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Verba volant, scripta manent.

 

NOTES FROM THE OTHER SIDE: A SOVIET BLOCK DIPLOMAT IN SOMALIA AND VIETNAM.

 

These random notes are mainly about my life in two countries, which are quite off the beaten tourist tracks of the world- Somalia and Vietnam. However, this by far does not preclude that writing about them might be dull or insignificant. It happened so that I gathered my impressions at a time when the Cold War was very much on, and I saw things from the angle of the other side of the Iron Curtain. I also offer some reminiscences on life in the Soviet Block – mostly in Bulgaria and the Soviet Union. I hope that readers in the West- both from the generations that remember the times of the Cold War and from the younger ones will find them amusing.

 

Dimitar Bozhilov, Retired Ambassador.

 

Embassy of the Republic of Bulgaria - New Delhi, India

 


 

 

CONTENTS:


INTRODUCTION
WELCOME TO MOSCOW
SURVIVING AS A STUDENT
BACK HOME
THE SOLDIER
JUNIOR ATTACHE
JUNIOR ATTACHÉ OR JACK-OF-ALL-TRADES.
MOGADISHU DAYS
THE OGADEN WAR
AFTER THE RIFT
BECOMING A FATHER IN SOMALIA
THE LUFTHANSA HIJACK
FINAL DAYS IN SOMALIA
MISSION TO SOUTH YEMEN
GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM.
HANOI DAYS
YET ANOTHER WAR
MORE ON LIFE IN VIETNAM
A VISIT TO A COOPERATIVE
A BIT MORE ON LIFE IN VIETNAM
GOOD BYE, VIETNAM

 

——————————————————————————————————–

INTRODUCTION


I was born quite a few decades ago on the other side of the Iron Curtain- in the town of Varna, on the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast. In those days it was a smallish place – quiet, patriarchal, clean, where life went on without any staggering events. My childhood was happy and carefree, like, I suppose, were most childhoods of those times. Our house was near the beach, and every summer I was there from morning until dusk, either with kids from the neighborhood, or with my parents. I consider my generation to be among the lucky and happy ones: television slavery had not set yet. Actually, the first TV apparatus that I saw was when I was about ten, and TV was watched rarely and with respect, like going to the opera for instance. It had not yet developed into an early morning until late night addiction.


We kids used to invent our own entertainment, and I dare say the games we played were stimulating and inventive, both physically and mentally. There were no cars on the streets, so we could play “Viennese Soccer”- a game that could be played even by only two people. The main idea of this game was that one was allowed to touch the ball only once at a time. When we had a crowd, we played real soccer on a field in the neighborhood. We also played “Limki”- a game with small glass balls, “Chelik-Sopa “- something like baseball, but using a short stick instead of a ball, and a long stick instead of a bat. There were many other games too, of course. We used to give performances of theatre sketches, for which we rehearsed secretly and seriously, and were delighted to spring a surprise in the neighborhood. They were staged in a corner house which had a big yard and gathered audiences of 30-40 kids and parents. One play I remember was our own version of “Tom Sawyer”. We also edited a sort of a neighborhood paper, in which there were jokes and cartoons on neighbors/ this sometimes brought trouble!/, and news : for instance about the opening of a lemonade shack, or the whereabouts of an ice cream vendor. There was an obituaries section/ but only for home or street cats- there were no dogs then/, also a “Lost and found” section, etc. The paper was glued together from smaller sheets, and then displayed on the window of the bakery. The glue we made ourselves with water and flour for economy’s sake.


Varna used to offer a very decent cultural life- there was/ and miraculously for these hard times, there still is/ an opera. I dare say it was at a good European small town level/, a good theatre, a decent symphony orchestra, good museums and paintings galleries. In those days it was normal to see children alone in a museum, or taken to a musical performance by their parents.


When I finished seventh class, the family’s decision was that I should try to enter the only language school in town at that time- the French Language School. I qualified after passing the exams without any extraordinary efforts. More the more, the school was conveniently situated on our street, just a few houses away. After the exams a very pleasant and carefree summer started- the summer of 1964 was one of the best I remember in my hometown. A few days before the grand opening of the school year, my father ,God rest his soul, chanced upon a note stuck on the wall of the then First High School, that an English Language School had been established, and candidates were invited to submit applications. After a day of Hamletian deliberations at home, I applied and a couple of days later I was informed that I had been accepted.


This class, the first one of the Varna English Language School was formed without entry exams, and it would have been normal for the kids to be mostly from nomenklatura families, who could pull the right strings to get their children in. I have to point out that an English speaking school, especially the ones in Sofia, Plovdiv and Russe, was considered to give the most prestigious and coveted education. Strangely enough, that was not the case, as far as I remember the only student with a nomenklatura background of sorts was the son of the customs chief. The rest of us were from ordinary families, and explicably with intellectual backgrounds. In my case, my father was a veterinary doctor, and my mother was singer in the local opera house.

 

Starting the long way of unveiling knowledge of English for me was like an expedition, which gets deeper and deeper into environments mysterious, challenging but yet pleasant, and leading to opening a window onto a new world, formerly unknown. It was interesting and never boring to learn the language, literature, history, arts and any other aspect of the English-speaking world.


We were blessed with many teachers of extraordinary qualities- intelligent, witty, in many case encyclopedic, excellent in their subjects, devoted to their mission– the type which is, I am afraid already extinct. To start with, we had English teachers through the British Council, and that naturally was an enormous advantage for achieving a high level of knowing the language. And the line of excellent pedagogues can be ended with our Math’s teacher- a man of age already, very aristocratic, who always came to school in an official dark suit and bow tie, and who, before starting his horrible subject/ at least horrible for me/ used to play the violin to the class, in order to “make the unlocking of the mental powers easier”, as he himself used to say.


Five years passed quickly and the time of graduation came. Of course, we had a prom, and of course, it was a joyful event, but it was definitely not the opulent Vanity Fair proms have evolved to these days. A neighborhood tailor made my first suit, and I went to the out of town restaurant by bus.


It was only too natural to have a drink too many/ age traditionally has never been a problem for drinking alcohol in my country/, intimacy grew by the minute and after the toast in honor of the deputy-director of the school, he told me that 2-3 months ago a letter from high circles had been received, suggesting that the school select graduating students to enroll in the exams for higher education at Moscow State Institute for International Relations. The automatic reaction had been that this was definitely far above the capacity of a provincial language school and the letter had been promptly forgotten. Here I have to say, that I was among the best in the school, and international developments had always been attractive to me. In addition, perhaps initially as a joke, I had started to tell friends that I would like to learn the Chinese language.


Inspired by the liquor consumed, I stated categorically that I would like to enroll, and pleaded that application procedures be started immediately next day. It turned out that the exams were to be held in Sofia after just 2 weeks. In those days getting higher education, especially at a place like MGIMO- one of the best, if not THE best establishments in the Soviet block – was unthinkable without the blessings of the secret police and the Communist Party. The procedures were slow and naturally very subjective, and the chance that they would be completed in just two weeks was minimal. However, here I was in luck- it turned out that the person in the regional party committee, responsible for education, was the husband of my history teacher, and I was here most favorite student. Strings were pulled, what exactly I do not know, but my application documents were ready in time. I can only suppose that my parents’ dossiers had been scrutinized, where there were negative things, like my father having served in the artillery before the communist takeover, or the availability of distant relatives living in the West on the side of my mother. How these things were overcome, I do not know.


The scanning of my own person was comical to a degree. The neighborhood secret police ear was the tailor next door, a very simple person, almost illiterate, but not a bad guy after all. He had a mentally retarded daughter, who one good day knocked on our door in great excitement and whispered to my parents, that “you know who” had visited her father, and he had told them only good things about me. Even years later she used to remind me that I had joined the elite thanks to her father.


The exams in Sofia were held at Sofia University- one of the finest buildings in the central part of the city, built by the end of the 19th. Century. They consisted of a written exam on foreign policy, English written and oral, Russian- written and oral, history-oral, geography -oral, and a strange subject named Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. The first exam was held on June 9 1969. A couple of days ago I had arrived in Sofia, which I barely knew, and set camp with distant relatives on my father’s side, who lived near the University.


Initially, I approached the exams with a feeling of my own provincial low-intellect insignificance, which produced fears of imminent failure. Quite a few people hinted that I am just too naïve to think that I could make it in competition with the children of the “grand good morning”- this nonsensical phrase meant “the highest nomenklatura” in the jargon of those days. Everybody was convinced, and with good reason, that the exams were just a charade- as the list of those who would succeed had been signed, sealed and delivered a long time before the phony examinations. The shock which stimulated a belief that things were not that bad was the fact, that when the topic of the first exam was written on the blackboard, the person who was sitting next to me rose and left – obviously he did not consider himself well prepared .


I came first out of 94 candidates, and the first five were approved for enrollment in that coveted elitist institute. Some time after that I fathomed, that I had been lucky again, as the children of the “ grand good morning” came to the institute separately by some mysterious ways of this very “ grand good morning”, so they didn’t occupy the places of the first five. I can only say that the class of 1974 grew from five to fifty at its starting year of 1969.


On 22 August 1969, the so called “Friendship Train” departed from Sofia Central Railway Station. That was the rule- all newly accepted to various USSR higher education places traveled by one train to Moscow, and there were distributed to their final destinations. My humble person was one of the passengers on this train, as were the others going to MGIMO, but I still did not know them.

 

WELCOME TO MOSCOW

 

The fact that after the exalted two days’ celebrations and feasts aboard the train we arrived in Moscow comparatively alive and well was proof that we still had healthy youthful organisms. We disembarked after midnight and I was dozing off during the long trip from the airport to the boarding house. Once there, I plunged into bed.


It turned out, that in those days I had been one of the few naïve who had been accepting Soviet propaganda as truth. The gigantic propaganda machine was presenting the vast country as something like paradise on earth- populated with by happy and enthusiastic people, working hard for the sheer pleasure of it. The initial shock after the first clashes with reality and the imminent process of adaption that followed were for me extremely unpleasant.


The first clash was purely physical- after 3-4 hours of sleep I was rudely awakened by the most painful and maddening itch I had had in my life. Until then I had never had any idea about bedbugs, but it turned out they had a strong presence in the boarding house of the most elite higher education establishment of the socialist camp. Only those who have suffered bedbug biting in practice can understand how torturing the effect is!


The room looked like something of a warehouse for junk: rusty prehistoric iron beds, some semi-ruined wardrobes, thin gray sheets , pillows as soft as bricks and comical worn blankets which had directions- “Head” and “Feet “ / in Russian, of course/ pointing the proper way to cover yourself.


It was impossible to fall asleep again, and after having smoked half a pack of cigarettes I finally noticed that it was getting lighter outside and decided to get out in the fresh air. At the hostel’s entrance I made my first encounter with the great and unique Soviet institution called “Tiotia”/ pronounced “Tee-oh-tee-yah”- “Auntie “ in Russian/. This institution had a direct and crucial influence on one’s existence in any hostel, institute, university, public building- almost any place one had to go in or go out. As a rule, this was a rounded woman of respectful age, with mandatory wire glasses, dressed in black aprons when it was warm and in a rough short overcoat and headscarf when it was cold. Another rule was that aunties were not exactly persons of high IQ. A creature of exactly the above description was sitting at a greasy desk next to the entrance and in a voice of a judge passing a death sentence bellowed:


” Who the f…are you? What the f…are you doing here? Show me your pass!”


Trying to explain in my still broken Russian that I had just arrived last night took a long time and was not particularly successful, the air was stuffy and stinky, so finally I simply dashed out into the open air. That turned out to be a bad mistake, for getting back in was a desperate adventure in itself. But when I went out, on an outer porch with several rotted wooden steps and covered by a rusty roof, I had the next of many initial shocks of facing Soviet realities: it had been raining during the night, there were numerous muddy pools around and in one of them early in the morning, there was a man sleeping face down. A detail I still remember was his ridiculously, impeccably white shirt. Passers by did not pay him any attention at all. So I had encountered my first Soviet alcoholic- the first in an endless line indeed….


By the way, we received our passes somewhere by mid-September and until then every single movement in or out was an unpleasant and risky undertaking.


Why had we arrived so early – studies always started on September 1- was anyone’s guess. We spent an endlessly dull and grey week, and playing cards was the only pastime. Besides, after the foods and drinks brought from home finished, we gradually had to learn that getting even the most essential groceries locally was no easy task at all. Shops were available by all means, but usually there was almost nothing in them. One of the few exceptions was the bakeries, which offered excellent, incredibly tasty and aromatic types of Russian black and white breads. For some mysterious reason there was a cornucopia of ice creams, extremely good also, and consumed with gusto by the citizenship, especially in Russian winter. And this was the situation in a central area of the huge, mighty country’s capital…


After finally braving my way back inside, I suddenly felt very hungry- not surprising after not having eaten for almost 24 hours. My research brought me to a door with “Buffet” written above it. The door was open, but resplendent in front of it was a pail of dirty water, propping a long handled broom installed as a barrier. This installation very clearly indicated that entry was not welcome. It turned out that the buffet, or snack store, or whatever is to open at 9 a.m., and it was still only 7.30. Anyway, one minute before 9 a.m. I was there again, disappointed to find an already substantial queue. It turned out that queuing up earlier gave one a better chance to get something comparatively human to eat, but that experience came later. We were let inside at about 9.30, and hereby I experienced another first encounter with another crucial and emblematic institution in Soviet life – the “bufetchitza = booh-fetch-ee- tzah “: the lady behind the counter. As a rule, this used to be a big, fattish woman of middle age, with an oily grey-white cap on her head, dressed in oily grey-white coveralls, and with a voice like the Horn of Jericho. Very often, the question of survival or death from starvation was placed in the hands of this Soviet deity.


The interior was gloomy and definitely unclean, but the smell of warm sausages lifted my spirits. But as my luck would usually have it, when my turn finally came, they had run out. Actually, everything fresh had been depleted. All that had been left were a few emblematic Russian cabbage patties- they are delicious when fresh and warm, but turn into a tasteless mass when old and cold. There was no choice- I managed to swallow two or three of them, and then I had my first drink of coffee with milk Russian style. This was, and maybe still is, a concoction, which has no coffee at all, it is simply canned and sickly sweet milk diluted with warm water.


By the way, in those days Moscow had numerous shops titled “Kafe”/ “Coffee Shop”/. My late father was an enthusiastic connoisseur and consumer of good coffee, and when he came to visit for the first time he was pleasantly anticipating having a cup whenever feeling like it. Therefore, deep was his disappointment when he understood that all these “Coffee Shops” were in fact low-class grub places where coffee was never served…


By the end of August we were finally reminded about the reason we were here for. A bus took us to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and we were yet again mortified by the enormousness of the city-Moscow is really huge, the ride took almost 2 hours.


I was introduced into an office the size of a badminton playground with heavy ornate furniture- the marks of a high party official. Behind a huge wooden desk/carved, of course/ was sitting a mousy thin long-nosed woman of menopause age, with a particularly unpleasant way about her. Without introducing herself or even looking at me she informed that I was to study sinology and the Chinese language.


“Thank you”, I said.


This answer shocked her in a literally physical way, she started and looked at me for the first time above her glasses.


“Do you mean you accept? “


“Yes, why not? China has always interested me. Why do you ask me, Comrade?”.


“Because everyone who got this directive before you found a way to refuse”.


“Well, with all due respect, Comrade, the fact that people before me refused is not a reason for me to give up, is it?”


This answer was obviously interpreted as insolence, for this person was my mortal enemy throughout her tenure and often rang up my professors to ask if I had been diligent enough in my Chinese studies and in case I had not been, offering disciplinary action by the Embassy.

