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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sacred Mysteries of Macedonia

Richard Bangs Adventures sets out to explore Macedonia, to unlock a few of its treasures, and perhaps uncover some of its many mysteries. Yet few Americans can find it on a map. Some think it a prehistoric address where woolly elephants, "macedons," roamed a million years ago. Students of the Bible know it as the place where the Apostle Paul introduced Christianity to Europe. Many confuse the landlocked nation with Aegean Macedonia, the northernmost region of Greece that abuts the country, and in fact the shared name is a constant irritation between the neighboring countries.

Yet for a time at least, over two millennia ago, Macedonia was the most powerful place on earth. In the fourth century B.C., the young prince Alexander set about on a campaign to conquer and unite the known world when his father, King Phillip II of Macedon, was assassinated before he could carry out the mission. With a core of some 40,000 men from the highland kingdom to the north of Greece, Alexander became the first world leader history has known. First a rebellious Greece, then Persia, then all the lands from Egypt to India fell to the sword of Alexander the Great, and no place was more feared or revered than the place from which he hailed.

Since then, Macedonia retreated to the footnotes of history, subsumed by one invading power after another, hidden within the borders of Yugoslavia for 47 years, and only recently revived as an independent nation in the Balkans. The old identity disputes continue — it gained admittance to the United Nations in 1993 only under the cumbersome name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia — but at last, and again, Macedonia is coming to stand on its own two feet, deep history and proud heritage.

We'll explore what is perhaps the most famous unknown country on earth, from the oldest lake in Europe to just-discovered Neolithic solar observatories to Orthodox monasteries and Moslem mosques. But Macedonia isn't living in the past — it's become one of the first entirely wireless nations on the planet, with a web of hotspots that penetrates its farthest hillside villages. So log on, tune in, and uncover with us the mysteries of Macedonia.

Macedonia Facts
Landlocked nation bordered by Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia & Montegro, and Albania
Part of former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia
Area slightly larger than Vermont
Population 2,050,554 (2006 est.)
Home of Alexander the Great
Cleopatra was descended from Macedonians
Birthplace of Cyrillic alphabet
World's first all-wireless Internet country

Sacred Mysteries of Macedonia

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Nikola Kavaja: Interview with an assassin

Nikola Kavaja lives in a drab, Communist-era high-rise in Belgrade, Serbia's crumbling capital. His two-room apartment is sparsely furnished: a single mattress and dresser in one room, and a scratched-up wooden desk, a couch, and a bench press in the other. The white walls are cluttered with pictures of the people who figure most strongly in his personal iconography: General Ratko Mladic, Saint Sava, Hitler, Jimmy Carter, and a young pin-up who is his current girlfriend. Guns and old military gear provide further ornamentation. A blue thermal blanket covers the street window.

Kavaja is 73, but he looks no older than 60. He adheres to a strict weight-training routine that gets him up every weekday before the sun. He is squarely built and muscular, with white hair cut to a military trim-line and a fighter's mashed-up nose. Except for the fine white thread of moustache, he is cleanly shaven. In his dress, he favours black trousers, black shirts and black combat boots.
Our conversation took place over three mornings, with classical music playing softly in the background. Kavaja spoke slowly and quietly, with an air of determined precision. At times, he paused to place his hand on his forehead in search of a long-forgotten detail. As he spoke, Kavaja stared off in the distance at nothing at all, or else looked down at his booted feet.

Christopher S Stewart You were a Second World War prisoner, a Communist soldier, a CIA hitman, a hijacker, and now a fugitive on the run (among other things). Where to begin?
Nikola Kavaja Write down my name. N-I-K-O-L-A K-A-V-A-J-A. You can call me Nik.

Stewart That's a start.
Kavaja It is a long story. Do you want some schnapps?

Stewart No thanks. I'm fine with water.
Kavaja Water's for pussies.

Stewart Most of the time I'd agree. But 10.30 in the morning is a little early for me to be drinking shots of schnapps.
Kavaja It's a hello. You drink some schnapps with me. We drink together.

Stewart OK.
Kavaja That's better. Salud. So - I was born in Montenegro in 1933. In 1941, when Hitler attacked Yugoslavia, my father and mother and I were all transferred to separate prison camps in Albania. My brothers went to the war. In October 1944, when the Russians forced the Germans out of the Balkans, I went back to Pec to find my mother. But she wasn't there. No one was there. I had to fight for myself. The first time I killed someone was that year - a German soldier. He was heavily wounded and leaning over the top of a well. He was getting water. I walked up to him, took him by the legs and tossed him in like garbage.

Stewart You weren't afraid?
Kavaja My dick, was I ever afraid. I hated them. I couldn't find my family anywhere. I searched for months. Eventually, I found my mother in Vojvodina. I learned that two of my brothers were killed in the war. I joined the air-force academy. They made me a war pilot. Around that time, my brother was thrown in jail for being anti-Communist. He wasn't. But Tito was a suspicious man. Tens of thousands of military officers finished their careers in prison. They all fought for Tito and then they were thrown in jail for bullshit reasons. What kind of leader does that?

Stewart You never liked Tito?
Kavaja I hated him. Around that time, I became a member of an underground anti-Communist group. That's where my life really started. My commander, Milutin Abramovic, was in the air force with me in Sombor. He knew about my brothers who were imprisoned and killed. I had cousins that went to jail too. That's why he started giving me top-secret missions, I think. Because my hatred was so personal.

Stewart What was the first job?
Kavaja He had me paint on the walls of the military barracks "Long live the Soviet Union"; "Down with Tito"; "Down with the Communist Party". It was a test, I think. But I did it. And for me, it was funny - a what-the-fuck kind of thing, you know?

