January 21, 2011
Word was spreading through the city: there was to be a protest. In Tirana, the capital of Albania, the news didn’t come over Twitter or Facebook or even via mobile phones or text message. Somehow, everyone just knew, as though the country had wordlessly agreed upon it; as though the events leading up to it were so brazen that it would be redundant to plan and prepare. When something like this happens, everyone just knows. Ostensibly, the source of the protest was the outrage against Ilir Meta, the Deputy Prime Minister, who had been caught on video conspiring to take hundreds of thousands of euros in bribes for himself and Prime Minister Sali Berisha in exchange for lucrative government contracts. Not that this was a surprising development – everyone in Albania knew their government was corrupt – but it was the indisputable evidence of the video tape, coupled with Meta’s surreally implausible denial, that made the protest inevitable. So yes, it was about Ilir Meta, but it was also about government corruption in general. And it was also about the lingering rage of the opposition, led by Tirana mayor Edi Rama, who still disputed the fairness of the most recent national elections. And about the stalled negotiations for Albania’s entry into the EU. And about economic stagnation. And about a lack of jobs. And about a decaying infrastructure. A riot was about to happen and most of the people didn’t need a reason, but for those who did, there were reasons enough for everybody. At its core, though, this was to be a protest without any aim or goal. It was a protest against life itself by old people who had seen too many promises gone sour, by young people who had not seen enough to know that this is how it always would be.
Walking through the residential neighborhoods to the location of the protest, I was surprised by the utter normalcy of life in the city. Shops were open. People sat in cafés or idled on park benches, smoked on the sidewalk, waited for the bus. As I got closer to downtown, though, a first subtle sign that something unusual was happening: there were more security guards standing outside the shops and office buildings. Not that they were doing anything, not that they looked nervous or anxious, there were just more of them. And then, a few hundred meters closer to the protest, another change: the disappearance of women. There were no women. Anywhere. Only men. Lots and lots of men. Standing around in their jeans and leather jackets, walking, chatting, doing nothing, smoking cigarettes. Walking through Student City, the university district, I caught my first sight of the protest: huge billows of dark grey smoke, four distinct plumes issuing into the blue sky above the rooftops. Soon, the entire sky would be a diffuse grey, but at this early hour, with the cars only just burned, the smoke rose straight and steady as a marble column.
Nearing the main boulevard, I heard the protest for the first time: a reverberating collective shout, something like the sound that comes from a soccer stadium when the home team, facing elimination in some important tournament, wins in sudden death or shootouts. It was like this in volume and pitch, but nothing like it in power: this was a primordial shout in blood. And then the sound of another car exploding and a new column of smoke. More cheers. I felt my heart pound a bit faster, felt the slightest surge of adrenaline. I walked faster.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Baron Haussmann redesigned the winding alleyways of medieval Paris along the new plan of wide boulevards for which it is known today. Critics of the Baron’s plans argued that the impetus was not solely aesthetic: the restored French monarchy, fearing the fate of their predecessors in the French Revolution, noted the two-fold difficulty facing the deployment of Royalist troops throughout the city. First, the revolutionaries were able to create barricades the full width of the narrow streets – a tactic immortalized in Victor Hugo’s depiction of the 1832 Paris Uprising in Les Misérables. Moreover, the narrow streets made it difficult for large regiments of soldiers to stay in formation as they moved through the streets. In 1930, when the new King of Albania, Zog I, asked Benito Mussolini to redesign Tirana as his royal capital, Il Duce sent over Florestano de Fausto and Armando Brasini. The Italian architects leveled huge swathes of the city to make way for King Zog Boulevard (which then became Stalin Boulevard under the Communists and is currently the Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit, the National Martyrs’ Boulevard), bounded on each end by plazas named after the two great heroes of Albania: the late Mother Theresa, famous for her network of orphanages in India, and the medieval warlord Skanderbeg, famous for preserving Christendom against the Ottomans with a series of military victories. The great saint and the great warrior stand at the ends of the great paradox that is Albanian national identity.
What Haussmann, de Fausto and Brasini didn’t realize, however, was that in solving one problem, they unintentionally created another: now protesters had large empty spaces in which to gather. The boulevards and plazas where the soldiers were meant to gather also became the staging grounds of the protests. The Italians made yet another mistake in not paving the boulevard but in cobbling it with small bricks. By the end of the day, the protesters, having exhausted the supply of stones they had brought with them to use as projectiles against the police eventually began prying the bricks out of the street itself.