 

SURVIVING AS A STUDENT

 

Finally, September 1 came – the start of the academic year in this elite Alma Mater – Moscow State Institute of International Relations. As is the way with my luck, I had a mishap on the eve of this important date – I got a terrible toothache, impossible to bear, and had the lack of wisdom to visit the Institute’s dentist. Treatment was radical in a Soviet way – the tooth was pulled out on the spot, but before that she managed to spill arsenic in such a way that it melted a serious part of my jawbone. The pain became absolutely unbearable and after I was advised to have patience until it subsides, I understood that that there is no other way out and started being patient.


The first lesson in Chinese came, and my first professor, a dour woman of middle age called Galina Alekseevna, noticed my martyred expression and inquired what the matter with me was. When informed that I had toothache she commented sourly, that if the first ever lesson in Chinese had given me toothache, my future in mastering the language could not be very bright…


The start of academic activities revealed another unpleasant truth – that the boarding house was a place where it was impossible to study. There were four students in each room, and communal kitchens and restrooms on each of the five floors. The showers were in the basement.


The configuration of the inhabitants was the following: a Soviet comrade by default, a Vietnamese comrade also by default, and two persons from the other fraternal countries: Poland, Hungary, the GDR, Mongolia and of course, Bulgaria. Representatives of Ceausescu’s Romania had stopped studying in MGIMO a few years before.


Initially, I landed in an extremely difficult situation, as the Vietnamese studied everything literally by heart 24/7, using a very strong light at night, making it impossible to sleep, apart from the never-ending strong noises – music, drunken singing, moving things about – everywhere in the boarding house at night.


The Soviet comrades were of two types – rigid and stern junior level provincial Party cadres or secret alcoholics. The second type, a representative of which I had in my room, were extremely tedious and unpleasant in their endless attempts to involve one in drinking, always aiming at somebody else paying for the liquor.


Initially I had a boy from East Germany in my room – an intelligent and good-mannered individual. The great problem was that the GDR students had food communes/ they had the right to get their groceries from their Embassy canteen- this was a reason for constant envy by the others/. The food cooperatives consisted of 3-4 people who acted with German efficiency- who cooks the meals, who cleans up after eating and in whose room the meals are to be based for the day. Besides, there was a strict eating schedule for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and that was also meticulously kept with German pedanticism. Breakfast always started a 6.45 a.m., as lectures started at 8 a.m. and the boarding house was pretty far from the institute next to Krimskii Most/ Crimean Bridge/. One had to take a streetcar and then the metro; the journey took 45-50 minutes. At this hour, after long sleepless tossings and turnings I usually used to drift away in a blissful slumber and when breakfast was based in our room the noises from forks and dishes and the inevitable conversations used to rudely wake me up and make me extremely nervous. My polite requests to avoid at least breakfast in the room had no effect, so one nice morning I lifted the whole table with the breakfast things on it and pushed it down the staircase from the fourth floor. By some strange laws of physics, the round table went all the way down to the basement. After this incident the German canteen ceased functioning in my room.


With the passage of time some strategic maneuvering brought about welcome changes to the room’s inhabitants. I was joined by the Hungarian and the Pole from my Chinese group – good humored and intelligent boys. We lived well together and remained friends for a long time after graduating. Later though sadly enough life drew us apart and the last I know is that Zigmunt, the Pole, died young from heart failure in Shanghai, while Sandor, the Hungarian, was injured in Afghanistan while working for the U.N.


There was a very tragicomical episode from my student’s days connected to Sandor – I suppose things like that in one form or another have happened and will happen to numerous students the world over. The exam in World History was drawing closer and closer, and the situation was becoming more and more desperate. The material to study was irrationally huge- for some reason it ran from Pharaohs’ Egypt to the Sino-Soviet clashes on the Ussuri River during the 60s of the last century. On top of it, the exams’ schedule had been muddled and we had only 2-3 days after the previous exam for preparation. As it was obvious that we would not be able to manage these literally thousands of pages, we resorted to the classical students’ maneuver- we started preparing hidden prompts in written form. We divided the exam’s questionnaire in two and both us sat down to preparing his respective part.


At the exam we went in first, and as we drew the tickets with the questions, it turned out that the prompts for Sandor’s questions were from my part, and vice versa. I promptly passed my piece of paper to him under the table, while he started fidgeting and grew red in the face. It turned out that he had written the prompt in Hungarian, which is a queer language not exactly very popular outside of its country. I hissed to him to start translating into Russian immediately. Time was running fast and after 15 minutes the examining professor started glaring at us with raised eyebrows. Finally, I got the translation and he went to the professor to answer his questions. After that it was my turn, so I went and mumbled through my notes without lifting my eyes as these were questions which I hadn’t had read about at all. They concerned the meeting at Teheran of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. The life belt that saved me sprung from the fact that in my frustration I started pronouncing the names in English, not in Russian. This for some reason impressed the examiner immensely, he cut off the torture of my mumblings, gave me a “5″ grade/ the equivalent to an A in the Russian system/, and bid me good-bye.


The new Soviet comrade in my room was named Boris, and was the most incredible maverick I have ever seen. He had landed at the Institute through the working class quota/ there was such a quota for every Soviet higher education establishment/ from his “ emploi” as a crane operator at the port of Novorossiysk and was the rare type of a naturally intelligent person with a razor-sharp mind and a glorious sense of humor. The language given to him to study was Mongolian and rumor had it that after graduation he did land at the Soviet Embassy in Ulan Bator, where shortly after arrival he had declared that it was impossible for him to live in this primitive place. He had boarded the Ulan Bator-Moscow train without asking anyone, and after that his traces were lost…


However, let us go back to the Chinese language. It is not strange to say, that among the non-Chinese of this world the language is considered to be difficult, inscrutable, grotesque, etc. Initially this was true for me also, and that was quite natural of course. The first 2-3 months were a nightmare. The inscrutable characters and the singsong tones could really drive any laic to the limits of suicide. All this had to be assimilated and reproduced in a situation of chronic sleep deprivation, everyday life sufferings like underwear unwashed for weeks, and sometimes even semi-starvation. In desperation my good friend A.O., now one of our doyens in Arabic, found a small apartment to rent, so that we could sleep and study normally, but we were thrown out by the militia/ police/ in a couple of days- foreigners were not allowed such a thing and somebody had obviously tipped off the authorities. Nevertheless, this short period of quite and piece had a crucial effect, for one morning I simply woke up, and the pieces of the Chinese jigsaw puzzle had fallen in place! I can not say why this happened or whether other future sinologists have experienced this, but the very logical and far from too complicated structure of the Chinese characters simply presented itself to me, as if winking and saying, " Here, stupid, do you see it is easy?"


Chinese grammar is far from difficult; the principle is that a particular character added after the main one formulates the tenses, whether something is an object, an adjective and so on. The structure of the characters itself is something like a children’s construction game- several main components are combined in a logical way- the great trick is to sense the logic. As for pronunciation, my personal opinion is that 99.99% of the non- Chinese can not achieve total authenticity, so it is not worth the effort, the main thing is to be understood.


I have to mention that there was an obligatory second foreign language, and mine was English. The battle with the monstrous Soviet bureaucracy to replace it with French proved to be futile, so I had to go to lessons at primary school level, which was a tortuous loss of time. Luckily, my girl friend/ and future wife/who was teaching English at the Institute found the necessary connections and I passed my graduation exam somewhere in the middle of the first year, ending this idiotic paradox.


I have to point out, that for those who wanted and had the capacity, MGIMO offered an excellent education. Especially in sinology for instance I had the pleasure and privilege to learn from world-renowned faculty- academician Tikhvinskiy, professor Meliksetov, the linguists Garelov and Vassiliev, and many other high-class academics. Apart from that, after a long struggle to be granted access, I could use the incredible sinological library in Moscow. A satirical nuance here was the fact, that the library was on the second floor of an old mansion not far from Red Square, whose first floor was occupied by an “anti intoxication unit”, a euphemism for a place where the dead drunk picked up from the streets by the militia were brought to be showered from hoses with icy water and then let to sleep their drunkenness off on dirty mattresses. So occasionally the serenity of this temple of science was rudely invaded by the screams and scuffles of the drunkards on the lower floor…


The memories of Bulgarians who studied in the USSR are endless, and I will not venture in depth into this huge field. I will only dwell upon one story: my trip to Armenia.
It was the third year of studies, and a friend of mine and me, veterans already, decided that Moscow has grown too dull for us. A group of students from Soviet Armenia had invited us to visit, so we decided to go. After yet another heavy battle with the Soviet bureaucracy we got permission to travel out of Moscow, and even got students’ rebates on the plane tickets.


My memories of this visit to Erevan are contradictory, with many bittersweet nuances. Here in this glorious city built in pink stone I felt for the first time that there was something unhealthy in the crowding of so many nationalities with such different history, traditions and mentality under the Russian-Soviet aegis. The further development of historical events did prove my initial notions to be right.


One aspect of the good time I had was the sincere hospitality and spontaneous merrymaking at table of Armenians, so different from the gloomy Russian alcoholism. I have to say that eating and drinking exquisite Caucasian dishes and beverages was a very serious test to the limits of my stamina, for there were cases in which I barely made it to stay alive at the guest table. It was extremely strange that the food stores were absolutely empty, except for repugnant cans of condensed milk, while in the houses of people it was genuine cornucopia- one of the many mysteries of Soviet life…


The sad feelings generated, at least for me, came from the understanding of what huge injustices history had inflicted on this pleasant, intelligent and creative people. Mount Ararat, Armenia’s national symbol can be clearly seen from Erevan, but this national symbol is in Turkey. For a rough comparison one can imagine that the Eiffel Tower is in Germany, or something similar…The sadness was only deepened after visiting the staggering monument to the Armenian Genocide on a hill above the city.


Anyway, going to Erevan and not visiting the legendary brandy factory is equivalent to going to Rome and not seeing the Pope. This brandy factory is a huge pink building, creating the awe of a very special temple, and produces, in my humble opinion, the best brandy in the world. The visit started decently with polite sips of this 40 year old brandy or that brand which had been Churchill’s favorite, but ended rather tragically. It turned out that a huge table had been set out in one of the cellars, where on a crispy, snow white linen tablecloth the visitors and their hearty hosts were served incredible eatables and drinkables in limitless quantities.


Brandy, or shall we say cognac, is a treacherous beverage- it goes down very smoothly and pleasantly, and hits like lightning without any pre-warning. Simply, at one moment you are a genial table side participant, and the next you are a corpse or a disoriented somebody else, not yourself. This happened to me, at one moment I had simply turned off.


Luckily, this episode had been one of the rarer cases when such a state induces creative forces in unexpected fields. It turns out that after the feast the group had gone to visit Yetchmiadzin, the seat of the Catholicos of the Armenian Orthodox Church. Actually, the group had been granted a short audience, at which I had positively impressed the Patriarch with intelligent commentaries, but the nature of these commentaries has never been disclosed and will most probably never be.


It was time to go back, and problems started. Our visit coincided with the first hijacking of a Soviet plane – two Georgians forced an internal lines flight to divert to Turkey, and one of the air hostesses was shot dead. Control over boarding flights was tightened immediately, and presenting a passport when getting tickets became obligatory. Well, my friend and I had left our passports in Moscow.


After numerous combinations that failed, we managed to get tickets and boarded the Erevan-Moscow train. Places had been available only in the so called “hard carriage”, which means a carriage with hard seats, which were wooden and VERY hard indeed. Therefore, the two days trip was far from comfortable.


While we were still in the area of the Caucasus we had good company- a merry group of Armenians travelling to Batumi to board a cruise ship. Drinks were flowing, food was being heartily consumed and songs were being sung. With entering Russia proper, the situation changed abruptly. Personages as if out of a Turgenev novel started boarding: unshaven men and stout women in peasant clothing, boots and hats, not very clean. They were openly hostile to us.


Finally we made it to Moscow, long overdue, but nobody had noticed anything about our absence.


Another episode that made me question the Soviet multinational system was a trip to Estonia. It was simply obvious that Estonian national mentality, history, culture are barely compatible with a Russian dominated totalitarian system. Actually, it was pretty obvious that Estonians simply do not like Russians…


Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, was a different world- this town resembles the décor of a Western European puppet theater in the Middle Ages. There were numerous small, cozy cafes where one could have a nice bite or a drink- something unheard of in Moscow. The strange accent in with which Estonians speak Russian was irritating to the ear, and it could also be seen that speaking among themselves in their language in the presence of outsiders made Estonians uncomfortable.


However, my advice to whoever would like to dig deeper into the matter would be to be acquainted with the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty.


In Tallinn I witnessed the notorious Finnish alcohol inroads- hundreds, if not thousands of presumed tourists were ferried from Helsinki every Friday evening, and from the very moment of disembarkation they used to start a heavy drinking binge- vodka was times cheaper in the Soviet Union than in Finland. On Sunday afternoon the same ferries took back home live corpses, still dead drunk. In Tallinn there was even a luxurious “anti intoxication unit” for those Finns who had gone too much over the edge- the establishment was run as a business and the visitors had to pay in hard currency.


By the way, speaking of trains, I had other interesting experiences in those days – the trip from Moscow to my home town Varna for summer vacation by the seasonal train. This train ran from May until October, but had passengers- Soviet tourists- only in July and August. Why months of running empty carriages back and forth took place is one of the endless mysteries of the socialist system. To return to Moscow I always used a train in mid-September, and had the luxury of being alone in the whole sleeping car.

 

BACK HOME

It is natural that the notes on my student’s days will end with one day in May 1974 when I was handed my diploma of “Expert on the Far East” and returned home.
By definition that supposed I was to start working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs- this ministry held all files of MGIMO students and I am sure monitored silently, but very effectively their academic performance.


I acknowledge that the years of student’s life and the successful graduation had significantly distanced me from reality. The summer was great, life was easy and good, the sea was knee deep and I had totally forgotten that I had to apply for work. After a chancy meeting with a friend from the Institute, who was amazed I still had not applied, I made an urgent trip to Sofia and went through the application paperwork at the very last moment. When that was mercifully over, I asked when I should expect to start work, because being from another town I would have to find myself a place to live and also tackle numerous other details connected with moving to Sofia. The answer of the Human Resources clerk who had handled my case, a cheery woman of the big mama type was:” Why, after you do your military service of course”. This was the final and irreparable fall to earth after all the months of euphoria.

 

THE SOLDIER


The implications of compulsory military service are not known to present day Bulgarian young men, but in my time that was the crucial, make-or- break period in the life of all healthy Bulgarian males of conscript age. All in all, that used to be a very unpleasant, stressful and long experience, which had to be somehow put behind one,’s back. Getting over military service was an all-valid sort of license to adulthood. Most young males came out of the army physically and emotionally stronger and ready to brave the challenges of the years ahead. There were, of course, also cases of damaged health or psyche, but those were relatively few.


In my case, I came under the last year of regulations, which made it possible for anyone who had entered a higher education establishment to postpone military service for the period after completing higher education. Naturally in my student’s days I had paid little attention to the hardships of military service after graduation. However, the time had come for reality to ground me very firmly indeed.


The fatal day of the so called “naked commission” came. This was the medical evaluation procedure, where the young male’s physical and mental capacity to cope with the hardships of military service was assessed. I can tell you that any conscript had a secret hope that some serious, but not lethal incapacity in his organism would be established and military service miraculously suspended, but as is well known miracles do not happen very often. Once pronounced fit for service, there was no other way except the way to the barracks.


The commission was called “naked” because one had to take off all his clothes in front of the first medical examination office, and then parade in Adam’s clothing through all other rooms. Only after the process was over could one get dressed again. There were quite a few women among the doctors and nurses, some of them attractive, which occasionally had a very embarrassing effect on a naked young male…All in all, viewing in full detail the naked bodies of my classmates, neighborhood friends and simply acquaintances, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years, made me strangely depressed and moody.


Of course, it turned out that I am in perfect physical and mental shape, and absolutely ready to begin learning how to defend the Socialist Motherland. I am/ or was…/ quite tall and massive, so when the commission recommended training for parachute jumping, armored vehicles crew or reconnaissance, I was very puzzled indeed… For some time after that the thought that I might have to jump from a plane or get into a tank through a narrow hole on its top was quite unsettling.