Stewart How did Tito like your sense of humour?
Kavaja When I wrote that, it was Saturday evening. By Sunday morning, military intelligence officers were searching for who did it. There was a huge alarm. There were 4,000 soldiers at our barracks and none of us could leave. After two or three days of investigations, they started to lock people up. They arrested a major who was in charge of security that evening, and he got seven years in prison. Two of my friends were also arrested and sentenced to jail.

Stewart You weren't afraid you'd get caught?
Kavaja Who would have known? I was into football and girls. It made me laugh. The big assignment came next. It was June 1953. The order was to burn the gas tanks at the airport in Sombor. I knew all of those bases like I know my room. My commander gave me some time bombs and I set them up near the tanks, which held a million gallons of petrol. I placed the bombs around the tanks and walked away. When they went off, there was a massive explosion. It was incredible. I was far away but I could see huge yellow flames in the sky. I realised it wasn't a joke anymore. I was in big shit. Police swarmed to the base and all the towns nearby. They arrested hundreds. I knew seven of them. One was a major hero. He got the death penalty. For nothing! The others died in prison.

Stewart You didn't feel guilty at all about this?
Kavaja Guilt? My dick. You don't know about guilt. Schnapps?

Stewart I'm still working on this one, thanks.
Kavaja After my commander was arrested, I was told that a lot of officers were arrested at the airport, and they also asked about me and my friend Sveto. I took my machine gun, a pistol, three grenades, a compass, binoculars, and a bag of clothes, and I became a deserter. That's a very serious thing, punishable by death. I knew they would chase us. Sveto and I decided to cross the border illegally into Austria.
To get to the border, we walked only at night. It wasn't easy terrain. There were mountains and canyons and lots of snow. We slept in the woods. Sveto got so tired he couldn't walk. So I put him on my back. Then we came to this mountain. It was covered in heavy snow, up to my waist in places, and the temperatures were below zero. It would have taken days to go over. But there was a tunnel through the mountain for trains. I decided to take a risk and go through the tunnel. I put Sveto down and he followed. The tunnel was a kilometre long. Sveto kept falling, but I pretended not to see him because I couldn't carry him anymore. Somehow we got through.
Just before we got to the border, there was a canyon. If you made one wrong step you'd fall to your death. The darkness was deep and I couldn't see much. I heard footsteps. I turned and there was a shadow moving along the mountain road. We couldn't run away because we were so tired. I aimed my machine gun in the shadow's direction. It came nearer and I saw that it was a woman. She said to us, "Bless you." She had a hood on, and I pulled back her hood and asked who she was. "I'm a teacher," she said. I asked for her documents. She was telling the truth, so I let her go. I should have killed her because I knew she was going to report us. I don't know why I didn't.
We had trouble at the border. Someone shouted stop. Then there were shots in our direction. We were in open space. Behind us were woods. We got down and fired back. The fight went on for 10 minutes. I went through two clips and threw three hand grenades. But we managed to get back into the woods and retreat to our border. I fired all but seven bullets.
We walked for an hour or so, then tried the border again. That time was worse. We got ambushed from three different directions. It was the Yugoslav People's Army, my own fucking army. They surrounded us, three of them with machine guns. The commander approached and asked where we were going. I reached into my leather jacket and said, "We were just visiting Svatko Lacovic." The commander said, 'There's no one here with that name. Where are your arms?" I said, "We don't have any. I just have gloves." When I took out the gloves, I drew my pistol, put it to his forehead, and pulled the trigger.

Stewart What about the guys with guns?
Kavaja I had seven bullets left. I could have taken them all. But my gun jammed. From behind, I was hit with a machine gun and I lost consciousness. Sveto just stood there. When I came to, there were 20 or so soldiers around.
We were moved to a jail on the border. One morning, they took us out and put us against a wall outside of the barracks. I thought they were going to shoot us. My legs and my hands were in chains. The commander of the division marched out all of the troops - all 5,000 of them - and gave a speech. He said: "From our Communist hands, no one will escape. These men were organising against our nation. We will spit on these traitors." After that, all of them lined up and spat on us, one at a time. One of my cousins came around four times. I couldn't believe it! Five thousand people spat on me. It was a psychological thing, a show to boost morale.

Stewart Pour me some schnapps.
Kavaja I don't want to talk about the trial, about being beaten up every day and every night. I was sentenced to 18 and a half years. After four years I escaped into Austria, where I was picked up and shipped to a US Army base in Stuttgart. They thought I was KGB, but after months of interviews, three intelligence officers introduced themselves and offered me political asylum.

Stewart Is that how you started working for the CIA? How did they ask you to join them?
Kavaja They asked me, my dick. They didn't ask. They checked me out for seven months. They thought I was KGB. I had to prove myself. I bombed some Communist buses - Yugoslavian buses - in Vienna. It was their way of testing my loyalty. They liked me because of my history. I was young and fearless and hated Communism.
So I started to work dirty jobs against Yugoslavia, against Russia - sabotage, spying, exposing double agents, assassinations. I did some very bad things, but I accepted my destiny. In 1959, I uncovered a gang of Yugoslavians smuggling arms to Algeria. They would come in dressed up like priests. I tracked them down and killed them. There were never any reports about the people who disappeared. They might as well have never lived.
Stewart So you were like God, deciding who would and wouldn't die?
Kavaja My superiors made the final decisions. I killed. One person is on my conscience. She was a double agent from East Germany. I was sleeping in the desert in a tent because that was the only place safe from the war. I received an order from military intelligence to kill this woman. When I got her, she didn't know what I was going to do. She was probably 23 years old. I asked for her family name and where she lived. There would be no official report - she would just disappear - and I wanted to send a message to her family and say where they could find her.

Stewart Why her?
Kavaja There was something about her. I just wanted to do her a favour. Even when I was in prison in the United States I dreamt about her. She was not the first one or the last one. But I felt sorry for her. She was so young. But she was a proud girl. She spat on me.