Columns of police in riot gear lined the boulevard, stone-faced behind their shaded visors, surrounding the swelling crowd which overflowed the boulevard and both of the plazas. Camera crews and journalists were photographing the burning cars which had been tipped over in the open square in front of the Pyramid building (intended as the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha’s mausoleum, it had fallen into disrepair and disuse and, despite being Albania’s most unique piece of architecture, is now slated for destruction).
Peering over the crowd, I could make out the scene up ahead: at the heavily guarded gates of the government offices, a surge of protesters pushing and fighting their way forward against the riot police, forcing them back with a constant stream of rocks and bottles and sticks and clubs. One man even brandished an umbrella. The newspapers the next day would say there were 20,000 protesters, but this was not true. There were, in fact, maybe one hundred at first. There were 19,900 people standing around watching, hoping for violence, hoping for some memorable spectacle, or, really, just because, in a country with high unemployment, especially among young and middle-aged men, they had nowhere else to go and this was the place to be. Rumors circulated that public employees working in municipalities governed by opposition politicians had been compelled, under threat of losing their jobs, to board the buses which brought them to the protest from all ends of the country. We watched for some time. The protesters would surge forward; the police would charge back. The non-protesting part of the crowd seemed almost bored, their sloganeering devoid of passion. People turned to talk of other things, mostly when the cold spell would break and they could go swim in the Adriatic, 20 miles west of the capital. Then somewhere behind us, that sound again, that deafening sound of thousands of people screaming in unison.
Until that point, I had not been scared at all; the scene had all the excitement of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade down Broadway in New York. I was not scared of the police: the others didn’t seem to be, so why would I? They were only defending themselves against the more active protesters up front. But I quickly became scared of the crowd. There was a ripple effect down the boulevard. People were pushing, but there was nowhere to go. The pushing became more insistent, the noise louder; I began to panic. Something was happening but I didn’t know what. No one knew. From one face to another, the panic spread, but no one knew why and we pushed and shoved and tried to run but we didn’t know where we were running to or from or why. And, in that sea of pressed flesh, there was nowhere to run anyway.
The sound of an engine. Lurching through the crowd was a big black box of a van, and from each side hoses protruded like the cannons on some seventeenth-century Spanish Galleon. I had only seen hoses like this in the grainy videos of the Civil Rights protests I had watched at school growing up. Their impact is swift, powerful and deeply disturbing. The people closest were lifted off their feet and thrown into the packed masses; people further back were merely knocked to the ground, then trampled by the undulating crowd. Something beyond panic had gripped us now. My chest tightened as the tight line of water came closer to me. It was as though it had already hit me, I was having such trouble breathing. But I was far enough back. Dispersed against the chests and faces and arms of others more unlucky than I, I felt only a light splash of cold water, like the mist of a garden hose, on my face. My muscles relaxed and I felt the oxygen begin to flow once again into my lungs. My diaphragm hurt. In its wake, the truck left only the silence of scattered bodies and the sound of whimpers. But there was no time to recover.
It sounded like a hiss at first, the sound a shaken soda bottle makes when its owner opens it slowly, only a bit at first, to let the pressure out. This sound, first once, then a second time, a third, then a million times in quick succession. Before I knew what it was, the stinging had reached my eyes. I fell to the ground, wheezing, covering my eyes with my hands. I could feel the crowd again seething and surging; someone stepped on my hand, a leg crashed into my side. I had to stand back up. Blinking my eyes open, I could see huge plumes of tear gas wafting in every direction and everywhere people staggering about, trampling anyone in their desperation to get out, clawing their eyes and shrieking.
The sound of gunfire, pop pop pop, then the sound of bullets whizzing like dragonflies winging past my ear. I had never heard gunfire like this before, constant, swirling. It felt as though it was coming from directly in front of me… no… behind me… from everywhere at once, but I couldn’t tell where.
