How Not to Bribe a Border Guard

How Not to Bribe a Border Guard

By Eric Czuleger

Serbian special police forces control the border with Kosovo near the town of Presevo on February 17, 2008.


Because crossing frontiers can be dangerous.

By Eric Czuleger

I was running from men with Kalashnikovs — all over 20 measly bucks. Floodlights shadowed me, and my overstuffed backpack nearly knocked me over as I ran between the border of Serbia and Kosovo. Amid a chorus of barking dogs, shouting border guards and the slapping of my feet on the tarmac, I realized that my first attempt at paying an international bribe had been a colossal failure. 

Just moments before, I had been sitting on a bus en route from Gjakova, Kosovo — near where I had been living for a year and working as a volunteer English teacher— to Vienna, Austria, where I was hoping to launch my summer break. But my holiday took a sharp wrong turn when three Serbian border guards came on the bus, calling out my name. The driver, who suggested the bribe in the first place, handed me my backpack, and I followed the guards off the bus and into a small booth.

But I kept running until I could no longer hear dogs, shouting men or that little voice inside of me telling me that it’s fun to make poor decisions.

Inside, the guard with the fanciest hat — presumably he was the one in charge — clutched my $20 bill in his hand. I had placed the Andrew Jackson in my passport in the hope that he and his colleagues would overlook the fact that it was an American document full of Kosovar stamps. Serbia didn’t let travelers enter the country from Kosovo without a Serbian entry stamp obtained from a recognized border crossing, because Serbian leaders, at that time, didn’t recognize Kosovo’s government. The rest of the passengers had special dispensations since they were Kosovar citizens. The bitter irony of being an American unable to cross an international border was not lost on me.

Needless to say, I didn’t have the required entry stamp. The border guards gathered around to hear my explanation, and in that hot little interrogation booth — full of more guns than people — I took a step forward to fabricate my grandest-ever excuse. But that innocent step sent hands to weapons. With the cocking of rifles, the small but loud part of me that makes poor choices decided to make a break for it. So I turned and ran as quickly as I could, leaving my $20 and breaking several international laws with every step. 

Floodlights, guards and dogs gave chase as I ran directly across the Kosovar border. My pursuers stopped only after I was out of Serbia, but I kept running until I could no longer hear dogs, shouting men or that little voice inside of me telling me that it’s fun to make poor decisions. As I walked along a long empty road in northern Kosovo, the moonless summer night blackening farmland on either side of me, I realized that the nearest city was several miles away. So I began searching the drainage ditches along the road for one that looked dry enough to sleep in.

Jacked on adrenaline and self-recrimination, I decided to keep walking until I was too tired to take another step. After a few miles, headlights appeared behind me, stopping me dead in my tracks. Could the guards have crossed into Kosovo to look for me? I briefly considered throwing myself in a drainage ditch and hiding in the water, but didn’t — mostly because my laptop was in my bag. As the lights approached, I raised my hands instead. Then, like a beacon of American hope, I realized the lights were coming from a Serbian Coca-Cola truck. I waved my hands and pleaded in every language I could for the driver to stop, but the truck passed me by. Determined, I ran after it the same way I lived my life, yelling nonsense in a mindless panic. The driver stopped the truck, instantly converting me from a devout Pepsi man into a Coke lover.

The young Serbian driver let me catch a ride, and as I sat in the cab of his truck winding along that Kosovar highway, he asked me where I was heading. My response? That I really didn’t know.