Stewart And you shot her?
Kavaja What do you think? I didn't rape her. I told her to walk ahead of me. And I shot her in the back.

Stewart Did you think she deserved that?
Kavaja I never worried about killing an innocent person. I wasn't trained to kill innocent people. I killed people on my level - soldier to soldier, agent to agent. It is not my job to think about innocence or guilt. She didn't ask for mercy. She was probably guilty. But she stays with me. No one else does.

Stewart How were you paid?
Kavaja By the job. For the bigger jobs, like assassinating Tito, I would be paid US$15,000. For most jobs, US$10,000. They dropped the money off at my house.

Stewart You didn't assassinate Tito - but you tried?
Kavaja Killing Tito was a big mission. For almost a decade, I hunted him. I was never a traitor - I wanted to save my country. That's why I was good for this mission. I was ready to give my life for it. If I died one second after I killed Tito I wouldn't care. He killed my three brothers. He destroyed my country. I went to jail. I lost everything.
In 1963 I got information that Tito was coming to North and South America for a tour. Our intelligence said it would be easier to kill him in South America because the security would be much thinner down there. Tito always travelled with his own agents, about 125 State Security Service men. These men went a few months in advance to clean up all the political dissidents. When I say clean up, I mean jail or kill. They had files on these people. Of course, they had a big file on me, too. The government wanted me dead. The State Security Service sent people to try to assassinate me. When I returned to Serbia in the 1990s, a Montenegrin man came and said to me, I was supposed to kill you in 1976 in the States, but I couldn't find you. We laughed about it.
Anyway, to kill Tito, I worked with Dragica Kacikovic and a third Serbian guy that I won't name because he is still undercover. We weren't maniacs. We didn't just decide, "Hey, we're going to go kill Tito." We got our orders from the CIA and planned it out carefully.
Rio de Janeiro was our first shot. Dragica went first. He got fake documents and travelled as a Mexican journalist with a sombrero and a video camera. I followed with the third guy. I took a Colt .45 and a .357 Magnum and I was disguised as a Catholic priest - with a long black robe and a black hat.
We had informants in the town who provided us with information. We knew Tito liked to go out on the town, eat, and see chicks. I waited for word that he was out on the town and then I would shoot him. But Brazil was not our time. Tito stayed in the house throughout his stay. He didn't move from the building for two days. We didn't see him come and we didn't see him go. One day he was there and then he was gone. Like a ghost.

Stewart Was that a major letdown for you?
Kavaja I didn't panic. From Brazil, I followed him to Santiago, Chile, then Mexico City. Then I got a message to come to Washington DC right away, because Tito was on his way. That was the most dangerous place for us as a group. The FBI was searching for us. They were working with the Yugoslav State Security Service.

Stewart I thought you worked with the CIA?
Kavaja But the CIA and the FBI didn't share informants. They were rival organisations. There were rewards for our capture from the FBI. My last attempt to kill him was 1971 at Camp David in Maryland. He was going there to visit Richard Nixon. No one can carry a gun around Camp David, but I went alone, dressed as a Maryland State Trooper. I couldn't get on the actual property, but I got up into a tree where I could see the chopper with binoculars. I had my sniper rifle with me. My thought was that at some point Tito would take a walk into the woods. He liked to take walks. It was beautiful, I thought. Who wouldn't take a walk? I waited all day and night.

Stewart In the tree? You didn't sleep?
Kavaja No. I couldn't kill him if I was asleep. You don't know anything about this kind of thing. Sleep! What a fucking joker.

Stewart Did Tito ever go for a walk?
Kavaja Never. After two days, he left. And that was it. Nothing. So I didn't get him. But I did a lot of damage to his regime and to Communism.

Stewart You had a Serbian terrorist organisation didn't you?
Kavaja It was a freedom group. I called it Freedom for the Serbian Fatherland - Sopo. We got money from the CIA. We bombed the Yugoslav embassies in Washington and Ottawa, and the consulates in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Toronto. Bin Laden stole our strategies. But after that the State Department got a lot of pressure from Tito to track us down and extradite us. It was a big mess.

Stewart Did they catch up with you?
Kavaja Not until 1978. I was in New York on my way to a friend's house and more than 20 agents with guns ambushed me on
Third Avenue. They arrested over a hundred of us. A judge in Chicago found us guilty but delayed the sentencing for a month. I got out on $250,000 bail. The judge released everyone except for Stojilko Kajevic, who went by the name Priest. He helped me lead Sopo. The FBI thought he was the most dangerous. That was a mistake. After the trial I told Priest that I was ready to do a hijacking I'd been talking about. My plan was to land in Chicago, pick Priest up, and then fly to Belgrade and crash into the Communist Central Committee building.

Stewart So that's what you did when you got out on bail - hijacked a plane?
Kavaja First I returned home to see my family. One day I got a call from Priest. He said, "Send me the memorandum." I said, "For whom?" "President Carter," he said. That night, I went into my basement, where I made bombs. I made two of them built into two beer bottles. The telephone rang - this is funny - it was an FBI agent from Chicago, Al King. He said, "Hi Nik, how are you?" I told him, "I'm making a bomb for tomorrow." He thought I was joking. It was a big scandal in the trial later on. You can check the court files. It's all there. After I finished, I went upstairs. I took some long socks from my daughter's room and stuffed the bottles in my trouser legs. I put on my trousers and looked in the mirror and you couldn't see that anything was in there. I was ready. I went to sleep at around 1am.

