Skopje's main square

This is my memory of 9/11 and the reaction of the people I was with at the time.

On Tuesday September 11th 2001 I was in the Balkans, sitting in front of an editing machine in the basement of a building in Skopje, Macedonia. We were cutting a children’s TV drama series called “Nashe Maalo” about a multi ethnic group of young people – Albanian, Macedonian, Roma and Turkish – who solved their cultural differences through peaceful conflict resolution and understanding. The series was produced in response to the recent war in Kosovo, 7 miles to the north. Fearing a repeat of similar inter-ethnic conflict in Macedonia “Nashe Maalo” had been commissioned by UNESCO to promote peace between the various cultural groups.

Map of Macedonia

During that summer Albanian rebels operating in Macedonia had placed Skopje under a quasi siege. Surrounding villages had been destroyed and the occupants forced into town where they had set up a tent city in front of the government buildings. In retaliation Albanian businesses in Skopje had been ransacked and local Albanians beaten up. Street gossip and the voiced opinion of the displaced villagers was that the Americans were behind all the trouble. Certainly Chinook helicopters overflying the city towards Albanian positions with large containers suspended beneath them did little to calm local anger and suspicion. The US military claimed that the containers held nothing more than “irrigation equipment”. The U.S Embassy in Skopje was attacked by a hostile, sceptical crowd. Americans living in Macedonia were advised to leave the country as soon as possible. The more downbeat advice to Brits from the British Embassy was to avoid large crowds, keep our voices down in public and generally adopt a low profile.

Plane crashing into WTC

Just after lunch one of the production team stuck his head in and said that I should come upstairs at once… “a plane has just crashed into the World Trade Centre”. My immediate thought was another inexperienced pilot in a small private aircraft had wandered into New York City air space and run into a building. Newsworthy but not news. I told my colleague I would come up soon. About 15 minutes later he returned and insisted that I came upstairs at once. The north tower of the World Trade Centre was on fire, people were evacuating the building and every TV station in the world seemed to be pointing cameras at it. I went upstairs to the production office – the only place in the building with a TV set. The room was packed – production crew, members of the cast, taxi drivers from the rank outside, the woman from the local ‘burek’ stall, anyone who could find a space. On the screen a passenger jet kept crashing into the World Trade Centre, repeated and repeated, over and over again. In the street below people stood and pointed and wondered what was happening. Then another jet appeared, flying low over the city, appearing and disappearing as the cameras lost it behind rooftops and skyscrapers. It crashed into the second tower of the World Trade Centre in a great belch of fire. In that single moment what had first appeared as a tragic accident turned into an act of war.

I phoned my boss, an American, in his office in another part of Skopje. He didn’t have a TV set and was unaware of what was happening. He said he was about to start a meeting and seemed reluctant to cancel. I told him that something terrible was going on in New York and he should forget the meeting. He went off to find a TV set. On the screen the commentators were already using a new vocabulary – terrorist attack, suicide bombers, jumpers, al-Qaida, ground zero – a dictionary of horror.

In the production office the afternoon passed. People drank coffee and passed around cigarettes. A mighty crest of smoke rose over New York from the burning towers of the World Trade Centre and in the surrounding streets spectators, police and rescue teams alike turned ghostlike under a snowfall of ash. We see George Bush reading a children’s story, an aide whispering into his ear, the President’s face a mix of incomprehension and alarm. A ‘crawler’ across the bottom of the screen announces that U.S airspace is cleared of all flights and military jets are scrambled with permission to open fire on unidentified aircraft.

A phone call comes in from our head office in Washington D.C. “Are you watching TV?” they ask. “Are you O.K? Be careful. Close up and go home.” As they fear for our safety a plane crashes into the Pentagon just a mile or two up the road from where they are speaking.

Fireman

On the screen a tower of the World Trade Centre collapses in a billowing, volcanic column of ash and debris. On the streets people run from an advancing wall of dust and smoke. Another plane crashes in Pennsylvania. The second tower goes down and the World Trade Centre in no more. Over a montage of smoke and debris and fire and panic and death a shocked TV commentator, confused and angry, wonders why anyone should conduct such a barbaric, murderous act against an innocent people. One of the team, my friend, an intelligent, compassionate man, speaks back to the screen… “Did you never realise how much some people hate you?”

Much later I walk home, past the tent city, past the ransacked Albanian shops, past the police blocks, avoiding large crowds, keeping my voice down and generally adopting a low profile.

Although it was made primarily for young people “Nashe Maalo” (Our Neighbourhood) was one of the most popular television programmes in Macedonia enjoying an audience of over 90% of the population – of all ethnicities. Its message that problems are best solved through peaceful conflict resolution and mutual understanding must have worked because Macedonia has remained at peace.

The Peace Song from ‘Nashe Maalo’, sung in Macedonia, Albanian and Roma

— from Martyn Day