All in all, the day came when the summons to the military railway ticket office came- I was to travel the Reserve Officers School in the town of Vratza. That was sometime in mid-September 1974.


Tradition at the time dictated organizing “seeing off the young soldier”- feasts, which were not less stormy than marriage banquets. In my case such an event was not organized, and one crisp autumn morning I was among a group of young men with cropped hair, which disembarked from the Varna-Sofia night train at Mezdra railway station. From there we were taken Vratza.


The first thing that struck me at the entry of the military school was a big sculpture of a defendant of the motherland. It was the figure of a soldier with an automatic rifle in one hand, who had his other hand raised in a stern gesture to some aggressor not to dare do any mischief. The fingers of the hand had fallen off though, with the exception of the middle finger – a very eloquent and symbolic message to the young conscripts who had just arrived.


Army memories are still characteristic to generations of active Bulgarian males / the military switched to a professional army at the end of the 1990s/. These memories are usually similar, endless and quite boring, so I will skip this part. I will only mention a few conclusions and incidents.


The first months of a young conscript were degrading and extremely hard – anyone who was NOT a young conscript could insult you, humiliate you or even hurt you with impunity. There was absolutely no way to counter this, and the feeling of helplessness was really horrible. One of the time honored ways for achieving the whole spectrum of negative effects for the new soldiers was to endlessly enforce heavy but useless work- like digging a trench one day, and filling it in the next; or shifting a heap of big stones to one place and then shifting them back.


Another thing, which was extremely depressing, was that being different made one immediately the target of hatred and ridicule. To make it in a relatively easier way through military service, and especially its initial stages, meant that one had to be at the intellectual level of the officers and other military professionals – a thing that proved to be impossible for the majority of the conscripts with a university education.


For instance, being different physically meant imminent trouble for the too tall or too short, the too fat or too thin. One of the unwritten rules in this respect was that the company machine gun, a monster weighing more than 16 kilograms, was always given to the tallest youngster. In our case that happened to be Jordan L., now a noted journalist, who is more than two meters tall and was literally bending under the machine gun’s weight. My Arabist friend Alexander, already mentioned here, was very short sighted and losing his glasses would mean great trouble, so he used to tie them with a piece of string. That feature was for some reason fervently irritating to older soldiers and officers, so he was a regular victim of various abuses. One less imaginative example of such abuse was to be charged with cleaning up the incredibly dirty and stinky latrines.


My humble person had its own share of misfortune- I have large feet and fitting boots could not be found for quite some time, so I made a very ridiculous figure in uniform, but with city shoes. Every officer or sergeant who met me felt obliged to command me to turn right, turn left, run, march, do push ups and what not, and after that to lecture me what a disgrace to the military service I was in those ridiculous shoes. Of course there was absolutely no chance to explain and defend myself.


All in all, the six months at the school were bad, sometimes very bad.


Finally military school was over, there was a blissful week of home leave, and then I was sent to the garrison in Petrich- the town which is the farthest possible from Varna in Bulgaria. Honestly said, life after the school in the capacity of “starshina- shkolnik” – something like a sub-officer, was not that bad. Commanding officers pretty soon used to get tired of my unmilitary ways, and after initial disciplinary attempts found it much easier to get rid of me by footballing me off to some other garrison. In this way I got in-depth impressions of beautiful Pirin Macedonia – the towns of Petrich, Gotze Delchev, Razlog, and ended my career in Gara Pirin- a very long village on the Struma River where it meanders by Pirin Mountain.


From this last period I will dwell upon just one episode. I shared a room with Z.Z., with whom we became very good friends. This area was, and I hope still is, notorious for the “ keratzuda” wine – a fine, delicate and extremely pleasant wine which goes down very smoothly, but with one very serious shortcoming: it gives a terrible hangover. So after one night of keratzuda joys we woke somewhere about noon with pretty heavy heads and immediately sensed that something was wrong. Looking out of the window confirmed our fears- there was not a single living soul outside. The notion that we were in bad trouble started sinking in, as it was obvious the regiment had been ordered to decamp for regular maneuvers, and the signal for action in these cases was always given in the middle of the night. It turned out after that the commander of the regiment, a rough and stupid fellow with the ridiculously unsuitable name of Romeo Petkov, had made the signals fellow blow the alarm bugle in our very room, but to no effect…


At one time, a truck came in, so we rushed to it. As often happened, regulations had not been kept, and the soldier driver was alone, without an accompanying officer. His mission was to get mattresses for the officers-obviously the period in the field had turned out be longer than expected. We boarded the truck and lay on the mattresses; Z.Z. had lifted the cover slightly and was monitoring the situation outside. At one moment the truck stopped and he informed that this seemed a suitable quiet place to get off. We jumped to the ground, the truck started again and there we were in the middle of a big clearing in the woods, facing all officers lined up with Romeo giving them instructions…What followed hardly needs special description. After an apoplectic tirade explaining us what scum we were, we were ordered to immediately join our positions/ whose whereabouts we didn’t know…/. I have to point out, that we avoided being court marshaled only because of the fact that Z.Z.’s parents were of the highest nomenklatura, and he was decent enough to save not only his skin, but mine too.

 

JUNIOR ATTACHÉ

Finally, military service was over. I was 26, it was spring, life was good and the future was bright. At the Ministry I was advised to have a good extended vacation after the ordeal of military service and report again some time in September. It didn’t make me particularly sad- the summer was long and pleasant, September came, and one good day I went to the post office/ we had no phone at home- they were still a luxury in Bulgaria in those days- and rang up HRD. A very indignant voice told me that I had been long overdue and who did I think I was. When I stammered that Comrade so-and –so had told me to report in September, the voice said that this Comrade had gone to service abroad two months ago, and anyway nobody gave a damn about what I had been told.


Panic ensued, a suitcase was hastily packed and connections were found for a plane ticket to Sofia on short notice. I went to the Ministry directly from the airport, but nobody would let me in with the suitcase, and there was nowhere to leave it outside. I was dead tired and very pissed off, so I went to the distant relatives I was to stay with initially and the day was lost.


Next morning I finally made it into the premises of the Ministry expecting the worst, but nobody paid me any attention, and I was told to report to the Press Department where I was to start my career. This was a huge blow, as I had naturally expected to start with China at the Asian Department. I couldn’t understand for what reason that had happened, especially having in mind that sinologists in the Ministry/ and in Bulgaria at that/ could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Quite some time later I understood why, there was a reason of principle and other than that- a very practical reason. The principle was never to expect that you would work in the field you had studied: the Asian department had staff that had specialized in Scandinavian countries, while the European department had the only person in the country who spoke Lao. The practical reason had been that China was a very lucrative and therefore coveted posting, so only highly connected individuals could make it to the Embassy in Beijing, where in the full isolation of Maoist China their main function was to buy silver, jewelry, ivory , furs and what not – they came fantastically cheap with foreign currency.


The months at the Press Department turned out to be dull and uneventful, for the simple reason that I had practically nothing to do. That gave me time to try and find a more stable place to live and finally be joined by my wife, who remained in Varna, but that task proved to be impossible, at least for the time being.


Therefore, when the surprising offer to be posted as junior attaché at the Embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia came, I accepted with no hesitation- there would at least be a certain roof over my head. It turned out that several people who had been offered the position had found ways to decline, but that didn’t matter. In March of 1977 my wife and I boarded a Bulgarian plane to Rome, and then “Alitalia” to Mogadishu.

 

JUNIOR ATTACHÉ OR JACK-OF-ALL-TRADES.


When we set foot on the runway at Mogadishu, the feeling was like walking barefoot on hot beach sand back home. We had not thought of having hats at hand, and the short walk to a big metal shack, which turned out to be the administrative HQ of Mogadishu International Airport, almost resulted in sunstrokes. There was a merciless fiery ball hanging low in the sky – the equatorial sun, which has no mercy. So we got our first practical lesson – never venture outside, even for a second, without head ware! In addition, the shack had been made out of metal as if intentionally to add a few degrees to the infernal temperature when one got inside.


Naturally, our clothes were clinging to our bodies glued by the sweat in which we were literally bathing. That was already the effect of humidity – the oppressive equatorial all-pervasive type, which makes one feel as if wearing something like a wet shroud, which can not be taken off.


Actually, the temperatures on the Somali coast are not that bestial, 34-35 degrees Celsius. The nightmare starts a few miles inland, where the terrain quickly turns to an endless desert, sometimes sand, sometimes black stones, where temperatures reach over 50 degrees during the day, and fall to zero at night. But the “benevolent” temperatures of the coast are combined with 100% humidity, which creates huge discomforts to the newly arrived white person, until one gets accustomed to some degree.


But the most unusual phenomenon on Somalia, at least for me, was smells. The only way to describe them is that they are simply Somali smells. This definitely was not the unbearable stench of rotting biomaterial of South-East Asia or Southern India, nor is it the all-pervasive smoke from burning cow dung in Northern India. The Somali smell could hardly be described as unpleasant- this is a most bizarre mix of the aromas of smoked tuna fish, red-hot sand, salty ocean water and some other things, which I have never been able to put a finger on.


It had been a long and tiring flight, and the first encounters with this totally new and different world had made us quite dizzy, so in the suffocating red-hot metal shack we almost fainted. It was of the essence indeed that the trade representative Tinkov who was meeting us had kept another golden rule: ALWAYS have plenty of water at hand. So after the first gulps of this liquid of life, cold from an icebox at that, I started understanding what it would mean to be waterless in the desert and what infernal quite insanity the hallucinations of an oasis with pure cold streams could bring about…


Bottled water was a rarity in Somalia and was prohibitively expensive, so drinking water was provided in rather a primitive way- one boiled water in a kettle/ the bigger, the better/ and after letting it cool off it had to be poured in bottles and stored in the fridge. A big kettle was a crucial possession indeed!


As I said, we were dead tired and our only wish was for a quick shower and cool bed, but that turned out to be impossible: Tinkov informed us that Ambassador Chiliashev, God rest his soul, was expecting us for lunch, and this was an invitation one could not refuse. The unwritten rules of subordination had it that an invitation to the boss was a gesture of good will and declining it would have been a very stupid thing to do. And if it had happened that no invitation had been extended, one was always left worrying that the boss has started disliking you even without having seen you…


We got into a black FIAT, hot as a coal furnace/ in those days, only Ambassadors’ cars had air conditioning/ and started along something like asphalt. Tinkov, who had had the necessary experience already, was deftly meandering among naked black children, goats, donkeys, camels, all types of very peculiar motor vehicles and so on. The view was depressing – a dusty palm tree here and there, nothing green at all but endless blackish thorn bushes of all types and sorts.


There were actually only four buildings in the real sense of the word in the town- the old parliament, the prison, and a triumphal arch under which Mussolini had passed when decades ago he had made a tour of Italian colonies by ship. The only building, which had been built after the Italians had left, was the seat of the Central Committee of the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party, which of course was a gift from the Soviet Union to its Marxist-Leninist brothers. By the way, the party code was an extremely bizarre mixture of Marxist-Leninist, Islamic and Pan-Somali terminology. At congresses and other forums of this party, it was mandatory to pause at the necessary times for praying to Allah…


There were also a few dilapidated Italian colonial villas, some of them used as hotels or restaurants, also quite a few ugly shacks where everything from bananas to the mild narcotic called “khat”was sold. But most numerous were the primitive huts made of thorns, palm leaves, rusty iron sheets and what not. In my opinion there more important function was marking territory, rather than offering shelter.


The lunch at the Ambassador’s Residence was depressing, mostly due to the fact that we were dying for sleep. The time difference between Bulgaria and Somalia is not big, but still jet lag was setting in. Tension was also resulting from the necessity to control oneself, so that to appear neither too high-handed nor too servile. The fetishism to whisky is traditional to any Bulgarian Embassy – it was and still is offered and drunk at any time of the day. This lunch was no exception, and in my condition I felt that I was getting dangerously tipsy. I don’t remember the menu, but even at Ambassadorial level normal groceries were hardly available, so the stress was on attempts to “Bulgarianize” local products- mainly fish or the tough beef. The white Bulgarian cheese, a bit of which everyone had brought, had mystical value and was not for guests. Another source of tension was the Ambassador’s wife, a professional mid-level party functionary, who had a tragicomical obsession to play the “Grande Dame”. And finally, on the Equator one feels cool inside, where the air conditioner is, not outside- but the lunch was set on the unbearably hot and stuffy verandah.


Despite all my efforts, it turned out I was starting with a “faux pas” – I hadn’t brought along Bulgarian newspapers. The Embassy in Mogadishu had one basic role- the Soviet presence in Somalia had to be accompanied by a display of presence of the other socialist countries, so that it wouldn’t look too unilateral. Of these, only the East German Embassy had been organized flawlessly – fully equipped with all tools of the trade: many diplomats, cipher clerks, independent radio connection to Berlin, school, canteen, medical cabinet, security personnel and arrangements.


The other ones –Polish, Czech and Hungarian – had been hastily established and lacking some basic elements, but our case was the worst. One of the many shortcomings was that there was no radio connection to the Ministry in Sofia, so we were not getting the daily press roundup. For economy’s sake Bulgarian newspapers were sent by ship mail, so they came in bulk with a delay of 4-5 months. That’s why a 2-3 days old newspaper had great value and by the unwritten rule every new arrival had to have the papers of the day he had left and give them to the boss ASAP, while the rest of the staff would nervously wait whether after reading them he would pass them on. This failure taught me a lesson for the rest of my career…


When coffee was over, I made a second “faux-pas”: we rose to leave without the boss having dismissed us. The Ambassador and his wife, who hadn’t seen a new face in months, were obviously in a chatty mood, and were palpably not happy. Perhaps here I should add that people in small closed communities in faraway countries get fed up with each other pretty quickly, and in many cases begin hating each other passionately. There was the notorious case of the U.S. Embassy in Equatorial Guinea, which consisted of two single men, who first developed a homosexual relationship and then one killed the other, after which he killed himself.


The dreams of going to bed proved to have been futile yet again. I was informed that I had to deputize for the Ambassador at some function for some local anniversary. The driver took us to the Embassy, where one wing consisting of a room and a dining room with a kitchen was to be our home, and then to the function- the classical hours long nightmare of patriotic songs and dances, typical of third-world pro-Soviet countries of those times. Finally, we were back and literally plunged into bed, immediately falling into a dead sleep.       

 

 

MOGADISHU DAYS

 

So Mogadishu days started and they were not exactly easy days. Apart from traditional irritants, such as digestive trouble, insects, temperatures, humidity, lack of any form of entertainment in our sense of the word, there was one particular feature which, at least for me, was extremely oppressive, and that was the dull uniformity of the nature around. Mogadishu is close to the Equator and plants, flowers, etc. stay absolutely the same 365 days a year. The same with sunrise and sunset- every single day the fiery ball of the sun springs up in the sky at 6 a.m., and falls down as abruptly at 6 a.m., bringing pitch darkness.                                                           


The Embassy building was a one-storey house with a small yard, rented from some local property owner. Like any of the few solid buildings in town, it had a high wall with pieces of broken glass cemented on its top against burglars. The yard was used as a parking lot and was inhabited by a couple of dik-diks- miniature antelopes. There was also another inhabitant- a scary looking two-legged reptile the size of a mini-dinosaur, which the locals called “ghuruk”. Its body was covered with slimy armor, and on top of this repulsive exterior, the ghuruk had a long split red tongue, which it used to shoot out with a menacing hissing sound. In fact, this was a totally harmless creature and even a useful one, as it devoured immediately all the kitchen garbage without letting it rot and stink.