Bullets are indifferent killers, and death is a strange thing. It terrorizes a man because a living mind, like a dead one, cannot imagine its opposite. It is a cognitive black hole that can only be imagined around and, in imagining around it, the thing itself grows only larger and more terrible. And in that moment of desperate, paralyzing fear, instinct kicks in, and the instinct is to flee from death at all costs. Intelligence, reason, social convention: the things that bind society together are the first things to be eviscerated by gunshots. I thought nothing of stepping over a man who was screaming, clawing vainly at his eyes as if he could pull the tear gas off with his fingernails; I thought nothing of pushing a man to the ground and then stepping on him if he was running too slowly, and on my shoulders and back and the edges of my clothes I felt grasping hands trying to push me aside, to pull me down, to trample me.
And then the crowd, that surging crowd, beaten back by tear gas and bullets and clubs, turned. What terror there may have been in the sound of bullets was nothing compared to a panicked swarming mass of a few thousand people in full flight. In waves, they turned and ran, each line turning and spooking the line behind. But at some point – everything is at once amorphous and organic in crowds – the fear of being trampled is greater than the fear of getting hit by the bullets, and the crowd, hemmed in on all sides, turned again. I have seen cattle stampede on the plain, but from horseback, in an open field, this causes more amusement than fear. But on foot, alone, when thousands of your fellow men turn and run like animals: this is a terror I had never known, deeper and more chilling than I had thought possible. Nor is it a momentary thing. The idea that we are different than animals is deeply rooted in the human psyche; to have that conviction so definitively proven false is to be shaken to one’s core. The fear of death reveals the truth about a man, about his character. A man learns the value of the principles that guide his life relative to his very life itself.
Riot hoses and bullets and tear gas and clubs are effective means of dispersing a crowd. Raw force of that kind makes a man fear for his life, and this powerful fear, through instinct or one’s own volition, often override the more abstract principles of liberty and transparency for which protesters take to the streets.
Much had been made that day and those previous of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. What the dictators there had not realized, I think, is that a man puts a price even on his own life, and when the fear of continuing to live under insufferable conditions like those becomes higher than the pain, the humiliation and the fear of death itself, a man will no longer run. The cost of life has become higher than the cost of death.
But in that first moment of gunfire and tear gas, the crowd ran as one. And the almost festive conviviality that had characterized the protest – the back ranks of the protest, anyway – until then was gone. Jumping over cars, trampling those who had fallen, terrified beyond reason, everyone thought only of themselves and their own lives. “29,” I kept thinking, “I am 29 and strong; I can run and I am strong. I will not get trampled to death. I will not get trampled to death. I am 29 and strong and I will not get trampled to death.” This was my only thought.
And then the panic was over, and everyone stood still again. The gunfire and the screaming were over. The only sounds now were the whimpers of the wounded. A man next to me looked in stunned surprise at the huge welt developing on his left arm where he had been struck by a rubber bullet. And, trembling all over, dizzy and tingling, my head spinning, my fingers numb, my heart racing, I turned with the crowd and we charged straight at the riot police, letting out a blood-curdling shriek the likes of which I had only heard before in movies, when one line of soldiers charges at the other. We had been merely spectators before, but now the police themselves had made us participants. We charged not because of the fear, not even because of rage and a desire to hurt those who had hurt us. No, we charged because of the exhilaration.
It is impossible to describe the sublime mingling of terror and elation, the unique and irreproducible feeling that one is so truly and really living that can only be experienced when one approaches death, and which increases in direct proportion to one’s proximity to it.
To feel alive! To be so close to death! And so I followed the shrieking mob back, over the smashed and overturned cars, past the men covered in blood, sobbing and crying, and the little group of friends and strangers surrounding them, parting the crowd and dragging them away. Blood everywhere, spattered on the streets, blood dripping down faces and covering collars and shirts: bloody head wounds from batons, bleeding hands from falling, crawling and standing again. And everyone rubbing their eyes, blinded by tear gas and rage and excitement and an impossibly powerful rush of adrenaline in the head.
When we returned to the Pyramid and had again scaled its side, we saw that the trees in front of the government buildings had been set on fire. A huge roar from the crowd went up, as if anything other than them burning their own institutions had just transpired. The very trees in whose shade they had only yesterday lounged and relaxed, against whose trunks they sat as they spent time with their family and friends, had now become hostile: they – we – celebrated their destruction. Tomorrow, we would miss them, but today, we longed to watch them – and everything else in this city – burn.
