By Fred A. Reed
I can hear the eyebrows zipping up like windowshades already. But I’m going to go ahead and do it. Tell what happened to me a few days ago, that is, after watching two execrable adventure movies—Taken 1 and 2—starring, if that’s the appropriate word, Liam Neeson.
For those who may have missed them the first time around, these sordid epics deal with the protagonist’s collision with a gang of Albanian white slavers who nab his nubile and naïve daughter in Paris and put her up for sale, and in the sequel, the same gang bent on revenge because Mr. Neeson had single-handedly wiped out the human trafficking gang operating in France.
When they first came out some twelve years ago, the Taken movies aroused resentment among my Albanian friends in Montréal. “Fred,” they said, “You’ve got to help us do something about these slanders!” There was nothing I could do, and besides, I wouldn’t have wasted my time on such sub-products, no matter how exciting the car chases through Istanbul.
Now that I’ve seen Taken, I understand my friends’ point. Alas, though, like any slander, they do contain a grain of truth. More than a grain, in fact. And therein hangs the tale.
The thugs depicted all hail from Trupojë, a small town in the north of Albania just over the border from the statelet of Kosovo. They abide by the primeval feudal code, called the Kanun—still in force—that obligates taking a life for a life, even if it takes generations. That makes them implacable and fearless opponents.
Until Uncle Sam came knocking, that is. The Albanian state had fallen into chaos after the dismantling of Enver Hoxha’s communist paradise. Meanwhile, just across the border, Kosovo was struggling to break away from Serbia. Someone—any guesses?— promised Albanians in neighbouring countries that a ‘Greater Albania’ was in the works.
No sooner said than done. CIA cash and operatives flowed in. The Tropoje region quickly emerged as the key arms smuggling base for guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army. These were men for whom killing was all in a day’s work, and their expertise could be turned to less noble ends.
What happened, as I saw it, was that Taken had been taken.
But, back to Albania. In the early nineties, pyramid schemes organized by pals of the new West-friendly government had once again destroyed the economy. Gangs of armed men and demobilized soldiers roamed the highroads. Albania had become a dangerous place to visit.
It was then that I decided to cross the border from Greece to pay a courtesy visit to Koço Ristani, an artist I’d met several years before in the city of Korcë. I’d written about him in my book Salonica Terminus, and wanted to give him a copy.
Why was I doing this? To this day, the answer is unclear. It was not the wisest thing to have done, I concede.
In any event, I stopped off at a café frequented by Albanians in the northern Greek town of Florina and told them I was going to Korcë. “Good luck with that,” they said, laughing. By taxi I drove to the border. There were no Albanian border guards on duty. I left my passport with the Greek customs officers and asked them to report to the Canadian embassy if I wasn’t back by tomorrow.
“Will do,” they said. Then I walked across.
I hailed a parked taxi—a stolen Mercedes-Benz, which abound in Albania—and agreed to pay the driver a few hundred drachmas (this was before the Euro) to take me there and back. “Keep down,” he said, as we sped along the road. Crouching low, I saw tanks that had been driven into the ditch and groups of drunken men clambering over them.
We soon reached the town, and pulled up at Mr. Ristani’s house. He hurried me in with an anxious glance down the street, his wife brewed me a cup of Turkish coffee, I gave him the book, and he showed me out in friendly but expeditious fashion.
“It’s late,” he said, “and they may see us. You’ve got to leave now!”
Safely back at the Greek border I collected my passport with a sigh of relief. And the next day I stopped by the café in Florina.
The customers, the same guys I’d met the day before, were impressed. “You’ve got besa,” they said. That’s Albanian for being true to one’s word: a part of the Kanun.
It was a principle that the white-smugglers in Taken, and before and after them the drug and organ smugglers, who ran the KLA and set up the US Kosovo protectorate, would betray time and time again.
Looking back, I count myself as fortunate not to have been ‘taken’ myself.