Stewart How could you sleep?
Kavaja I had done a hundred more difficult operations. I never feared that I would make a mistake. I woke up at five, just like any other day. My wife woke up with me. She cooked me a steak for breakfast. That's all I eat - steaks. I said goodbye like any other morning. I had the bombs strapped to my leg and dynamite in a leather suitcase. A cab took me to the airport. I ordered a brandy at the airport bar and relaxed. I checked in and waited by security for the right moment to pass. I knew if a police officer stopped me, I would have to kill him. I was going to get on that plane. That's all that was on my mind. I saw an albino couple with a lot of camping equipment passing through security. So I went with them. They set the alarm off. The police stopped them, but not me.
I got on the plane to Chicago. It was an American Airlines 727. My seat was number 23 on the left side of the plane. Next to me was a woman from Poland who had never been to the United States. Imagine that. She has to get on my plane! We drank a brandy together. We talked. Fifteen minutes before we landed, I said goodbye to the her and went to the bathroom.
I got the bombs ready, then went to the cockpit. The stewardess asked me what I needed. I said, "Give me the key to the cabin." She was paralysed. I put my hand in her pocket, took the key, and opened the cabin. There were four pilots. They didn't hear me open the door. When one of them tried to stand up, I forced him down. His name was Mitchell. I showed them the explosives and said, "This is my plane now, I am responsible for your lives, if you make a mistake, we will all go to God."
After a few minutes, Mitchell asked me what I wanted - money or what? I told him to get me in touch with the FBI. Al King got on the line. He was absolutely crazy! He said, "Nik, you're late for court." I said, "Listen, in five minutes I'm going to fly over the courthouse. I told you last night that I was making bombs." He said, "Why do you make jokes?" I said, "You'll see me in five minutes."
I flew over the courthouse three or four times. The stewardess brought me a brandy. Eventually, we landed and I parked the plane at the far edge of the airport. There were 128 passengers and eight crew members. Hundreds of police surrounded the plane on the runway. The FBI asked me what I wanted. I said, "I want Priest." Passengers kept asking for things. One woman said she was going to give birth and I said, "What the fuck is going on? I'm not a doctor, I'm a terrorist."
The FBI sent a lawyer out to the plane to talk me out of it, but I said it was too late. Then he begged me to release the passengers. That was the riskiest moment. I worried that the FBI would attack. But I had the bomb trigger in hand and I told them not to mess around because I could blow the plane up in a second. The briefcase of dynamite was at my chest. I gave the passengers five minutes to get off. You should have seen these fat Negroes! It was hilarious. Looking at them you wouldn't expect them to be so fast. But they were off in seconds. At the end there were four people left: Mitchell, a co-pilot, my lawyer, and the stewardess.

Stewart What about Priest?
Kavaja Priest finally called me. But it wasn't good. He said, "Brother Nikola, I'm not coming with you." That was the most difficult moment. I sacrificed everything for this, my wife, my kids, my life. We had a deal. We were going to take the plane to Yugoslavia. It was his job to show me the building we were going to hit. I hadn't been back to Yugoslavia for decades. The Communist Central Committee building was built in the 1960s. I didn't know the land. I didn't know what to do at that point. But he got off the phone and it was over.
I told them to fuel the plane and then I told Mitchell we were leaving. There were 40 or 50 cars following the plane as we drove down the runway. Mitchell asked me what the plan was and I said, "New York." On the way, I demanded a 707, a much bigger plane, and a new crew to meet me at JFK. No one knew what I was going to do. When we landed, the 707 was there. We pulled up. I took Mitchell and the co-pilot and tied them to me. I wanted to make sure I didn't get killed on the way across and that the new pilots were not impostors. There were hundreds of police snipers. But I had this living wall around me.
After we left New York, I finally told my lawyer the plan. You should have seen his eyes. He was a baby. We flew for hours. But then I had second thoughts. I was ready to die. But I didn't know where the Central Communist building was in Belgrade. I didn't want to kill regular civilians. That was never my job. I wanted to kill Tito and the biggest symbol of the Communist Party - not go down as the guy who killed innocent people. My friend betrayed me and I lost the target.

Stewart So you're up there with a stolen 707, a bunch of hostages, and nowhere to go.
Kavaja I didn't want to lose my life for nothing. That was the point. But you don't have time to think. My lawyer said that Ireland didn't have an extradition agreement with the United States. I'd get political asylum, I'd be safe. So we landed there. I gave up the explosives and let everyone go. Then the negotiations started between the authorities of Ireland, my lawyer, and the States. Of course, they all betrayed me. Ireland sent me back to the US. That was it. This time it was over for real.
I was in prison from 1979 to 1997. First, I went to Marion prison in Illinois. Solitary confinement. Noriega was in the same place. I never left my cell. I had three shirts, three pairs of trousers, three towels, and two blankets from like World War One. I had a mouse friend who visited me at night. There was no regular toilet - it was in the floor and you had to be a good pilot to get everything in there. I did push-ups - thousands of them a day - and thought about my wife and kids, and I thought about Tito.

Stewart After 20 years, they let you out.
Kavaja Yeah. It was a long time. And I'm on parole until 2019.

Stewart So how did you get back to Serbia?
Kavaja I'm supposed to be in the States. But I left. I didn't ask anybody. Now I can't go back or they'd send me to prison. I can't see my wife or kids. I went to Mexico and then Brazil and then South Africa. From there, I went to Athens, then Serbia.

Stewart How were you treated when you returned to Serbia?
Kavaja I had a reception at a military bunker in the mountains. It was early 1999, when Kosovo was going on. They were cooking mushrooms. That shit's not for me. I only eat steak. I told them, "We need to fight on their territory. Let's go to Albania and Macedonia and fight the Albanians that way. That's the only way we are going to win." They didn't listen. A few months later, they bombed Belgrade. And the war was over.

Stewart Do you have enemies?
Kavaja I have lots of enemies - ex-Communists, State Security Service from Tito's day - but I'm not afraid. I have protection. And I can take care of myself. If someone wanted to assassinate me, I know how they'd do it because I was an assassin myself. See this? This is my best friend in all my life. It's a German gun from before World War Two, made in 1938. A Luger 9mm. Very good gun.

Stewart Is it loaded?
Kavaja Not right now.

