 the investigating journalist Tomislav Kezharovski (1965) is arrested by special forces and sued for an article he wrote in 2008. Despite the absence of any evidence that he violated any law, Kezharovski was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. After spending five months in jail, in cramped and unsanitary conditions, and without access to medical treatment, he was released into house arrest pending the outcome of his appeal. As in January 2015 his sentence was reduced to two years, he was arrested again to serve the remaining five months. Widespread domestic and international protests, by hundreds of journalists and activists led to Kezharovski’s release. This essay describes from experience about the lawlessness of the system and the unimaginable prison conditions in present Macedonia. A publication of the Eva Tas Foundation. The Eva Tas Foundation encourages publication and promotion of texts that are, no matter where and no matter how, subject to censorship.