The Embassy had two wings divided by a spacious salon with a terrace facing the ocean. One wing hosted the Ambassador’s office and our joint office with Tinkov, the other one was my modest home. The salon was useless though, as it had no air conditioning. The ornate and big terrace with a view to the ocean was also for decorative purposes only, as it was for some mysterious reason of nature the favorite place of thousands of mosquitoes. These inquisitor small insects of the Equator and Tropic are actually a greater tormentor to the white man than heat, humidity and what not. The maddening itchy bites are with one everywhere in the open air, and if one single mosquito makes it into an air-conditioned sealed bedroom, there is no sleep! I was extremely lucky to find in some God-forsaken little shop one of the greatest achievements of human progress- a tiny anti-mosquito device, which consists of a small plate which heats up a pill after being plugged into electricity. This pill emits quite a pleasant smell and some substance, which destroy the mosquitoes instantaneously. It cost a small fortune, but was well worth the investment! Since then, this blessed device has been my faithful companion in all my African and Asian travels, although after some time it became almost impossible to find the pills- as is deplorably the rule in business, manufacturers started replacing the simple machine with elaborate ones, which worked worse but were of course more expensive…


One of my every day duties as the Embassy’s apprentice jack-of-all-trades was going to the central/ and only/ post office to get the mail. I had an old, quite decrepit “FIAT”, but it had an excellent engine- its only deficiency was that it was black and in daytime its interior became something like the 9th circle of hell. This post office was one of the most unpleasant places to visit in town, as crowds of beggars traditionally used to throng in front of it- they were not only repugnant but also aggressive, especially towards whites. These were pitiful, wretched creatures that made one’s stomach turn- lacking some or even all limbs, blind with puss holes instead of eyes, covered in festering wounds plastered with flies, with something like warped thin sticks instead of legs after polio, and numerous other repulsive varieties. Here I got yet another of my first and lasting lessons in the unwritten rules of survival in such places – never give alms to beggars, as cruel as it sounds. That is so, because the every next day the beggars want more than the previous one: the first day I gave a few coins, the second- a bit more, and so on until the time when the demands became ridiculous and I had to push my way through a very aggressive crowd without giving anything. Before that, I had several times requested assistance from the police officer on duty at the entrance, but he had only stared at me inscrutably and had not done anything.


The revenge for the last episode was immediate- the next day when I went out of the post office carrying a bunch of papers, magazines and envelopes, I found out that all the locks of the car had safety matches driven into them. This sounds innocent, but it is not- you can not open any door unless somebody takes the locks apart. There were no public phones in Mogadishu, and no cell phones in those days of course. The situation was becoming desperate –it was midday, the sun was blasting mercilessly, and the Embassy was about 3 miles away. Fate was on my side though- one of the few Italians resident in town, owner of the only store which offered Italian groceries/ brought by the Alitalia plane and consequently exorbitantly priced/ passed by and gave me a lift. The scenes back at the Embassy were far from pleasant, as I was accused of abandoning Government property in a most irresponsible way. Finding a mechanic who could open the door proved to be an impossible task, so at dusk I had to break one of the car windows with a hammer. This window remained broken until the day I left Somalia for good.


By the way, in Mogadishu I had my debut as a driver- I hadn’t driven a car till then. Actually, the place had only three streets more or less in the real sense of the word- two running parallel to the ocean and one that crossed them leading to the port. This last one was pretty steep and the Embassy was at its upper end. Traffic was a total chaos of dilapidated trucks, cars decades old, strange three-wheeled constructions making a terrible noise and spewing foul fumes/ these were taxis/, donkey carts, simply donkeys, flocks of goats or skinny cows, and flocks of naked children. Naturally, there were numerous hidden dangers and tricks to learn so that to avoid them, but the biggest and cruelest danger was to run over a child, especially at night. It is sad to say that desperate poverty quite often made parents push one of their numerous children under a car intentionally. Of course the car was carefully selected to be driven by a diplomat or at least a white person, and then the grieving, wailing family used to demand compensation on the spot. More often this included demands for flocks of cows, goats and camels, textiles, canned food and other manufactured good. But sometimes also money was demanded, and in the tens or hundreds of thousands of hard currency. One Western diplomat had had the misfortune to land into this enormous trouble, and as it had been absolutely clear that the child had been pushed under the car intentionally, had categorically refused to pay up. The crowd had followed him to the Embassy and had set up a siege, unrestricted by the authorities in any way. Threats of lynching had been made, and the diplomat had to be smuggled out of the country- in a case sealed as diplomatic mail….


As I already said, our Embassy was on the street leading to the port, and endless herds of camels were regularly driven down to be loaded on ships to Saudi Arabia. In such cases, one could neither go out, nor even worse, come back. Being blocked in the street by these big animals was a most harassing experience, as one could spend literary hours in the suffocating car, only praying that this ordeal could end sooner. The camels were naturally nervous and jittery by the whole exercise, and sometimes menacingly restless. One could only hope that the car doesn’t get a hefty camel kick, which could easily do damage…


My beginner’s days as a driver inevitably resulted in a few scratches on the cars body, but also in an episode, which was quite comical, but could easily have been a tragedy: one good day I was coming down the street and after making the left turn to the Embassy gates I pressed the throttle pedal instead of the breaks. The car took off the heavy iron gates off the hinges, it fell flat in the yard and I triumphantly drove over it and finally managed to stop. Miraculously enough, I didn’t get even a scratch/ and the car for that- the FIAT models of the nineteen sixties proved to be incredibly sturdy and dependable cars/. However, I had been extremely lucky in another aspect also- the local watchmen or “guardiano”, whose job was to open and close this very gate, usually spent his days in a slumber on a board in the shade right behind the gates. Most fortunately, at the moment of the accident he had not been at his usual place, otherwise he would have inevitably been crushed by the heavy iron wings.


The guardiano Hossein was a typical Somali male- tall, with long thin legs and even thinner long hands, black as shoe polish, but with regular non-Negroid features. This fragility on the surface is strongly misleading, as these thin legs can run for tens of miles, and these thin hands have the strength iron clutches. One feature of the Somalis, which deserves mentioning, is their impeccable, strong, white teeth. The secret lies in the fact, that from childhood almost all Somalis rub their teeth and gums from getting up in the morning to going to sleep at night. They use short branches of a local bush, with one end shredded to form a small brush. The juice of this brush is a strong natural anti-bacterial substance, so by never allowing plaque to form on the teeth, the locals have one of the best teeth in the world and have no idea that a thing like a dentist exists in the world. This brush is not for outsiders though, you have to grow up with it, and the only result a foreigner can achieve is that his fillings will fall out…Years after that, in New York, I noticed Afro-American street vendors vigorously peddling these sticks. Well, they were either unaware of the catch mentioned above, or their business practices were not exactly fair…


One other traditional occupation, almost for all men and quite a few women, is the smoking of “khat”, a narcotic grass preparation, which gives one a feeling of energy and elation, but in my opinion, its most important function is the blunting of the feeling of hunger. As in the case of most Somalis this feeling is a life-long companion, khat is a Somali’s life-long friend.


Somali men go around mostly naked to the waist and mostly in the traditional ankle long men’s skirts. The naked torsos reveal only sinew and bone, a bit of muscle, and absolutely no fat.


Women are extremely gracious, many of them real beauties, as the West has been made aware of by the fashion model Iman. I bet that any Western woman slaving away in the fitness hall feels black envy for these naturally perfect female bodies. Moreover, regular facial features add a special charm to the black beauties. Unfortunately, female circumcision was and still is a tragic addition to the poverty and other misfortunes of Somali women, so in reality there is little ground for envy…


Nowadays, as I watch pictures of the so called Somali pirates, I reach the conclusion, that these men are among the few Somalis who have more or less regular access to food – they look much more solid than the traditional underfed Somali. But I will dwell on these pirates a bit later.


The daily routine in Mogadishu was dull and oppressive, and pretty often one had the feeling that time had come to a standstill. With no television, concerts, theatre etc. the only entertainment was the beach, but it was also very far from the European concept of such a place. Lying in the sun to get a tan was out of the question, because in minutes what you would get would be burns of a serious degree. Lying under an umbrella was also not possible because of the hundreds of irritating and even aggressive beach vendors of false African masks and various other junk. Therefore, each Embassy had to maintain a beach house where one could stay and occasionally venture into the salty waters of the ocean, which had the temperature of warm tea and brought no coolness at all. We couldn’t afford maintaining such a facility, so we were allowed to use the Soviet one. This was quite run down, the tables and chairs were old and uncomfortable and the bar offered only ridiculously expensive stabilized “Amstel” beer and fresh pink, grapefruit juice that would have been fantastic had it been cold, but it wasn’t.


Perhaps here I should offer some advice based on rich personal experience on techniques, which can seriously lower the chances of digestive tortures the outsider inevitably encounters in Equatorial and Tropical areas. Ideally, one should drink only bottled water, wash fruits and vegetable in a light solution of calium hypermanganicum and then immediately dry them, and absolutely avoid leafy vegetables like salads or cabbage. This might be attainable at home, but is almost impossible when being out. One important rule in such cases is to refuse the next rounds of drinks in new glasses, but to keep the first one and insist on a refill. This is because the first glass is usually dry, only later rinsing glasses in dubious water starts, and the bacteria of intestinal infection flourish only in a wet environment, in a dry one they become much less potent. Also, when out try not to eat any raw vegetables and eat only fruit, which can be peeled.

 

 

THE OGADEN WAR

Working in Somalia did not mean just coping with everyday exotic difficulties of course. From the professional point of the diplomat there was a lot to assess politically, socially, economically and strategically in this area of the world. During my stay, the Ogaden War of 1977and the ensuing rift between Somalia and the USSR was the major event that attracted the closest professional attention of all diplomats in Mogadishu I am sure. This was no easy task by far – this was a dictatorship and a closed society where information for analysis and prognostication was difficult to achieve – reliable sources were few and often out of reach, and educated guesses always bore the danger of wrong conclusions.


The Ogaden desert is one of the most forbidding, ugly and I dare say inhuman places on earth. Apologizing for the banality: this place can be best described as a moonscape-endless black stones and pebbles, absolutely nothing green/ the pathetic thorny bushes which are the food of the herds of skinny goats that somehow survive here have a sandy, dusty color/, a merciless sun and infernal temperatures at day time, but temperatures close to zero at night. This Godforsaken wasteland was the reason for the Somali-Ethiopian territorial dispute and subsequently- the reason for the Ogaden war. The Pan-Somali idea was based on uniting all former Somali territories- the Ogaden / ceded to Ethiopia during the colonization of Somalia in the 19th century/, Djibouti/ the former French Somaliland/ and some border areas with Kenya. Actually, Somalia consisted only of the former Italian and British Somaliland. The white five-pointed star against a blue background- the national flag, symbolize these five original parts of the country, of which three have yet to return under the aegis of the fatherland….


Speaking of the Ogaden it could be concluded that the fact that people manage to exist in such conditions is a miracle in itself. So an even greater miracle is the fact that serious armored vehicles battles took place during the war. How a tank engine could work in such conditions is simply inexplicable. Even more inexplicable is how a crew could survive in the infernal hot oven the inside of a tank must have been.


It should be pointed out, that for a poor African country Somalia had a very good army. The officers’ corps was totally Soviet educated, and there were Soviet advisors down to the company level. The military hardware was also Soviet and the crucial maintenance was executed by Soviet technicians. The material support by Egypt also had an important role, as Egypt historically has had a policy of destabilizing Ethiopia in the traditional dispute for the control of the Nile’s sources.


After Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military coup d’état and the dethronement of Emperor Haile Selassie , the new regime proclaimed itself to be Marxist-Leninist and started cooperating with the Soviet Union and allowed the setting up of a Soviet naval base in the important Red Sea port of Asmara. With a similar base on the opposite side of the Gulf of Aden in Yemen, this strategic configuration created awesome Soviet “ pincers” capable to control the oil tankers’ route from the Persian Gulf to the main customers in the West.


Still after the coup Ethiopia was far from stable, so the Somali leadership made the fatal decision to attack, which the Somalis did on July 13 1977, quickly gaining control over the entire Ogaden area.


The Soviet Union was facing a very difficult choice, as both Somalia and Ethiopia were its clients. After futile attempts at mediating reconciliation, the Soviet leadership made a simplistic decision- it backed Ethiopia, the bigger of the two countries. The Cuban comrades were quickly involved, and after the arrival of Cuban troops on the side of Ethiopia the tables were inevitably turned against Somalia.


At this time my wife was expecting our first child, and we relied for check ups and the like on the police hospital, the only more or less decent establishment in town. Eerily, its corridors started filling up with Somali soldiers in horrifying conditions: with untreated rotting wounds, handless, legless, blinded- the scenes were really horrifying. The consequences of the lost war were devastating for the 30 000 strong Somali army: the killed were estimated at about 10 000, and in fact nobody cared to count the wounded. Gradually these wretched people started begging in the streets, and the atmosphere in Mogadishu, which had never been too pleasant anyway, became even worse: one could palpably feel the gloom of a nation, which had lost a war. This was a classical situation: the dissipation of the army in a third world country inevitably leads to dissipation of government. In the Somali case, the cracks that led to the collapse of the country had already appeared.


This was also the beginning of the end for the country’s military ruler Colonel Mohammed Siyad Barre, President of the country and Chairman of the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party. Born in 1919, his career starts in the colonial police force and in the newly founded army after independence from Italy in 1958. In 1960 he topples the elected government by a military coup and establishes a military dictatorship. Like many repressive regimes of the Third World, he announces Marxism-Leninism as its ideology. In those days, that was enough for the dinosaurs in the Soviet Politburo to self delude themselves that Communism was spreading around the world, and billions of absolutely ineffective Soviet economic aid used to be lavished on Somalia and the like. The only effective assistance was in the military field, and that was actually all the leaders of such countries cared about. Soviet military hardware and officers trained in the USSR became the backbone of armies, which were pretty good for backward African countries. The pay back was usually the acceptance of strategic Soviet military bases.


After the rift with Soviet Union, which I will mark a bit later, Siyad Barre managed to become an American client for a short period by trading the former Soviet naval base at the strategic port of Berbera. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union rendered useless the bases and subsequently Somalia’s only international asset- its strategic geographical position. Americans were gone, and so were the cash sources for the regime. The country quickly slipped into the chaos and degradation it still finds itself in. Various warlords and tribal chiefs started attacking Mogadishu in the moments they were not fighting among themselves, and in January 1991 Siyad Barre was forced to run, first to Kenya, then to Nigeria. There he died of a heart attack at 63- bitter, living in poverty and forgotten by all.

 

AFTER THE RIFT

The calamitous end of the war brought about the logical bitter reaction- the Somalis reduced drastically the Soviet presence, allowing only a skeleton diplomatic crew to remain in the huge Soviet Embassy. All other advisors, experts and the like were given a few days to leave, which they did by a very well organized Soviet airlift . The sites of buildings, forest projects, water supply systems etc. were left unattended and gradually the billions spent on them turned literally into sand. The spring floods of 1978 sent the Fanole Dam, a project intended to match the Aswan Dam, into the oblivion of the river and ocean waters.


In the case of Cuba, diplomatic relations were totally cut off. The Cubans left by an Aeroflot plane, led by the Ambassador waving a Cuban flag. Their impressive Embassy became eerily lifeless overnight. Initially the defense of Cuban interests and most of all mediation between the Somalis and Cubans about the Cuban prisoners of war was handled by South Yemen, at the time also a Soviet client. Over several months the POW issues were solved, they were led out of the country and Somali- Cuban relations practically ceased to exist.


At one point for reasons unknown, our Embassy received instructions to take up the Cuban interests from the Yemenis. The Ambassador had left for Bulgaria for treatment and didn’t return any more. Tinkov, the Commercial Counselor, had been left as charge d’affaires as I was considered too young and inexperienced, although by the rules irrespective of these considerations, it had to be a career diplomat, i.e. me. Tinkov took up the role of diplomat very close to heart and vanished in an endless feast of diplomatic breakfasts, brunches, lunches, dinners, cocktails, receptions or simply gatherings of drinking buddies, and practically stopped working. As a side note, anyone acquainted with diplomatic life knows that the duller and poorer the country of residence, the greater the amount of such diplomatic entertainment- a long honored device to kill time.


