The rusting husks of Soviet-era industry litter the Balkans. Shuttered chemical plants smear rainbows across ground water in Serbia, cold and rusting furnaces rot in Bulgaria, in Montenegro the wind howls through the girdered skeletons of dead factories and in Macedonia, in Bosnia and in Croatia vast plants with lost purposes are turning gradually into dust.
In Albania the decay is worst of all.
A country never far from the brink of bankruptcy and starvation even in Hoxha’s heyday, the collapse of communism and the rampant corruption of the supposedly democratic regimes that followed have hollowed out the country. Away from the coast (and the modest, tourist inspired wealth of the cities of Sarandë and Vlorë) into the foothills of the
Pindus Mountains the towns become morosely sedate, robbed of the young and those might bring noise and vigour. Most of those with the means or the drive to leave, have gone, many skip across the border to Greece or over the Adriatic to Italy, or even further to England and America. What remains, in places like Delvina and Gjirokastër, are like the dried out spores of some extremophile, waiting, waiting for the conditions to change and for their chance to blossom again.And yet, curiously, it is just beyond the mountains that surround these towns that a new economic powerhouse has unfurled its wings. Vast multi-lane highways are rolling smooth black-top to the oceans. Mountains are being smashed to make way for slick-flowing railway lines. A city, all cold steel and smart glass, has burst through the Balkan crust and established itself along the slopes of the mountains.And over the crest, sweeping away towards the horizon is a great natural bowl, the source of all this wealth.
On the reverse slopes vast, slow machines move with unswerving precision and direct vast powers. The site bakes in the summer but the winter lays thick blankets of snow that refuses to shift until late spring. The sun rises and sets, but the machines move onward. In snow, rain and heatwave, the machines move forward. Vast arrays of lights turning successive twilights and midnights into perpetual noons, and the machines move on.And at the centre of it all is one man, driving everything.
There is a cliché, when writing about men like Sebastian Syphus, they are supposed to be feared by their enemies and respected by their friends .
There is no such division amongst those who know Syphus.
He is universally feared. And the closer one gets to him, progressing through layers of henchmen and courtiers, the more obvious that fear becomes.
He has been described as the archetypal post-Soviet oligarch, a self-made man who has pillaged and murdered, crossed and double-crossed, raped his homeland and smuggled the wealth abroad.
And yet, knowing all this, to meet him in person is to be overwhelmed. He is more than impressive. He has charisma in the most ancient sense of the word. Here, one feels, is a man who has truly been favoured by the gods. Well over six feet with a broad, tanned face that splits easily into the most ingratiating of smiles. Rarely seen in a suit, he favours jeans and a simple tee-shirt, but he wears them like the most sought after of catwalk models.
He moves with grace but with the sense that he is restraining enormous physical power.When I first meet him, in a boardroom perched high on a mountainside so as to provide the perfect view of the struggles taking place on the slopes below us, he is working a room of investors and journalists. He recognises me and greets me warmly even though he is known to be wary of the press. He teases me about something I wrote about one of his subsidiary companies, garnering uproarious laughter from the pale looking men in his entourage, then slaps me warmly on the shoulder.
“We will have a show for you tonight, I think,” he says, and then he is gone.I am left breathless. It is only after several moments and a stiff drink that I remember I have a sheaf of questions I want to ask him. His adviser promises he will make time for me later, when tonight’s run is completed.
Looking at pictures of Syphus, there are perhaps two things betray his public persona as a lovable rogue. He has a tendency to wear too much jewellery – he is often encrusted in gold and diamonds, in rings, necklaces, watches and earrings. His critics – and there are few who would cast themselves in that role publicly – say it is a sign of his criminal past. Others claim he is simply a little gauche, as self-made men are wont to be. And then there are his eyes. He has the eyes of a movie star, like a young Henry Fonda or Paul Newman they are a pale but vivid shade of blue, but they are curiously still. A former confidante now living in fearful seclusion somewhere in
America describes Syphus as having eyes that “see beyond this world, eyes that can see the spirit world and the gods themselves.” Certainly many have noted Syphus’s disconcerting habit of appearing to stare through those around him at more fascinating vistas visible only to the oligarch.Such eccentricities are, however, easily forgiven when possessed by a man as wealthy and powerful as Sebastian Syphus.Night falls and the sheer scale of the operation in southern Albania is revealed by the way the great bowl beneath us stretches away glistening with lights that seem to far outnumber the stars in the sky. In the cool, clear, summer night the sound of men barking orders can just be heard over the constant grumbling of the machines.