Stewart What's the point of having a gun under your table if it's not loaded?
Kavaja You know nothing about guns! There are bullets in it, but they aren't engaged. I can engage it in a second. My dick. You're a silly man!

Stewart So you're still ready to fight?
Kavaja I'm still strong. I work out every day except Saturday and Sunday. My hands are scarred from explosives, but I can still get down on the floor and do push-ups. I do 200 push-ups, squats, like this, off the side of bed. At one time, I could do 3,000.

Stewart How many people have you killed so far?
Kavaja There are so many things that I can't even tell you. How many I killed is not important. I count to 17 and then stop counting.

Stewart Seventeen?
Kavaja It's just a number. My first kill was when I was 14 and my last was, I don't know, maybe in 1976. But I'm not going to talk about that. I probably shouldn't have said a lot of the things I said. I have my wife and kids in the United States still.

Stewart What does it feel like to assassinate someone?
Kavaja What the fuck?

Stewart After such an extreme life, it must be hard to settle down and call it quits?
Kavaja It's not over. I still fuck good. I've got a couple of young girls. You see this one here? Her tits! Her hair! I also have other jobs to do, but we won't talk about that. I have money and girls and that's a good life for me. I've got a house in Montenegro, a big apartment in Novi Sad. I got this apartment in Belgrade. I'm set up.

Stewart I see pictures on your wall of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. Are they idols?
Kavaja These are big men.

Stewart And big murderers.
Kavaja American presidents killed too.

Stewart How do you think you'll be remembered?
Kavaja Evil.

Monday, December 11, 2006

NATO may soon fail amid the Afghan opium fields

When the Soviet Union collapsed, many predicted the end of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Yet a few weeks ago, NATO held its summit meeting in the Latvian capital of Riga, formerly part of the USSR. NATO was created in 1949 as an alliance to contain Soviet power. Its focus was on Western Europe, and, as one joke went, it was designed to keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in. But that Cold War world is long gone. Germany is a democracy firmly anchored in the European Union, and there is no threat of Soviet tanks sweeping across the North German plains.

NATO survived by transforming itself. While some Central European members that were formerly occupied by the USSR continue to see NATO as a political insurance policy against a revival of Russian ambitions, NATO is no longer aimed against Russia. In fact, Russian officers are welcome to participate in military exercises and to visit NATO headquarters under the Partnership for Peace program. Residual suspicions and Russian pride limit the NATO-Russia agreement, but the organization is no longer focused on Russia.

A major task that NATO performed in the first decade after the Cold War was to attract the newly freed countries of Central Europe toward the West, with the prospect of membership conditioned on meeting democratic standards. Another important task was to bring stability to the troubled Balkan region after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the resultant wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. NATO peacekeeping operations have been a stabilizing factor in the region. For example, NATO and EU diplomacy prevented ethnic conflict in Macedonia from erupting into a crisis.

While these actions were important, many observers argued that NATO would have to look beyond Europe. A common quip was that NATO would have to go "out of area or out of business." This became particularly important after the Al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001, shifted the focus of American foreign policy toward transnational terrorism.

The European members of NATO responded by invoking the Article 5 mutual defense clause of the NATO charter and coming to the aid of the US in Afghanistan, where today there are 32,000 NATO troops. Because they train together, NATO countries can operate effectively even when not all members of the organization are officially involved. For example, NATO did not conduct the Gulf war in 1991 or the initial Afghan campaign, but NATO planning and training meant that members could cooperate effectively when called upon to do so.

At the same time, NATO after Riga faces a number of problems. Europe split over the American invasion of Iraq, and there is no political will to involve NATO there. The new relationship with Russia needs careful management, and rapid extension of membership to former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia could prove difficult.

In military terms, European countries need to spend more on secure communications, airlift capabilities, special operations, and dealing with chemical and biological battlefields in order to be able to fight the war on terrorism effectively. France is concerned that America's influence in NATO is too large, and opposes a global role in which NATO establishes special partnerships with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and other countries. The French worry that NATO's global ambition, particularly in East Asia, could produce friction with China.

But by far the biggest problem that NATO faces today is Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai's government remains weak, and the economy continues to be heavily dependent upon opium production. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda networks are re-emerging as political and military threats. Many NATO countries with troops in Afghanistan have "national caveats" that restrict how their troops may be used. While the Riga summit relaxed some of these caveats to allow assistance to allies in dire circumstances, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, and the US are doing most of the fighting in southern Afghanistan, while French, German, and Italian troops are deployed in the quieter north.

It is difficult to see how NATO can succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan unless it is willing to commit more troops and give commanders more flexibility. Success will also require more funds for reconstruction, development, and alternatives to opium poppy cultivation. Governments in Europe and the US are concerned about budget problems, but in a larger perspective, providing significantly greater resources to Afghanistan now may turn out to save more funds later.

One of the great costs of the Bush administration's mistaken Iraq policy has been to divert attention and resources away from the just war in Afghanistan. If only a small portion of the money and forces invested in Iraq had been devoted to Afghanistan, the current threat of a resurgent Taliban and Al-Qaeda might not be so great. Unfortunately, Iraq is draining all the oxygen out of the policy process in Washington. Few people are focused on saving NATO from a significant failure in its first major test outside of Europe.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Macedonian Splendor

Harvey Pekar and Ed Piskor ready a graphic novel field trip into the Macedonia

The collaborative effort called Macedonia was scripted from the notes of Berkeley graduate student Heather Roberson, as she explored the history of a country that avoided all-out civil war while its fellow former Yugoslavia regions were being torn apart by racial conflict.

Macedonia is literally new terrain for American Splendor author Harvey Pekar

What made Harvey Pekar famous is writing comics -- which he hired well-known artists to illustrate -- about the seemingly mundane circumstances of his life as a working man and autodidact in Cleveland. But his new graphic novel, Macedonia, takes him beyond the autobiographical.