Under these circumstances, Cuban interests became my responsibility “in toto”, so one good day I was handed a bunch of keys and instructed to make an inventory of what was available in the deserted premises of the Cuban Embassy and also propose ways of disposing of the stuff.


So one day at dusk, when it had become cooler, I parked my car in front of the big, ghostlike building on the outskirts of Mogadishu. It was extremely bizarre that there war no local guards at all, and didn’t see any all the time I used to go there – there was simply nobody. It would have been logical in these circumstances that in a poor place like this the unattended Embassy to be totally looted, but everything was there, up to the paper clips. Well, everything, but not quite – the cases of whisky, obligatory in any Embassy in any country/ apart from some Islamic ones I would presume/ were missing and that had been most positively due to action of the previous Yemeni defenders of interests. The cases of delicious “Havana Club “rum were very much present though.


There were at least a hundred vehicles in the yard, from cars to heavy trucks. The official entrance and the salon behind it were not different from the times the building had been inhabited, only the layer of dust was thicker. The offices looked as if the staff had just finished the working day and gone home – there were pens, sheets of paper and other office paraphernalia on the desks, and the phones somehow created the impression they had just been in use. I picked up a receiver – the phone was working! I had made the mistake of not taking a search light, the building was already in semi darkness, and the atmosphere became uncanny. At this moment I made the most staggering discovery- at the back of the building there was a big warehouse with cases, some of them opened, of Kalashnikov automatic rifles, antitank grenade launchers, revolvers, Vladimirov machine guns and what not. All of them were still wrapped in greased paper. There also piles of cases of the relevant munitions- in the case of the Vladimirov gun, the bullet is more like a small artillery shell. This discovery triggered off numerous questions, to which I haven’t found an answer till this very day. Had this arms cache for the Embassy’s security detail, or for something else? Why hadn’t the Somalis confiscated it after the Cubans left? Why hadn’t this excellent propaganda opportunity to reveal what the Cubans were hiding under diplomatic immunity been used?


It was getting very dark and downright scary. The last thing I glimpsed at was the secure zone- the huge radio transmitters were there, the safe containing the codes was open and there was ash in the obligatory in such places stove- the cipher clerks had burned the codebooks, everything done as per instructions.

 

I had no intention at all to visit the building, especially by myself, any more. It was evident that doing and inventory of what was inside was unrealistic- it would have taken me months. The big issue was how to get rid of the hot potato- the weapons stored in the Embassy.


My report was typical of a young and inexperienced employee – my suggestions were to the effect that the everyday life items be auctioned out to the other Embassies/ there was valuable stuff there- silver cutlery, expensive crystal and china, etc/, and that a special group of professionals be sent to get rid of the weapons according to their special skills.
The feedback to these naïve proposals came in the form of an instruction that the Embassy “ organize under conditions of top secrecy the liquidation of the weapons, and report accordingly”. As for the auction suggested, it was not even mentioned. This was a classical spit in the face: the Embassy had absolutely no capacity to deal with the issue at all: no staff, no skills, no transportation.


I had already started understanding that to argue with the Center was a futile and dangerous undertaking, and that we would have to somehow manage on our own. That we did, with the invaluable assistance of a Bulgarian oil research team, which was luckily in the area at the time, but I will not go into further details. I can only underline that we could manage only because the Somalis remained inexplicably passive throughout the whole saga with the Cuban weapons. As for the valuable things inside, I do not know what happened to them, I never went back to this unpleasant place again.

 

BECOMING A FATHER IN SOMALIA

As fate had it, the two happiest events in my life- the births of my two wonderful daughters happened in Somalia. The very fact that my wife and I accepted the pregnancies and births to take place in one of the most backward countries, with no medical assistance in the real sense of the word and no relatives or friends to rely on in possible emergencies can be explained only by the adventurism and optimism one still possesses before Christ’s age. It is also a fact that fate was benevolent and there were no serious problems during both pregnancies, but sadly, my eldest daughter developed severe bipolar disorder with pychotic features, the first episode occuring during my tenure as ambassador, but now I am jumping ahead of myself and shall elaborate more on this later.


My daughters are already mature married women with good positions in life, and for my wife and me there remains the bittersweet nostalgia about there rather unusual childhood. They grew up mostly in Africa and Asia, and in the case of Somalia I can assure there have been no other births of Bulgarian citizens there. Mogadishu being marked as their place of birth in their passports still raises brows at most U.S. border checkpoints…


In my capacity of consul I prepared birth certificates in my most calligraphic handwriting, using black ink. Unfortunately, when we came back to Bulgaria these works of art were replaced by mundane typewritten pieces of paper.


Taking care of both babies was a sweet ordeal, as I suppose taking care of any baby is. There was a lot of tragicomedy. In worst cases of sleepless nights we used to take the baby in its pram to the Ambassadors office, which was the furthest and most isolated place from our bedroom. I used to doze off on the couch, while my wife had a few blessed moments of quite. One morning I had fallen deeply asleep and the Ambassador was amazed to find us in his “ sanctum sanctorum”. We had no pampers in those days, so we had to use the old fashioned pieces of cloth, but there was no suitable material in town, textiles contained a lot of artificial fiber, which gave the babies a strong rash. Many smart improvisations were needed to keep an ample supply for an infant’s needs, including sacrificing items of invaluable cotton underwear. After breast feeding was over, their food was mashed fresh bananas and strongly boiled goat’s milk, which often gave stomach cramps. All in all, for advice we relied entirely on Dr. Spock’s book, very “ au fait” at the time, which my parents had mailed us and which had arrived miraculously in a few days.


I have to add, that the pregnancies had also been marked by tragicomedy. One of the most notable events of this line of events was the arrival in Mogadishu port of a Bulgarian cargo ship. For the isolated and coveting something Bulgarian handful of people in Mogadishu, this was an occurrence of momentous proportions indeed. The captain of the ship invited all the Embassy staff on board to make a tour of the ship, and then treated us to a magical dinner – with white brined cheese, real white bread baked by the ship’s baker and many other goodies from home. The talk was vivid and endless, as we were all thirsty for news from home. There was even a piano in the captain’s dining room, which I tried to play without any high class finesse, but my improvisations were met with stormy applause. Finally it was midnight and it was time to leave.


Now, in Mogadishu port the ships did not berth at a quay, but stayed anchored about 200-300 meters off and were served by barges. When we went to the ship it was high tide, and we simply stepped from the quay onto the barge. On the way back at midnight though the tide had already retreated strongly, and we looked up in amazed disbelief at the edge of the quay at least a couple of meters above us. It turned out there was a technique to overcome this unpleasantness- after negotiating a substantial by local standards fee, some Somali’s started easing down old tires tied to thick ropes. One had to step on the inside of the tire and hold on to the rope while being pulled up. My poor pregnant wife was scared to death, but she turned out to be of sturdy stuff and was successfully lifted up accompanied by her enormous belly.


When my wife was pregnant with our second baby, the female dik-dik from the yard vanished, and her male partner went literally berserk with sorrow. It became extremely aggressive, started attacking tree trunks with its small horns/ but sharp as needles! / and kicking the cars with its small hind hooves. Initially, we felt sorry to kill it and let it be, but one day I heard my wife screaming in the yard. When I rushed out I saw her mounted on the top of a car/ amazing agility in pregnancy!/ and screaming in panic, while below her the dik-dik was literally flying horizontally and hitting at the car with its horns. While I was still in confusion, it attacked me like a live torpedo, and drove in its horns just below my knee. The pain was bad, and blood started trickling profusely, but I somehow managed to get hold of my wife and run to safety inside. It turned out that while hanging washing on a line in the yard/ in the Somali sun, washing dried up in minutes/ the maddened animal appeared from nowhere and attacked, luckily missing her, and she somehow managed to hop onto the car. After that the Ambassador, who was a fervent hunter, produced his shotgun and killed the poor dik-dik. We gave the carcass to the Somali staff, to their immense delight.


A few days after this episode, while bathing in the ocean my wife swam into a huge jellyfish, which stung her in the area of the belly. In a few hours her contractions started, and she gave birth to our second baby.


On a different note, I would like to comment on the erroneous romantic impression that in the Tropics or the Equatorial areas there is plenty of exotic fruits and vegetables, which can be consumed with pleasure and can replace a great part of the white man’s customary diet. This is simply not true. For instance, the mythologized image of the white man quenching his thirst with coconut milk is exactly that – a myth. First, that is no milk – it is a tasteless, insipid liquid. Second, it is warm. Third, drinking directly from a coconut is impossible, it has just three miniature soft spots at the bottom, and the rest of the shell is as hard as stone. One can open the spots with a nail for instance, but nothing comes out of the small holes- you have to shake the thing endlessly over some container to get a spoonful of liquid. If you make the efforts to break the nut, the liquid will naturally spill out. Therefore, if you want to be exotic and have small glass of the thing, you would have to drive open and shake quite a few coconuts for quite some time….


Another myth is the bread tree – I bet that most readers have imagined a tree with loaves of bread hanging from it. In reality, the fruit of the bread tree is quite a biggish thorny sphere, containing a sticky sweetish mass inside and why on earth it has been named as this is anyone’s guess… By the way, the bread tree fruit has a variety, called ramboutan- it has the same outer appearance, but the contents have the smell and taste of garlic pickles gone bad. In the magic world of exotic cuisines, this is widely used, and the result after cooking it often is not bad at all.


In my opinion, the only really miraculous exotic fruit is papaya. Apart from its delicious juicy taste, it is very good for the stomach, its peels heal burns or bruises very efficiently, and if males of a certain age can get over the not very pleasant taste of papaya seeds and eat them regularly, they will fight prostate trouble quite effectively. There is also a theory that cancer is rare in Africa and some Asian regions because of papaya.


By the way, the Soviet Politburo members were obviously well aware of the qualities of papaya – every week a Soviet cargo plane was loaded with the fruit for the Politburo’s exclusive use. And at that time in the Soviet Union the fruit and vegetable shops were one of the sorriest images on earth, containing only onions, turnips and semi-rotten potatoes….

 

THE LUFTHANSA HIJACK

During my stay in Somalia it so happened, that I witnessed an event which I am sure not many people have seen- I was on the spot when the final drama with the hijacked Lufthansa H 181 flight from Frankfurt to Palma de Majorca took place. I have to say though, that I almost missed this unique chance, for the Embassy suddenly had no functioning car at all. The official Oldsmobile Sedan/ a classical case of megalomania, as it was absolutely unfit to local traffic and climatic conditions/ collapsed and had to be sent to Mombasa, Kenya for major repairs. The spark plugs of my own car, old and loyal warhorses, finally expired, and the new ones, which had to be ordered from Italy, had not materialized. There was something wrong with the Commercial Counselor’s car too, I do not remember. Going to the airport in a car without CD plates was out of the question, as it was of course blocked and only official and diplomatic cars were let through. But Fate was on my side- when I had already gloomily given up hopes, a dirty, oily envelope was in the mail of the day, and inside it were the messianic spark plugs.


In a little deviation, I have to point out, the Oldsmobile issue developed into a side saga of its own, as there was no news about it for too long a time, and getting through the repair shop on the telephone proved to be impossible. After visiting numerous steaming hot and smelly customs offices and shacks and getting nowhere with the lethargic half-sleeping clerks, I had started to give up hope that the car will ever come back. However, one good day, the shiny luxurious sedan appeared out of nowhere on a deserted quay of the port, with the keys in the ignition! The only thing was that it had become singing hot, so the driver and me had to pour on it a lot of ocean water , provided with a bucket tied to a rope. After finally it became possible to get inside, the driver started the car, I drove behind him, and at the port’s checkpoint, nobody paid us any attention at all, so we drove up triumphantly to the Embassy. Until this day I cannot explain to myself on which ship the Oldsmobile had been transported and who had put it on a barge and unloaded it on that quay without asking for an enormous fee. In addition, at least while I was in Mogadishu, no document, not a single piece of paper about the journey of the car from Mombasa to Mogadishu was received.


Now, let me go back to the Lufthansa hijack.


At 11:00 am on Thursday October 13, 1977, Lufthansa flight LH181 Landshut, a Boeing 737, took off from Palma de Mallorca en route to Frankfurt with 86 passengers and 5 crew, piloted by Jürgen Schumann, with co-pilot Jürgen Vietor at the controls. About 30 minutes later as it passed over Marseilles, the aircraft was hijacked by four militants calling themselves “Commando Martyr Halime”. Their leader was a Palestinian named Zohair Youssif Akache (23), who adopted the alias “Captain Martyr Mahmud.” The other three were Suhaila Sayeh (22) a Palestinian female, Wabil Harb (23) and Hind Alameh (22) who were both Lebanese. Akache (Mahmud) burst into the cockpit with a loaded pistol in his hand and ordered Vietor to join the passengers, leaving Schumann to take over the flight controls. Mahmud ordered Schumann to fly to Larnaca in Cyprus but was told that they had insufficient fuel and would have to land in Rome first.

 

The aircraft changed course and landed in Rome for refueling. Acting in concert with the Red Army Faction group, the Siegfried Hausner Commando, who had kidnapped West German industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer 5 weeks earlier, the hijackers demanded the release of ten Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorists detained at the JVA Stuttgart-Stammheim prison plus two Palestinian compatriots held in Turkey and US$15 million. German Interior Minister Werner Maihofer contacted Italian Interior Minister Francesco Cossiga and suggested that the plane’s tires should be shot out to prevent the aircraft from leaving. After consulting his colleagues Cossiga decided that the most desirable solution for the Italian government was to get rid of the problem altogether. The aircraft was refueled, which enabled Mahmud to instruct Vietor (who had been allowed back into the cockpit on the ground) to take off for Larnaca at 5.45pm without even obtaining clearance from Rome air traffic control.

The Landshut landed in Larnaca, Cyprus at 8:28 pm. After about an hour, a local PLO representative arrived at the airport and over the radio tried to persuade Mahmud to release the hostages. This only provoked a furious response from Mahmud who started screaming at him over the intercom in Arabic until the PLO representative gave up and left. The aircraft was then refueled and Schumann asked flight control for a routing to Beirut. He was told that Beirut airport was blocked and closed to them and Mahmud just said to him that they would go to Damascus instead. The Landshut took off at 10.50pm heading for Beirut but was refused landing permission. After also being denied landing permission in Damascus, Baghdad and Kuwait, they headed for Bahrain.

Schumann was told by a passing Qantas airliner that Bahrain airport was closed. He radioed flight control and told them they had insufficient fuel to go elsewhere and despite being told again that the airport was closed, he was suddenly given an automatic landing frequency by the flight controller. They finally landed in Bahrain at 1.52am the following morning. On arrival the aircraft was immediately surrounded by armed troops and Mahmud radioed the tower that unless they were withdrawn he would shoot the co-pilot. After a stand off with the tower, with Mahmud setting a 5-minute deadline and holding a pistol to Vietors head, the troops were subsequently withdrawn. The aircraft was then refueled and they took off for Dubai.

 

Approaching Dubai, they were once again refused landing permission. Overflying the airport in the early light of dawn, they could see that the runway was blocked with trucks and fire engines. Running short of fuel Schumann told the tower that they would have to land anyway and as they made a low pass over the airport, they saw that the obstacles were being removed. At 5:40 am, Vietor was able to make a normal landing on the main runway.

In Dubai the terrorists asked the tower to supply water, food, medicine and newspapers, and to take away the garbage. Captain Jürgen Schumann was able to communicate the number of hijackers onboard via a note placed in the garbage. In an interview with journalists, this information was revealed by Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed, then Minister of Defense. The hijackers learned about this – possibly from the radio, causing Mahmud to threaten to kill Schumann. The aircraft remained on the ground at Dubai all through the day and night and the following morning Mahmud threatened to start shooting hostages if the aircraft was not refueled, and the Dubai authorities finally agreed. In the meantime, both Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski, the German minister responsible for handling the hijacking, and Colonel Ulrich Wegener, commander of the elite German anti-terrorist squad GSG 9, had arrived in Dubai to try to get the government to agree to let GSG 9 commandos into Dubai to storm the aircraft. This was refused, with Sheikh Mohammed stating that any military action would have to be undertaken by his troops. While Wegener was examining that option, the Landshut was being refueled and at 12:20 pm, it took off, heading for Salalah, Oman, where landing permission was once again denied, and a course to Aden, South Yemen, at the limit of their fuel range, was established.