No one knows how many times these runs have taken place. Tonight’s is simply another in an apparently endless procession.
No one, so far as I can tell, is seriously expecting tonight to be the night when the work bears fruit. But everyone works as if it might be. It is undeniably true that each time Syphus and his company make a run they bring greater and greater resources to bear on their goal. More men. More money. Bigger machines. More powerful computers. Tonight’s run, like every run since the fall of communism and the incorporation of what was once a one-man business, can claim to be the most expensive, the biggest and the most likely to succeed ever attempted.
With just a few minutes to go before the final push on the final rise, I am standing on the boardroom balcony. The night air is pleasant after what had been a sticky Mediterranean day and the thrumming of the vast machinery all around me has a soporific effect. It’s like being in a womb. And then I notice that Sebastian Syphus is standing beside me.
“Amazing,” he says. “Isn’t it?”I nod.
“Astonishing,” I say. “But what’s it all for?”
One of Syphus’s men comes up and whispers in his ear.
“Tell them to proceed,” he says to his lacky. Then he turns back to me. “It’s about purpose, determination and defiance. It’s about doing something because we can.”
“I understand a lot of your workers aren’t paid,” I nod towards the men straining in the darkness. “Is that fair?”
“They came to me,” he says. “They begged for the job. I just found ways for them to be able to do it together. To make our work bigger and better. To make it more likely to succeed. These people understand what we are doing here. And there are a lot of people who feel their lives lack the kind of direction our work delivers.”
“You can’t deny, though, that they’re making you rich.”
Syphus gives me a grin that is entirely without humour, and runs his fingers unselfconsciously over the gold rings on one hand.“There are many who believe that my suffering has earned me the right to certain comforts. People have been very generous,” he chuckles. “And, I am a business man, I have taken advantage of a number of opportunities.”
There’s a screech off in the night. Metal bends and then breaks with a rifle-shot crack. Someone shouts. Now there are several voices raised. A wire under tension breaks with the comic twang of a rubber band being released. Then more go all at once and the sound takes on an eerie howling quality. A man screams.
Somewhere off in the night a rumbling starts. The earth seems to quake. A section of the lighting on the slopes below gives out and plunges a section of the bowl into darkness. There is another scream.
The rumbling gets louder. And louder still. And then it emerges, rolling clear of the mass of metal and machinery that had enshrouded it. The vast boulder is pale and white and it moves through the night like a ghost or, I catch myself thinking, like a great, terrifying, whale. It falls and then bounces, sparks fantailing from each contact, down the slope, away from the men and their machines. Then it rolls and rolls, far further than seems possible or natural for such a massive object, until it disappears into the darkness, leaving behind only the distant roar as it moves on.
I turn to stare at Sebastian Syphus, who has just seen month’s of work falter and crash, roll and smash it’s way back to where it all began. I expect to see some flicker of anger or disappointment or something. But of course there is nothing. Around him his entourage is fluttering and gabbling nervously. Syphus grabs the closest man by the arm and issues a string of instructions. Order is restored. They will begin the preparations for the next run tomorrow. There will be no break in the labour.
He glances at me. I form a question, but he cuts me off. He steps in close and speaks, it is almost a whisper. The sense of having this man’s confidence is frightening.
“Tell them this,” he says. “Tell your readers that we will not be beaten. Tell them that we are willing to go on and on until the end of time, if necessary, to complete this task. We will not be defeated. We will not be dictated to. We have our purpose and when we succeed we will have demonstrated that there are no limits on what humanity can do.”Sebastian Syphus turns to go. Then he stops and turns back.“Tell them that the work we do here will set them free, and we will not fail, even if all the gods in heaven descend and try to stop us. We will not fail.”