In 1989, I travelled from Phoenix to my son’s college graduation in Philadelphia; then went on alone to speaking engagements in Singapore (where I purchased cell phones and tape recorders) and, via Copenhagen, to Belgrade.
There I had a long lay-over before scheduled to go on to Dubrovnik (by way of the Zagreb airport), an historic Yugoslavian seaside community about an hour flight away. My tickets and documents were taken from me upon arrival, causing me discomfort as I walked around the dark, somber, chillingly quiet Belgrade airport. No one gave me eye contact or responded when I tried to purchase a soda.
As my sense of concern grew, one of many armed military men in the airport indicated I was to follow him to a small room with a window that looked out to the runway, two straight-backed chairs, and a woman sitting behind a counter. I sat there without food or water for five hours.
Finally, the woman, who had made many phone calls, said – very sadly, I thought — “I so sorry, I can’t do nothing to help you.” Then she walked away, leaving my documents in plain view on her desk. I snatched them and darted through the airport onto the only plane I’d seen on the tarmac. With guns pointed at me, I hoped it was the plane to Zagreb, where I would be close to the town where I knew people were waiting for me.
Other passengers were hustled out of the plane as I was surrounded by interrogators who demanded that I tell them who I was and who I was working with. Seems Yugoslavian women my age had hands that looked different from mine, and that they didn’t believe a “normal” woman would travel my route unaccompanied.
After a long time some passengers returned and the plane took off, with the interrogators still on either side of me. To my great relief, we landed in Zagreb where they all but threw me out the door. No one else got off. Neither did my luggage.
Two men ran up, took hold of my arms and dragged me into a small room in the basement of the airport. It was out of a bad movie: uniformed guy from central casting at a desk with a single light bulb dangling from above. Armed guards on either side. It was unbelievable that they could be serious when they took turns shouting: “Where electronic equipment hidden? Why you take such strange route? Why people want to hear you speak?”
When I broke out in genuine laughter, they seemed to relax a little.
I was sent in a military vehicle to Dubrovnik where I was under house arrest, but allowed to go from my hotel room to the opera house where I was scheduled to work with a group of international business leaders. None of us were allowed to make calls to the US, but my clients got word to my husband through our Australian office that I was having an interesting adventure and that they would do what they could to be sure I got home. They also lent me clothes. I was always tailed by armed guards, and I walked to and from the hotel with automatic weapons focused on me from roof tops.
A woman who interpreted sessions between me and Yugoslavian officials attended all of my speeches and seminars. She asked lots of questions about my work that indicated a sincere interest, so I gave her a Kolbe Index and hand scored it for her. When I explained that she had wonderful entrepreneurial instincts she got tears in her eyes. My return trip to the Zagreb airport was the first time we were able to speak without being overheard. Her whispered assumptions of what had happened to me made more sense after I got home and searched for background on the political situation there.
She believed that Serbian leaders in Belgrade thought I had tried to bring listening devises to Croatian separatists in Dubrovnik. When I was let off the plane in Zagreb the leaders there figured it was a set-up so I could to spy on them for the Serbs. She had come to sympathize with me realizing I was a woman with a very different mission than spying for either of them. She said her life was at risk if she was wrong about me.
Two years later war officially broke out between these two groups. Here’s background on why women in both camps may have helped me: http://www.uri.edu/artsci/wms/hughes/femorg.htm
I got my suitcase back when Air Yugoslavia let me off in New York. All my clothes had been shredded, and the cell phones and tape recorders had been smashed into little bits.