Restored from durance vile…

… no thanks to my chequered history whose details, if you are not already familiar with them, are documented elsewhere in this blog, as I suppose we must call it.

A Visit to Albania

The short journey to Albania was uneventful. except that my companions turned out to have a command of English that they had not previously revealed. Conversation, however, was very limited. I am not going to identify or characterise these chaps, whom I came to know quite well. When we got to the other side, there was a car waiting – a fairly new Mercedes – and we all got in. We drove to a large old building, not particularly close to the sea, and I asked where the boat was. Apparently, there were some formalities to deal with first. These formalities have only just been concluded – what is it? three weeks? four? – so it is probably fortunate that matters weren’t excessively complex. We hung around in the hallway for a while. It didn’t look much like a government office – no uniforms. Then I was led, all unsuspecting, down two flights of stairs, therefore underground, ushered into an empty room, whereupon the suspiciously heavy door was slammed and locked behind me.

Bench with blanket, malodorous galvanised pail, metal sink with single tap, bare light bulb protected by a perforated guard, barred grille in the door and no door handle on my side … The room had “prison cell” written all over it. I called out “Hey!”. No reponse. I had just pulled out my mobile phone to let Sophia know what was going on, and the door re-opened, admitting a couple of strong chaps, who divested me of my outer clothing, wallet, iPAQ and phone, replacing them with a light blue nylon overall, whilst ignoring my protests and struggles as if they didn’t exist. No actual violence was offered, but I was given no alternative. I must have been in there for a day and a night, initially. I was fed and watered regularly, and the bucket was replaced, all these services being supplied by the same, or functionally identical, two thickset, unspeaking, unhearing guards. I could hear movement in the corridor outside, doors opening and closing, occasional shouted orders. But it was the screams that weakened my backbone. Perhaps once every couple of hours, day and night, there was this terrible scream, cut off by the slamming of a door, as though someone had opened the torture chamber at the wrong moment. It got so I spent all my time waiting for the next one.

By the time I was fetched up for questioning, I had figured out what was going on. If the pirates had been found in possession of my logbook and GPS, even my passport, then they effectively incriminated me. The boat had, after being hi-jacked from me, been used for smuggling, gun-running, drug-running, more piracy, whatever. The boat had been apprehended, and now they were looking for the owner, because he was likely to be involved. And I had no idea how I was going to convince them otherwise. All my interviews took place in the same room on the level above the cells, with no windows, but a sort of skylight along the ceiling adjacent to one wall, which obviously consisted of glass bricks laid in the pavement above, so that people’s feet could be seen walking back and forth.

I was right about the suspicions. It was clear they thought I was criminally involved, and that the capture of my boat, if it ever occurred, had been a ruse. The two escorts who had collected me from Corfu were always present. Both asked questions. A silent guard ensured my good behaviour. Questioning took place in English, although they occasionally rapped out something in Albanian (?) as if to catch me out. They repeated their accusations that I was a criminal involved in the drug trade. I repeatedly denied it and insisted on being freed, making a telephone call, speaking to the British Consul, given a book, at least. Application denied, except for the book – a dog-eared Gideon Bible. It was monotonous and tiring for all of us.

I still spent at least 22 hours out of 24 in the cell. Every couple of days, I was allowed to wash in a tin basin of luke-warm water using insoluble soap and a tiny damp towel, under supervision. I lost track of time, but sometimes I wasn’t called at all. The only company I had was the heavy mob who brought the food, and the screaming from the poor sod down the corridor. All of which weakened my resolve, but I had nothing to confess, so there it stayed.

I guess it was about half way through the second week when they hit me with a transcript of the Carfilhiot blog. I suppose they got the URL from the iPAQ. My confessed crimes and misdemeanours were laid before me. I countered by pointing them at the section where I reported the piracy. They replied that my account of geography was so vague that they could not check my story, and that even my real identity was in question. I referred them to the harbour master who had helped me out, to my lawyer in Athens. They took notes, but returned to the subject next day, and so on. They asked for descriptions of the pirates. I made it clear I wouldn’t even recognise them. They never offered threats of violence. I thought they were probably reliant upon the effects of prolonged incarceration and occasional screams from next door to soften my will. The food never varied – a tasty stew, bread, a bottle of water.

Then they confronted me with three men they had captured with the boat. All were in the same blue overalls as me. All had prominent injuries to the face. I have no idea whether they were the ones who’d thrown me overboard. All I’d seen of them that night were sillhouettes and guns. I could have identified the guns. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of identifying some police officer they had mixed with the crooks. The captives had no such inhibitions, and, though I understood nothing of what they said, they clearly accused me of being the master criminal they were working for. Their accusations were translated for me. They didn’t make sense. They mentioned times and places that were impossible for me to have been present at, and I said so. I gathered that all three had already been charged, tried and found guilty, so I don’t know what they hoped to gain by involving me, unless they were actually innocent. Who knows? A fourth was already dead.

The almost-daily questioning seemed to go on for months. Their questions became formulaic; my replies equally by rote. I began to wonder whether it would be easier to confess to something, and I think that if I could have made it convincing enough, I’d have done so. Until the day when there was a stranger in the room, who identified himself as being from the British Consul, though he was clearly not British himself. He asked me how I’d been treated, I had to say not badly other than the imprisonment without charge. I protested my innocence. He was clearly out of his depth. This wasn’t the usual run of distressed or drunk tourist he was probably accustomed to handling. He said he’d get me a lawyer. When he left, I was deeply dispirited, more than before, but that was when the questions stopped. The promised lawyer never appeared, but about two days, or maybe three, later, I was invited, still in the blue overalls, to take a car journey. I was sure they were moving me so that the consul couldn’t find me.

But nothing of the sort happened. The trip took us to a corner of the port area, where my boat was tethered. It was filthy, and there was a lot of stuff on board that wasn’t mine, and nothing of my own other than some clothes. My interrogators watched me with the air of “Perhaps THIS will refresh your memory” as I walked around the boat. I could not conceal my pleasure at seeing it again, and that may have turned the tide for my case. I don’t know. But it was back to jail.

This time, when I got to my corridor, there was another metal door open, which was unusual. It was a deep shelved cupboard, full of plastic bags. From it, one of the guards handed me my clothes and other possessions, including my old passport AND the GPS – wow! in a black dustbin liner, and he motioned me to change. As he closed the property cupboard door, before it slammed shut, it gave that agonised boodcurdling scream that had filled my nightmares. I think I nearly fell over with relief. It took another hour or so of signing this and that. They agreed to let me take the boat, provided I did so immediately. No problem! I was driven back to the port, where the cheeky devils stamped my passport. I called Sophia from the quay.

The journey back was not uneventful, and in less exciting times I might have been inclined to chronicle it in detail. And maybe I will. When I’ve got a minute. I’ve been here a week or so and only just got round to this entry.

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