Friday, December 19, 2014

How I Got Arrested In Serbia

Will and I spent the beginning of this week in Belgrade. I enjoyed the city. We stayed with a great family who work with USAID and have two adorable kids. We saw a fantastic jazz show at a place called Zgrada Bitefa. We ate well and had a great time.

But I'll get back to all that, because that's not the reason you clicked on this link. The salient and much more interesting story is: we got arrested yesterday and spent almost five hours with the Novi Sad police. This is how it happened.

We planned to spend our first day in Novi Sad, the capital of the autonomous northern region of Voivodina, wandering around sightseeing. We were strolling aimlessly through the old part of the town in the early afternoon when Will was stopped by a trio of goons in sneakers, jeans, and puffy jackets, who asked for his ID. They looked nothing like police, and very much like young dudes trying to harrass foreigners, so Will tried to shrug them off and keep walking. Things escalated very quickly; they began yelling and grabbed him, wrestling him to the ground. That was when I turned and threw myself into the fray, thinking he was being mugged.  I grabbed the biggest goon by his puffy jacket, which was when the smallest, a baby-faced goonlet who looked perhaps 16, yelled, "Police!" and flashed a badge. I stepped back at this point, and they let Will up, once again demanding our IDs.

We were both still suspicious-- since when do cops travel by triplet? I don't know what a real Serbian police badge looks like, and have seen mock ones for sale in tourist stalls; for all I knew, Babyface (who did not look old enough to have graduated high school, much less a police academy) bought his in a costume shop. Although I had my passport on me, I wasn't about to hand it over; instead, I gave them a paper copy from my bag. Will, similarly feeling that this was fishy, began groping in his pocket, trying to extract his driver's license without taking out his wallet.

The police apparently thought (or wanted to think; I suspect they were looking for an excuse) that Will was groping for a gun, and started grabbing his arms. He pulled away-- he was trying to do what they had asked, after all-- and, taking this as a sign of resistance, they tackled him all over again, the biggest one halfheartedly punching him in the ribs. One held me back, as I ineffectively mewled for them to let him go. The other two cuffed Will, mashing his face into the dirt. On the bright side, the handcuffs confirmed once and for all that they were actual police; on the other hand, I had the sinking feeling that we weren't going to be able to walk away from this one.

They stood Will up and leaned him against a car, kicking his legs apart and once again smashing his face, this time into the back windshield. One of the cops told me to empty my bag. He went through the contents, honing in on a folding pocketknife and a bottle of Tylenol with three tablets left in it. "I will take these as evidence," he announced, before, and I kid you not, calling for reinforcements.

Two more officers came and took Will, still handcuffed, off to the police station in a sedan. I was told to wait with Babyface and the other two for separate transportation. They began striking up small talk as we stood on the curb.

"American?" one said conversationally. "You know you guys bombed us 15 years ago? You wanted to bring democracy"-- the word was bitter, laden with sarcasm-- "like to Iraq and Afghanistan. You have no business doing this."

I told him I wholeheartedly agreed. It didn't matter how facile or oversimplified his grasp of global politics; whatever he said in that moment, I wholeheartedly agreed. I added that I hoped we would not militarily intervene in Syria or the Crimea, and he grinned, seeming to relax as he told me I was better than President Obama.

By the time the paddywagon (no, really, they sent for a paddywagon) arrived we had, if not made friends, at least reached a detente. I clambered into the back, Babyface accompanying me to the precinct. The driver turned on the siren; Babyface, looking abashed, turned it off after a block or two. No, leave it on, I thought. I want everyone to know what a dangerous criminal I am, with my pocket knife and my acetominaphen.

 When we got to the station, Will had been taked to a room for interrogation. Babyface, seeming increasingly aware of how ridiculous the situation was becoming, contented himself with taking me to the police locker room. I sat for the next half an hour as cops milled in and out, smoking, talking, and laughing. Some sat and cleaned their guns, conscientiously taking them apart; others used them as toys, pointing them at each other or playfully hitting each other with their nightsticks. One officer sat in the open window, leaning out between cigarettes to sing in an operatic baritone. It reminded me of nothing so much as, well, a locker room, if collegiate atheletes were all permitted to carry weapons.

After some time they escorted Will in. We sat there for the next two hours. Every now and then there was a form to sign: one acknowledging the seizure of my pocketknife, one consenting to chemical drug tests on my Tylenol, one confirming that we knew our rights. I asked about a lawyer before I passed that one back over. "Well, yes, in theory we provide you one," Babyface admitted. "But actually all of our lawyers have been on strike for three months." A little later, another officer came in with my bottle of aspirin, which he shoved across the table with a gruff, "This is yours." He walked away before I could sweetly ask how the drug test went. Having realized my only hope lay in making them see me as a normal person, and then making them like me, I struck up conversation with the cops wandering in and out; they were eager to advise us concerning Serbian beers, and bashful about their English. Even our arresting officers started chatting and joking with us-- once they had let the adrenaline-fueled power trip out of their systems, they seemed perfectly nice. Every now and then they would remember that we were under arrest, and abruptly stop laughing and tell us we were in big trouble, but by now the threats seemed deflated.

Around 6:00 pm the night shift of cops had a meeting. They filed into the locker room, taking seats around and behind us. I turned to ask if we should leave, or at least move to one side, but the policeman behind me only shushed me with a smile and a wink. So we sat there as though we were part of the team rather than a pair of perps, as the commanding officer read from a stack of reports and other officers chimed in or took instructions.

As 6:30 came and went, we decided we should ask for our one phone call. Fortunately, I still had the phone number for Maja, a lawyer working for USAID with whom we had stayed in Belgrade. I called her on one of the arresting officer's cells (a Bosnian, we had learned in the intervening time, who had come to Serbia as a refugee in '92). I briefed Maja on the situation, and she asked to talk to Bosnia. After a long conversation in Serbian, he handed the phone back. Will would be released without a charge, Maja assured us, although I would be charged for the pocketknife, which was being considered a weapon.

We were all congenial by the time the commanding officer came in to review our case. He told me I had a choice: two days in prison, or a 50 euro fine. My wallet was open before he finished his sentence. "Not here!" he laughed. "You'll go before a judge." He seemed to take a shine to us, and told us we should meet up with them in the pub when they were done with their shift. "We go to a place called Ducat," Babyface added helpfully. "Yeah, and we'll buy you a drink with the cash from your fine!" Bosnia cracked, slapping his knee.

The officer who drove me to the court was similarly sympathetic. He clapped a hand on my shoulder as we walked in. "Let's pay for your potato peeler and get you out of here," he advised. It was nearing 8:00; as it was after hours, we went to the judge's chambers. A pretty woman in a pink blazer and high heels, she handled the matter without a fuss. The paperwork took some time, but once I had signed everything in triplicate, I was released with a cheerful goodbye. "Oh, and watch your bag!" the judge called, as I was leaving the room. "A man was stabbed and robbed by a Gypsy just last week, right in front of the courthouse."

I refrained from dryly commenting that it sounded like they should get some more cops out on the streets.

1 comment:

  1. Funny for me; not so fun for you. Particularly about the time that Will was getting beaten up I imagine. Next time ask for their IDs first?