Goon show that brings paranoia at every turn

"I hate to tell you this," said my driver friend, "but I think we are being followed." We were driving north on the road out of Tirana and, as I saw for myself, a large white jeep was trailing not far behind with two large swarthy men inside.

"What makes you think that?" I asked.

"They've been on our tail since we got out of town and it's pretty surprising a thing that powerful hasn't overtaken us."

A familiar feeling began to grab me in the guts: Albanian paranoia. I didn't relish having government goons on my tail, and I didn't like to think what they might do if they cornered us. I've had enough friends threatened, beaten up and hounded out of the country to know I don't want it to happen to me.

We drove on in silence until we couldn't stand it any more and stopped for coffee by the side of the road. The jeep drove straight past without so much as a glance in our direction. "Well that seems to be that," I said.

"Unless they've decided to follow us by driving on ahead," retorted my friend. "It's an old communist tactic."

As it turned out, we never saw the jeep again. But it is so easy to be paranoid in Albania it is almost part of the landscape. This is a country where nothing is knowable for sure, where violence seems to erupt out of nowhere, where conspiracy theories take on an air of credibility with unnerving ease.

Friends and enemies alike seem to know what you are doing before you really know it yourself. After a few days you really do start wondering about spies working for President Sali Berisha, for the United States government, for the Greeks, for the Turks, and god knows who else. The temptation to assume you are the centre of everyone's attention, riding on the very brink of danger at every turn, is almost irresistible.

When I arrived in Tirana, paranoia led me to check into the biggest international hotel in town because it is monitored 24 hours a day by armed guards. The next morning, paranoia led me to check out again as I began wondering about tapped phones and spies among the hotel staff. "You know those women at the reception desk? At any given time, two of the three on duty will be government agents," I was told, and I was tempted to believe it.

In one restaurant, two unsavoury looking men sat down at the next table and I spent quite a bit of time and energy trying to work out if they were tailing me or my lunch partner. When I met a political contact for a drink in a bar in Tirana, she announced that we had to leave, immediately. "Berisha's men came in here yesterday and dragged a friend of mine out at gunpoint," she said. "He hasn't been seen since."

That information might have unnerved me for days if I hadn't heard the full story a few hours later. The man in question, an Albanian American called Zef Mirakaj with a reputation for denigrating Mr Berisha in public, had been sitting down with a beer when a group of the president's guards, a little the worse for drink, sauntered over from the next table and shouted: "You're the pus ball who caused all that trouble in Vlora aren't you?" Before he had a chance to answer, they had dragged him out into the street.

"You must have got me muddled up with someone else," he protested. "I haven't been to Vlora for months." The guards looked at him, decided they had the wrong man, and let him go.

A few minutes later, though, they started at him again. "You may not be a pus ball from Vlora but you're Zef Mirakaj, aren't you? That's even worse!" And they dragged him out again, this time at gunpoint. He didn't so much disappear as slink off in embarrassment.

Sometimes, Albanians don't know whether to be shocked or burst out laughing. Repression is a far more haphazard business than one might imagine. One joke doing the rounds in Tirana has two friends heading home 15 minutes before curfew. A policeman approaches, draws his revolver and shoots one dead. "What did you do that for?" asks the other. "Curfew doesn't start for another quarter of an hour."

"True," answers the policeman, "but I know where he lives and he would never have made it back on time."