In Aden, Yemen, they were denied landing permission and the two main runways were blocked by vehicles. The plane was running low on fuel one more time, so the pilot Vietor had no choice but to make an emergency landing on a sand strip almost parallel to both runways. The Aden authorities told the hijackers that they would have to leave but the two pilots were skeptical over the condition of the aircraft after an emergency landing on sandy ground. Mahmud consequently gave Schumann permission to leave the aircraft in order to check the condition of the landing gear following the rough landing, and the engines. However, Schumann did not immediately return to the plane after the inspection, even after numerous attempts to recall him or even a threat to blow up the aircraft on the ground. The reasons for his prolonged absence remain unclear and some reports suggest that Schumann asked the Yemeni authorities to prevent the continuation of the flight and to accede to the terrorists’ demands.

 

After this, Schumann voluntarily returned to the aircraft to face the wrath of Mahmud, who forced him to kneel on the floor in the passenger cabin and then shot him in the head without giving him a chance to explain himself. The plane was refueled at 2 a.m. on October 17 and, coaxed by co-pilot Jürgen Vietor; it slowly and laboriously took off from Aden on course for the Somali capital of Mogadishu.

 

At around 6:22 am local time, the Landshut made an unannounced and perfect landing in Mogadishu, Somalia. The leader Mahmud (Akache) told Vietor that he had provided a super-human performance and that he was consequently free to leave the aircraft since they were not planning to fly elsewhere. However, Vietor opted to remain with the onboard passengers and crew. Schumann’s body was thrown on the tarmac and an ultimatum was set for the RAF prisoners to be released by 4:00 pm or the aircraft would be blown up. After pouring the duty free spirits over the hostages in preparation for the destruction of the aircraft, the hijackers were told that the German government had agreed to release the RAF prisoners but that their transfer to Mogadishu would take several more hours, so they agreed to extend the deadline to 2.30am the next morning (October 18).


The landing of the plane was not announced locally in any way, so I learned about it from the BBC on the wonderful Telefunken Satellite the Embassy had- my best friend in all the Mogadishu years. That was about 7.30 a.m., so I jumped in the car and rushed to the airport.


I had different kinds of trouble at the numerous checkpoints, in one case, the jittery soldiers even raised their guns and aimed at me, but finally I made it through and reached the airport exactly when the door of the aircraft opened and something was thrown on the tarmac. It turned out it had been the body of second pilot Schumann… I cannot remember who and how collected the body, but I am sure it stayed on the tarmac for quite some time.


A period of tiring tension and expectation ensued, but nothing was happening. The nervousness was literally palpable, there was already no water, there had not been any food anyway and even worse, cigarettes were running out.


Of course, during all that time there had been decisive action behind the scenes, of which the outside world had not been aware. Later on, when everything was already over, it became known, that the West German government had decided to order the special antiterrorist unit GSC 9 to storm the plane / it is considered that at that time only the UK, Israel and West Germany had such units/. While preparing for the operation, time was to be earned by disinformation that the terrorists’ demands had started to be fulfilled. It had been also of the essence that the government of Siyad Barre, who had started to turn to the West, had allowed the action to take place.


Later, when details started to surface, it became known that the plane with the special unit had landed with lights turned off after sunset on October 18. Those still present in the sizzling shack named airport building, myself among them, were not aware of this of course. We were sweating, sleepy, hungry, thirsty, coveting for a smoke, bitten by myriads of mosquitoes, already very irritable, in one word – in extreme discomfort. I had become lethargic and indifferent to the drama, and the only reason I had not returned home to bed was my apprehension that in the darkness at some checkpoint the jittery soldiers might shoot at me. And suddenly, without any warning, the miracle happened: the plane was lit up by what seemed like thousands of fireworks, several gunshots, and then there was silence. The mechanical leather was moved, the doors opened and the passengers started descending. Some were in decent shape, but some looked simply zombied. After that some people in uniforms/ but not the commandos/ took out stretchers with the three killed terrorists, and finally the wounded Suhila Saye- her legs were soaked in blood and occasionally she screamed in an inhuman way. And that was all. We did not catch even a glimpse of the commandos. The deluge of info that ensued revealed that the terrorists had been neutralized with the first shots and that there were only three slightly wounded passengers. To me, that was a demonstration of unprecedented professionalism and organization. The high quality of the German product was in a most categorical way.


Perhaps this is the right moment to comment on a topic, which has become quite popular of late – the so-called Somali pirates. I will be brief, for the issue has been quite overexposed. Well, pirates, but not quite. They do not criss-cross the oceans in corsair ships. They are based on the coast and attack near it. When the state named Somalia collapsed and its people slid into even greater misery, the whole world looked the other way, leaving them to agonize by themselves. Due to the pirates, Somalia is back in the news again, although in our day it is only a geographical term. There is no central government, no national army and police force, communication among the different parts of the country is next to impossible. After Siyad Barre fled in 1991 there was hope for a better life, but what happened was quite the opposite. The country in fact never recovered from the damage of the lost war with Ethiopia, and what’s more, lost its strategic value in the power equations of geopolitics after the end of the cold war. Gradually different tribal, religious, or simply rogue groups took control of different parts of the country. By the end of the twentieth century, foreign ships started fishing with impunity in Somali territorial waters, and there are opinions that toxic waste has been dumped near the Somali coast. What started as resistance to foreign foul play gradually developed into a lucrative pirate business. In addition, I have to say that in my opinion naval action against the pirates addresses the consequences, but not the causes. The pirate problem can be solved only if one good day statehood in Somalia is restored.


FINAL DAYS IN SOMALIA

 

My first tour of duty abroad was nearing its premature but inevitable end – the usual term was four years, and I had not made even three, but negative factors were developing very quickly. The food supply became very bad, even for whites. Products like cooking oil and rice reached exorbitant speculative prices, and the stalls were selling these items from containers marked with big letters that these were international aid and NOT for sale without any qualms. One good day flour simply vanished, and with it the semblance of bread that had been on sale. Therefore, taking care of little children became next to impossible and we decided that my wife had to leave with the kids and go to my parents’ in Varna.


The few months I spent alone were difficult- I missed my family, there was actually nothing to do on the job any more, everything had become nauseatingly dull. Therefore, when one day a note came in the mail saying that the American Cultural Center would show a movie about the already late Jimi Hendrix, I was definitely delighted. I expected the event with great impatience, but also with misgivings- by strict regulations going to a Western Embassy without permission was a grave breach of the rules, but in my case, there was simply no one who could permit me. Still, I was afraid that somehow I might land in trouble. Anyway, I went only to find myself extremely disappointed by my first visual impressions of the great virtuoso – the person who played the guitar in his unique way was quite unpleasant to look at, and was obviously either drugged or drunk. This impression clouded my perception of his music, and from then on I have always avoided looking at the great rock performers of the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century – just listening is better for me. Whether reaching the inimitable heights of musical performance in a state of a narcotic trance justifies an early death from drugs or drink is still an insoluble dilemma for me. Just think of the band already collected in Heaven- Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Bon Scott, and so many others, God rest their souls…


By the way, after the fall of the Iron Curtain I had the chance to see quite a few of the living great – Black Sabbath, Robert Plant, Alice Cooper, and top of the list – AC/DC. I do not know whether that is the result of maturity, but their shows in these days seem much more palatable, at least in my opinion. Of course, they still rave on stage, but somehow tastefully and aristocratically…


As I said the final months in Somalia were hard, and my mood was worsened by the news that a close friend, a diplomat from the then Czechoslovakia, had passed away mysteriously after returning home. Later it became clear, that he had contracted an infection from a decorative drum made of antelope leather he had taken as a souvenir from Somalia…


I myself have had quite a few accidents with such exotic souvenirs, fortunately not lethal. For instance, when I finally got an apartment in Sofia/ I will dwell upon this a bit later in the narrative/, the joy of having a place of our own for the first time was initially marred by swarms of moths, which literally took over the premises and were extremely unpleasant and quite harmful. We were at a loss about the source of this disaster; every possible place in the apartment had been checked with no success. That was until one day a souvenir drum placed on top of cupboard incidentally fell on the floor, and myriads of moths flew out of it. I took it outside and before burning it took a look inside- that was literally a practical picture from zoology – a moths’ nest with all its attributes of labyrinths, larvae and what not – quite a repulsive picture.


Well, as with everything in this world finally the unpleasant last days in Somalia were over. One day I got a call from the Embassy of East Germany to pass by, which meant there was an encoded message for me- that was the arrangement for emergencies. I was informed that the Embassy was lowered in rank from Ambassadorial to Charge d’Affaires level and my tour of duty had been terminated. The new Charge D’Affaires was arriving in a few days time and after his arrival I was to return to Bulgaria. This state of things turned out to be temporary too, as in a couple of years the Embassy was closed down and never reopened.


The journey back home offered new elements of surrealism, which marked so many of my travails in Africa and Asia. While upon arrival my route had been through Rome, this time around I was directed via Moscow with “Aeroflot”. I have to note, that the Soviets still maintained the flight Moscow- Aden- Mogadishu- Dar es Salaam- Maputo and back. This was a useless and wasteful exercise meant to go on showing the flag, as in most cases there were no passengers. Therefore, when I boarded the plane, it turned out I was the only passenger, at last from Mogadishu to Aden. To be alone on a big liner is surrealistic in itself, but the service I got was even more so. “Aeroflot” was notorious for abysmal service, and from what I here, it still is…But in my solo case, I had smiling and even flirting air hostesses, “Beuf Stroganoff” instead of the traditional cold chicken with a plastic taste, and even a bottle of cold “Singha “ beer instead of the also traditional warm and sour white wine.


This paradise was rudely and irretrievably destroyed in Aden, where the crew of an ocean trawler boarded returning after spending three months on the job and being replaced by new staff, as was the rule. Alcohol was absolutely forbidden on Soviet ships, so these people, definitely not of the highly intellectual type, had only one thing on their minds: VODKA!


Actually, there was no real vodka to be found in such places, but it was successfully replaced by numerous inventively made brews- any type of fermented bananas, watermelons, roots and what not soaked in any type of spirits/ usually somehow acquired from medical supplies, but in some cases burning spirits, or even aviation antifreeze/ had the reputation of the finest “Stolichnaya” or “Smirnoff”. The most sought after stuff was the produce illegally made at military installations, as a way to run the brew through gas mask filters had been invented.


Flight time from Aden to Moscow is about 5 hours, and for this period the plane was turned into a flying low-class Russian drinking place with all its “delights” – wild screams and loud noises of any kind, sweaty reddened faces devouring drink and food with bestial intenseness, vomiting, people who had taken too much sleeping in the aisles, etc. To top it all, it turned out there are three or four people above the seating capacity of the plane, so for the first and last time in my life I witnessed stools for passengers provided on a flight.


So with these final fireworks the Somali chapter in my career was over. After a wonderful family vacation in my hometown, time came to go back to work in the Ministry. Despite numerous difficulties still to be overcome, most of all the lack of a place to live in Sofia, we were looking forward with the optimism of pre-Christ’s age I have already mentioned.

 

MISSION TO SOUTH YEMEN


My hopes to start working at the Asian Department proved to be futile yet again, as I was directed to the Cultural Cooperation Department. To add insult to injury, there I also had nothing to do with China or Asia- first I was put in charge of the Latin American sector, and later- the Arab countries sector.


This department was something like a mailbox for the Committee / i.e. Ministry/ of Culture. The Communist leader of the country Todor Zhivkov had an ambitious daughter, Liudmila Zhivkova, and she had been put in charge of international cultural activities. She was chairing the Committee, and these were the hyperactive years before her early and mysterious death. Work in the department was hectic at times, but that did not spoil the good mood I had gradually developed – the department had many young people, some very intelligent, and I enjoyed working with them. There were also a few quite eccentric old hands, and at times it was very amusing to listen to their stories. We also spent some free time together – celebrating birthdays, going out to restaurants and the like.


The Cultural Cooperation Department at the time was situated on 39 Dondukov Street – an impressive building built in the beginning of the 20th century, which years ago had been a bank. It occupied just one floor though, and space was limited- there were three big rooms with 5-6 desks in each one and three glass cubicles for the head of the department and his two deputies. Every room had just one direct telephone, which at times was extremely annoying.


In those days, the Communist Party was keen on demonstrating that the people were living well, and it became fashionable to organize open-air festivities on the eve of some holidays. Barrels of wine and barbecues used to appear in central places in Sofia, and people did use them enthusiastically. I even remember that there was a real sheep pen downtown, obviously to create authenticity. Once, a barrel appeared next to our building, and naturally started drawing our attention. One good day the head of the department had been returning from somewhere at lunchtime and spotted practically his whole staff queuing up in front of the wine source. Strict orders against visiting the barrel ensued, but just next day two huge demijohns appeared at a discreet place in the department, and discreet ways to fill them up with wine were invented…


This good life was marred by the fact that my family still did not have a place of our own to live in. We had rented seven different domiciles already, and the last one was an apartment in a newly built complex on the outskirts of the city, very far from work. There was a single bus to the center of Sofia, there were still no shops, no drug stores, no kindergartens, etc. Apart from this, it was extremely muddy when it rained, so I had to secure a pair of shoes at the office and change into them for work.


However, in the summer of 1980 the miracle happened – I was allotted an apartment from Ministry resources. Not the luxurious type built for high officials of course, but still a place of our own. The apartment was small, but it felt like a palace, and most importantly, the kids already had a room to themselves. The neighborhood was exclusively working class, and how I landed there was anyone’s guess. The inhabitants of our block worked mostly in the railway yards, and I was the only person who went to work in a suit and tie.


Furniture and household utilities were needed of course, and here we fell into the trap of our own naïveté, as we spent all meager hard currency savings from Somalia on household items from the West German firm “Quelle”.They looked very nice in the catalogue, but when finally delivered turned out to be some boards from low quality material which I had to put together myself. There was also some inflatable rubber dressed in cheap cloth and formed in the semblance of armchairs. I put the bookshelves and wardrobe together with a lot of effort, but on the next day all screws gave way, and I radically replaced them with nails. The cooking range with a timer turned out to be another grave mistake. It was a very attractively looking brand new “Philips”. My dreams of the water boiling for the breakfast tea or of a meal already warmed up after returning from work were shattered after a few burned pots and a kettle that melted into the cooking ring. It turned out that some mysterious parameters of electricity in Bulgaria and Western Europe were totally incompatible, and the timer could not function properly. As for the “armchairs’, they had a strong tendency to overturn when one tried to sit on them. General unpleasantness apart, this put quite a few lady visitors in an indelicate position.


In December 1980, I was sent to South Yemen to work out the final details of a plan for cultural and educational cooperation between the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Actually, these “final details” in bilateral documents of this type with all “ brotherly “ countries always boiled down to one thing – the number of grants for higher education in Bulgaria we would be providing. And most of all, the inclusion of the price of airplane tickets in these grants. Naturally, the partner countries, poor nations living on Soviet credits they never returned, insisted on Bulgaria paying the airfare, while we wanted them to pay it themselves. Negotiations usually ended with a reduced number of grants that included the price of air travel.