Five years after retiring from the file-clerk job at a local VA hospital he'd held since 1966, the American Splendor author might have more time to write than ever. But Pekar -- who's also a music and book critic, and award-winning radio commentator -- is also exploring new topics. And for reasons practical as well as artistic, he continues seeking out new illustrators for those stories, including Munhall's Ed Piskor.Macedonia, illustrated by Piskor and due in May from Villard Books, reflects Pekar's lifelong interest in history and philosophy. It's a 150-page account he adapted from the writings of Heather Roberson, a University of California graduate student he met while touring with American Splendor, the 2003 film based on his comics series.Roberson, pursuing a degree in peace and conflict studies, was intrigued by Macedonia.

Despite its own ethnic tensions and weak security apparatus, the tiny, landlocked former Yugoslav republic avoided the all-out civil war that engulfed other Balkan nations in the 1990s. Roberson was on her way to the country of 2 million; Pekar asked her to take notes.Macedonia follows Roberson from Berkeley to Skopje. Often, it's as episodic as other Pekar stories, including Roberson's sometimes humorous struggles to wrest information from Eastern European bureaucrats, academics and service organizations, as well as time spent hanging out with friends and new acquaintances. But it's also dense with background on Macedonia's Albanian minority and Balkan history, including a six-page account of modern Yugoslavia.On the book's central question of whether war is inevitable, Pekar tends to side with Roberson: It's not. (One reason Macedonia was spared: peacekeeping efforts by the U.N. and other international organizations.) But Pekar felt obligated to include all points of view and as much information as possible about a complex, deeply nuanced situation. Consequently, for a comic, Macedonia's pretty text-heavy.

"I'm a writer and I get carried away maybe," admits Pekar with typical self-deprecation. Illustration was a challenge. Pekar's artists over the years have included such big names as R. Crumb, Joe Sacco and Alison Bechdel, and even a couple of seasoned Pittsburghers, Don Simpson and Mark Zingarelli. For Macedonia, why 24-year-old Piskor? For one, in a field where most good artists are busy and expensive, says Pekar bluntly, "Ed had the time and he was willing to work for less money." (Pekar has always paid his artists, even when he was self-publishing his work; he says he split his Macedonia money with Piskor 50-50.) For another, Pekar saw promise in Piskor's illustrations for two stories in Pekar's 2005 book, Our Movie Year. "He can make a little space go a long way," says Pekar. Significantly for a book about a place neither had ever visited, "He researches stuff real well." Not inconsequentially, Pekar and Piskor seem to click personally, perhaps the residue of a common Rust Belt working-class heritage (Piskor's parents were both mill workers)."He's a hard worker and he's an honest guy," says Pekar of the artist.In his work on Macedonia, Piskor "made a big stylistic jump," says Pekar. "The drawing was more realistic. I was really very impressed with the way he used the room he had."What Pekar values most in his illustrators, though, is the sense of the importance of the everyday that unites, say, a story about losing his keys to one about a young woman on a fact-finding adventure in the Balkans. Pekar says that Piskor meets the same standard as the illustrator's artistic hero, Robert Crumb. No matter how cartoony his renderings get, Crumb "captures the essence of the people he's drawing," says Pekar. "There's some realism in it. Because that's the way my writing is."


Nexus Spotlight
Ed Piskor

Welcome to a special Nexus Spotlight interview with a talented up-and-coming young cartoonist, Ed Piskor. The Pittsburgh native has been to the renowned Joe Kubert School and worked with none other than Harvey Pekar on a couple of stories in the American Splendor: Our Movie Year book. He is currently wrapping up his latest collaboration with Pekar, this time for a full-length graphic novel called Macedonia. The book, based on real events, follows a young female student that travels from the USA to Macedonia in order to try and understand how the country has survived the break-up of Yugoslavia without spiralling into civil war as its neighbouring nations did. You don't just have to listen to us though, here's Ed Piskor to explain it in his own words... and an interview... and preview pages... nice! Take it away, Ed...

ED: The book is going to be a 6x9 150 page graphic novel published by Ballantine. This is wrapping up Harvey's 4 book deal with the company. The other books were the reprint book with Paul Giamitti on the cover, Our Movie Year, and Ego & Hubris.Harvey met this girl named Heather Robinson while he was promoting the movie. Heather's family owns a theatre and she found herself in a conversation with Pekar talking about her college career. She did Peace & Conflict Studies at UC Berkeley and kept getting into debates with professors who explained to her that war is inevitable but she wasn't satisfied with their examples. She kept pointing out Macedonia which has a recipe for disaster with all of the different and disenfranchised ethnic groups trying to gain some basic and political status. She ended up going to the Balkans to prepare her thesis and she took very detailed notes for Harvey to weave her story in comic book form.

NEXUS: What sparked your initial interest in illustration way back when? Any particular influences?
ED: I remember these particular scenarios as a small child digging around in boxes where I shouldn't have been and finding my mother's sketchbooks. She did some beautiful stuff and I remember "enhancing" all of her awesome landscape drawings with faux-Spider-Man looking guys of my own and her great still life sketches with wobbly monster drawings. I've always had comics as far as I can remember and I still have every comic I've ever owned. I was a pretty standard mainstream comics fan because I was completely unaware of the existence of comic shops so I had to rely on the selection at the grocery store. As a kid I saw the documentary Comic Book Confidential on cable and I was completely blown away by every cartoonist who appeared in there. Most of the focus was on really cool underground/alternative people and any focus on superhero comics revolved around Jack Kirby, and I guess Frank Miller and these two guys were way more exciting than the other superhero artists of the day turning out schlock like "Cloak & Dagger" in the Marvel house style. So my influences ported over from the documentary. I'm talking about guys like Eisner, Kurtzman, Crumb, Shelton, Jaime Hernandez, and Charles Burns. Whenever a cartoonist starts to despair over their work, they should check out Comic Book Confidential to get the juices flowing again.