Sirens from somewhere. In front of me? Behind me? Two fire trucks, like little Matchbox cars in a sea of spectators, driving through to extinguish the fires. But these people, these people in the back, though they had come for spectacle found themselves protesting now. But to drive two defenseless fire trucks, bright red with sirens wailing: they may as well have painted targets on the side and put Ilir Meta’s face on them. With the anonymity that comes from mob violence, these back row people felt empowered and, as though from nowhere, stones started appearing. The front windshield of the lead fire truck was shattered and over the scream of the mob could be heard the thud thud thud of rocks against their armored sides. The fireman, poor fireman, given terrible orders by an incompetent commander still hiding in the safety of some room somewhere far away, raised his arm to block the barrage of bricks and rocks flying through the shattered glass. I tore a cobbled stone from the boulevard and hurled it at the truck too. It struck, indistinguishable from the others, against the side of the truck. I had no stake in the outcome of the protests, the rise and fall of Albanian governments, but watching that rock strike that truck was a powerful victory. They had, after all, fired tear gas and rubber bullets and water cannons at me. They had made me a protester, as they had thousands of others there.
As quickly as the fireman arrived, he fled, but he could not turn the big truck around in that small space packed with people, so he just threw it in reverse. The moment he came to a standstill, that still split-second between “drive” and “reverse,” he was pounced upon. The protesters started reaching in through the broken windows to pull him out; he fought them off with his free hand, trying to continue steering with the other. The protesters on either side began to rock the fire truck back and forth, to tip it over and burn it. The fireman, panicking, hit the gas as hard as he could, reversing the truck at high acceleration right through the crowd. Those that got out of the way did, those who couldn’t didn’t. Loud shrieks of pain, bodies flying, pushing and shoving and then the fire engine slammed backwards into a car with the bad luck to be parked on that street. But that didn’t stop the fire truck. The driver kept it in reverse, pushing that car into the next into the next, until it was pushing a whole line – five or more cars – backwards. The last car went over the edge of the road and rolled down the grassy banks into the Lana River, scattering a crowd of people. With a screech of tires and a complete indifference to the lives of the bystanders, the fire truck swiveled and turned, speeding off the way it came. The crowd cheered. Looking ahead again, a small opening where the fire truck had been: people had been struck by it, and were rolling around on the ground in pain, others lay still. Still others clutched their arm or leg or head and howled.
The police up front must have heard about the fire trucks, because a brigade of navy-clad riot police, wielding their batons and clear plastic shields, came streaking through the crowd, beating down anyone who stood in front of them. There was a panic on top of the Pyramid and people started sprinting down. Steep and slippery as it was, many of the people fell and came skidding down, crashing into other people like a bowling ball into pins, knocking them down in turn. Everyone ran; I ran. The sound of bullets again, terrifying in their closeness and even more terrifying in their arbitrary anonymity. Where were they coming from? Lots of bullets. Constant sounds of guns firing and tear gas canisters being launched. From somewhere, maybe, the sound of another car exploding and a triumphant cheer from the crowd. A teenage boy is being trampled; I jump over him without causing any harm – but only out of luck and the random break of my stride. Another foot one way or the other, and I would have stepped on him too. This was animal flight, the animal flight of the zebra at the sight of the lion, the sheep at sight of the wolf: safety in numbers, staying in the middle, hoping. And running. A middle-aged man has blood dripping from his ear but cannot stop its flow because he is rubbing his eyes.
My vision blurs. From the tear gas? From the panic? From the soot in the air or from the burning cars? The scent of burning rubber in my nostrils. Riot police everywhere. Run. Run. Run. And then, I am in the Blokku neighborhood, sweating and panting and heaving, the sound of gunfire a distant memory hard to recall… from somewhere… else… far away… people here carry shopping bags and wear the latest fashions, sit outdoors in the mid-winter warmth sipping macchiatos and smoking.
I had seen enough violence for one day. I had seen more violence in a day than in a lifetime. A man shot in the back of the head. Running, running, then, as if he had hit a wall, he straightened up, keeled over and lay motionless. I saw him fall, swerved around his sprawled out corpse. I would see it again and again, endlessly replayed on the evening news as politicians of all stripes – none of whom were there – sought political advantage. His friends dragged him to a safe spot – too late. A woman was holding a riot police helmet, waving it jauntily in the air. And I had just kept running.