Anyway, the document had to be ready for the official visit to South Yemen of comrade Stanko Todorov, member of the Politburo of the Bulgarian Communist Party and chairman of the Council of Ministers. After this visit, during which the plan was to be signed, I was to return home on the official plane of the delegation. My itinerary was complex- the only way to reach Aden turned out to be Sofia-Athens-Beirut-Kuwait-Aden. Up to Kuwait, I enjoyed Western air travel luxury, but then the situation changed drastically. The plane was Yemeni, an old “Boeing” which somehow created a feeling of uneasiness the moment one saw it. In flight, the machine produced a range of very strange sounds, among them a particularly annoying one resembling very realistically the flushing of a toilet. As for the cabin crew, there were all male and had two general characteristics – all of them did not know any foreign language and all of them wore very threatening moustaches at least several inches long. On the plane, I was acquainted with Slavcho Terziev, junior correspondent at the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency. After that, fate crossed our ways in Vietnam too, and our friendship is still lasting. At present, Professor Terziev teaches journalism at Sofia University and is an international authority on the European Union.


The car that met us at the airport had a specific feature- it had no floor, so all the way to the hotel, mercifully not long, we had to keep our feet lifted in the air. The hotel, a magnificent example of British colonial architecture, was in a pitiful state. Paint was peeling from the facades and walls, there were myriads of cockroaches and mosquitoes, the mosquito nets were dirty and had gaping holes, and worst of all, the AC was not working. At least the mosquitoes were easily neutralized- having gathered some experience already; I had brought along the anti-mosquito device I have already mentioned in the Somali part of this narrative. The restaurant served huge magnificent lobsters, but nothing else, and on the third day I could not even look at a lobster. I bitterly regretted breaking the time-honored Bulgarian tradition of taking a few cans of food along…


There was also cold “Radeberger” beer from brotherly East Germany. Here I have to reveal another useful trick – how to improve the taste of beer in tropical and equatorial climates. The thing is that without being stabilized with glycerin or alcohol, beer cannot survive for more than a few hours in such places. There are exceptions of course, like Thailand or Singapore, where business is smart enough to supply small amounts very quickly and deliver replacements while the previous batch is filling the last glasses. “Singha “beer in Thailand for instance is one of the best beers in the world in my modest opinion, and production is still supervised by German experts.


In the case of stabilized beer, the Slavonic / and first of all Russian/ genius had found a way out, just as with filtering hooch in Somalia.


The technology is as follows: a glass jar has to be provided; the opening has to be large enough to hold a bottle tipped inside, but narrow enough to keep the opened bottle an inch or two above the jar’s bottom. One can hold the bottle also by hand of course, but that is too tiring, for about ten minutes are needed for a good result. The jar is filled with boiled water and the opened bottle of beer is quickly tipped inside, so that precious contents are not lost. The liquid itself will stay in the beer bottle, but it will immediately start unloading an unpleasant jellyfish like substance – that is the stabilizer. In a few minutes, one should take the bottle out of the jar very quickly again and here is a bottle of beer with an excellent taste!


Going back to the business I had arrived for, the preparation of the plan proved to be extremely irritating. It turned out that the ceremonial hard cover files sent beforehand by courier had been ruined by mold in the Yemeni climate. The ceremonial ribbons with the Bulgarian flag had not been delivered at all. And the Embassy had only one functioning typewriter, and there was a queue for it. There were also other unpleasant details, but in the end, the official document was ready for the signature ceremony.


The leader of South Yemen at the time was Ali Nasser Mohammed, who had recently deposed the previous leader, Salam Rubaya Ali in a bloody coup. During the coup, fighter jets and tanks had destroyed Rubaya Ali’s presidential palace, but the ruins were kept as a reminder of the new leader’s power.


So the day arrived when the official visit started- the government plane landed at Aden airport, there were brotherly kisses and embraces, official ceremonies were held, and bilateral documents were signed. The time for the official banquet came, and it was chosen to be 12 noon at a place under the glaring sun where there was not even a hint of shadow. The main course was of course lobster, abundantly splashed with melted butter. In the heat, just the site of this was nauseating. The worst thing though was that drinking water finished in minutes and the only drink available remained warm “Courvoisier” cognac, which for some reason was the “au fait” liquor of the Yemeni leaders. Consuming this otherwise excellent cognac under the circumstances was not far from medieval torture. When the banquet was finally over, we boarded the cars barely alive/ this time around, my car had a floor/ and immediately fell into a slumbering stupor. This bliss in an air-conditioned environment was short though, as the manner of driving of the cortege’s chauffeurs made everyone’s hair stand on end and cling to the seats for dear life. The speed was at least 80 miles an hour along a mountain path grandiloquently called a road and , steep climbs and unimaginable turns apart, was teeming with camels, cows, goats and the people taking care of them. Our destination was a hotel built by Bulgaria as a present to the brotherly people of Yemen. Miraculously we arrived in one piece and the speeches and ribbon-cutting ceremonies began. After all this was over at floor level, we were shepherded to the lifts to be taken to the roof terrace. There, in the coolness of the night and sea breeze, the reciprocal Bulgarian reception was to be held, as protocol dictates. Somebody pressed the button to a lower floor by mistake, and when the door opened, the official delegation had a view of ladders, sacks of cement, cans of paint and other miscellaneous tools and materials of the building trade. It turned out, the hotel had been far from completed, but as schedules were forced to meet the arrival of the important guests, only the ground floor, the façade and the roof had been finished.


Anyway, the lift was quickly directed to the roof terrace, where we were ready to kiss the tables covered with specially delivered colored Bulgarian tablecloths, for there were bottles of real cold bear, real cold soft drinks, real bread, plenty of water bottles in buckets of ice, and also Bulgarian cheeses and cold cuts. After days of existence on warm water crustaceans, this was real bliss.


The day of departure came. The higher-ranking members of the delegation got exquisite handmade Yemeni daggers as presents. We, the smaller fish, got a bag of bananas each, which was actually valuable, as bananas were hard to come by in Bulgaria in those days.


In the official plane, I finally understood what Communism meant for the ones at the Party top. This was something very simple, but accessible only to a narrow circle of the Communist Party elite. It was called “being serviced by the Office of Security and Safety”. Apart from the company of inevitable huge lads in dark eyeglasses and jackets three times bigger than their size, this was in practice a 24/7 luxurious room service. It served strawberries in winter, real fruit, vegetables, and real meat from special farms, and coveted Western items like cosmetics, cigarettes, whisky, clothes and the like. Moreover, for the chosen by God, this was all for free.


As for the smaller fish, they availed themselves as much as possible to the crumbs anytime when let near the table. This was the case in the plane too- whisky and delicacies were devoured at a high speed, for after the plane had arrived in Sofia, the free feast would be over. There was something very repugnant about all this, so I pretended to be asleep and finally did fall asleep.


After the heat of Aden the icy cold weather in Sofia was very hard to adapt to, moreover, the night after I returned, fate had prepared anew ordeal for me. There was a ring at the door at 3 a.m., and after I finally came out of a semi-sleepy trance, I understood that the piece of paper I had been handed contained summons to a two week military reserve training at some Godforsaken place.


I will not dwell on this episode for long, as memories from army reserve training are as banal as the ones from military service in Bulgarian masculine folklore. I can only say that this was an absolutely pointless loss of time, and everything was a farce, with the exception of one thing – the absolute delight of officers to see the hated “civvies” bear acute discomforts living in tents on an ice-cold snowy hill.


When this ordeal was over, I returned to everyday office life. In the meantime, the modest savings from the Somali times were running thin, the kids were growing up and the pressures on the family budget were becoming very hard indeed. Therefore, a new appointment abroad, where the pay was times higher than at home, became highly desirable.

 

GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM.


I have to confess, that the second mission abroad was achieved by using personal connections, which I had already established at work. Going abroad was coveted by every single person on the staff of the Ministry/ by the way, this even more so nowadays/. Working abroad meant a decent salary in hard currency, which in those days led to privileged shopping of Western goods in the special “Korekom” shops. It also meant the possibility to buy a “Lada” car/ manufactured in the Soviet Union in cooperation with “Fiat”, or even an apartment in Sofia without having to queue up for years.


The struggle to be sent abroad was of silent, but permanent, merciless and sometimes cruel. Of course, advantage by far was with the blue-blooded offspring of high party officials. The Embassies in Northern America, Western Europe and Japan were totally reserved for them.


The Embassies in Greece and Turkey were entirely staffed with people from the secret services. Therefore, what was left for my kind were the brotherly socialist countries/ but there was no hard currency there/, Asia and Africa.


My connections were actually extremely modest – some friends from the Institute who had made it to the lower levels of the Human Resources, and some of my bosses who treated me well.


Therefore, it was no surprise when I was sent to another country nobody wanted to go to – Vietnam.


This gave ground to jokes that actually I had been following an intricate strategy, getting closer and closer to serving in China via Somalia and Vietnam…


My sojourn in yet another land of wonders had one basic characteristic- my family was not with me most of the time, so life was not easy and at times very sad and lonely indeed. In fact, most colleagues were like me too. In those days, being with one’s family when working abroad was mandatory. That was supposed to lower the chance of someone succumbing to the charms of some fairy from a Western country. In the case of Vietnam though, there was a tacit understanding for an exception, as even a semblance of civilized life was impossible to achieve.


The climate is one of the most difficult in the world for the outsider. Food was barely available, even for diplomats. It was not possible to take care of little children, what with dangerous exotic infections rampant, no baby food available/ even milk/, no places for children to play, etc. I will never forget my elder daughter’s bitter tears on 1983 New Year’s Eve / Christmas was not celebrated under socialism/ when it turned out that in the whole of Hanoi it was not possible find at least one toy for the branch of some coniferous tree that served as a fir tree. Soon after the New Year my wife and children left, so I was deprived of being with my family for 2 years, an irreparable loss that makes me sad to this day.


I am sure that there will skeptical laughter when I point out that the places to live were either moldy little cubicles in different corners of the Embassy, or the same thing in one of the three ghettos for foreigners in Hanoi : “Van Phuk”, “Kim Lien “ or “Chung Tha”.


I landed in the first ever newly built block of flats in “Van Phuk”. This “Van Phuk” consisted of a few badly maintained buildings and an asphalt path between them. On this path, most of the inhabitants went out for an evening walk, pacing from one end to the other and back. This was called “a walk on the psychodrome”.


My apartment had some semblance of a normal place to inhabit, but keeping it cool was impossible, as the electricity bill with two air conditioners running non-stop would gobble up my entire salary. Besides, power outages were a daily event, sometime literally for days on end/ and in such cases the precious contents of the fridges was woefully lost…/. There was a tap with running water, but it had an unbearable putrid smell. The bed had a canopy against the mosquitoes, but I have to inform the reader that a canopy is a very tricky thing: it can keep the mosquitoes out, but if a single one gets in, then it stays inside…So just a semblance of normality it was indeed.


Domicile wise, Western Embassies were not doing better- the staff lived in the same cubicles in the three enclaves. In other aspects though, we could only envy them – they had food supplies from Bangkok on a regular basis/ the flight Hanoi-Bangkok is just forty minutes/, air conditioned cars, mandatory leave to a civilized place every month or so, and many other privileges unthinkable for us,” brothers” of the Vietnamese people…

 

 

HANOI DAYS

The Embassy of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria itself consisted of three medium sized French colonial style houses and a small inner yard. The buildings were in a state of total decay, as were all buildings in Hanoi, even the official Party and Government ones. One of the houses, a former French bordello, was the chancellery. There was a gaudy glass panel above the entrance, picturing two kissing doves. The second house was a semi-ruin with steep mossy stairs, which had the pompous name of Ambassador’s Residence. These stairs were as slippery as a skating rink, and seeing guests in or out, especially inebriated ones, was a serious problem. The third building consisted of various storerooms, and housed the cipher clerk and the consul. The Embassy driver, an exotic peasant type by the name of Metodi, lived in something like a chicken shack next to the office entrance. The little yard was partly occupied by a big diesel engine, which was used to produce electricity for the radio transmitters when there was an outage. This machine had to be started manually, a task for a weight-lifting champion. In addition, at the level of the upper edge of the yard’s back wall was an open terrace, on which the neighboring numerous Vietnamese reared chickens and hens in cages. Often a bird would fall on Embassy territory, so either we through it back, or a kid would climb down and up the wall with the agility of a monkey taking the creature back, and trespassing on our extraterritorial status in the process. In front of the entrance to the Embassy, there was a high platform, on which a Vietnamese policeman stood at attention. He wore a cap and uniform at least 2-3 sizes bigger than necessary and flippers on bare feet.


I have already mentioned, that many of the characteristics of a tropical or equatorial country are invisible – smells, temperatures, humidity. Vietnam is one of the most humid countries in the world. This is due not only to its geographical location, but also to the fact that most of the country is below see level and consists mainly of morasses. Climatically, from March to October, there is unbearable heat, while from October until March temperatures are about 15 degrees Centigrade, but the humidity makes one feel terribly cold indeed. There are heavy monsoon rains in summer, of course.


Smells could make a completely separate chapter. They are very aggressive and in most cases unpleasant. I can only point out, that this marshy country had almost no canalization at all…


There is the problem of flooding too. The embankments designed to hold the rivers in check from French colonial times were primitive and quite often gave in, especially in the rainy season.


The period, which I spent in Vietnam, was one of the worst for this war-ravaged country. Dilapidation was everywhere and poverty was rampant, the infrastructure was barely functioning. Adding to these woes were the damages from the Chinese-Vietnamese War in 1979- a forgotten conflict, upon which I will dwell upon a bit later.


There was a strict rations system, which supported an existence barely above death from hunger. As with every ration system, there was rampant black marketeering with basic products at exorbitant prices. Things like milk, cheese, cold cuts, real bread, soft drinks and many others simply did not exist, even for foreigners.


We survived on what could be supplied from Bulgaria/ and that was almost nothing/, handouts from the Soviet Embassy shop and the few things possible to consume locally, mainly pork. There were more intricate channels too, the main one being having friends in the East German Embassy. With German efficiency, the staff was supplied on a weekly basis with foodstuffs flown in from Berlin/ there only three airlines flying to Hanoi then – Aeroflot, the Czech and GDR companies /. These supplies brought in things of miraculous value under the circumstances – hams, cheeses, real beer, and even canned black bread.

 

YET ANOTHER WAR


As already mentioned, the Chinese-Vietnamese War of 1979 is all but forgotten. Yet this had been a very serious military conflict, a very real war.


Relations between Vietnam and China began to sour after Vietnam joined the Soviet dominated Eastern block’s economic entity-COMECON, and especially after a Treaty of friendship and cooperation/ i.e. – a military pact/ was signed between the USSR and Vietnam in 1978.


Clashes along the Vietnamese –Chinese border multiplied and became more intense.


In December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, quickly deposed the pro-Chinese regime of Pol Pot and effectively took over the country.


The Chinese response was an all-out attack along almost the entire Chinese-Vietnamese border in the early hours of February 17, 1979. The invading force includes artillery, armored vehicles, fighter jets and bombers, numerous infantry. The first day of the war sees the Chinese People’s Liberation Army advance up to 8 kilometers into Vietnamese territory on a wide front. After that, though the thrust slows down partly because of fierce Vietnamese resistance, and partly because of problems with the Chinese supply lines. Still, on February 21 the Chinese take over the provincial center of Cao Bang, and two days later – of Lang Son. On March 5, the Chinese leadership declares that Vietnam has been taught a sufficient lesson and Chinese troops start pooling out, ending on March 5.


The 1979 war is one of China’s most serious military failures . Having in mind that 700 000 soldiers of the regular Vietnamese army were engaged in Cambodia, China was made to turn back by a few Vietnamese regular units and the People’s Militia. After this imbroglio, China gradually started a total overhaul of its military doctrine.


Overall, tens of thousands were wounded and killed in this forgotten war. Upon retreat, the Chinese applied scorched earth tactics, dealing a heavy a heavy blow to the economy and infrastructure of Vietnam’s North-West, which were backward and poor as they were.