NEXUS: You attended the Joe Kubert School - nothing like learning from the best! What was the course like? Anybody else in your class we might have heard of?
ED: I only ended up going there for one year straight out of high school mainly because it became very apparent to me that the whole system there is a total bait and switch operation. One problem was that we didn't learn from the best. Joe Kubert and some of the really talented guys only gave the 3rd year students the honor of their teaching wisdom. The "teachers" relegated to teaching us first year monkeys were mostly former students who really needed the extra scratch and some other former students who needed the extra scratch but also worked in comics on such glorious titles such as Archie. They also taught us very arcane, obsolete ways of preparing work for print such as pasting text to paper along with your illustrations, using amberlith overlays to do spot colors, and using do martin dyes as color guides for color separations. This was in 2000 and these practices were out-dated for around 10 years at that point. I needed to learn how to properly scan stuff into the computer for print, how to navigate Photoshop, stuff like that. And they taught that sort of thing but you had to drop tens of thousands to make it to the second year to learn current practical stuff. I was very disappointed in the program structure and decided I'd learn better on my own consulting people with talent who'd make themselves available to me. To answer your question about other talented people who were there with me, Jake Allen was a second year student. He just released a graphic novel with writer Neil Kleid called Brownsville which is pretty awesome and another guy who's steadily working is Alex Sanchez. He's working with Steve Niles on a new 30 Days Of Night project which is right up his alley. Those are the only guys I can think of worth mentioning.

NEXUS: So... you're young, you're in Pittsburgh, you've just finished the Joe Kubert School... now what?
ED: So after that year of school in New Jersey I come back home and realized I needed to start paying back all of this debt from school since I had no plans of going back there. It takes me 2 years of working with a bunch of drones, misfits and automatons in a call center to get the bills down to a manageable amount that I could take care of with the illustration work I was getting at the time. Eventually I quit the monkey job with a few autobio strips under my belt and decided to shop them around. Of course they were pretty bad and I was rejected by every publishing game in town. I then decided to send these strips to every cartoonist of merit who influenced me for some critiques and maybe a lead as to where I can begin getting stuff in print. I received so much encouragement from really awesome people that I didn't expect to be so cool and more than one person told me to get in touch with Harvey Pekar.

NEXUS: How did you first meet him?
ED: I got Harvey's address off of a cover to an American Splendor book from Dark Horse. The cover was a kind-of mock up magazine cover and his information was on the front cover. I kept sending stories to that address but I didn't hear anything from Harvey so for all that I knew the address was fake but it just became part of a desperate routine to include this address along with all of the other submissions I'd send out whenever I'd finish something new. To put it in context this is after the American Splendor movie came out. I had to drag some friends to see the flick with me and after watching the movie my buddy was able to do a spot-on Pekar impersonation. One day my dad wakes me up early in the morning and I hear this raspy voice on the line saying that he's Harvey Pekar and he wants to work with me. I called bullcrap on it because I really thought it was my homeboy playing some kind of prank on my dad or something but it did end up being the man. It took months for the first job to come to fruition but he ended up giving me a lot of work with some extremely tight deadlines on the book American Splendor: Our Movie Year. And thankfully since I'm willing to work for slave wages he and I are wrapping up a 150 page graphic novel called Macedonia for Ballantine, probably for a fall release.

NEXUS: You two have collaborated quite a bit, do you have any particular method to your working relationship?
ED: When I worked on the Movie Year book I didn't pace his scripts any differently than he had written them. I didn't want to step on any toes. I also needed to submit the pencils before committing the work to ink so that he can see that I wouldn't put a cape and cowl on him or something like that. It's a good thing we worked that way too because man you should have seen the way I drew poor Joyce Brabner. The end result wasn't even that good due to my lack of skill but the pencil drawings looked mean. She said that I drew her like a used Q-tip and I apologized to her a bunch. I don't think she hates me anymore. On this Macedonia book though, I'm re-pacing Harv's script completely. Some of his panels were so dense that it required some skilful reworking. He now has total confidence in my ability so he's basically giving me carte blanche to turn out a good, clear comic book. It's a great way to work because it really creates the illusion of not having a boss and that's just fine to me. I have trouble with authority.

NEXUS: So we probably shouldn't be looking for Ed Piskor working on a mainstream superhero book in the future then?
ED: Lets just say it's not a goal to draw X-Men or Spider-Man in the near future. Now that graphic novels are hip there's a lot of room to play around in this territory and the assembly line companies are doing everything they can to look like movies on paper which isn't interesting to me. There is certainly going to be a time when I'm going to need to make some real cash to subsidize my own comics and if a commercial art career doesn't blossom for me, then I guess inking Captain Atom isn't heavy lifting. It is a goal to do my own comics until I'm completely blind and/or I can no longer hold a pencil. Even if I only make enough cash to live in a one room jail cell of an apartment then that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make to keep doing what I'm doing.

NEXUS: Generally speaking, is it trickier to draw from someone else's scripts than from your own?
ED: It is in some ways. For instance Harvey doesn't necessarily know that I really hate drawing this or that so he just slogs along and completes the script then I have to sit down and really figure out how to execute some work that I would never do on my own. Having to solve these problems makes a guy a way better artist but it definitely can be tough at times. The only reason to collaborate with somebody is to create a story that you'd never be able to do on your own and with this new book that's exactly what was achieved.

NEXUS: Other than Mr Pekar, who would be your ideal collaborator?
ED: It would never happen but I'd really love to illustrate a substantial Frank Miller script, or an Alan Moore piece but that's a crazy idea. Other than that I'm really interested in trying to figure out how to do good comics on my own. My writing needs major work.

