This is one of the marshy areas along Lake Ohrid, note the building in the background, that is the Macedonian border crossing. I hiked out here one Saturday morning, binoculars in hand, hoping to see some nesting activity. As I sat here listening to frogs but seeing few birds I was aware of a lone bicyclist passing behind me. I looked at him as he rode by and watched him turn around and come back towards me. I assumed he was going to ask to borrow my binoculars and I quickly got my Shqip together to explain I don’t share my binoculars.
I continued to look for birds and as he approached he said nothing but rather embraced me from behind. I screamed, broke the embrace, turned and punched him and then lunged to punch him again as he stepped back. Using the full force of my lungs and the best of my American profanity, I lunged at him again. He took a few steps back, spit off to the side and then left on his bike. He didn’t say a word and showed no reaction.
I was furious. How dare he interrupt my quiet morning? And me of all people? All my training in self-defense should make me immune from ever having to actually use my skills.
Peace Corps has a well-earned reputation for handling volunteer assaults poorly. A particularly gruesome tragedy a few years back resulted in a volunteer being murdered. As a result of the outcry, Peace Corps has revamped their entire safety and security system and has instituted a victim advocacy program. Now I was going to find out exactly how this new program works.
I reported the incident to the PC Duty line. They offered an immediate intervention and I assured them I was fine and really just wanted to get on with my weekend plans. I had to head into the PC office for more training on Monday and met with the Safety officer, Rudy. She and I role played the incident a few times and I was still perplexed by the lack of reaction from my assailant. Rudy explained that Albanian women simply don’t fight back so Albanian men don’t know how to react. We concluded that my self- defense skills are well developed and for that I am grateful. However, I also concluded I do not understand this culture and need to always be aware that I don’t understand.
Rudy wrote up an incident report that I edited. She then sent it to Washington. (HQ as we call it here) HQ responded quickly with an email expressing concern and offering services in-country or in DC. I declined to be medevac’d but am going to find out more about what might be available here in-country.
I refuse to have my Peace Corps experience defined by an assault. That would be giving one creepy guy too much power. However, I have been sharing my experience with other volunteers. If you gathered all the female volunteers in Albania together, I would be voted “least likely to be assaulted”. And yet I was at 9 am on Saturday morning on a developed road in plain sight of a border crossing watch tower. If it can happen to me it can happen to anyone. Maybe just one other volunteer will make a better choice as a result?
Fellow PCVs have expressed interest in my self-defense training. (I can’t believe American schools don’t teach basic self-defense in PE classes but that is a different topic.) Peace Corps should recommend if not require this kind of training prior to service. That won’t happen anytime soon and certainly not soon enough for current volunteers. I asked Rudy about doing some training and she hedged…again PC rules.
But here is an idea! What if PCVs taught Albanian girls self-defense? To teach is to learn twice. Currently, PC hosts day camps for girls all over Albania. A couple of hours of basic self-defense training would be a fun activity. So now I become a teacher trainer.
I like this idea so much that I am now working in Pogradec to find an empty room at the bashkia that I can use as a classroom. Albanian women and girls will not exercise or even meet any place that is not set aside just for women. A community classroom would solve this. I have found a couple of empty rooms I could use and now am trying to meet with the mayor to get approval, electricity, some way to clean out the trash….this is going to be my summer/fall/entire two year service project.
So maybe an assault is going to define my Peace Corps experience but as a source of inspiration.
I still go to that spot and there still aren’t many birds.