By the way, when I was in Vietnam more than a decade after the war, China was still conducting a secret war of sabotage along the border with Vietnam, using regular artillery fire on Vietnamese territory, infantry and naval incursions, planting mines in rivers and dams, systematic sabotage by Chinese agents, and also psychological pressure on the Vietnamese in the border regions. This pressure involved “advice” to hide the crops from the authorities, develop currency speculations, black marketeering, etc.

 

MORE ON LIFE IN VIETNAM


These lines on matters military lead me somewhat naturally to another main aspect of Vietnamese exotics: the peculiarities of transport and communications in those days. For instance, the whole batch of armored vehicles heading for the area of the conflict had passed along Long Bien Bridge over the Red River, which undisputedly had been a miracle in itself. This bridge has been built by Gustav Eiffel/ of Paris Eiffel Tower fame/ at the end of the 19th century, and was the only connection over this wide and mighty river, which cuts Hanoi in two.


The construction had indubitably been a creation of genius at the time it was built, but in the second half of the twentieth century, it barely withstood the pressures of the new times. I have to point out, that apart from being the vital link between the two parts of the capital, this was the one and only connection to the airport, the port of Haiphong and to the road from Hanoi to Saigon/ Ho Chi Minh City/. The Hanoi- Saigon railway also passed along it/ by the way, the railway trip between the two cities took one week/.


To cut a long story short, the country’s strategically vital communications all passed through this miles long antique, which consists of two narrow wooden platforms out of and into Hanoi respectively. These platforms are not more than 5 meters wide; overtaking is out of the question. They are separated by the railway line, as far as I remember it is narrow gauge. So these two wooden bottlenecks were the only way for the millions of bicycle riders, rickshaws and pedestrians, the thousands of ox carts, the hundreds of dilapidated trucks and buses, the occasional official or diplomatic car, and, as mentioned, at times for tanks, heavy artillery trucks, and armored personnel carriers.


In 1984, the saga of the building of a second modern bridge across the Red River with Soviet assistance finally came to an end. After the new bridge was opened, the situation became somewhat better. However, before that crossing the river on Long Bien Bridge could be a real nightmare going on literally for hours. One common experience was crawling parallel to a coal locomotive two meters away in a car with no AC and opened windows. The onslaught of smoke, soot and the temperature of burning coal made one feel like being in the locomotive itself. Another traditional and frequent occurrence was to wait for hours in the glaring sun because somewhere ahead somebody had been run over or some antiquated vehicle had finally collapsed. A very refined form of torture was to be stuck behind a truck loaded with open barrels of fish sauce, and endure the smell of the liquid produced by putrid fish-, which is exactly what fish sauce is. Actually, fish sauce is an emblematic Vietnamese phenomenon, and deserves to be dwelt upon in some detail.


As already mentioned, contrary to popular belief, consuming the numerous and various exotic fruits of the Tropic does not supply the human organism with anything except fiber. These fruits do not contain the vitamins and minerals of their relatives from the temperate climates. This is because the soils are much weaker in tropical and equatorial climates, and the sun is often the source of death, not life. Therefore, the unavoidable substances necessary to keep the human organism in decent shape have to be supplied from other sources. For foreigners these are of course most of all the multivitamin pills. While as the local, population relies mostly on traditional recipes. In the case of Vietnam, the main source is fish sauce. It contains the whole specter of substances necessary for the decent condition of a human being. Apart from this, fish sauce is a mighty antioxidant and disinfectant. It is used in the treatment of wounds with serious success. For this reason, a small horn of fish sauce attached to the belt was part of any Vietnamese soldier’s equipment. All in all, the Vietnamese have a soulful, even mystical attitude to the revered product.


In my days, fish sauce was very hard to come by and was severely rationed. Apart from this other things like sugar, glass, and kerosene were also rationed and in very short supply. This gave ground for huge speculation and black marketeering of course. Nonetheless, the people survived by some ways of their own, unfathomable to the outsider. By the way, served in normal hygienic conditions, fish sauce is a delicious spice for rice, soups, meats and many other dishes.


In the particular case of sugar, I have to admit, that we foreigners had a weird role in the speculation, as it was a very handy currency instead of the dongs, with which there was nothing to buy.


What happened was this: there was Diplomatic Club in Hanoi, which consisted of a smelly swimming pool and a cement tennis court. This club had a tennis coach – an old man, thin and wiry as bamboo, with a typical Ho Chi Minh beard and two-three hairs for a moustache. This antique from French colonial times was a virtuoso with the old type wooden racquets. Quite a few people had initially underestimated him, and had paid a price by being made look stupid on court. The old man’s shots were pure art; his services looked light, but almost impossible to return. It is thanks to him I took up tennis and reached a decent amateur level. To his delight, many of the people he trained paid him with sugar, me included- for some reason; diplomats had a ration of 5 kilos of sugar every month. It was full of debris and had a dismal taste, and we did not consume it, so it served a splendid purpose.

 

A VISIT TO A COOPERATIVE

 

The 9th of September was the national holiday of Bulgaria in those days- the Day of the Socialist Revolution. For this date in 1983, we received instructions from the Ministry to visit the “Vietnamese- Bulgarian Friendship “rural cooperative in a village some 50 kilometers from Hanoi. So we set off in the morning: the Ambassador, the Counselor, the Third Secretary and I. For some reason, the Embassy translator in Bulgarian, Comrade Mai, did not come with us.


Travelling by car in Vietnam in those days was an adventure in itself, and was definitely far from safe. One had to drive on earthen roads, dykes, between paddy fields, on simply no road at all and the least on asphalt. One had to meander between ox carts, rickshaws, bicyclists, simply oxen, antiquated trucks still moving by some inexplicable magic, hens, pigs, tarpaulins with rice to dry and playing children. Apart from that, Vietnamese drivers were of the same category as millions of their Asian brethren – their actions were unpredictable. One of their beloved tricks was to literally crawl along a narrow road and not let any one overpass for hours on end.


Adding the fact that we used black Soviet “Volga” cars with no AC, which quickly turned to mini-infernos in the sun, driving was very far from a pleasant experience.


Well, we arrived in the miserable little village sweating, irritable and feeling no enthusiasm at all. On a construction made of wooden poles and covered with palm leaves for a roof there was the inevitable slogan “Long live Vietnamese- Bulgarian Friendship “. It was written in both Vietnamese and Bulgarian. Every single word in the Bulgarian version was misspelled. Under the palm leaves, there was a rickety wooden table with no tablecloth. On it, there were small dishes of frog legs, sticky rice, bamboo shoots and the like. The very look and smell of these “delicacies” was so repulsive that one had to make a very special effort not to vomit in public. There were also numerous bottles of warm Vietnamese “Cuc Lui” vodka, which has a taste similar to engine oil. There were even glasses. Drinking water was not available.


At one end of the table, there were at least 20 people, obviously the top of local functionaries. The four of us sat opposite to them, amid endless clapping and smiles.


The substantial Vietnamese presence was due to the fact, that when hosting foreigners there were some pathetic protocol allowances. For the local elite though this was an occasion of rare luck- a feast for free. By the way, it is my opinion that Vietnamese cuisine is one of the best in the world, provide though that the hands that touch the food are clean, and that dishes are not dipped in a nearest swamp to be washed…


The presence of glasses was also a mark of a very special occasion. As already mentioned, glass was in very short supply in those days, and producing the precious containers was a sign of very deep respect. Our host had not thought of cleaning the a bit though, and a thick layer of dust was very visible in every glass.


After almost injuring our hands from clapping and braving jaw cramps from smiling, finally there was silence, and the chairman of the cooperative produced a piece of paper, put on glasses with rusty iron frames and started struggling through his welcome address. I have to point out that only the Ambassador knew Vietnamese, and with no translator at hand, the long speech was a small torture in itself. Anyway, I am positive that there was nothing staggering in that speech. During the speech a horrifying thought struck me – nobody had prepared a written speech for the Ambassador. After receiving this information, he grew red in the face and only the fact that the moment was unsuitable for giving us hell saved us. Still, the Ambassador knew Vietnamese very well and had a taste for speeches, so his fiery improvised soliloquy did a very good job. He got more and more carried away by his own eloquence, and finally piped down after speaking for about an hour.


The friendly feast began. I was already quite experienced, and did not worry about having to eat the repugnant stuff on the table- I was sure that our hosts would dish it up in seconds, and indeed that was exactly what happened. But the drinks were another matter – unavoidably, one had to imbibe the deadly mix of warm, smelly liquor and dust because of the endless toasts raised. We were getting very drunk, without water, our mouths were burning, shirts and trousers were drenched with sweat trickling from every part of the body, and the acute discomfort started to develop into torture.


Suddenly, it became quiet – the embarrassing silence which inevitably settles among people who do not have much to tell each other. The situation was ameliorated by someone, who prompted that the chairman of the cooperative had been to Bulgaria. We clung to this lifeline, and bombarded him with questions about his visit. The poor fellow mumbled that Bulgaria is a very nice country and he had seen many nice places, and fell silent. We asked him if he had been to Sofia, and he said yes. About Plovdiv and Varna, he also said yes, and it was obvious that he could not produce more impressions.


Finally, the time to save our skins came and the good-byes started, spiced with numerous brotherly hugs and kisses. We had started to stumble to the car, when suddenly the chairman bellowed:” I was in the town of Polo, and there I saw a round picture!” I am not sure that when pronouncing “Eureka”, Archimedes might have been happier than this poor small man was!
True to myself, I undertook driving back to Hanoi, although I might have been the most inebriated of all.


Through the journey back a lively discussion on which town exactly Polo might be, and what that round picture could be. The opinions mostly supposed that it had been Plovdiv with its Antique Theater. In the meantime, darkness fell and driving became simply dangerous as most of the trucks had one or no lights, as for the carts and all other moving objects, they could barely be seen. Nevertheless, with God’s help we made it safely to Hanoi. While getting out of the car, enlightenment about Polo struck me- the fellow had seen the town of Pleven, where there is a panoramic exhibition of the fierce battles, which took place there in the 19th century during the Russian-Turkish War. So that was what a chairman of a Vietnamese rural cooperative had remembered from Bulgaria….

 

A BIT MORE ON LIFE IN VIETNAM

The tragicomical incidents, connected to all aspects of everyday life for any foreigner in Vietnam, are endless indeed. Take for instance eating with chopsticks. All in all, this is quite a simple and useful procedure, which can be learnt with a bit of effort. It is healthy too, as one eats small pieces, not attacking the digestive system with large chunks of hungrily devoured meat for example. Of course, one cannot eat a beefsteak or a pork chop with chopsticks, but such dishes are a great rarity in Vietnam. Moreover, when the uninitiated express skepticism about eating soup with chopsticks, it is actually very easy to explain- you raise the bowl at mouth level and sip the liquid, while pushing the hard pieces in the same direction.


Nevertheless, this element of the numerous friendly banquets with the numerous visiting brotherly delegations was a real minefield for the low-ranking diplomat. It was the Vietnamese’s very irritating habit not to supply forks, spoons and knives at such occasions, so with a few exceptions, our visiting big shots rose from the table hungry and very cross indeed. The blame for this was immediately loaded on the lowest ranking person- i.e. on me.


Up to the day an idea of genius came to my mind – I started carrying cutlery in a bag, and supplied whoever needed normal eating utensils on the spot. For some mysterious reason the Embassy had in storage thousands of forks, spoons and knives, so I simply used to rid of the dirty ones and procured a new batch for the next occasion.


I also remember some official dinner in Ho Chi Minh City, given by the Mayor Mai Chi Tho/ brother of Le Duc Tho- Kissinger’s opposite number in the Paris peace talks and Nobel Prize for Peace winner/. For such occasions, the former U.S. Embassy was used, where there was a table of solid mahogany at least 50 meters long and 5 meters wide. Traditionally, such functions began with only a small dish with a whole green grapefruit on it served, and nothing else. The natural confusion of the uninitiated guests was ended by the waiters lifting the lids of the fruit, which had been very finely cut off and then replaced. Inside was one of the tastiest mixtures in the world – a mix of chicken, pork, shrimp, fish, nuts, rice and the pulp of the green grapefruit. Mercifully, a small silver spoon was also supplied.


It is no secret that the main professional function of a diplomat is collecting and analyzing political, economic and social information on the country of residence. From that point of view, Vietnam was a very serious challenge and an excellent chance to acquire experience. In my opinion, in any country of the world decisions, which affect the lives of the whole population, are made by a narrow elite at the top of the political pyramid. These decisions vary from declaring war to increasing parental leave. It is also my opinion, that this is the case notwithstanding what the form of government is- a parliamentary democracy, a one party system or a dictatorship. Such decisions inevitably affect neighboring countries, countries with which there are good relations and countries with which relations could be better. In the case of the United States / and some decades ago – in the case of the USSR/, these decisions affect the whole world. The job of any country’s diplomatic service is to obtain such vital information, assess it and then pass it on to the center for further analysis and conclusions in setting the course of foreign policy.


The above-mentioned functions are not easy to perform in a closed one-party society like Vietnam. Decision-making is a process for a very narrow circle of the Communist party leadership and often only to the top person. Apart from that, decisions are made in absolute secrecy and are not subject to scrutiny by anyone apart from the decision makers themselves. Adding traditional Asian inscrutability, this aspect of the profession was a huge challenge, but also something like gambling- success was very sweet indeed.


The techniques for gathering diplomatic information are numerous, and are a closely guarded secret for any service in the world. Mostly, they mainly exploit human frailties like vanity, megalomania, greed, curiosity, envy and the like. Moreover, these are aspects, which no computer can fathom. The human brain is irreplaceable in this case! [How very true this is and you should know my dear husband!]


Curiously enough, the Vietnamese leadership held even their Soviet mentors in the dark – the very ones whose billions in materiel and precious hard currency made Vietnam tick in those days…


The First Secretary of the Communist Party was the top boss in any Soviet- block country. In the case of Vietnam in those days, that was Comrade Le Zuan, an old man whose exact age was an Asian mystery- could be seventy, but also eighty or even more. His appearance was quite sickly, and at one point in 1983, he began to drop out of public sight more and more often. Inevitably, rumors that he was on his deathbed or even already dead started circulating. The eventual change at the very top in any country is an important event with far-reaching internal and external policy implications. All embassies in Hanoi were feverishly trying to get to some authentic information, bombarded by instructions from their Ministries. Still, Le Zuan was nowhere to be seen or heard in about two months. It so happened that one day a source of mine saw him by chance, and tipped me off. Therefore, we were the first to inform our center that Comrade Le Zuan was alive and well. A day or two later undisputed confirmation ensued – in the evening news Vietnamese TV ran a feature on the First Secretary’s visit to a remote provincial chicken farm, where he delivered useful instructions on the correct way to raise poultry” in situ” .A part of this feature pictured Comrade Le reading the official party paper “Nhan Dan”, and the paper was dated with the day of the broadcast.

 

GOOD BYE VIETNAM


As already mentioned, I was without my family most of the time in Vietnam, and at the end of the third year, it had become very tough indeed. Therefore, I was elated indeed, when finally the day of leaving for good came. I left another bizarre, mysterious, DIFFERENT country and as it happened, never returned.


Contrary to expectations, my first night at home with the windows wide opened to the then still clean mountain air in Sofia was sleepless. What I was missing was the humming of air conditioners; it was too quiet for comfort. Finally, I dozed off at about 6 a.m., only to be awakened by the typical singsong of Vietnamese, coming from the street. I looked out, and could not believe my eyes- there were groups of Vietnamese walking along the street! I was seriously frightened about my mental state, but my fears were quickly alleviated – these were groups of Vietnamese workers going to the bus stop. In those days, the Soviet block countries were short of work force for the numerous heavy industry plants, and all of them accommodated thousands of Vietnamese to work in different plants. As it had happened, the main hostel for these workers in Sofia had been built a couple of blocks away from my home.


I have already mentioned that up to these days I have gone back neither to Vietnam, nor to Somalia. Over the years, they have changed of course- one for the better, the other- to even worse.


These notes reflect what I experienced decades ago, and I hope the reader will find them interesting.