NEXUS: That's okay, so does Frank Miller's these days. Ahem. Anyway, when does inspiration strike for a strip? Do you start drawing and then add a story to it, or do you come up with a topic to write about first?
ED: I've written stories as I went along before but they really didn't turn out great. Most of the time I will completely write the story out, thumbnail it and it usually makes enough sense to draw. Then when I put together the final pages I read over the stuff and can do nothing but cringe. Glaring drawing errors, Holes in stories, forced dialogue. I'm going to figure this stuff out someday but I don't see producing my masterpiece anytime soon. I get a lot of inspiration from people I meet. Being a cartoonist I can't be accused of having a world of life experience, but I will say that I experience way more than most comic drawing boys. So I meet people and I have friends that do things I would never ever consider doing and they are terribly interesting. I love to just sit and listen to these people tell me stories about things they've participated in and my imagination takes it from there. I guess my muse is deviance and debauchery.

NEXUS: Macedonia sounds like a very unique project. Did you have to do a lot of research for it?
ED: Thankfully the chick who's the protagonist of our story supplied me with a bunch of pictures. She also explained most of the setting using actual name of buildings and things like that so Google image search pulled up decent pictures of everything that I needed. Unlike a sacco story, this Macedonia book is a very conversational piece so Heather, the main character, is indoors a lot of the time simply talking with locals in these various places. That helps a lot because the interior of a Macedonian eatery, coffee shop, office etc. looks like any run-of-the-mill American counterpart basically. There are subtle differences here and there though.

NEXUS: So was it challenging to try and present lengthy conversations graphically?
ED: It was challenging at times. I'll let the reader decide if I did an okay job on it. One main problem was that Heather took very detailed notes that Harvey created the script from and there were a lot of things included that really aren't ideal for comics. Maps are lame to look at in comics, charts and graphs... In the wrong hands this book seriously could have turned into a textbook of sorts. Harvey also edited out a lot of stuff regarding croutons in their salads and the preparation of obscure foods which would have been a pain to illustrate.

NEXUS: Am I seeing things, or was that Jim Rugg's Street Angel on page 4, panel 1?
ED: Nice eye. I don't know if it's Street Angel, but I can tell you that I meet with Rugg often since we're both Pittsburgh guys. Actually I have a pretty awesome circle of cartoonists to commiserate with here which is very helpful. There're a few awesome mini comics creators named Paulette Poullet and Pat Lewis. Pat was nominated for an Ignatz Award and a Day Prize. There's Tom Scioli who is blowing everyone's mind away with his work on Godland for image in his amazing Kirbyesque fashion. Mark Zingarelli is a top commercial illustrator who has loads of strips under his belt... he's going to be appearing in the next blab! Don't tell them I said this but I really look up to these people and I know I'd be 3 years behind where I am now if I didn't know this circle of artists.

NEXUS: In keeping with the Macedonian theme, it's Loaded Question Time! Is war inevitable?
ED: I'm not a student of peace and conflict studies like the protagonist, Heather Roberson, from our book so I probably am not educated enough to answer the question in a very eloquent way. Cynically I will say that we're nothing but hairless baboons as much as we all hate to admit it and humans are as territorial as any other animal except we have the brain power to do real damage. So I guess I may not completely agree with Heather but I didn't let my thoughts interfere with any points she was making. She's a brilliant person and I just have no faith in humanity.

NEXUS: Would you like to visit Macedonia someday? Understand that's not a personal invitation or anything... not on these wages...
ED: I'm real nervous to see how the book is reacted to in that area. I don't know about going there. There are so many parts where Heather had to overcome some adversity dealing with other people and I think my philosophy of avoiding conflict will leave me broke and lost if I went there.

NEXUS: What's a typical working day like for Ed Piskor?
ED: Well, my sleep schedule is non-existent. I pay almost no attention to a 24 hour structure like normal people so I work until I'm tired. Which means one night I crash at 4am, the next maybe not until 9am. Periodically eating, checking e-mails, and barely socializing. I'm 23 years old so I think that I'm going to be able to pull this off until I'm 30 at least. The only thing that sucks is that I've recently been involved in a lot of physical exercise and I have come to find that I have the stamina of a 50 year old fat man thanks to drawing the Macedonia book constantly for a year, and that is an eye opener.

NEXUS: Where would you like to be in ten years time?
ED: I want nothing more than to have a body of work that people consider to be amazing. And I hope I'm completely healthy at age 33. As a kid I had romantic visions of croaking before thirty. Live fast-die young sort of scenarios and now that 30 isn't so far away I recant those old feelings. I also plan on selling out to the first person who's willing to buy what I'm hustling.

NEXUS: What advice can you offer any budding cartoonists reading this?
ED: If there's anything that I would have done differently it would have been to just produce comics constantly. For too long I just would sketch without creating strips because I didn't think I was ready. And now we're in a place where the art can be an acceptable secondary element if it's behind a great story. Just produce comics constantly and let your work mature through that process.

NEXUS: And that's a wrap... nearly! Ed was also kind enough to provide us with some preview pages from Macedonia, more of which are available at his website, so check them out, check these out, and check the book out when it is released later this year! Trust us, it comes thoroughly recommended by the Nexus crew!

Saturday, December 2, 2006

CIA plains landed at Skopje airport 30 times during 2001

According to the database build from data from a variety of aviation sources on the aircrafts that were identified as CIA plains Skopje airport was used 30 times during 2001. The same data shows that the plains used airports in Tirana, Sarajevo, Zagreb, Athens… and many other European ports.

The data was compiled by a group of journalists using data from various sources including plain numbers identified by New York Times in May 2005 and Chicago Tribune. The author of the book “The Ghost Plain: the try story of the CIA torture program”, Stephen Gray that the data is published “as an aid to further research, in particular to allow others to continue to establish the whereabouts of a great number of prisoners who have gone missing”.
The data can be found on www.